Magic is fading in the Autumnlands and a mysterious champion was summoned to save the world from collapse, but in a world full of warthog advisers and owl magicians, the one thing this world didn’t count on was the champion to be...human.
Kurt Busiek and Benjamin Dewey’s The Autumnlands: Tooth and Claw is set in the sword-and-sorcery world where civilization has relied on magic for everyday use from protection to keeping their city afloat in the skies. When that’s taken from them, the citizens must come together, even if political and social leanings collide.
Newsarama spoke with writer Kurt Busiek about his new creator-owned series and the inspirations behind it, as well as the collaboration process with artist Benjamin Dewey, the evolution behind the title, and what to expect later down the line, but never giving anything away.
Newsarama: So, Kurt, you have The Autumnlands, over at Image now and it's billed Game of Thrones meets Kamandi, is that how the concept came about or were there more inspirations behind it?
Kurt Busiek: No, no, that’s just a cheap sales tactic I stole wholesale from the initial promotion for Saga. I figured if it worked for them to call their book “Star Wars meets Game of Thrones,” well, I’m not too proud to imitate that.
The inspirations behind The Autumnlands go way back, long before the Game of Thrones TV show and maybe even before the novel. Kamandi is definitely an influence — it started out with me wanting to write Kamandi, and DC never actually letting me, until I realized that doing Kamandi in the shadow of its original run is a thankless task anyway, and maybe I’d be better off creating something new that had aspects of what I like about Kamandi without it being Kamandi. The other big initial influence was that I read Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth, and loved the texture and atmosphere of that world. I realized that if I did a world of animal-people adventure like Kamandi, but in a rich, textured fantasy setting like Tales of the Dying Earth, I could build something that I’d have a blast writing but was different from either of them.
And along the way, we picked up influences from Conan and Terry and the Pirates and other sources, and other ideas that I’d messed around with over the years, because that’s just how it goes.
But it wouldn’t make any sense to pitch it as “Jack Vance meets Kamandi meets Terry and the Pirates meets…” because among other things, many of the potential readers would respond to “Jack Vance” with “Huh? Who?”
So we picked Game of Thrones because it tells retailers and potential readers that it’s big-scope heroic fantasy with adult content, not because there’s much specific influence there (I, uh, haven’t read it). It’s more about making sure the book gets ordered and sampled correctly than it being strictly accurate.
Nrama: There is a diversity of species in this series, from Gharta the Seeker who’s a warthog to Dustan the bull-terrier to a spectrum of others. When you're creating a new citizen or main character, which comes first: the name or the species?
Busiek: Probably personality, and their place in the story. After that, if I don’t know right off what kind of animal the character should be, I’ll talk it over with Ben and say, “We need an animal that can project this kind of attitude,” and he’ll make suggestions. In the case of Sandorst, for instance, we knew he needed to be a condescending, elitist jerk with a cute, friendly daughter. So we made him an owl, because owls can definitely project that kind of attitude, and owlets can be cute.
We did cheat a little, though, because Sandorst is a great horned owl, and great horned owl chicks do not look terribly cute, so his daughter is more of a snowy owl. We’ve got a job to do here!
Beyond that, it varies. Goodfoot’s name came first, with a personality coming hard on its heels, and I knew she’d be a coyote once I had the personality. Although she started out male, and changed to female late in the game. Gharta started out as a personality, and we made her a warthog because Ben draws great warthogs, and then she got a name.
Nrama: The first issue was a double-sized issue, why was going in like that important to you as a storyteller?
Busiek: There were a few reasons. One was that I wanted to have a good chunk of story, so readers who try the series out get a good taste of it. I’ve always liked starting out with an extra-length issue — we did it on Avengers and Thunderbolts, too.
But there’s also the attraction that doing a double-sized issue for a single-sized price makes it a bargain, and that’s another tool we could use to get people to try it.
Plus, Saga did it, and as we’ve already established, I am very happy to steal any of Saga’s tricks.
Nrama: Working with artist Benjamin Dewey, you've created this vast world and slew of characters, so what was it about Dewey's style that drew you to him in working on this?
Busiek: He draws insanely-great animals!
I’d pitched the idea to Eric Stephenson at Image without an artist attached, so we considered a variety of different choices, any of whom would have made the series develop in their own unique direction. But I saw Ben’s work in one of the Emerald City Con’s Monsters & Dames art books, and he drew an arresting piece with great animal characters:
So that made me think, “Woo, what about him?”
I saw his Tragedy Series online, and a story he did for a Planet of the Apes annual, and great-looking animal drawing and expressive, engaging characters were obviously a recurring thing for him. So I called him up to see if he’d be interested, and thankfully, he was.
Ben makes the world feel complex and real. It has all the fun you’d expect from an animal-people fantasy, but it’s also grounded. I ask him to draw a floating wicker city, and he draws one that looks real. I ask him for a bison-tribe village, and he makes it feel real. He brings a real sense of credibility to the world to go along with the fantasy.
Plus, awesome animal people.
Nrama: Having to have change the name from of the series from Tooth and Claw to The Autumnlands: Tooth and Claw and soon just The Autumnlands, do you think that changes how people might view the title or interpret it a different way?
Busiek: I think so, probably. The idea of “Autumnlands” was going to come up eventually, but now it’s out there on the table sooner, giving readers one more clue about the nature of this world. So of course it’s going to change how people look at things. I see that more as an opportunity than a problem, though…it gives us a little more texture, a different atmosphere, and it’ll help put readers in the right frame of mind for what’s coming.
Nrama: There's not really a whole lot of fantasy comics on the market right now, so Autumnlands stands out, especially given the anthropomorphic cast, so why go down the fantasy route?
