November 5, 2014

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Tooth & Claw #1


Written by Kurt Busiek
Illustrated by Benjamin Dewey
Colors by Jordie Bellaire
Letters and design by John Roshell and Jimmy Betancourt of Comicraft
Image Comics

Tooth & Claw is a rich new fantasy series set in a world of magic and anthropomorphic animals (and, to the delight of consumers, issue 1 is an oversized issue at regular price). Come for the talking birds, warthogs and dogs; stay for the exploration of a magical world and the catastrophic consequences of the misuse of power. 

Dunstan is the son of a successful merchant and magician (and an anthropomorphic pit bull), and he's also the "point of view character" which gives the reader a way into the story. His day begins with his father bringing him on a tough negotiation with buffalo men who live on the ground. This tense situation demonstrates early on a few points in the story: there's a rigid caste system in this society which is governed by magic--and magic is scarce. 


When Dunstan and his father return to their city, he's off to see all of the arriving magicians from other cities of this world. They're here for a Grand Colloquy of magic.  At the Colloquy, Gharta (a warthog) gets up and addresses the group and brings to their attention a point that everyone there seems to generally understand: magic is failing, it is fading from the world. She proposes an extremely bold plan, to gather with 16 great wizards, bring their power together, and attempt to resurrect the "Great Champion", the legendary, mythical figure who first brought magic into their world. There's resistance to this idea but this doesn't stop the discussion, as Gharta continues to rally support and eventually she and a group of wizards attempt to bring back the Great Champion (very astutely, Busiek imagines that each species of animal would assume that the Great Champion looks like them). Without giving too much away, by the end of the first issue it is not entirely clear whether the wizards have succeeded, but the costs thus far have been catastrophic, and the dangers appear to only be growing.

This is a rich, dense, gorgeous story, where Busiek and Dewey create a complex world and status quo and then completely upend that status quo by the end of the first issue (as the creator of Astro City, Busiek understands rich, fully created worlds). Benjamin Dewey and Jordie Bellaire combine for art in this issue that's both engaging and full of visual information. To start, character design is pretty remarkable. Each of the many "animal people" species represented in the series are designed with a notable degree of care. The characters aren't just the same sorts of humanoid bodies with different animal heads on them; there's a tremendous amount of variation of body type and design that show a great deal of care, and illustrate effectively what a bipedal-evolved version of a dog or owl or warthog might look like. The design reminds me (in a very different context) of the work being done by Matthew Roberts in Manifest Destiny, which is a series full of fantastical creatures but also has an exacting sense of authenticity. That's also the case in Tooth & Claw, and it feels like a funny thing to say about a comic about walking animal people who conduct magic in floating cities, but this book has a high degree of verisimilitude.


Looking more broadly at the world designed by Busiek & Dewey, this feels like a complex, fully realized world - an impressive feat after only one (albeit oversized) issue. There's a lot to unpack in the story and the society. This seems to be a world where magic has evolved as a power source instead of natural resources or technology (they have impressive floating cities, but they dump their chamber-pots down to the ground in the morning). These floating cities are illustrated in great detail by Dewey; they have an intricate, Renaissance Italy feel to them, and the society of the floating cities exudes wealth, power and privilege.

This is a tale of dwindling resources, along with being a story of who does and does not have access to and control over those resources. The class issues are acutely displayed when Dunstan and his father go down to the ground to negotiate for goods with the Buffalo men. Dunstan and his father are addressed by the Buffalo men as "cloud dwellers," and when the Buffalo men get overly aggressive, Dunstan's father deals harshly with them (as he does not trust them).  As he sees their relationship, they are to the Buffalo Men as the gods are to them, and the Buffalo men must be reminded of their place (as exemplified by the fact that cloud dwellers dump their waste onto the not-uninhabited ground).  By the end of the story, it's clear that there are and are going to be consequences to this world view.

This arrogance is also present in the Grand Colloquy of practitioners of magic. As driven by the organizing efforts of Gharta, they're a well-intentioned group of people who have decided to take it upon themselves, against the order of a top government official, to solve the centuries-old problem of the disappearance of magic from the world. The idea of magic as a finite resource is a clever one, and this group of intelligent, skilled magicians taking it upon themselves with hubris to solve this problem has many modern parallels, from the Manhattan Project creating an atomic bomb, to the "best and the brightest" getting the United States intricately involved into Vietnam, to those high-level closed door meetings to resolve the financial crisis which had far-reaching consequences.  In all of these situations, a powerful elite is woefully unprepared for the consequences of their actions. This seems like a fertile theme for a comic, and one that will likely continue to be addressed in this book.

One issue in, and Tooth & Claw is already a complex, interesting world and a fertile ground for fantastical storytelling with very real-world consequences.