Sunday Slugfest: The Tooth

A comic review article by: Rafael Gaitan & Felicity Gustafson
Advanced Review: The Tooth will come out on June 1, 2011.

Rafael Gaitan:
Felicity Gustafson:

Rafael Gaitan:

Oni Press can do no wrong. The sheer variety of publications under its banner is staggering, ranging from accessible manga-influence to horror to hard-boiled horror to supernatural westerns--and ALL OF IT IS FANTASTIC. One of Oni's most recent breakouts has been Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt's The Sixth Gun--the aforementioned supernatural western, better known as “Totally Raf Gaitan's Shit Right Now.”

Both Bunn and Hurtt have demonstrated a genius level of imagination in making what has to be the most unique western in ages, but Bunn isn't content to rest on his success. Several years in the making, his graphic novel The Tooth, co-written with Shawn Lee, is his boldest and most incredible work to date. Bunn's talent is in fusing pitch-perfect genre emulation with a knowledgeable and informed perspective, and this book is nothing short of a triumph.

The Tooth succeeds mostly because of the volume of affection that has been poured into it. Bunn has professed his love for horror comics in the past, and The Tooth is a love letter to a lost era as well as a modern study of the creative mindset of that era. Books like Tomb of Dracula are lovingly pastiched while being treated as sacred tomes.

The less one knows about the story, the better, due to Bunn and Lee's masterful plot weaving, but a brief summary is in order. Slacker Graham and his girlfriend Beatrice come to the house of Graham's deceased uncle and discover a cadre of supernatural artifacts and a mess load of trouble. Frankly, Bunn and Lee's tight writing and attention to detail make it near impossible to say more without revealing all the intricacies that fashion the story.

Bunn's knack for dialogue and narration permeates every page. The caption boxes are used to great effect as both omniscient narrator and intended descriptors--switching between the two with frightening ease. Wealthy weirdo Caleb King, speaks with a fullness and charisma that would require a true thespian to emote audibly, but Bunn and Lee nail it to the wall. His words are the richest syrup, thick and tasteful, but loaded with venom.

Matt Kindt's art and design are not to be disregarded in the slightest. As much as Bunn and Lee can explain or describe, Kindt shows a knack for both the layouts of the works that the trio are homaging. The letters pages feature witty correspondence that must have been a hoot to devise, but Kindt's structure of something as simple as where the masthead goes or which send-away ad to break up a scene with is superlative.

Kindt's art is also eye-poppingly gorgeous, channeling the EC vibe of Harvey Kurtzman fused with a tough of Kirby Krackle and the covertly complicated art of Jeff Lemire. His pencils have a looseness to them, but always a commendable attention to detail re: inks and colors. The pages look well worn and the colors settled, which undoubtedly encapsulates the authors' attempts.

Kindt's creatures are a thing of hideous beauty--The Tooth, the dragons (you read me right,) the demon birds--they're all gorgeous renderings, as scary and arresting as they are visually fulfilling. Metatextuality is a hit-or-miss device, but these guys hit a nerve with it. The novel is rife with rough sketches, notes, and even letters pages, covers, and solicits. There are multiple information streams, each ebbing and flowing with zero conflict, which speaks to the level of commitment, research and personal experience that must have gone into the genesis of this project. Even subtle touches such as the renaming of the letters page between issues or the snarky editorial replies therein engender the layers of specificity that such a researched and annotated title ought to have.

It's rare that a work comes so fully formed right out of the gate, but The Tooth does just that. The decision to actually print it as a collected edition of a fictional comic book series is one that reflects the multiple story levels but that also focuses the reader's attention. As single issues, the story would work great, but as a novel it almost feels like a beloved omnibus waiting to be treasured again and again.

