by Vince Brusio
Kurt Busiek’s name is synonymous with books like Marvels, Astro City, and…well…the list goes on and on. But something new is on the horizon for Kurt, as he has a creator-owned project that he’ll be rolling out through Image Comics. The new series is called Tooth and Claw (SEP140540), and it features artwork by Benjamin Dewey. Fans of The Wizard’s Tale are in for a treat. Sorcery's back! In this exclusive PREVIEWSworld interview, Kurt and Benjamin let us peek behind the curtain to see the scope of Tooth and Claw , which hits a comic shop near you this November.
Download a preview of Tooth and Claw #1 here.
PREVIEWSworld: For those who may not have been able to read what came out of the Image Expo at San Diego Comic Con, what can you tell the fans about your latest project, Tooth and Claw #1?
Kurt Busiek: At the Expo, I think I described it as a big-ass fantasy epic with animal-people. Or maybe I said "sprawling," instead of "big-ass," I don't remember.
I did ask Eric Stephenson if I could describe it as Game Of Thrones meets Richard Scarry's Biggest Rainy Day Book Ever, but he told me I probably shouldn't, so I won't.
To put is as simply as I can: It's a world where a great civilization of animal-people has spread across Earth, using sorcery as easily as we use technology. But now magic is fading away, and it looks like civilization is going to topple. But the wizards of the Seventeen Cities have a plan to get it back: They're going to use unprecedented, powerful spells to reach back into the past, to the era of the Great Champion who ushered magic into the world in the first place...and they're going to bring him forward to the present, and have him do it again.
It sounds simple. But what they do will rip their world apart , and the hero they wanted to save them all may very well destroy everything.
The Great Champion — a consummate soldier — and Dusty, an orphaned wizard's son, will travel this exotic world from the Cities Above the Plain to the Frozen Lands, encountering everything from the gilded empires of the Gulf Principates to the undersea nomads of the Byssal Plains, finding intrigue, romance, peril and action along the way. And they'll have to learn the truth of it all — how it became like this, why it's dying, and who's behind it. Even if they have to challenge the gods themselves.
And yeah, challenging the gods — they'll wind up having to do exactly that.
Swords, sorcery, beast-wizards, gods, empires, golems of radioactive decay, crystalline badlands, con women, ancient armories, young love, mystery, blood and death and treachery and destiny...there's a lot going on, and it all looks gorgeous. Hopefully, the writing's up to the level of the art, because the art's setting a pretty high bar.
Benjamin Dewey: I would want potential readers to know that, were I not drawing this comic, I'd still be super excited about it because it has all my favorite elements: magic, sci-fi, animals, travel-oriented adventure, underlying questions about human vs. animal nature and Kurt Busiek's writing. It will get better and better as things progress because Kurt and I are on the same page already aesthetically and both of us are equally committed to making a comic that is well considered in the details, structure and design while still being open to following whatever impulse springs up in the process of collaborating. Cool little innovations for story and characters have already come about from our discussions around the first issue and the sky's the limit once we get off the ground with this thing!
PREVIEWSworld: What was the genesis for this project?
Kurt Busiek: To be honest, it started with my love of Jack Kirby's Kamandi, and the rich, exotic worlds he built there. For years, I wanted to write Kamandi myself, but never got the nod to do it. And finally I realized that it wouldn't work anyway. Because there are two ways to do Kamandi: The way Jack did it (and because nobody else is Jack Kirby, that choice is otherwise known as "Not Good Enough"), or Not the Way Jack Did It (otherwise known as "Doing It Wrong").
So I started messing around in my head with ideas, figuring out how I could do my own thing — something that had what I liked about Kamandi, but without actually treading the same ground. Built in magic instead of science, lushly textured instead of raw and primitive, no "last boy," different kinds of story...
And out of that, Tooth & Claw started forming, and as it did, I was happy to see it was pulling in lots of other influences. It's as much rooted in the fantasy writing of Jack Vance as in the comics of Kirby, but it's also inspired by such disparate things as Terry And The Pirates, Lord Of The Rings, Lone Wolf And Cub and even the movie Heathers, in a weird and unexpected way. And it's informed by what I've learned writing Conan, but also by Astro City and Arrowsmith, and by what I see happening that excites me as a reader in books like Saga and Fables and East Of West. And all of this came together, becoming something new, becoming its own thing.
But I knew from very early on that it started in these floating wicker cities, high above the ground, inhabited by ivory-tower beast-wizards, and would plunge almost immediately into danger and violence and killer bats. And that's still where we started, and it rolls on from there, with a whole world (and a cosmological mystery) to explore...
I pitched the idea to Eric Stephenson a couple of years back, while I was recuperating from surgery, and he thought it sounded great. So that got us started, and the next step was to find the ideal artist.
I'd seen Ben's stuff over the years, notably at Emerald City Comicon, where he always had a gorgeous pin-up in their con book, usually with great animal drawings in it, to boot. But I didn't see any sequential art from him until a story he did in a Planet Of The Apes annual, and that made me think he'd be a great choice for the book, strong storytelling, engaging character work and a terrific sense of solidity and space in his drawing that made everything look credible. Plus great animal-people.
