autumn1By Molly Jane Kremer. Image Comics has a lot of books on their publishing plate that aspire to high-fantasy nowadays, and most of them are genuinely good reads. But the very best of that bunch is unequivocally The Autumnlands: Tooth and Claw. Kurt Busiek, Benjamin Dewey and Jordie Bellaire are only on their third issue, but they’ve already established a fully engrossing new world, populated completely with anthropomorphic wizard-animals, with one exception… a human new to their world, one who may or may not be their savior. It’s dramatic and gorgeous and oh-so-very-realized, and a perfect example of that rare piece of sequential art that’s difficult to imagine existing in any other medium.

Autumnlands builds on a great tradition in literature, that of animals who talk and walk and act like humans, from ancient myths and fables (the Greek god Zeus taking animal form to um, “woo” ladies he fancied, and tales like The Tortoise and the Hare) to more modern fare like The Chronicles of Narnia, the Land of Oz series, and an absolute plethora of Disney films. This comic, while definitely not at Aesop or Disney’s level of child-appropriateness, has the regal bearing of an epic in the making, and thankfully doesn’t feel the need to coddle us with too many human-faced protagonists.

Issue #3 finds our main characters – the animals – magic-less and stranded in the ruins of their sky-city. Having summoned their storied “Champion” of old, they discover that he doesn’t exactly match their many legends of him. He is, in fact, human, and they’re all very confused as to what sort of animal that is (and why he’s so strangely furless). He first appeared last issue, saving our intrepid group from an attacking mob of bison (completely nekkid no less), but in this issue we finally get inside his head a little bit, and he sounds and acts like a modern (possibly even futuristic) man indeed. He’s shaving during our first look at him, making his face even more strangely hairless (in their eyes) than he’d already been, wearing only pants while the welcoming animal-wizards are draped in gilt finery.

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Writer Kurt Busiek succeeds in contrasting the Champion’s savagery with the animals’ civility, delving deeper into the man’s mind and motivations to subtle effect. The issue has a (now-traditional) two-page spread of non-sequential illustration surrounding a few boxed paragraphs featuring a small passage of science fiction (with its own title-logo, natch): it’s a peek into a Hoth-like battle that Steven T. Learoyd (as the Champion later introduces himself) was possibly pulled out from. (And was possibly the source of whatever replaced the world’s humans with intelligent mage-fauna.) That passage melds sci-fi and high fantasy subtly and seamlessly, although that accomplishment is the only glimpse we get of Learoyd’s reality.

It’s also vastly entertaining to now hear him speak, because the difference between the genteel speeches of the fancily-robed creatures and Learoyd’s modern (and rather profane) syntax is vast. Certainly not a jaunty character, Learoyd adds a moment or two of levity to a book that has more solemnity than silliness (his remark to the owl Sandorst – “… look, Hootie. I appreciate the pants. But I don’t know you…” – caused this reviewer to giggle aloud), giving what could be an overly-whimsical fable one stable foot on the ground.

Image9Artist Benjamin Dewey and colorist Jordie Bellaire continue to make Autumnlands: Tooth & Claw one of the most beautiful books on the stands. Dewey uncannily shows just as much pathos and expression in the faces of multitudinous animal species as he does in the face of one man. And not only are the animals’ faces expressive, they’re wondrously rendered and recognizable: a feat many superhero artists can scarcely manage when simply drawing the visage of a single human being, let alone warthogs and foxes. Aside from expressing the passion and poignance of these wonderfully realized characters, the sense of space within the art is enveloping. The architecture and backgrounds look to have as much care put into them as the rest of the art, and furthers the sense that this was a series thoughtfully crafted by masters of the genre.

The plot itself is dense but well-paced, and it feels like there is even more story to discover than the twenty-four ad-free pages contains between its covers. This is due to Busiek’s strength in world-building, and in his powerful characterization. There’s a sense that much, much more of this world exists for us to see and experience than the little corner we’ve been exposed to this far, and that the storytellers will be very meticulous in their revelations of it. This is a comic built on and within one of literature’s oldest traditions, and it does what all great fictions do: it pulls you unfathomably deep into a foreign landscape from which you may not want to return.

Image Comics/$2.99

Written by Kurt Busiek.

Art by Benjamin Dewey.

Colors by Jordie Bellaire.

8.5 out of 10