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DF Interview: Fan-fave writer Kurt Busiek nails Tooth & Claw
By Byron Brewer
A secret conclave of wizards brings a legendary champion back through time to save the world … with disastrous consequences, of course.
Conan meets Game of Thrones meets Kamandi in an original high-fantasy epic for mature readers: this is the new Image Comics title coming from the superstar (and we mean that) team of Kurt Busiek and Ben Dewey! And it arrived in stores this Wednesday past, November 5.
Dynamic Forces caught up with the legendary Mr. Busiek and asked these questions on behalf of you, our readers. (See how nice we are here?)
Dynamic Forces: There is a generation, maybe two, for which you as a writer defined the term “Avengers.” Is that as gratifying as I would think it would be?
Kurt Busiek: It’s interesting, and certainly gratifying. The longtime reader in me keeps reacting by wanting to say, “Hah! You mean Roy Thomas and Steve Englehart! Haven’t you read GIANT-SIZE AVENGERS #2? Or the first appearance of the Vision? Come on!”
But, well, if that’s how they feel, I’m flattered. And it really is fun to see people saying that if the next AVENGERS movie doesn’t have one particular line I wrote in it, then it can’t possibly be any good. My inner fanboy thinks they’re probably wrong about that, too — Joss Whedon can make a kick-ass movie without needing any help from me whatsoever — but it’s fun to hear.
In the end, I’m glad they like it. I had a blast writing it, working with George and Carlos and Alan and others, and I’m thrilled it’s so well remembered.
DF: Many writers are happy to have “Eisner Award nominee” by their credits. You have multiple Eisners and Harveys. Is there one that means the most to you as a comics pro?
Kurt Busiek: The first year I won anything was the year that MARVELS won almost everything it was nominated for, and my pal Scott McCloud, who I’ve known since the first day of the seventh grade, won almost everything he was nominated for (that was the big UNDERSTANDING COMICS year, too). After the Eisner ceremony, Scott, Alex, Richard Starkings, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm (who’d won a couple for BATMAN: MAD LOVE) and I wound up in a restaurant together having a celebratory dessert, and we had so many Eisner plaques between us and nowhere to put them (we certainly didn’t want to put them on the floor!), so we wound up building card castles on the table with them, just to put them somewhere. That was such an outpouring of validation, and to share it with such an amazing group of talent made it really special.
That was also the year that Paul and I egged each other into having Will Eisner sign the backs of our plaques, starting a tradition that ran for, as far as I know, the rest of Will’s life. Having Eisners signed by Will Eisner is a real treat.
So I’d pick the awards from that year — the first year I won any. I can’t pick out one in particular, because it was such an overwhelming night. But it was an amazing experience, and I’m very glad to have been privileged enough to have it.
DF: Wow! That is a great story, Kurt. Eisners signed by Eisner! … Now, your new Image Comics offering, Tooth & Claw, hit stores November 5th. Is this something you pitched? How did you come to be on the mag?
Kurt Busiek: I visited the Image offices a couple or three years ago, and went out to dinner with Eric Stephenson and Erik Larsen. We’d been talking about me doing something for them, and so over dinner, I verbally pitched several different ideas. Eric kept nodding, so eventually I asked if he liked any of them. He said, “I like all of them! Which one do you want to do first?”
TOOTH & CLAW was the one I picked, so that’s the one we started in on.
DF: Solicits say the book is best described “as Conan meets Kamandi with a Game of Thrones-style storytelling experience.” You got some ‘splainin’ to do, sir.
Kurt Busiek: It sounds good, doesn’t it?
Much better than LORD OF THE RINGS meets RICHARD SCARRY’S BIGGEST RAINY-DAY BOOK EVER, at least. But I think when people read it — at the very least by the time they read the second issue — they’ll see why we described it that way. It’s a big sprawling world full of intelligent, civilized (and not-so-civilized) beast-people, so the comparison to KAMANDI isn’t out of bounds. And it takes a sweeping, big-scope adventure that involves the fate of the whole world and everyone in it, from wizards to peasants to swordsmen to peddlers to the gods themselves, and more, and treats it with an adult sensibility that’s perhaps darker than what you’re used to from me and digs deeper into the depths of what people can do when they’re desperate and the world is crumbling around them, so I think the GAME OF THRONES aspect applies too. And once the swords comes out and the blood flies, I don’t think anyone’ll begrudge us the CONAN comparison, either.
But there are a lot more influences, too, from Milt Caniff’s TERRY AND THE PIRATES to Jack Vance’s THE DYING EARTH, and more — things just keep getting added to the mix as we go along. In the end, it’ll be its own thing, influences by lots of different sources, but with its own viewpoint, its own reason to exist.
At least, I hope so!
DF: Tell us the storyline of the new book.
Kurt Busiek: Hey, I’m not going to tell you the whole thing!
But let’s start here: The wizards of the Seventeen Cities have a crisis on their hands. For generations, magic has been fading away, and it’s possible that it’ll all be gone within their lifetimes, destroying their civilization and entire way of life. But one wizardess, Gharta, has a daring and controversial idea. Thousands of years ago, before the age of magic, there was a great champion, a mighty hero who brought magic into the world, transforming it utterly. With a select team of magical talents, she’s going to reach back into the past, snag the great champion just after he’s unleashed magic, and bring him to the present, so he can do it again, and fix their world.
