Sweet Tooth and the Art and Aesthetics of Comic Book Adaptations

Dept. of Hybrids and Hipsters


Like its titular, diminutive star, Netflix’s Sweet Tooth is a marvel. Not only is it enjoyably great television but in adapting Jeff Lemire’s apocalyptic, yet darkly hopeful comic, it’s production team have performed televisual alchemy; spinning old into… um… even more gold of a slightly different variety.

I had a hard time reconciling the first trailer for Sweet Tooth, with what, admittedly little, I knew of the comic. One of the poster children for the non-superhero comics regularly put out by DC’s now defunct Vertigo imprint.   

The warm shots of the American landscape (actually New Zealand) accompanied by an uplifting cover version of Duran Duran’s Ordinary World seemed a world away from the dark, scratchy aesthetic of Jeff Lemire’s DC comic book.


My suspicions seemed confirmed by the first episode, as Gus, the “Sweet Tooth” of the title, adventured through beautifully lit, while still threatening, forests, although this time accompanied by the uplifting “Dirty Paws,” by Monsters and Men (you know the tune).

His father’s (Will Forte) semi religious fervour, as well as the drab horrors of Gus’ world from the comics appeared to be to be scaled back dramatically. This seemed like some, sun dappled, even cosy version of the apocalypse. The more I watched however, the more it became clear that Sweet Tooth would not only upset my expectations, but turn out to be a truly amazing example of how to adapt source material for TV.

Animal Apocalypse

If you’ve never read Jeff Lemire’s comic series, both it and the Netflix/Warner Bros. Television co-production center on Gus, a mostly normal looking boy with the exception of his floppy deer ears and antlers. Gus is one of the many animal/human hybrids who began to appear almost a decade earlier. Born to human mothers, their emergence coincided with the arrival of a deadly virus, H5G9, which decimated the human population. No “normal” children have been born in the years since, and the hybrids seem to be immune to the effects of virus. No one knows if the two are related.

After a decade hidden from what’s left of the world, Gus eventually ventures out of the deep woods to find others like him. To discover where he comes from as the remnants of the old world stare extinction in the face, raging against the suspicion that they might not even deserve to survive.

Simply Do It Right Once, Then Do That Every Time

One of the many successes of the show, and one where it surpasses even other great recent comic adaptations like Invincible and The Boys, is that it while it brings the guts of the story to the small screen, it manages do so while coming up with its own distinct vibe that feels entirely its own; which is most unusual for an adaptation.

Most production teams endeavour to maintain the feel of the source material as much as possible when translating a comic to the screen. You can see this in Zack Snyder’s incredibly literal adaptation of Watchmen, as well as in the parts of Frank Miler’s The Dark Knight Returns that he lifted directly for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.


Even the more enjoyable/successful recent adaptations, Invincible and The Boys, were in line with the mood of their respective source material. Both shuffled around plots points and characters, and added some much needed diversity in their casting, but they still strove to keep the tone of their comics. Invincible easily replicated the day-glo colours and designs of the comics to a T, even if it made the gore all the more shocking. The Boys retained its raw, gonzo energy while toning down some of the harder, darker elements to make it slightly more palatable to a larger audience.

What’s amazing about Sweet Tooth is that it doesn’t even try to replicate the mood of the comic, setting off instead on its own, separate path of adventure. What’s fascinating about it, is that it succeeds anyway.


After reading all 40 issues of the comic, I was shocked to see Netflix’s series start with a sympathetic portrayal of Dr. Aditya Singh (a brilliant Adeel Akhtar), an almost completely unlikable character from the comic. Changing Tommy Jeppard from a white haired, fair skinned, former Ice Hockey bruiser to a brick shithouse former American football quarterback made more sense, especially as it meant we get to see Nonso Anozie’s performance in the role, but the changes didn’t stop there.

The series takes some elements from the comics – Gus’ sweet nature, Jeppard’s many dark deeds – and changes them slightly, changes others completely (the animal army, The Preserve), while abandoning others altogether (Lucy and Becky, the jury is still out on Jeppard’s Wife). It even comes up with entirely new characters and situations for the show, like Aimee, the Train, and Gus’ quest to Colorado.

Drastically changing the plot and feel of an adaptation isn’t anything new (hello, we’ve all seen Clueless), but what show runners Jim Mickle and Beth Schwartz, along with Team Downey, have done, is seemingly make the right choice every time when it comes to changing things from the comics.

