Jeff Lemire’s characters, no matter how old or how young they may be, all carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. Just look at any of the characters in his Essex County trilogy, all weighed down by the lives that they’ve lived or the lives that they inherited. Some of those characters proudly carry that weight, doing everything they can to just live a good life. Others were pulled down into deep, dark recesses of their soul, letting that weight crush them with little resistance or fight. The characters in Sweet Tooth: In Captivity, the second volume of Lemire’s ongoing Vertigo book, carry that same weight but have the added burden of being survivors in a world that has taken everyone and everything from them.
Lemire’s has two lead characters in this book, the 9 year old boy Gus with deer antlers growing out of the top of his head and Jepperd, the old man who lost everything when a nation-wide epidemic take his wife from him. Sweet Tooth: In Captivity tells two stories about how these characters are trapped. Gus is literally trapped in a militia camp, now merely a sample of these animalistic children who are somehow related to the epidemic. Jepperd is held captive by his own memories; memories of his wife, how he lost her and how he will go to any lengths to keep her memory pure and alive.
Jepperd is Lemire’s most broken character and the one who does most of the emotional heavy lifting in this book. In the first book Out of the Deep Dark Woods we saw how Jepperd could betray the little, lost boy and in this book, Lemire’s shows us why. At the end of the first book, we could easily see Jepperd as the villain of the story but Lemire’s shows us now that it is not that simple. There is good and evil in this world but often the good just isn’t strong enough. That’s Jepperd’s story; he just isn’t strong enough as his world has literally and figuratively fallen apart around him. In Captivity is largely about the root causes of his weaknesses and sins as we get a glimpse into his life before the epidemic that started killing people began and then got a large look into his and his wife’s time on the road, trying to survive. Lemire shows us everything that one man lost when the world fell apart and what lengths that man will go to just to regain some small semblance of order and his old life.
If Jepperd is trapped by the past, Gus is trapped by his present as he’s literally held captive by a militia and their scientist trying to find out how to save the world. Gus’s story may not have the emotional resonance that Jepperd’s does but Lemire creates even more questions about Gus’s existence. As we meet other animal-like children, we find in many ways that Gus is unique and it sounds like his own father may have had more to do with that than we once expected. There are reasons that Gus is special and Lemire begins exploring those reasons and questioning what they mean.
Lemire’s books are filled with melodrama as he pushes the emotional boundaries of his characters. There are no happy characters in his stories and life is a burden that we have to decide whether we want to embrace or not. That makes his books tough to get through. Sweet Tooth: In Captivity isn’t a life-embracing walk in the park. Lemire is exploring what it means to be one of the survivors left after the world has ended and he’s still showing us the ugliness that we carry over from our normal life.