Today, Patrick and Spencer are discussing The Autumnlands: Tooth and Claw 11, originally released June 22nd, 2016.
Patrick: Writer Kurt Busiek is one of the strongest world-builders working in comics today. Astro City weaves so much lore, both borrowed and invented, into its narratives that the series feels like a meditation on decades of character — and publisher — history. That amount of history (implied or otherwise) is sort of part ‘n’ parcel with the genre; superhero comics are increasingly reliant on a history shared by the readers, the creators, and the characters. There’s a slightly different approach in the fantasy genre, and worlds like Middle Earth and Westeros have evident history, even if it’s impossible for us to seek out back-issues showing it. The Autumnlands: Tooth and Claw takes kind of a third track, implying a great history while also relying on the reader’s assumptions about genre and mythology to make us fill in the gaps, slowly and uncertainly, on our own.
Issue 11’s a little bit of an odd duck, wrapping up one chapter and starting another. Since Learoyd and Dusty have become separated from the great cities following their attack on Seven-Scar’s army, the series has shifted from its depiction of political unrest among a civilization of magic-wielding animals to something of an episodic adventure story. The two stories in this issue are very much discrete, with the first focusing on our heroes teaming up with Dirty Aelbert to vanquish a horrible giant mutant goat-man. By the time the second story kicks in, Aelbert is part of the party, with Dusty unceremoniously narrating “And so we were three.” The way the story pivots mid-issue is fascinating, and lends to the overall idea that the Autumnlands are not a single world ruled by one common mythology, but a kind of uber-fantasy-world, informed by the mythos of all.
And actually, Busiek even makes knowledge of various mythologies part of Learoyd’s survival skills. When he, Dusty, and Aelbert come upon the Galateans, our heroes need to come up with the “codeword.” Learoyd taps into the Google-glass-esque implants he has (and which have never been explained) and starts cycling through as many literary references as he can in an attempt to suss out this codeword. Dusty and Aelbert don’t stand a chance, because their guesses can only come from within their own experience, which is hilariously limited.
Dusty’s so fucking cute – look how sincere and immediate his guesses are! I suppose the same thing can be said for Dirty Aelbert, it’s just significantly less cute because he’s got that “Dirty” title to live up to. Learoyd, on the other hand, has the Galatea Wikipedia page up and brings up the myth of Pygmalion, which leads him to guess characters from the myth itself: Aphrodite and Paphos. He also guesses Ovid, the poet credited with writing the myth in the first place – which means that Learoyd isn’t just aware of the story, he’s aware of the story’s teller. But his last guess — which turns out to be correct — is even more intriguing. He guesses Henry Higgins, the co-protagonist of the play that borrows its name from Pygmalion.
It’s never totally been clear where (or when) Learoyd comes from, but this moment suggests that he’s from a world that shares a cultural history not unlike our own. He knows about Eliza Doolittle just like the audience does. And that knowledge helps him unlock the secret pleasures of this world. But this is where Busiek’s work distinguishes itself from its influences – the reality of his world is darker and more complicated than anything that inspired it. By the issue’s end, the Galateans are asking for permission to die, which is about as grim and horrible as I can imagine. That’s actually one thing that unites these two tales thematically – there’s a persistent ugliness to the Autumnlands. Poor Aelbert demonstrates this underlying darkness when he tries to eulogize his fallen tribesmen.
He’s got this elegant defense of the way his people lived, which is obviously steeped in their proud history. They never submitted to any masters! They were free! And yet, they still died – rather gruesomely, I might add.
So maybe understanding the mythology isn’t enough. There’s always going to be suffering to overcome. Spencer, did you find this issue to be too much of a bummer, or do you enjoy having Aelbert in the group now? Also, I feel like such a heel when I write about this series, because I never get around to discussing Benjamin Dewey’s art or Jordie Bellaire’s colors. Both artists are stubbornly committed to representing Busiek’s story as cleanly and as clearly as possible, which also goes a long way toward allowing the audience to make up their own minds about the world represented here. This team very rarely abstracts the backgrounds, instead preferring a persistent realism to every panel. I mean, check out all those scenes in the Galatean temple – there’s so much background detail in every panel!
