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Art, Sci-Fi and Magic: A Chat with Kurt Busiek and Ben Dewey on The Autumnlands

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Art, Sci-Fi and Magic: A Chat with Kurt Busiek and Ben Dewey on The Autumnlands

For fantasy fans who need a fix, I’ve been saying for months now that The Autumnlands, formerly known as Tooth and Claw, has been a great option. It takes a world of magic-wielding, talking animals and combines it with an interesting science fiction element: a lone human brought back from the past by said animals. These creatures have created a society with rules and religions unknown to us — and it’s this robust world-building that makes creators Kurt Busiek and Benjamin Dewey’s work so fascinating.

There’s a new issue of Autumnlands hitting shelves on November 11th and we gave it high praise, so what better time to speak to the creators themselves?

Listen to the latest episode of our weekly comics podcast!

AiPT!: Something I love about Autumnlands is that it combines so many elements I love from magic to science fiction to talking animals. What inspired all of these lovely elements to come together?

Art, Sci-Fi and Magic: A Chat with Kurt Busiek and Ben Dewey on The Autumnlands

Kurt Busiek: It’s just kind of how it shook out. I started out knowing I wanted to do an animal-world high-adventure series, to scratch the itch I’ve had for years from being a big Kamandi fan, but I wanted to go in a different direction, make it a new thing rather than faux-Kamandi. I was inspired by the tone of the magic and texture and setting of Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth, which gave me the inspiration to do it as a fantasy rather than as SF, but there were still SF elements baked into it. So animals, fantasy, SF…it all just kinda came together.

And luckily, Ben’s great at all this stuff — he’s far more of a science guy than I am, and brings a lot of that to the book. He ain’t just a genius animal-guy drawer!

Benjamin Dewey: Early on, we talked over what he had in mind for the story and I’d offer up things I thought might be cool, trivia from my reading on science findings and aspects I considered strong in other projects that he had done. Kurt is a very thoughtful and detail-oriented collaborator so he would bring all of that onboard and either set it aside or incorporate it depending on how well it fit the vision he had started with. There was a bunch of inspirational material that he had gathered before any pen was put to paper, and he brought a bunch of it to our first meeting, so I had a sense of what he was hoping to see. We like a lot of the same stuff to start and we’re both open to elements that emerge as we work too. It’s great that there are so many different facets to the story because I get to try new approaches and push myself. With comics, there’s always more to learn!

AiPT!: This series can be very brutal, which I think is a bit of a shock when violence is committed on such cute looking animal characters. Is that something you consciously added to make it that much more real?

Kurt Busiek: Not intentionally. I liked writing Conan in part because it’s not light-airy-no-real-threat fantasy, it’s blue-collar muscles-and-guts stuff, and I figured in any series with animal characters, it should play off the fact that they’re animals, not just people in animal masks. I’m reminded here of an old Defenders villain named Dr. Nagan, who was a scientist’s head grafted onto a gorilla body, but most of the time you’d see him he’d look like a man in a gorilla suit who just wasn’t wearing the mask. Then he showed up in a Power Man issue Kerry Gammill drew, and Kerry’s very good at drawing animals. So suddenly, here he was, moving like a gorilla and muscled like a gorilla, and holy cow, it was so cool.

Art, Sci-Fi and Magic: A Chat with Kurt Busiek and Ben Dewey on The Autumnlands

When I saw that, I thought about bringing that to Kamandi someday, making the characters more animalistic, more viscerally half-human half-beast. I’m not sure that’d have worked for that particular book, but I liked the idea, so I hung onto it. Ironically, what we wound up doing was reversing it, making he animals the mannered, civilized ones (at least so far) and the human the bestial, brutal ones.

But I didn’t do any of that with the intent of contrasting brutal violence and cute fuzzy animals. Ben just draws ‘em so cute, and presto, there it is.

Benjamin Dewey: It’s hard for me to draw violence in any context because I don’t revel in it the way some artists seem to. I have a lot of empathy, for better or worse, so when a creature gets hurt and it has any emotional weight, it might be that it pained me a bit to draw it in the first place! I do think it can be used effectively as a story element if you have rules figured out for when it will come into play. Kurt does a great job of not throwing it in on every page; in the context of our story, I think that makes it much more effective because it’s targeted.

That scene in Return of the Jedi where one Ewok is mourning his dead friend is my gold standard for sad fuzzy things wrenching at the heartstrings. Fortunately we haven’t gotten that grim yet!

AiPT!: I tell friends Autumnlands is like the Dark Crystal meets Braveheart meets the The Power of Myth and they tend to gobble it up, but is that a fair comparison?

Kurt Busiek: It works at least as well as Game of Thrones meets Conan meets Kamandi, which is how we solicited it. It suggests the cool fantasy world and inventive designs Ben does, the brawny, visceral action and the epic scale. I mean, I never could make it through The Power of Myth, but it sounds okay.