Losing Gus’ distinctive drawl from the comics may feel to some like losing an integral part of the character, but by doing so, and casting the brilliant Christian Convery, the team open the series up to even more people. Convery perfectly embodies a character Jeppard says has “got hope coming out of every pore.” Naive and precocious, yes, but never annoying.

This Will Never Work!

The true genius of what Team Downey has done is that it all works so well.

Seeing Singh’s tortured backstory up front does more to build the character than any last minute flashback episode could do after he’s already been introduced as a villain. I’m sure we’ll find out more about how “The Big Man” hasn’t always been “A Good Man,” but I’m glad that we get to forgo the seemingly endless reversals and betrayals of the early comics.


The showrunners also neatly sidestep my regular complaint about shows ignoring what has come before in favour of their own “fresh new take” on a genre. When a production actually takes a look at the media landscape and the world around them, we get things like Nobody, making space for itself as a more humourous reflection of John Wick. When they don’t, we end up with “just another zombie movie“.

In world that has endured 10 seasons of The Walking Dead and six seasons of Fear the Walking Dead (Really? Where did the time go?), the structure of the comic, with our heroes trudging from ambush to another, wouldn’t have made for particularly notable or even enjoyable television in 2021. Lemire’s story is still powerful, but it is also very grim. Coupled with its now, overly familiar structure, eight episodes of that kind of suffering, much of it visited upon on children, would have been hard viewing indeed.

Won’t Someone Please Think of the Children!

Instead, Sweet Tooth removes some of the darker elements while giving Gus far more agency. Rather than being dragged around by the rest of the cast until later issues, the quest to understand Gus’ origin, and that of the hybrids, is removed from various other characters and grafted onto Gus himself as a search for his mother, something that never really came up for him in the comic.

While it was originally greenlit for pilot at Hulu in 2018, Sweet Tooth moved to Netflix sometime in 2020, and it must have been a brave TV exec who decided to approve a TV show heavily featuring a deadly virus in the middle of an actual pandemic. Yet whether it was originally planned this way, or as a reaction to the way that the world changed around us all, Sweet Tooth never dwells on the realities of “The Sick.” 


The show wisely avoids the trauma inherent to these days from scenes of people dying in hospitals, and limits its portrayal of “The Sick” to a telltale twitch of the pinky finger, announcing its onset. Sparing TV audiences some of the horrors of the comics.

I also only realized while discussing the film on this week’s episode of The Goggler Podcast that Gus and Jeppard never really have to deal deal with adverse weather or hunger on their travels either.

Lack-Of-Tension Headache?

Combined with a rich syrupy narration from James Brolin, all these changes might make you think that the adaptation results in a low stakes romp, but that doesn’t mean it shies away from the threats Gus faces. While it tones down some of the darkness from the comics, adds a playlist of songs that wouldn’t feel out of place in a hipster coffee house, and leans into a slightly cosier apocalypse, in an amazing balancing act, the show never veers into “twee” territory. Rather than foreground the blood and physical pain of the comics, it prefers to spend its time on the drama and emotional pain of its characters.


It’s incredibly rare that a show makes every right choice in the transfer to the screen, but Sweet Tooth succeeds in ways that fans of the comics never even considered, and as a result ends up being more satisfying than we could have imagined. In ways that also open up entirely new avenues for storytelling. Lemire’s 40 issue series focused on a very specific part of Gus’ life, with his experiences during that time informing the man he grows up to be. A man we only glimpse in the comic. While these first eight episodes move most of the characters some ways along that path, there’s still plenty of room to expand this world on TV. I mean we barely get to see Bobby this season and already I would die for him.

I Love You Bobby

Based upon the confidence of this first season, and the reception it’s received, I’m hoping real world virus related woes don’t rob us of more Sweet Tooth. Based upon this first season, I’m very much looking forward to more, and anything else this production team works on.

All 8 episodes of Sweet Tooth, Season 1, are now streaming on Netflix.

Agree? Disagree? Just want to have your own say on Sweet Tooth? You can get in touch on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, via our Contact Us form, or send us a WhatsApp on The Goggler Hotline on +60125245208.

Irish Film lover lost in Malaysia. Co-host of Malaysia's longest running podcast (movie related or otherwise ) McYapandFries and frequent cryer in movies. Ask me about "The Ice Pirates"

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