Redwall, Mouse Guard, Narnia: there’s just something about walking, talking animals that make them perfect for stories of sword-slinging heroes and sorcery gone wild. Into this tradition bounds The Autumnlands: Tooth and Claw, from the mind of Astro City’s Kurt Busiek.
Tooth and Claw introduces us to the flying city of Keniel through the eyes of Dunstan, a young bull terrier and son of a wizard. There’s one big problem with living in floating cities powered by sorcery – no more magic means a very literal coming down to earth. And it just so happens that the Autumnlands are running low on magic. Think of it as Peak Oil for Furries.
Luckily for Dunstan and the other inhabitants of the Seventeen Cities, the wizard Gharta thinks she’s found a solution. She brings together a magical colloquy to summon a long-dead hero from the past so that he can open the gates of magic and save them all. Things inevitably go pear-shaped and the rest of Volume 1 spends time documenting the consequences of Gharta’s actions and the conflict between the different wizards.
It’s a good time to be a reader of fantasy comics as they’ve seen quite the resurgence: Rat Queens, Ravine and the newly launched 8House among them. With its first arc completed, how does Tooth and Claw measure up in a genre overflowing with good books?
In the grandest tradition of fantasy, I’ll answer that question through metaphor and purple prose. Autumlands is like a mighty champion of fantasy, singlehandedly takes down angry bison warriors while naked and covered in blood. Something which incidentally happens in the book, and it’s as awesome as you imagine.
Busiek knows his epic fantasy, having worked on Dark Horse’s Conan for many years, and gives us all of the goods: dying empires, chosen heroes and powerful wizards. It could all be very easily be so cliché but it’s not. It’s clever enough to avoid the trappings of paint-by-numbers high fantasy and shines a critical light on aspects like the unfair caste system at the heart of the Seventeen Cities.
The animal wizards may not be able to get their shit together but the book’s creative team couldn’t be more in sync. The art is perfect for the kind of story that Busiek is trying to tell, working hand in hand with his writing to develop the rich setting. Ben Dewey brings the beastly inhabitants of the Autumnlands to life with excellent linework, while Jordie Bellaire proves once again why she’s one of the best colourists out there.
With animal protagonists, there’s always the danger of getting too cute and cartoonish. Tooth and Claw avoids that, striking a great balance between realism and expressivity. You can immediately tell what kind of personalities characters like Sandorst, Gharta and Goodfoot are, despite being drawn as an owl, warthog and coyote respectively. But when a character dies or suffers a loss, there is a real weightiness to it. Dewey depicts their pain as well as he does their animalism.
I cannot say enough good things about the world-building here – this is one of the most effortlessly well-realised settings you’ll find in a single volume. Within only a few pages, you have such a vivid sense of Dunstan’s life and the city he inhabits. By the end of the first volume, you’re desperate to spend more time in the Autumnlands and find out what happens next.
The Autumnlands: Tooth and Claw stands out as one of the best new books to come out in the last year and easily the best ongoing fantasy series on the shelves. The creative team have created a very special book and I can’t wait to see where the next volume takes us.