The Autumnlands Volume 1: Tooth and Claw by Kurt Busiek, Benjamin Dewey, Jordie Bellaire
The Autumnlands, written by Kurt Busiek and visuals by Benjamin Dewey (art) and Jordie Bellaire (color), is an intriguing graphic series with lots of action, a complex character, and a visually and intellectually stimulating setting. The first six issues, which you can get separately or bundled into Volume One Tooth and Claw, resolve a particular arc, but are really mostly set up for further exploration of world and character.
The story is set in a world peopled by animal races, themselves apparently separated into those who dwell in seventeen floating cities — masters of magic and technology — and land-dwellers (“the lesser ones”) who slave for them. The magic of their world, however, is failing, and so in a last desperate attempt to rejuvenate it, a group of wizards, against the wishes of the ruling council, try to bring back the, “The Great Champion,” the fabled warrior who ages ago, “facing the world’s destruction and certain death, opened the gates of magic and brought its power to us.” Things, to say the least, do not go well.
One of my favorite aspects of this story is summed up pithily in the back blurb: “They needed a savior. They got a soldier.” What they are hoping for is a champion in the mode of great epic tales — one who wins against all odds but does so in noble, graceful fashion. What their spells get them (and it is a running question as to whether or not he is their true “great champion”) is a soldier who believes in surviving battles. And that means doing what is necessary, even if it is ugly and ignoble. This twist keeps a running tension throughout the storyline that adds not only some plot suspense but also a bit of depth as it forces not just the characters but the reader to question the ethics of particular choices/events. Busiek also does a nice job of playing off of this contrast between the old stories of heroism and the likely reality of heroism by having brief excerpts from typical epic tales open up each segment of the story.
The champion himself, Learoyd, is a nicely drawn character. He maybe adjusts a bit too quickly to being thrust into such an alien world, but in a nice bit of dialogue, he explains to one character who wonders about his relatively sudden shift from trying to convince himself it was all a dream or hallucination: “Maybe isn’t, maybe it is. But if so, it doesn’t have to be completely damn stupid, does it?” Other characters aren’t quite such full creations. The wizard who has the idea for the spellwork to call up the Champion starts off pretty strong, but gets relegated to a pretty minor side story in the latter half (though I really liked the portrayal of the relationship between her and her significant other). The wizard opposed to her is a pretty stock type — stuffy greedy oblivious aristocrat type. A Coyote trader character who tries to play both sides between the city characters and the bison slaves (who wish to rebel), has some good potential, but is a pretty small role here. The narrator is a young terrier and as such is mostly a bit of a flat observer, though this changes toward the end and one assumes will continue to do so as the story continues. His flatness I’m guessing is more a portrayal of his youth in preparation for some maturing rather than a flaw of characterization.
Visually, the artwork is quite strong, doing an impressive job of giving animal characters readable facial expressions and body language. Background scenes are vivid and colorful, and the art is equally convincing whether it is portraying characters or the natural world. And, as should always be the case in graphic stories, it both supports and extends the text and themes. For instance, that aforementioned tension between the image of the hero and the actuality of the hero is graphically portrayed at his early appearance, covered in blood. The art and text work great in tandem here, with our narrator stunned at the savage appearance: “He was — He was — There as so much blood, but he didn’t even seem to notice it,” our character depicted baring his teeth and dripping in blood, and the text bubbles a series of nonsense syllables. It’s a great image because not only does it deal with the ideal/actual hero theme, but it also inverts the social structure of our world, with the civilized, dressed, speaking animals horrified by the savage, naked, bloody and growling human.
I really had little to complain about with The Autumnlands. As mentioned, Learoyd does settle in kind of easily, but most of the other issues can be easily explained away as simply being a matter of the story only having just begun. But it’s hooked me enough to want to see where it goes. Recommended.
I rarely write a review of a first issue, because there are other sites that keep up with weekly releases; instead, I prefer to tell you about the best trade collections available for purchase in paper or digital format. But every now and then, I make an exception. Kurt Busiek’s Tooth & Claw, which just came out, is worth telling you about. First, it’s got over forty pages of story in the first issue (for only $2.99!), and second, it’s an incredible story that you do not want to miss. I think this story, though nothing like Saga, is going to compete with Saga in the larger SFF category. However, while Saga is Science Fiction, Tooth & Claw is Fantasy. Both, however, are part of the rapidly expanding Image line of incredibly high-quality monthly comics.
In this first issue of Tooth & Claw, no human beings are seen, so I’m not sure any exist in this fictional world: We are introduced to a world of walking, talking animals who live in cities on earth and in the sky. These cities have varying levels of social organization, social class, racism, and political power. The story is told from the perspective of a young, teenage-like “pup” whose reserved, pompous, and racist, though doting, father has great power in the floating city held in the sky by a series of magic spells cast by the magicians of the realm. Not surprisingly, these magicians are high in rank, and they wear elaborate, ornate ceremonial garb to mark their privilege.
I don’t want to say much more, except this: The main issue facing the world of Tooth & Claw is that magic, like a natural resource, is being used up, and there is a crisis coming. The world of magicians is divided on what to do; religious-like factions are apparent, but one small faction gains enough support to try something daring, dangerous, and seemingly forbidden. The results are cataclysmic; the full repercussions, however, are yet to be revealed. That will be the story of Tooth & Claw.
Benjamin Dewey’s art is fantastic, and all the creatures are believable. The writing is brilliant because Kurt Busiek is unquestionably one of the best writers in the business. And, unlike prose fantasy novels, the art builds a world in forty pages that would take hundreds of pages to build in words alone. I wish I had the words, or the space, to do justice to Dewey’s art. If you like magic and fantasy at all, you are going to want to read Tooth & Claw. Either buy it monthly at your local comic shop or digitally on Comixology OR wait until the trade. Image has been putting out first volumes of trades at the fantastic price of $9.99. In other words, you often get six full issues in a nice book for your shelves for about half the cover price of the original monthly issues. With a forty-page first issue, I have to guess that the first volume might eventually have less than six issues or cost between $13 and $15, but even if that’s the case, the trade’s gonna be a bargain. The question is, can you wait until the trade comes out? To find out, go to Comixology now and invest $2.99 in the first issue. And if you get a chance, come back and tell us what you think about it in the comments below.