Bunn, Lee and Kindt have made a fictional forgotten classic come alive with their expansive attention and dedication. The writing appears elegant and effortless, and the art follows suit. Kindt's arrangements and layouts are razor-precise, as there's never a question of what is being read. The novel doesn't ever feel knowing or smarmy. The material it relies on is admonished with just enough meter to avoid accusations of slavish devotion. This book is a jaw-dropping masterpiece, and not just because its title character is a giant fucking tooth.

Felicity Gustafson:

When I first started reading The Tooth, I was a little skeptical about a creature being made out of . . . well, enameled bone. While it sounds a little silly, the basic idea of a bodyguard who can come to life at any time and be of use is pretty cool. There are quite a few stories that use the base of a guardian being summoned by a bewildered bystander and having to learn how to deal with the repercussions.

The Tooth is made to look like an old-style comic about a magical incisor that takes a liking to the main character, Graham Stone. He bonds with Graham and basically makes a little home in his mouth, popping out and growing to a gargantuan size to fight when he's needed. Needless to say, a change that big is bound to have an impact on poor Graham's life.

The Tooth somewhat resembles a barbarian with its raw brutality and instinct. Think of someone like Conan, imagine him with an impenetrable casing around his body, and then sprinkle in a need to rip every enemy literally limb from limb. You would then have the Tooth. Despite it's old style, this comic doesn't shy away from gore. There are quite a few panels depicting our enameled hero pulling apart his enemies.

Teeth are probably the hardest part of the body, so I guess the idea of having a creature transform from a tooth is not only creative, but also more of a logical idea than you'd originally think. Something that strong would need balance, though, which is why I'm glad the authors even went so far as to add a stats sheet for the Tooth--making him extremely strong and tough, but with a low intelligence level.

In the beginning I was worried the Tooth would end up as some Mary Sue, the perfect character that never does anything wrong. I'm happy to report I was wrong. Every now and again, the Tooth comes across a foe that can’t be defeated by brute strength alone, and that's where Graham comes in to help. For instance, when they were up against the ghosts of warriors past who were after Graham, the Tooth fruitlessly attacked the air and completely destroyed the room. He simply wasn't smart enough to adapt. So I was pleased that it turned out that Graham and the Tooth were dependent on each other to a certain extent. The story showed strong lines of teamwork and friendship being needed to save the day.

Not only was the actual artwork made to look like something out of the 70s, but the whole book had the appearance of back issues with yellowed and worn pages. It clearly took a lot of effort on Kindt's part to create something more retro, and he pulled it off astonishingly well. The attention to detail is stunning. They even added a few outlandish ads like play sets for the Battle of Gettysburg that includes aliens, or learning the deadly Kung Fu art of the Kracken.

The layout for this book was done to include everything--an introduction, editorials, frequently asked questions, and comments from the “readers”--all of which were written to give the real reader more information about the back story or to make it seem like this was a collected edition of a run of The Tooth comic books. I've never come across any kind of layout that used something like this, but it effectively makes the audience read every little detail. It's also nice because there aren’t all those added expository lines that go into detail about the origins of the Tooth or about different villains. Instead, you can read the extra information between the stories and just focus on the action while you're reading the panels.

The introduction included preliminary sketches of the Tooth, which showed the changes made to the character over a lengthy period of time, and even included notes from the “creator” that are made to look like they were started by a child and progressively got more detailed as the creator got older. They even went to the trouble of adding notes scribbled onto the sketches.

Rather than detract from the appeal of the comic, the old school art and writing styles are quite endearing in the way that you just don't see anymore. The writing and the art complemented each other to give the reader the flawless impression of reading a much older comic. Personally, I enjoyed the way the team worked together to create a tribute to the older comics; it made The Tooth stand out in my mind that much more.

This book has a solid plot that's shadowed with some silly humor. It managed to capture my attention in a manner that was quite unexpected, and I'm now sad that there isn't any more. So long as you don't take it too seriously, The Tooth is an entertaining read. Nowhere else are you going to hear about bicuspids and incisors leaping from a man's mouth to rip people apart and wreak havoc on a general area.

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