The Finality Of Death: Busiek & Dewey Defy Anthropomorphic Expectations With ‘Tooth & Claw’ #1
Having been one of the creators who saved superhero comics in the 1990s, it can be difficult to think of Kurt Busiek as anything other than a superhero comic writer. But between all of his high-profile runs on big Marvel and DC books and undisputed classics Marvels and Astro City, Busiek has frequently played in the fantasy genre with great results. If you’ve never read The Wizard’s Tale, Arrowsmith, or his run on Conan, you’ve been missing out on an aspect of Busiek’s all-world talent that shouldn’t be overlooked, and it’s time to getcha life right.
Created by Busiek and Benjamin Dewey (I Was The Cat), Tooth & Claw is a fantasy about the end of magic, a mythical hero, and a dog-boy named Dunstan. And somehow, given all those words I just typed, it’s also a dark Mature Readers comic about the suddenness and finality of death.
Tooth & Claw takes place in a world where all the characters are anthropomorphic animals, magic is everything, and magic is dying. In the floating city of Keneil, “westernmost of the Seventeen Cities Above the Plain,” young Dunstan pays fealty to the gods dutifully, aware that the day will soon come when he has to learn his father’s responsibilities and magic. Unfortunately for him, that day may come sooner than he thinks.
After a massive gathering of wizards determines that magic is dying, a rogue group tries desperately to save their lifeblood by doing the unthinkable. Pooling their magic together, they reach back through time for the Great Champion, a hero of legend who saved the world and “opened the gates of magic.” But a mistake in the casting results in disastrous consequences for Dunstan and Keneil, and there’s a very good chance the Great Champion isn’t exactly what they expect.
The same could be said about Tooth & Claw itself. With its easily lovable anthropomorphic characters and ever-present sense of wonder, the comic is, by all outward appearances, a standard coming-of-age story about Dunstan the dog boy. For the first dozen-or-so pages, it seems like that’s what Busiek and Dewey are going for: a young adult high fantasy about adventure, responsibility, finding magic in the world, and all that Disney shit.
But it doesn’t take long for the darkness to seep in through the bright and florid stuff, and by its conclusion, you get why Tooth & Claw is blatantly tagged with a Mature Readers warning. If you pick up a copy of Tooth & Claw and give it to your kid expecting Disney levels of violence — traumatizing enough already — be prepared to spend the rest of your life shelling out for therapy.
It’s not that the book is lurid or adult. It certainly looks like an all-ages book, with Benjamin Dewey’s fantastically rendered animal-people and settings, and Jordie Bellaire’s brilliant coloring. At first glance, it’s an all-ages tale you could comfortably hand to a minor, preferably one that you have legitimate reasons to give gifts to in a safe and wholesome manner. But then you see all crushed mice-people and the impaled rabbit-people, and you get it. The MR label is there because of Busiek and Dewey’s frank depiction of violence. Cartoon animal violence, no less, the most heart-wrenching kind.
The portrayal of death in Tooth & Claw isn’t some random, arbitrary choice, either — in my opinion the book is absolutely about death, but by a quirk of fate, I might be a little biased.
About an hour deep into writing this article, I got word that my grandpa died. Robert Parker, 84, just a few days after being diagnosed with lung and pancreatic cancer, passed away. He’s loved and missed, and the Parker clan, earthy and pragmatic, carry on. I know the last words I said to him were “love you,” but I didn’t get a chance — or maybe just didn’t try hard enough — to say it one more time, and for a while I felt the weight of that, that thing left unsaid.
(I got past it because he would’ve, and if I couldn’t finish a job because I was busy boo-hooing over him, he’d threaten to whoop my ass. He was that kind of grandpa.)
Freak circumstances like this helped me understand how Tooth & Claw #1 really is about death, and how we cope with it. The Colloquy of Wizards is unable to accept the extinction of magic, and as a result of their actions, thousands die. Dunstan is forced to cope with finality on a much more personal level, left with all the things that went unsaid. Now, they all have to pick up the pieces and deal with the consequences, and there’s no way that doesn’t involve more death.
Tooth & Claw is layered and surprising, with great art and compelling themes. A nice re-entry into fantasy for Busiek, with Dewey articulating mystical wonder and frightening death with equal prowess, it’s well worth a look. Just don’t leave it around — as grandpa would say — the young’uns.