So, I don’t often pick up a comic at my local comic book store. But this weekend, I grabbed a copy of Busiek and Dewey’s Tooth & Claw, published by Image on November 1.
Why? Maybe I was just surprised to see anthropomorphic characters in a mainstream comic shop, not in the kiddie area. Sure, Rocket Raccoon has, shall we say, really taken off. And I expect we might see more funny animals riding his…tailfins. But Busiek’s project seemed more in keeping with my tastes. So I had to check it out. Below are my thoughts, chiefly concerning the quality of the art, the inventiveness of the world, and how the use of anthropomorphism is largely a wasted opportunity.
The first thing to strike me about Tooth & Claw was the artwork. Detailed, consistent, inventive. Dewey’s inks and Jordie Bellaire’s colors meld so well, you’d swear they were done by the same artist. I’m used to picking up a comic in the store and seeing overly conventionalized, stiff hackwork, so Tooth & Claw was quite refreshing.
I found myself really enjoying the way Dewey created depth of field. Foreground figures and objects are done in what looks like black pen, with some brushwork. For background figures and objects, the ink is watered down and done all in brush. The result is much more effective than just digitally graying out the inks for the background. Switching to a brush allows Dewey not only to lower the contrast, but also forces him to simplify his linework to something more painterly. The slight blur and the relative graphic simplicity work well together to guide the eye’s focus.
The panel below is a good example of the different effect achieved by graying out the lineart (on the bat) and using watered-down ink and brush (on the dog, bear, toad, and other background characters).
How would I rate the art as a whole? If Guarnido’s work in Blacksad is a 10, Dewey and Bellaire’s work in Tooth & Claw is an 8.
Blacksad is the standard I’m judging this artwork against for two reasons. First, Guarnido’s graphic novels are practically a primer on color scripting, and second, his highly-appealing, expressive faces and hand gestures tell the story. Bellaire’s colors are gorgeous, and show some attention to color scripting. But the use of monochromatic palettes to signify magical energy can be gimmicky and doesn’t always seem well planned. The washed out rainbows during the climactic spell-casting scene didn’t really work for me: going full gamut in panel after panel means there’s no emphasis or guidance for the eye. And regarding facial expressions: Dewey’s anthropomorphic characters are well drawn, but not especially expressive. His character design, in aiming for verisimilitude, has sacrificed a lot of the storytelling potential of anthropomorphism.
Writing / Concept
The writing was appropriately spare and folkloric, but there are hints of satire here and there. Dunstan does obeisance to the god of Homeland Security, for example. On occasion, these real-world references distract from the power of the allegory. What is the allegory? Seems to be something about the dangers of building an entire civilization on one limited resource. Instead of petroleum, magic.
The dialogue doesn’t always bring the characters to life, but there are some great moments. Sandorst, a self-important wizard, for example, makes fun use of all those arrogant, pompous turns of phrase that mark out a villain in the making.
Dunstan, our point of view character, is apparently also the narrative voice running through the narration boxes. But an excerpt of a story called “The Seventeenth City” and attributed to Emris Dellahan is randomly inserted a few pages in. A full-spread illustration, possibly a traditional acrylic or oil painting, frames Dellahan’s narrative, creating an awesome early-20th-century pulp feel. It seems to set up Dellahan’s narration as a frame–but the book never returns to it, so it’s somewhat confusing. I expect we’ll see more spreads like this in future issues, and I’m hoping they will come to make sense as an artistic choice.
Now–keep in mind that I’m not a huge fantasy reader. Maybe a fantasy reader wouldn’t be bothered by world-building in the first couple of pages. The flying squid, the metal trees, the fairy-lamps. I’ll take anything in stride if it has a purpose, but many of these opening details seem decorative. I for one am hoping that candle-man riding the squid will be a main character in a future issue.
A key aspect of this world is it’s main building material: wicker. This just seems to be a design choice. I mean, maybe the cities and airships are wicker so they are lighter and easier to keep aloft with magic? But the zeppelin platform on the ground is also wickerwork. I don’t get it. That being said, Dewey’s designs for wickerwork buildings and airships are inventive and, in a weird way, believable–he seems to have really considered how a society would construct wicker structures. But I still want to ask, “Why floating wicker cities?” Seems the writer liked the social commentary of Bioshock: Infinite. But didn’t want to just do the same thing. So instead, we get Bioshock: Your Grandma’s Porch Furniture.
Use of Anthropomorphism
Another reviewer has discussed how this book about a dog-boy from a floating city is really a book about “death, and how we cope with it.” Tooth & Claw is an exploration of how we will go to great, desperate lengths to deny or delay that which is inevitable. I agree that the writing achieves all this, and I am inclined to follow the rest of the series. But I think my main criticism–as a writer/artist of anthropomorphic comics–is that the book could more fully exploit, more deeply engage in, the storytelling devices made available by anthropomorphism.
I’ve already mentioned the lack of appeal in the character designs. Let’s consider Blacksad on the one hand, and Iron: or, the War After on the other. Blacksad‘s style is influenced by generations of Disney experimentation and refinement, and the European tradition. Faces are plastic–broadly expressive, but without being utterly cartoony. Guarnido can even take difficult animals like rhinoceroses and use their faces to tell us what they are thinking and feeling–without sacrificing detail and realism. Vidaurri, on the flip side, aims for a graphic, almost minimalist style. A reader can emotionally inhabit these characters because their vague animal features create a masking effect. His rabbits, owls, crows and foxes express so little in their faces, that the reader is compelled to read between the lines–to weigh the dialogue, the pacing, the composition: reading Iron is more like watching Casablanca than a Disney movie.
So, either approach in the above books works for me. Through the way the books ask me to engage with the characters, the animal faces are appealing and relatable, more so than human characters would be in the same context. Imagine Animal Farm without the animals: it’s almost impossible. The book would have no impact. The same is true for me when it comes to Blacksad and Iron.
But the same is not true for Tooth & Claw. The choice to render them carefully as animals–often very specific animals–bull terrier, elephant seal, echidna–is almost like putting halloween masks on human characters. Yes, the animal species give us information about characterization. There is an owl wizard, a figure for the educated fool. There’s a fatuous walrus. Yes, they are well-drawn, pleasing as animals. Patrick Smith says you can still read their facial expressions; yes, to an extent. But the faces of these animals are neither plastic nor graphic, occupying a rather awkward middle ground.
On the whole Tooth & Claw is a cut above, and worth reading and re-reading. Personally, I wish Busiek and Dewey made a few different choices when it came to the use of anthropomorphic animals. The puzzling image on the inside front cover is an emblem for the strangeness that gets in the way of the reader’s identification with the animal characters. Two crows settle on a branch, crying, “Kaark. God-Killer. Kaark.” Is “Kaark” an onomatopoeia, or a name? In other words, are the crows sentient, or parroting and squawking? And then you notice: they are perching not with crows’ feet, but with human hands. Why this awkward blending of the animal and human?
All I can hope is the series will answer the question.