And it’s way better than my other description: Lord of the Rings meets Richard Scarry’s Busiest Day Ever

Seriously, it’s not an easy book to describe. On the one hand, that’s a problem, but on the other, I kinda like it, because it suggests we’re doing something that isn’t easily compared to what’s already out there. Shannara meets Redwall? Narnia meets Chronicles of Riddick? I dunno. If it gets people to give it a try and they like the book, I’m going to count that as working just fine.

Benjamin Dewey: That’s a great series of things to compare it with! I agree with Kurt that it’s not always easy to explain it to people who are unaccustomed to hybrid fantasy or what comics can do. In my view, that’s one of the great things about it: we get to spin out a yarn that would be almost impossible in another more passive/rigid/expensive format. Sequential storytelling is a genuinely populist form that has an incredible amount of flexibility and I’m hugely grateful to be working on a story that takes full advantage of that. My hope is that we are also making a cool thing worth reading outside all those considerations too.

AiPT!: Ben I was curious about how you compose a page. Your backgrounds are always so detailed! Do they drive how you lay out the page or how you place the characters? In what order do you work?


Benjamin Dewey: I get a script from Kurt and I try my best to hit the points of story I think he’s going for. This is a tough and messy process because I still have to fit all the information onto one page together and leave room for dialogue and captions so it becomes an exercise in compromise while still attempting a bit of flash. This means that my sketchbook gets filled with a host of different takes on panels that fit the beats on a page by corresponding in shape and size to the importance, sense of time passing or emotional content. If I want time to move slowly for example, I’ll try a silhouette or scaling down the characters inside a big wide panel with a lot of space surrounding them. The story dictates placement and Kurt is very clear on what he wants and doesn’t want regarding storytelling! I learn a lot with each issue.

After hammering out the rough shape of the issue, I’ll send these semi-intelligible thumbnails to Kurt and we talk over what I got right and what I misinterpreted. We go back and forth over the layouts and see what can be improved with angle changes, position or point of focus. Once he signs off on that part of the process, I dig in and pencil it in manga studio, going over my roughs, print it out onto bristol and then it’s time for inking! I often do more penciling on the fly (because my pencils are pretty rough) and ink over it as I go. This can be an opportunity for spontaneity or huge mistakes! I will use wash to lay in backgrounds that I want to push back into space.

I think of background as being crucially important to establishing the world for a reader. I want them to feel immersed so I’ll try and put in things that feel consistent, specific and connected to the characters. It’s nice that Kurt has written a world with a deep mythology and distinct cultures that I can use, in conjunction with my own background studying anthropology, as a huge springboard for visual acrobatics! I don’t always pull it off to my satisfaction but I do always try to go all out.

AiPT!: The first issue delved into the world’s religion — if that’s the right term for it — quite a bit and I was curious if we’d see more of that in the coming issues?

Kurt Busiek: Maybe not in the way you think, but yes. And overall, very much so. It’s important to the overarching story. Although we’ll see multiple religions, by the time we’re done…

Benjamin Dewey: I am fascinated by the role that religion plays for these creatures and I am as excited to see what Kurt will do as anyone else. I know a bit of what he has planned and it’s tough keeping mum on spoilers but I do my best. I kind of know how it ends and it’s pretty thrilling stuff.

AiPT!: Did you spend time studying how magic works in other works of fiction before building this world?

Kurt Busiek: Does reading fantasy fiction my whole life count?

I didn’t do specific research, but I was influenced by Jack Vance’s Dying Earth magic, and by writer who were themselves influenced by Vance, like Matthew Hughes and Lawrence Watt-Evans. And I also like the magic rules in The Compleat Enchanter, and various other magic systems. So I suppose you could say I did a lifetime study and picked and chose what I liked, adding my own ideas here and there. But mainly I just read a lot.

Benjamin Dewey: I was thinking of it as making bits of Tibetan mandala in the air with an energy-infused plasma. I didn’t want it to look quite like other magic I had seen. I wanted it to look like they were designing circuit boards in real time that channel these mysterious forces in a way that coincides with their will. We haven’t gotten to see a ton of it yet but I’m excited to draw more magic-business in the future.

AiPT!: We’ve seen mammals and birds walking around and speaking, but what about fish? Also, Goodfoot rides a giant insect so is it safe to assume bugs aren’t humanoid too?

Kurt Busiek: Those bugs aren’t, at least. As for fish, you’ll see some aquatic Autumnlanders in time, but given that we started in a city in the clouds and went from there to the plains, we haven’t really reached their natural habitats.

But whether the animal-people follow the same patterns worldwide is a question we haven’t really addressed yet. Could be there are bug-people somewhere, or birds that don’t talk. We’ll have to wander around and see what we encounter.

