-J. Michael Bestul is a writer for the Addison Recorder. Stephanie Ruehl is an artist who works in a comic book shop. They’re married and have a lot of discussions about comic books and graphic novels. Combine all that into a biweekly feature and you get “J. & Steph Talk About Comics.”
When the first issue came out last fall, the series was titled Tooth & Claw. Today sees the release of the first trade collection of the series under its new name, The Autumnlands vol. 1: Tooth and Claw, and it’s an action-packed book that blends fantasy and sci-fi in a world of animals.
The Autumnlands, volume 1: Tooth and Claw
words by Kurt Busiek, art by Benjamin Dewey, published by Image Comics
Synopsis: In a world of anthropomorphic animals and floating cities, the one form of true currency and power — magic — is fading. In a last ditch effort to resurrect it, Gharta the wizard works a massive spell to bring forth the Great Champion in the hope that he will restore their magic to what it once was.
-J.: We reviewed the first issue in a previous J&STAC, and it was a surprise favorite for me. I’ve been looking forward to the first collected volume ever since. I remember that you were a little less enthusiastic than I was.
Steph: I’ll admit I was a little put off by the first issue of this book. A lot of fantasy stories are made in entirely new worlds with new lands, and mythologies and some writers can bog down their stories with too much exposition and world building. But as I read the rest of volume one, I found myself drawn more and more into the story.
-J.: I saw the general direction Busiek and Dewey were going with the narrative, so I devoured volume one. It’s a new world, inhabited by anthropomorphic animals who are capable of harnessing and casting magic. And yet there were a lot of visual clues that the world wasn’t so new, and the Great Champion wasn’t what his origin stories made him to be. The way the writing plays with how stories and myths are told and passed along is a joy to read.
Steph: It’s heavy. It’s a heavy story, with a lot of vocabulary, and world building.
-J.: I think that’s one of the main factors that hooked my with that first issue. The world was built. These characters inhabited it fully and believably, and the reader is slowly drawn into this seemingly alien world of spell-flinging animals who walk on two legs. Autumnlands is the story of The Day when everything changed, and even though we just dipped our toes into the world, we understand the sense of crisis.
Steph: In a floating city full of riches and affluent citizens, the story is primarily told from the point of view of Dunstan — “Dusty.” He’s a terrier pup and the son of a great wizard who does business with the “lesser” bison tribes who live on the ground. From the start you get the sense that the citizens of the floating city are spoiled and know nothing of the troubles of life on the ground.
-J.: If anyone wants an example of what hegemony looks like, the floating cities are a good place to start. Eons ago, the Great Champion released magic into the world to save it. Not surprisingly, those who could harness magic came to power. The wizards we meet are mostly politician-types, and they have a problem: magic is waning. If magic is waning, it means that they are going to have a difficult time remaining in power. But a warthog named Gharta — an outsider who views magic as more than just a means to a fancier title — has a dangerous idea.
Steph: Gharta calls a meeting where she proposes to call forth the Great Champion from the beginning of time. The Champion is credited for releasing magic into their world, and Gharta believes he could do it again in their present.
-J.: And here’s where one of the clues is (since I’m trying to spoil as little as possible) to the world of Autumnlands. Time is measured by when magic began, and the Great Champion is from a time before magic. If the wizards can bend enough power towards the task, plucking the Champion from a magic-less time should be easy enough. The problems are twofold: 1) the amount of power necessary requires wizards working together (and we know how well politicians work together), and 2) this type of magic is forbidden by their leader, since it’s all theoretical and likely to go horribly wrong. To circumvent this, a cabal gathers at the farthest-flung floating city to try the ritual.
Steph: Naturally things go horribly wrong and the magic used to keep the city afloat is accidentally drained to power the spell to call the Champion. The city crashes to the ground, killing many and leaving everyone vulnerable to wrath of the bison tribe.
-J.: But they got the Great Champion! Probably. They think.
Steph: He’s clever and fast and good at killing. Solid Great Champion qualities.
-J.: When the Champion is finally revealed, he is a completely alien creature to the animals who survived the spell. Even for the reader who had an inkling of what the Champion might be, Busiek and Dewey still surprise us. The Great Champion is truly from another era, and era so different that his methods are both seemingly more crude yet more advanced than the wizards around him.
Steph: Also liberally applying the word “fuck” into every one of his speech bubbles.
-J.: The middle of the narrative rounds into a story where a young pup (literally) has to come into his own. Dusty is both naive to the world of the adult animals, and cannot comprehend the world from which the Champion is from. It’s a tense tale that winds action with intrigue into a plot that had me flipping pages all the way to the end. THAT END, THOUGH.
Steph: Very frustrating. I understand cliffhangers are necessary to keep readers coming back, but a catharsis of some kind, however small, would’ve been greatly appreciated.
-J.: I get why serials will end like that, but it can be frustrating when a book ends with the narrative equivalent of, “what happens next — join for the next exciting installment of The Autumnlands to find out!” Grumblecakes.
Steph: Which of course we will.
To Sum It All Up…
Aside from that minor gripe, -J. absolutely loved volume one of The Autumnlands. It’s a beautifully-realized world of walking, talking animals who cast magic. Things literally come falling down around them, but at its core is a story of values and emotions we all know well. Also a story of using forbidden magic to subvert linear time, which is another thing we all know quite well.