This was definitely a guy I could see drawing floating wicker cities full of scholarly beast-wizards. Little did I know. [I'll let Ben take over here.]
Benjamin Dewey: Kurt called me and laid out the elevator pitch. I was on board the second he said something about our story drawing initial inspiration from Kamandi. It is a perfect project for me because I'm presented with material that both suits my strengths and challenges me to improve. I'm as delighted to work on it as I am to read it because I know it will make me a better artist and storyteller all the while producing a unique and rich world that people will be able to explore every month.
PREVIEWSworld: What was the work relationship between you two while developing this series. How did you work out ideas that led to some character designs working, and others that did not?
Kurt Busiek: A really big advantage is that Ben and I are local to each other, so we can get together for dinner, or just to sit around and sketch —which mostly means Ben sketching and me waving my hands around uselessly and describing things.
But mainly, I'd describe characters, in the script or in person, and Ben would just go to town designing them, coming up with ten or fifteen sketches, almost any of which would work well, so I get to go through them and say, "I like that," or "Oo, I like that!" Or sometimes, "Wow, that's really cool!"
And then Ben would take all the bits we both liked most, and come up with something that was even better than before. And I'd get to say, "Oo, I like that!" some more.
I can't really think of any character designs not working — it was more a matter of refining them, not scrapping anything and starting over. [Ben may remember this differently than I do.] But I think my contributions were largely about characters texture — "This guy's snotty and disdainful, let's make sure to see that," or "This woman's not remotely pretentious, so her clothing should be functional, maybe a little worn."
There are definitely some characters that Ben drew so engagingly that I thought, "Hey, I didn't have any long-term plans for that one, but now I've got to find a way to bring 'em back, do more." Because they're just too good to have them show up once and forget about them.
Also, Ben's a very thoughtful artist with a lot of interests, in science, natural history and more, so oftentimes he'll make a suggestion about something -- a scientist whose personality he wants to use for one of our characters, or some freaky-ass robot he's seen on YouTube that would make a great basis for a beast of burden. This book is such a visual treat that it leans on Ben's skills a ton — I have ideas about how I want it to feel, and Ben comes up with concrete ways to deliver that, often surprising and unusual ways that give us a lot of new texture and possibility in the stories.
Benjamin Dewey: Most of the specific design was done as I was drawing pages with the exception of a few key characters. We would talk things out in broad strokes regarding the limits of construction materials or general attitude for a particular culture. All of that was helpful in producing set-pieces or knowing how to juxtapose our cast in scenes. Kurt is very detail oriented and I do my best to render as much of that consideration as possible because it matters in the context of the story.
Posture, clothing or lack thereof, height, proportion, degree of anthropomorphizing; all of it has been talked about and even if we don't address it in the comic right away, we have answers for all the questions an audience might be likely to ask. Sexual dimorphism and secondary sexual characteristics were things I thought about a lot and tried to handle differently as the story or character type required. This was of particular concern because you don't want to fall into the trap of inconsistency or crass reductionism. There are reasons for the things you'll see or not see which derive from things in the world of the story that I won't get into now as they would spoil future plot. Rest assured that we have had many conversations and nothing is a matter of default.
PREVIEWSworld: Without spoiling the book, what sub-plots or scene(s) would you most likely want to blog about to tout as being most representative of the work overall?
Kurt Busiek: Well, I'm super-secretive about story, so I wouldn't want to blog about any more of it than I absolutely have to. I might talk about the gorgeous paintings Ben is including in every issue, or the showdown with the bison-men, or Goodfoot the Sly — but I'd try to tease people, rather than give any real detail.
I'd make hints about the big picture — about fate and idealism and brutal pragmatism, and what makes an animal and what makes a civilized being. About saving the world, and discovering that what threatens the world isn't what you thought, and saving it won't make it what it was. About cynicism and tragedy and disillusionment and hope and passion.
And pack-roaches. I'd definitely mention the pack-roaches.
Benjamin Dewey: The arrival of 'the champion' in is going to be bonkers! Every issue, though, will have some chance to introduce new species/characteristic/behavior to serve as a parallel for some human tendency or cultural priority worthy of our consideration, preservation and/or critique. There are a ton of creatures I can't wait to adapt. I'm a particularly huge fan of elephant seals so I'll be sneaking them in where I can until Kurt just embraces it and writes one in as a part of the main cast!
PREVIEWSworld: If people want to talk to you more about this project, are you able to correspond with them through any social media sites?
So I guess that's a yes...
Benjamin Dewey: They can find me on Twitter for sure, but at some point we may set up a venue where more nuanced discussion of story elements, Easter eggs and philosophy behind choices can be explored without brevity as a constraint. I'm always open to emails too but I am pretty busy so I'm often not super quick to respond; I make an effort to answer nice people first and consequently, I am committed to ignoring people who are transparently trolling. If people want to talk comics, science and guitars, in a considerate fashion, I'm open to it anytime and on any wavelength.