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The Autumnlands Volume 1: Tooth and Claw (review)

The Autumnlands Volume 1: Tooth and Claw (review)
Writer: Kurt Busiek
(Image Comics, July 2015)

Talking animals as the protagonists for adventures for children have a long tradition. In the twentieth century, this manifested sometimes as the printed extension of cartoons (Disney’s Mickey Mouse, and the Looney Tunes characters of Warner Bros), or as serialized comic strips (Snoopy, Calvin and Hobbes) which have usually been read as collected works. Talking animals are an absurdity and accordingly the adventures of such characters tend to be comedic (thus, “comic” books).

On the face of it, “The Autumnlands” should be a terrible comic. Talking animals with a penchant for Elizabethan clothing and gobbledygook magic summon a long-haired, foul-mouthed cyborg human soldier from the past to prevent magic disappearing from their present, seen mostly through the eyes of a happy-go-lucky bull terrier pup. One assumes that Kurt Busiek, the writer of this comic, did not approach the discerning editors at Image Comics with a pitch framed like that.

Fantasy comics feature animorphic characters but usually as monsters of legend: minotaurs (Wonder Woman, DC Comics), dragons (Conan the Barbarian, Marvel Comics), and Egyptian cat-gods (Sandman, Vertigo Comics). Establishing a civilisation consisting of various cities and regions each comprising a different species of animal is therefore very different from the direction of most fantasy concepts involving intelligent animal-esque characters. The animals fight, trade, and exchange magical knowledge with each other. Given the species range from frogs to birds of prey, it is not obvious what the carnivorous representatives of various regions eat (surely the coyote people do not engage in the sort of faux-cannibalism which the meat-eating types in Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit series do – Potter’s villains show no hesitancy to eat fellow sentient beings). The role of horses in this story is replaced by giant cockroaches and a magically animated chair.

The soldier, Learoyd, is augmented with a subcutaneous form of Google Glass. By tapping the skin between his eyebrows Learoyd activates a computer system which enhances his vision and which gives him knowledge on, for example, how to make explosives. Another system built into the character’s arm is burnt out. Learoyd is entirely lacking in charm and could easily be an ancillary character in any number of military dystopias.

The story is therefore a very odd mix of magical fantasy and hard science fiction. In addition, each chapter begins with a double-page written text which is very pulp fiction in its narrative form. These are each meant to be extracts from histories describing the events (a technique employed by science fiction writer Frank Herbert in his 1965 classic “Dune”).

It is a jarring combination of narrative: flowery spells chanted by animorphic characters juxtaposed with crass expletive-filled dialogue from the human soldier.

This however sets the scene for the climax of the story. Learoyd ruthlessly sets explosives into a cliff face and kills thousands of soldiers from malevolent bison tribes. The animals he seeks to defend are appalled by his actions. Then, Learoyd destroys a bridge, potentially drowning both himself and his adversary, the looming bison chieftain Seven Scars, and thereby preventing the remnants of the bison soldiers from hunting down and killing Learoyd’s allies. Even Learoyd’s friends lament this, for rescue has arrived and the bison horde could have been stopped through magical means. But it seems that Learoyd’s principal motivator was sheer bloody-mindedness: he wanted to destroy the bridge to ensure cruel triumph. Perhaps Mr Busiek is making a comment about the human condition, that humans are capable of much greater viciousness than animals.

It is an interesting scenario, the refined and perfumed animals shocked at the brutality of their human saviour, reminiscent of Stephen Donaldson’s epic “The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever” (1977-1983) – a wild card arrives in a strange land, convinced he is dreaming, and causes disruption and offence wherever he goes. But Learoyd is more sure-footed than Thomas Covenant and much more ruthless. This is a curious tale from Mr Busiek, a very experienced comic book writer, and the story is and will be worth following as it unfolds.