New To You Comics: Saving Magic In “The Autumnlands V1: Tooth & Claw”

by Tony Thornley

With the comics industry continuing to battle the effects of the pandemic, Brendan Allen and I are continuing to talk about comics that the other might not have read. I’m more of a capes, laser guns, and swords guy, while Brendan loves dark magic, criminals, and things that go bump in the night. This week we look at another modern fantasy classic.

When magic is dying, a group of powerful wizards cast a last ditch spell to restore it and bring back the realm’s Great Champion. Naturally things go awry. That’s the basic premise of Image Comics’ The Autumnlands by Kurt Busiek, Benjamin Dewey, Jordie Bellaire, and John Roshell at Comicraft.

Tony Thornley: So this is kind of a fitting follow-up to my last pick, Birthright. Both are a spin on portal fantasy, but take it in unique and unexpected directions. Autumnlands is populated by anthropomorphic animals- dogs, warthogs, giraffes, bears, owls and so on. The first issue is focused on building that world while the wizards that rule it do their best to restore magic by drawing their Great Champion who gave them magic through time.

But instead of a noble magical warrior, they get a sci-fi soldier and bad ass.

So what did you think?

Brendan Allen: Dude. This is a weird book. It’s also way out of my typical genres. I can honestly say there’s no way I would have picked this up if you hadn’t popped it in the queue. That all being said, I’m glad you made me read it. 

TT: Yeah, I remember it making a big splash then kind of flying under the radar. It’s a really good book. I can’t think of anything written by Busiek that I’ve read and didn’t like. This is a great example of his work. There’s rich world building. There’s magic. There’s politics. There’s action. It’s a little bit like a fantasy version of his superhero epic Astro City, but I think calling it that would be a disservice to this title.

BA: A lot of themes at play here have obviously been explored before. That whole dynamic between the rich and powerful elite and the blue collar commons has been around forever. The physical separation between classes, one in the air and one on the ground, reminded me a lot of Elysium. And then, the unlikely human champion arriving to save the day, that’s popped up a few times before that I can remember. You mentioned Birthright, and this does kind of fall along those same lines on that point. 

TT: Yeah, but the way the story goes is so different. It’s really an interesting pair of stories to read back to back. They launched in the same year, and have such a similar concept, but they’re two vastly different stories.

I really enjoyed that each and every one of the characters is fully formed from the beginning. Dunstan, the terrier POV character, is a timid young boy who is learning magic from his father when he’s drawn into the action. Learoyd, the human Champion, sticks out like a sore thumb, but he’s smarter than everyone in the room, and a better fighter. And it goes on through the entire cast. Each one of them, even if they only appear for a few panels, are richly detailed, interesting to read about and truly contribute to the story.

BA: That’s some of the familiarity I was talking about. You can instantly connect with Dunstan, because he’s a very familiar type, the kid who’s right on the cusp of manhood, desperately seeking his father’s approval. That self doubt and awkwardness is really easy to read because we’ve all seen that dynamic or lived it. 

Everyone knows a Sandorst, and Learoyd, he’s a very typical Conan type. Busiek’s skill is evident in his ability to effectively use that presumption and build off it. We’ve talked about this sort of storytelling shorthand before. 

TT: Yeah, Learoyd is sort of a Conan by way of Warhammer 40K (which I love- his sci-fi background is so cool). In him, you can see Busiek’s experience in the industry playing a part in the storytelling and world building. At the time he launched the series, in addition to Astro City, he had written everything from Spider-Man, to Superman, to Conan, to the Avengers. You can see a lot of that experience in the medium blend into the story to give it its richness.

At one point I described this as a grown-up fantasy Kamandi, but it’s a lot more than that. It’s kind of hard to describe when it comes down to it.

BA: It really is. We can sit here all day and say it’s like this one and this other one, but it really does stand out as a unique story that crosses several genres and themes. 

TT: I have to say this is one of the most beautifully illustrated books we’ve talked about in the last year. Dewey and Bellaire are absolutely stunning in their work. There’s an intense amount of detail here, whether it’s the people’s fur and feather patterns, or the jewelry they’re wearing, or the city they’re surrounded by. It’s all gorgeous.

BA: It is. Absolutely. Details, yes. Fur and feathers, check. Costume and accoutrements, no minutiae spared. There’s only so many ways you can say it. Beautiful, from cover to cover.

TT: The character designs are all very good too. It’s hard to project human emotions into animals without making them just humans with snouts or feathers. However here, each person looks like the animal they’re based on and Dewey is also able to convey so much personality and emotion with them.

BA: That’s one of the things I had in my notes here to bring up. All these animals are so familiar that it would have been really obvious if the designs and execution weren’t on point. It’s a very strange balance, but somehow the characters all look simultaneously human and animal. 

There’s also a great correlation between the types of animals, and the traits they end up showing. The double agent, she’s a fox. Sandorst, that shifty bastard, is an owl. Can’t be trusted, owls. Pure hatred and evil covered in feathers. And the laborers? Perfectly represented as bison. Big, strong, hardworking. Docile right up to the point they snap and turn a Toyota inside out. 

TT: And the bats- the mysterious and terrifying invaders swooping in? Each time you make one of those connections, it makes perfect sense. 

Bellaire’s colors are so rich too. Putting her work with Dewey’s, you could very easily think this is a fully painted book. That comes together best in the two page spreads that come near the opening of every issue. Each one is this gorgeous landscape by the art team- some action shots, some wide sweeping vistas, but each one a work of art on their own. I think it’s worth picking up the book just to see those.

I think this might be one of the biggest sleepers that we’ve talked about- a fantastic book that just flew under everyone’s radars. So final verdict?

BA: You know, as much as I didn’t really want to, I kind of liked it. It is very different from what I’d usually pick out for myself, and I tend to steer way clear of stories that feature an entire cast of upright anthropomorphic animals, but it is very well crafted. 

TT: Yeah, I took a chance on it based on the creators and I was not disappointed. 

What do you have for us next?

BA: We’ll be hitting up a modern horror classic, Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino’s Gideon Falls Vol. 1.

The Autumnlands V1: Tooth And Claw is available now from Image Comics in digital and print. It is also currently included as part of Comixology Unlimited.

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