Busiek: There are other series I want to do that are very different, but this one was anthropomorphic high fantasy from the moment it was conceived, so it’s not like I could do it as space opera or with a cast of humans. Those two aspects are right in the DNA of the series idea. So I was going to commit to it and do it as well as I can, or I was going to do something else.
And this series has been in the back of my head waiting patiently to be realized for years, and it wasn’t going away. So when I got the chance, I went for it.
I’m not sure that’s the answer you’re looking for, but it’s what I’ve got: This is the story I want to tell, and it needs to be like this.
Nrama: In the first issue, you have a bit of a story told by Emris Dellahan, and the trend continues in #2 and #3, who is this narrator? Also, why did you want to go down the almost prose sort of format?
Busiek: Well, Emris Dellahan isn’t our narrator, Dusty is. Emris wrote at least one (but not all) of the prose except that appears on the title spreads, but he, she or it doesn’t narrate the rest of the story.
And can I tell you about Emris? And presumably, the other writers? I suppose I could, but I’d rather wait and let you find out when the story gets to it. It’ll be more fun that way.
Why the prose excerpts? Well, that’s another wait-and-see, but I will tell you that we chose to do them because I thought it’d be fun and striking to do a kind of mid-century magazine-illustration title spread for each issue, and Ben liked the idea. So the prose excerpts are part of that, and they’re fun to do — plus, they give me a chance to establish more information about the world in a different way, and to give the whole proceedings a kind of pulp flavor (the title spreads are inspired by the slick magazines of the mid-century era, not the pulps, but it’s too much fun writing pulp prose not to incorporate that, too). I like playing with different storytelling methods, and this is a fun way to do something else.
It also has a part in the story, but, well, that’s well over the horizon at the moment.
Nrama: Can you describe the laws of magic in this world?
Busiek: I have much the same answer there as to the Emris Dellahan question. I could, but I’d rather you learn about it in the story, because it matters to the story, so I’d like it to unfold as we go along.
Sorry to be so vague, but I’m a nut for letting the story unfold as a story, and letting readers learn things by seeing them as they come up.
Nrama: Going back to the name of the characters, where are you influenced the most when coming up with these names?
Busiek: It varies. Dusty’s name was inspired by Dustman, a famous dog of the Bull and Terrier breed that the bull terrier is descended from. Sandorst is a variant of Sandhurst, a similarly aristocratic jerk from Terry and the Pirates. But both are intended to suggest that they come from a culture of privilege and aristocracy, as wizards from upper-class families in the Seventeen Cities.
Gharta has deliberately less upper-class name, one that sounds more earthy, and has more in common with, say, the blacksmith, Bhord. But then, Gharta’s not from the Seventeen Cities, and doesn’t have that kind of aristocratic background, so we want her to sound like she comes from a different culture. Same for Affa.
The human Learoyd is named that mostly because I wanted a name that sounded like he came from a civilized, science-fiction world, not a fantasy world.
Seven-Scars and Goodfoot are more descriptive names, suggesting that they’re from cultures where your name comes from what you’re like, rather than what family you’re born to. Seven-Scars would have gotten his name due to having the scars, and presumably being a tough guy; Goodfoot must be either agile or light on her feet, or something like that.
The wizards also have that kind of descriptive name, but as an addition — Sandorst is Sandorst the Exacting, because he’s fussy about things, and Gharta is Gharta the Seeker, because finding, learning, exploring, these things are important to her.
The names reflect the culture of the characters, and their natures. As we meet other cultures, we’ll find different kinds of names.
Nrama: What's the collaboration process with Dewey like? Was it ever challenging when you're creating this new world, or was it sort of you were both on the same creative wavelength with things?
Busiek: It’s been a very smooth collaboration, at least for me. We talk about storytelling a lot — Ben’ll do layout for each issue, and then we’ll talk them over, with me making suggestions about how to stage the scene more strongly, or suggesting adjustment to fit the text in better, or lead the eye, or whatever. Ben professes to like this, because I’ve had a lot of experience telling stories and he’s relatively new to it, so he’s learning from my input, but if and when he ever wants to say, “No, I like it better this way,” then I’m going to trust his judgment. But as long as he’s open to input I’ll offer it, because I think it helps get us on the same page in terms of what the story’s about and why it’s being told the way it is.
But while I have a lot of input, Ben does too — he’s an amazing illustrator, knows much more about animals than I do, and has an interest in science and social issues that bleeds into the stories. So he’ll choose to draw characters as certain kinds of animals, and I’ll bounce off the look and attitude he gives them, and the back-and-forth builds up detail and texture, and makes it very much our world, not just mine.
It’s been very useful that we leave close to one another, so we can get together for dinner and talk over ideas or even sketch them out face to face. But if by “challenging” you mean “difficult,” it really hasn’t been — I asked Ben in on the book because I liked his drawing and his sensibility, so I was aiming toward stuff he likes right from the start, and we’ve only refined that over time, I think.
Nrama: What can readers look forward to if they stick with The Autumnlands?
Busiek: A big, big, big adventure. It’s a vast world, full of secrets and history and culture and magic, and to understand it, Learoyd and Dusty are going to need to see a lot of it. So there’s going to be a lot of travel, a lot of adventure, a lot of discoveries, and some romance and intrigue along the way. We’re chipping away at the tip of the iceberg, to mix a metaphor, and there’s an awful lot to come. War and ancient weapons and commerce and old enmities and gods and monsters and very strange boarding schools. Fishmen and crystal wastes and nuclear homunculi and lots more. And the truth about how Learoyd’s world because the Autumnlands, and why, and what can be done to save it.
All kinds of stuff.