Spencer: You’re right, Patrick; there really is so much to love about Dewey and Bellaire’s art. The “persistent realism” you mentioned, for example, is so heavily engrained in their style that it even extends to the panel borders, which aren’t straight, orderly, or obviously computer generated — they’re as organic as any part of Dewey’s backgrounds. Actually, this stylistic choice even extends to John Roshell and Jimmy Betancourt’s letters — I doubt they letter this book by hand, but it certainly looks like they could have.
I think I’ve discussed this before in one of our Round-Up discussions of The Autumnlands, but I still love the way Dewey and Bellaire take advantage of their more organic, realistic art to occasionally switch things up, creating startling contrasts.
Take a look at any of the other images Patrick’s posted from this issue so far. This is about as far from Bellaire’s typical color palette as you can possibly get, but that’s the point; while Bellaire’s normally more muted color choices are part of an organic world, the brighter hues she chooses for magic immediately stand out as something unnatural and foreign to this world. The wild splotches of ink Dewey uses to depict the goat monster exploding in the second panel have a similar effect; they’re something otherwise foreign to Dewey’s storytelling skills, a power even its wielder (Rusty) can’t fully understand or control.
In many ways, though, the moment that caught my attention the most came early in the issue.
A spread similar to this one opens up every single issue of The Autumnlands, and each time Dewey does a fantastic job of shaking up his style to look more like a traditional fantasy illustration; it’s tremendous work, and Dewey should be commended each and every month. That said, I’ve rarely seen these spreads be so closely related to the issue’s overarcing characters and events before, and that’s what I find more interesting than anything. Busiek’s words and Dewey’s illustrations paint Learoyd, Rusty, and Aelbert as calm, powerful, invincible heroes, but that couldn’t be any further from the truth.
It seems significant that, in a bit of an unusual move for The Autumnlands, Busiek and Dewey open on this spread instead of the other. I think we’re supposed to understand the reality of our heroes’ situation before jumping into the fantasy presented within the works of “Kneglin Ventarra” and “Groz Grazzini,” but that kind of reality check isn’t something most of The Autumnlands’ characters have the luxury of.
More than anything, these spreads comment on the ways that time, legend, and myth can distort the truth. We don’t know where (or when) the storybooks in the opening spreads are coming from, but we know they praise Learoyd and Dusty as invincible, fearless heroes, whereas in reality, they’re brave — yet flawed and hopelessly outclassed — men and boys. They present an escapist fantasy, not the reality of Learoyd and Dusty’s fight.
That concept isn’t just present in this installment, but has permeated The Autumnlands since its very first issue. The citizens of the Autumnlands summoned Learoyd expecting a “Great Champion,” but instead got…well…instead they got Learoyd. Dusty’s entire coming-of-age journey thus far has revolved around his seeing past the incomplete, prejudiced stories his father told him in order to discover the truths of the world for himself. The more Dusty learns about the world, the less accurate the stories he’s been told about his people’s “Gods” seem to be.
And then there’s the Galateans.
These poor creatures are the ultimate fantasy in more ways than one. The idea of magical, flawlessly obedient servants (especially female ones) isn’t foreign to the fantasy genre, and neither is the misogyny inherent in their very existence. Busiek, of course, has no intention of letting the Galateans simply serve as masturbatory figures — he reminds readers that even these creatures have their own minds, personalities, and hidden depths and pain. The Galateans aren’t fantasy, they aren’t simply myth or legend — they’re just as real as Dusty or Learoyd, and their concerns are just as valid.
Ultimately, that’s what Busiek, Dewey, and Bellaire are doing with The Autumnlands. I wouldn’t call this title a deconstruction in the same sense that, say, Fables was, but the creative team is attempting to look past the simple tropes and archetypes of the fantasy genre in order to find the meaty truths hidden beneath, much in the same way Learoyd and Rusty are looking past the myths and rules of their own world in order to find its truths. So far, that’s been a mission worth keeping up with.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?