Benjamin Dewey: We talked about what the relationships between creatures would be and we have a rough structure that is subject to alteration depending on where things go. I’m excited to show the aquatic aspect of this world. Here’s an example of one of those things I’m trying really hard not to spoil.

I haven’t yet drawn the bugs that Seven-scars and his tribe use wings from as signifiers of honor/bravery yet but they are huge and horrifying, I assure you.

Art, Sci-Fi and Magic: A Chat with Kurt Busiek and Ben Dewey on The Autumnlands

AiPT!: The animals have developed clothing but don’t shave. How can this be?!

Kurt Busiek: They don’t grow beards. Even those that grow interesting facial hair are growing it along with fur, so the fashion of scraping your face clean down to the skin is one that never would have caught on, I think.

Benjamin Dewey: There are things we know about the history of this world that will make some of those choices clear in the long run. I have a series of little rules I established for myself to make sure that the degree of anthropomorphism is consistent with what Kurt has told me about the nature of the Autumnlands world. Clothes are more of an affectation than a development, if that isn’t giving away too much.

AiPT!: In the perfect world how long would the series run or do you have a set number of issues to end the series on?

Kurt Busiek: It’s a series where we have an ending in mind and we know where we’re going, but we’ve built in a lot of leeway as to how we get there. So if we wanted, we could stay laser-focused on the uberplot, and get it done in 25 issues or less, but you wouldn’t get a whole lot of room for character growth and sightseeing. Or we could rattle along for years and only slowly zero in on the climax. Probably somewhere in between — I occasionally say we’ll run 50-60 issues, and it makes Ben twitch.

We’re mostly keeping it organic, and we’ll speed up or slow down and explore more as it feels appropriate.

Benjamin Dewey: I’d love to keep it going for 50 issues but I fully expect to have completely gray hair by the time I’m 40 if we make it there! I look at my friend Brian Hurtt’s work on The Sixth Gun as the aspirational model of a grand story told in an epic format. I want to aim for that. I like to imagine that I’ll improve a lot by the end and that people will feel like we made something worth investing in.

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AiPT!: What talent or superpower would you like to have (not including flight or invisibility)?

Kurt Busiek: I worked this out a long time ago. After imagining the thrill of (and the problems with) various standard-issue superpowers, I ultimately decided that I’d want the power to take in any creative work — see a movie, read a book, listen to music, whatever — and instantly have command of the craft it took to make that work. Writing, acting, cinematography, playing the contrabassoon — I’d be able to do any of these things as well as anyone I’d seen or heard doing them. Plus, since language is a skill, reading or hearing anything in another language would give me command of that language, too.

AiPT!: That’s amazing I’ve had the same wish/power lined up since I was 10!

Kurt Busiek: I’m basically a writer, so I want powers that’ll help me write. And I’m a reader, so that’d expand what I can read, too.

I’ll let others have super-strength or telepathy.

Benjamin Dewey: For self-improvement reasons I’d want a perfectly photographic memory that I could use to recall details in debates, draw better with and use to better recollect the good times I spent with loved ones who are passed away or no longer a part of my life.

For altruistic reasons I’d want to have healing powers because I have a hard time forgetting that some people are dealt a raw hand in this life and are gone too soon. I’d spend my time going from one children’s hospital to another and visiting cancer wards to give people more time with their families. It would be complicated for sure so I’d have to do it anonymously and just shrug it off as it got misattributed!

AiPT!: What’s your favorite method of procrastination? Temptation? Vice?

Kurt Busiek: Reading, reading, always reading. Or good TV and movies (see why I want that power?). Farting around on the internet. Coming up with new things to write instead of what I’m supposed to be working on.

Benjamin Dewey: I try not to procrastinate because it will make my life hell as the deadline gets closer and closer. I do have a couple of guitars within reach to reward myself with time on between panels.

Kurt Busiek: Favorite temptation? What’s this interview rated? Never mind, my wife wouldn’t want me to tell.

Benjamin Dewey: As far as temptation goes, my willpower is strong so I’m not often worried about getting swept up but I do feel guilty playing more than an hour of any video game. My wife got me an Xbox 360 last Christmas and I had waited 5 years to get one. I’ve got tons of ideas for projects and I worry about early death and leaving no legacy so it keeps me away from time wasting fun. My wife says I need a personal trainer for relaxation.

Kurt Busiek: Favorite vice? Carbohydrates.

Benjamin Dewey: My vices include apple chips, dried mango, the occasional limonata soda and an excessive amount of guitars/gear. Those count, right?

AiPT!: All that drawing and then you pick up a guitar? That must be tiring some days!

Benjamin Dewey: I am tired but I love getting better at things and it helps to remember that I’ll be happier if I invest in those long term-goals.

AiPT!: That works for me! Thanks for the time guys!

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