And, well, it works. But the great champion is not who any of them expect. And to save the world — if he’s even interested in doing that — will involve a lot more than anyone imagines, including figuring out why the world is this way in the first place, how it came to be, and who made it happen. And even if the world can be saved, it’ll result in transforming it so utterly that it won’t be what any of the wizards are hoping for.
It’ll be a big, epic journey that’ll see our heroes clash with everyone from coyote tricksters to girls’ boarding schools full of dogs to nomadic humanoid whales to the gods themselves. And the secrets behind it all will rock the world.
Plus, sword fights and sex and romance and intrigue and humor and cockroach-steeds and radioactive homunculi and freaky oracular ravens and lots more.
DF: Who are the protagonists and the big-bads?
Kurt Busiek: Our heroes, at least to start, include the great champion, of course — and I can’t tell you much about him, because we don’t see him come on stage fully until #2, and I’d like it to be as much of a surprise as we can muster. I think readers will be able to guess a lot about him before he debuts, but they won’t have it all.
Then there’s Dunstan, known as Dusty, a young bull-terrier and the son of a wizard, who’s kind of our viewpoint character. He knows what the world is like where he lives, so he makes a pretty good character to introduce it all through, but he doesn’t know much about the world beyond, so readers will get to learn it along with him. He’ll have reasons for journeying with the Champion, and he’ll get to learn and grow and change, and give us an interesting perspective on it all.
Beyond those two, there’ll be a number of recurring characters, from Gharta, the warthog-wizardess who sets the whole thing off, to Goodfoot the Sly, a coyote trader out mostly for herself, and plenty more. And the big bad? Well, it’ll take a while before our heroes will know enough even to ask the questions about who the true big bads are, so I’m not going to spoil it ahead of time. Early on, though, we’ll see violent bison-men, bloodthirsty bat-tribes, backbiting wizards, treacherous allies and more. And that’s before we even get to those freaky-ass homunculi…
DF: I understand this is your first Mature Readers series. What does that mean to you as a writer?
Kurt Busiek: Mostly what it means is that I can just write the story the way I want to write it, without having to do a little dance to keep the characters from swearing, or to make sure the readers don’t see any nudity or guts. It’s a violent world, so it’s a violent book, and I don’t want to make it overly sanitized. Back when I was doing CONAN, we were always having to figure out how to stay true to Howard’s stories and his prose without actually showing nipples, and I just didn’t want to do that. The vast majority of readers who’ll be interested in the series are adults, so I’m just going to write it the way the story needs to go, and let it play out.
As a result, by the second page, we’ve got nudity, and lampposts that light up the night because there are magical sprites screwing in them, and later there’s some grisly stuff, and eventually we even get around to salty language. It’s just how the world and the story work, and I’m pleased to be able to just put on the page what feels natural for the story.
DF: What is it like to work with artist Benjamin Dewey?
Kurt Busiek: It’s a real treat. Ben is an amazing artist, who draws animals beautifully and knows more about them that I do. In many ways, this is the book he was born to draw, even though he must have been in grade school when I started thinking it up. He’s helped shape it, helped make the world that much more credible, more textured, more believable. And every issue, he just gets better. He’s local to me, so we’re able to go over his layouts together once he’s roughed out an issue, and get to strengthen and tailor the art to the story — and tailor the script to the art, as well. We’re both willing to collaborate, to change things to make the combination stronger, and I think the book’s much better for that.
Also, he draws just stone-gorgeous stuff, and I think readers are going to go ape over it. No pun intended.
And I really do have to give a shout-out, as well, to the rest of our team — the Eisner-award winning Jordie Bellaire doing the coloring, and making Ben’s artwork even more magical, and the Eisner-award winning John Roshell as letterer, working with the Comicraft gang. Both of them are going above and beyond the call of duty to make the book distinctive and effective and gorgeous, and I couldn’t be happier. It’s a joy to see the work come in and see how good it looks.
DF: So what else is coming from the creative keyboard of Kurt Busiek down the road?
Kurt Busiek: Well, I’m doing more ASTRO CITY, of course. Beyond that, I’ve got other projects in the works, but they’re not yet scheduled. For instance, I’ve been sloooowly working on BATMAN: CREATURE OF THE NIGHT, with John Paul Leon — that’s a kind of thematic sequel to SUPERMAN: SECRET IDENTITY, which I did some years back with Stuart Immonen. It’s not a direct sequel or anything, doesn’t feature any of the same characters or the same world, but it takes a look at the Batman legend through symbols and thematic ideas in a world where a “Batman” comes to exist even though he’s familiar to all as a comic book character. And Carlos Pacheco and I are awaiting contracts on another ARROWSMITH series, which we’re eager to get to.
Beyond that? Well, there’s those other ideas I told Eric and Erik over dinner, one or two of which are already in the works as well …
Dynamic Forces would like to thank Kurt Busiek for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. Tooth & Claw #1 is in stores now!
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