In a rather charming little easter egg, in place of the letter column, writer Kurt Busiek gives us, at least the beginning of, his elevator pitch for Tooth and Claw. “It’s this big sprawling fantasy story about animal people,” he begins before being cut off.
Especially in this age of Game of Thrones, where it’s not only possible but profitable to stuff the simple story of the Hobbit with all manner of minutia from Tolkien’s unfinished tales, there’s an increasing awareness of the different ways to categorize fantasy: urban fantasy, low fantasy, epic fantasy… I don’t know if I’d classify Tooth & Claw as epic fantasy, but, based on this one issue, I’d happily describe it as a fantasy epic.
The situation is thus: In a world of animal-headed people diverse enough to make the Egyptians blush, a very literal upper and underclass has emerged. Since their great Promethean hero brought back magic for them, those lucky enough to wield it have taken to the skies, using the land-bound tribes as cheap labor, better off than slaves only in that the upworlders seem too superior to even give them the time of their rule.
Right there, I see a story of rebellion and the defeat of injustice, but, while that is the backdrop Busiek has set his story against, it is but the backdrop. I like to talk about the difference between telling THE story and telling A story, and this is clearly A story for Busiek, one of many.
While we’re given a couple of characters to follow, the true star of this issue is the world itself. Busiek weaves, in a way very similar to that of his magicians, the complex state of his world into the small stories of its inhabitants before getting to the start of his true tale.
If you love fantasy, almost any fantasy, Tooth & Claw should strike a chord with you. Though the form is different, Busiek accomplishes a herculean task from the first moments of the book and gives readers the experience of reading a great fantasy novel in a comic. All the depth, breadth, and easily fumbled grandeur of a prose legendarium are packed into this giant-sized issue. While I had never heard of this series before I walked into my comic shop, opening it felt like coming home.
Now, in fairness, I was the kid who adored the little yellow ‘*As seen in Uncanny X-Men #2XXX’ boxes. While, particularly as you go deeper, Busiek does a wonderful job of explaining the complexities of his world and introducing his massive cast naturally, I admit that it’s hard for me to fully understand the, entirely reasonable, position of someone who finds themselves overwhelmed by fanciful terms and legions of character names. Though there’s certainly a lot to take in, I think that, as with most strong writers, Busiek has given the reader everything they need to know rather clearly, as long as they don’t insist that they don’t understand.
On the other hand, there’s only so much space and Busiek does dip into some familiar wells to sell his story. Longtime fans of fantasy fiction or newcomers to the genre, wary of its traditions, may be off put by mentions of “The Great Champion”, “Trade-Masters”, or “the Grand Colloquy”. While these are common fantasy sins, I found that, for the most part, Busiek breathed life into even the tritest elements.
Really, if there’s a serious problem with this issue, it’s that the last half is devoted to the inciting action. When our protagonist tells us “We had […] no idea at all where it would all lead us.”, he really means it. In a way, Tooth & Claw #1 should almost be viewed as a proof of concept, selling the series less on an understanding of what is to come than the good-faith the creators have earned with a sterling story. It’s a bold move and one that seems to have paid off, but it’s worth mentioning that it’s often hard to see the flaws in a story without the context this strategy denies us. If the status quo can’t live up to the sense of discovery Busiek put to page here it will be a serious disappointment.
Nonetheless, there’s much to love here. Busiek has a tremendous sense of tone and style in his narration and this, combined with a gorgeous picture-book title page, set the stage and immerse you in the world. It’s actually clever how Busiek distracts the reader from his exposition with fairy tale glamour and uses his exposition to hide the subtle hints toward his civilizations’ self-aggrandizing character.
The characters, especially those that dream – magicians and children – have a vibrancy in them that frequently glosses over minor flaws. Indeed, the strategy of this issue, for better or worse, is often not to try be perfect but to try to be likable, like a sturdy old friend
It would be quite a feat, for any artist, to render the sheer diversity of animals contained in this issue, much less to do so without becoming a slave to reality, but Benjamin Dewey not only accomplishes this but places them on well-drawn bodies in a solidly constructed world. Indeed, while the artwork isn’t exactly flashy, you really have to give Dewey credit for realizing this world.
Dewey matches Busiek, crafting a comic that’s not only beautiful but sturdy. He draws it all the way down to it’s foundations. The sense of style in this comic is superb. Though the animals are probably the most obvious accomplishment, the architecture, the fashion, the general aesthetic is stunning. Combining the styles of the Italian Renaissance with a dash of fantasy-flavored awesome, Dewey has gifted this series a fascinating visual signature that summons up fond memories of exploring James Gurney’s Dinotopia. It also helps that Dewey is more than capable of pulling it off. Despite the painstaking detail put into each arch or fold of clothing, the panel rarely, if ever, becomes overly busy.
Dewey’s art lacks stylization, leaning on realism about as much as one can when drawing a woman with the head of a boar. While it’s miles ahead of most comics and the current Big Two house styles in that regard, part of me does feel like the straightforward style misses an opportunity to match the creativity of the content. Still, there’s something to be said for really seeing this world and, in that, it most certainly delivers.
Finally there’s Jordie Bellaire. While much of the issue is far more restrained than many of her other works, when Bellaire cuts loose it’s easy to see why she’s one of the premier colorists in comics right now. The first half of the book tends to take a quiet approach to color, working to make sure that you’re never brought out of the story enough to notice how nice it is, but spellcraft brings out the magic in Bellaire’s colors.
While it doesn’t fully make a case for following the series, Tooth & Claw #1 is a seriously impressive piece of work. Kurt Busiek’s writing connects with the platonic form of secondary world fantasy, summoning up waves of nostalgia without giving up on saying something new. Alongside him, Benjamin Dewey and Jordie Bellaire bring an undeniable style to the book and grant it a level of depth not often found outside a Peter Jackson spectacle.
Tooth & Claw manages to replicate many of the best parts of reading a novel and watching an epic fantasy film, without losing sight of itself as a comic. There’s no guarantee that future installments will match the vision presented here, but, for the moment, it ranks up there with books like Saga that can redefine what comic book fantasy looks like. Especially at 44 pages for $2.99, Tooth & Claw #1 is a phenomenal debut that you, almost literally, can’t afford to miss.
I actually missed one of the most interesting panels in the issue on my first read, as it's actually located on the inside cover. I have no idea what it means, but it’s fascinating. This book is both cruel and wonderful in its suspense.