The Autumnlands, Volume 1: Tooth and Claw by Kurt Busiek, Benjamin Dewey

My very first thought upon completing this graphic novel, collecting comics 1-6, was a simple exclamation: “wow!” It’s been awhile since a graphic novel’s art was so compelling and intricate that I was looking at the pictures before I went to read the words. Benjamin Dewey’s illustrations (easily the best thing about previous work, “I Was The Cat,”) masterfully brought Busiek’s anthropomorphic world to life in ways that, in lesser hands, could easily have been cartoony or just plain silly. But despite the caliber of the art, it doesn’t upstage or eclipse the story. Combined with a smooth and well-written tale, we have one heck of a wonderful read. The Autumnlands breaths magic in the graphic novel format.

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Story: In a world where a ‘savior’ brought magic and sentience to animals in the distant past, a complex social system has developed among all the species. They live together in floating cities – all except the buffalo/bison, who slave on the ground to feed the others. But the secret the animals are keeping from the buffalo is that the magic is fading and soon the caste system will collapse/the magic no longer enforce the enslavement. When a group of renegade mages seek to tear the champion from the past and bring him to their present to save them again, they unwitting start a sequence of events that might just bring about their downfall even sooner. For their champion is a new type of animal they’ve never seen before – a furless, tailless, wingless, fangless, pink thing. A pink thing known as human with a huge appetite for destruction. And the buffalo have decided that they no longer will accept enslavement and starvation.

The story is straight-forward yet allowed to unroll organically before the action-packed ending. Busiek does an excellent job of balancing worldbuilding and plot – ensuring that dialogue isn’t clunky or ponderous and allowing the art to provide the subtleties. I greatly appreciated that this is not a comic of dominance (of either writer or illustrator) – the art and story work together to create the synergy that makes or breaks a graphic novel.

The characters were dynamic and fascinating; the juxtaposition of the naive and somewhat simplistic animals with human Leardroy’s blunt, often vulgar, martial single-mindedness. When their ‘champion’ breaks through from the past, the story also breaks and is remade into one of conflicts and clashes. The differences in dialogue and nuances in characters were so perfect as to be completely engrossing. It shouldn’t have worked – putting a digital/computer/sci fi war mongering man amidst a gentler fantasy type cast of anthropomorphic “Animal Farm” characters. And yet it does = we like and follow both despite their obvious differences.

Autumnlands is one of the few titles where the art conveys so much detail and emotion that the writer doesn’t have to overtell the story. I knew from Dewey’s work on I Was The Cat that he was excellent with talking animals. But with Autumnlands, he’s given a story where he can truly shine. Each panel is such a treat of art and color; I cannot express just how exquisitely perfect each of the animals is drawn and how expressive they are – despite so many different species being represented. From an idealistic young boxer canine to a pompous owl, to opportunistic coyote – they feel like real people. I found myself continually stopping to really enjoy each panel and try to figure out why the animals look so realistic and emotive. E.g., subtle scenes such as a moment between two companions was so beautifully drawn and yet the poignancy of the scene so deftly conveyed that it was difficult to pinpoint exactly why it was so effective.

Autumnlands is deceptively simple and those seeking a quick read will deny themselves the experience of true art – a masterful blending of story, illustration, and coloring. And although I received this advance reader copy from the publisher, I immediately ordered a physical copy of the book. Yes, it’s that good and yes, this gets one of my highest recommendations. Note that because of nudity and language, this is suitable for older readers/teens/adults. But you don’t have to be a fan of graphic novels to appreciate the work here.

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