Continuing my dive into comics, I took some recommendations from a couple trusted sources and picked up the first volumes of Copperhead and The Autumnlands. In the process of widening the scope of my comics exploration, these series were the two that I was most uncertain I would like, for reasons that mostly amount to gut instinct and questioning whether I wanted anthropomorphized animals in my epic fantasy (silly me had forgotten that I adored Redwall as a child), and so I’ve paired them together for this post. It also mirrors the science fiction / fantasy split of my first 2-in-1 post, which is both a happy coincidence and proof of my genre weaknesses.
1) Copperhead, written by Jay Faerber, art by Scott Godlewski, with Ron Riley as colorist and Thomas Mauer as letterer
Copperhead, as might be clear from a quick cover judgment, is striking out for space western frontiers. The gritty sepia tones of the arid, dirt-covered planet Jasper saturate the cover and cast our no-nonsense, tough-as-nails sheriff, Clara Bronson, in a pose of grim determination. The town of Copperhead drips with hidden menace, waiting to strike down anyone not tough enough to survive. What are the machinations of Benjamin Hickory, the owner of the copper mine that employs most of the town? Can Sheriff Bronson and Deputy Budroxifinicus see past the war that so recently divided their species? And what of the fierce, monstrous natives living in the Badlands outside of town, and the mysterious warrior who wanders the desert? (Supporting cast also includes Bronson’s son Zeke, the town’s alcoholic doctor, and a family of four-armed aliens on the outskirts of town who think brawling is the best use for their appendages.)
On my first read-through, I honestly did not like Copperhead at all. This was mostly my fault as I read it after midnight and after a particularly frustrating day at work. State of mind will affect your reading experience and mine inserted a lot of negativity into the characters that my second read blissfully lacked. Unfortunately, I still don’t plan on picking up the second volume, because while I like space and I appreciate the western aesthetic, the western as a genre never holds my attention as long as I think it might.
The genre’s character tropes are in full force and vibrantly displayed, though it’s a little disappointing that the majority of significant characters are human. The established characters, though, are excellent. Bronson, for example, strikes a delicate balance between vulnerability and authority, while Budroxifinicus is full of bitterness, snark, and determination. In these early stages of the comic, however, the Natives are woefully underdeveloped, existing simultaneously as a culture that can be negotiated with and a group of monsters that can be slaughtered if needed. Interestingly, the first volume contains a section of “development correspondence” emails at the end which suggests they wanted to avoid creating an allegory to the treatment of Native Americans, but having written the previous sentence it feels kind of on the nose.
Ultimately, Copperhead strikes me as a good series. Action sequences maintain excitement and character tensions lay the groundwork for future drama and development. Looking at the ending of individual issues, there is an annoying tendency to end on a misleading cliffhanger, one of which involves a cliche “you’ll get what’s coming to you” that leads nowhere, but that’s a price to pay for a serialized narrative format. So if you’re into westerns with sci-fi and minor police procedural trappings, this one’s for you. If, like me, that’s a hit-or-miss genre subsection, at least pick it up for a browse before committing to it.
2) The Autumnlands: Tooth and Claw, written by Kurt Busiek, art by Benjamin Dewey, with Jordie Bellaire as colorist and John Roshell as letterer
At the top I mentioned liking Redwall as a precursor to appreciating The Autumnlands, but that’s only accurate insofar as they both have talking animals. Autumnlands combines that with a pretty sweet magic world, a bit of time travel, and class warfare.
The Autumnlands are populated by magic-using anthropomorphic animals. The city of Keneil is one of the Seventeen Cities Above the Plain, levitation and shielding spells keeping it anchored and calm in the clouds. Earthbound bison tribes provide menial labor, trading goods to fuel the opulence of the cities in exchange for a sparse suppy of magic and money. This situation is potentially problematic for the city dwellers as magic is slowly weakening and disappearing, putting their into way of life at risk. When a plan to summon the Great Champion of legend, who first brought magic into the world, results in catastrophe, the citizens of Keneil are confronted by a fight for survival and a strange champion they don’t know what to do with.
Collecting the first six issues, Tooth and Claw is a stunning story of survival and discovery. While the Great Champion may be the “hero,” the main protagonist and narrator is a young terrier named Dunstan, innocent and naive. This first arc sets him up for a brutal and brilliant coming-of-age as he copes with a vision of the world at odds with his prior teaching and blind faith in a hero incapable of staying on a pedestal made of legends. While this development plays out, Busiek constructs a competition for power between four characters attempting to outmaneuver and leverage their way to their own goals. Dramatic irony is real and Busiek uses it to delicious effect. Dewey brings these characters and their world to life with art that is vibrant and rich with action and tension. He also does not shy away from showing the grotesque horror of battle, offering contrast to the optimism that shines through from Dunstan and the beautiful scenery of the world.
Furthering this sense of contrast is their approach to storytelling and the potential for genre bending. While the main story is narrated by a future Dunstan looking back on events, each issue has a 2-page spread near the beginning that includes a brief excerpt from a written version of events that read as part of a myth cycle. These flashes of mythic storytelling in the midst of Dunstan’s reality place a divide between the events we see happen and the way they are later presented. Just as memories morph over time, the stories we tell can shift to match our values and ideals. As to genre, a brief glimpse into the champion’s backstory, supposedly in the history of this fantastical world, presents a science fiction warscape. The champion himself is augmented with integrated bio-tech that not only looks cool when activated but opens the door for further exciting sci-fi/fantasy fusion elements. Through these contrasts, The Autumnlands tells an engaging story while also commenting on how stories are created and remembered.
The Autumnlands fully commits to a world that is strange and magical. Several of the characters are recognizable archetypes – for example, the trickster and the ambitious, bumbling bureaucrat – and are delightful to read nonetheless. Assuming you don’t mind some blood, guts, and male nudity, I recommend the series whole-heartedly.