In Oni Press' graphic novel The Tooth, a massive mystical tooth takes up residence in a poor sap's mouth and leaps out only to eviscerate criminals. Sounds like a straightforward tale, but it's not that simple.
Penned by Cullen Bunn (Sixth Gun) and Shawn Lee and illustrated by Matt Kindt (Revolver, Super Spy), the book is a fun homage to the tragic monster heroes of those slightly moldy 1970s comics you find in the fustier bins of your neighborhood comic store — think characters like Swamp Thing, Man-Thing, and the Hulk.
The graphic novel presents itself as the physical agglomeration of back issues of haggard Tooth comic books. The reader learns the origin story of the enamel-clad protagonist from yellowing pages, which are dappled and bookended with letters to the editor, ridiculous old-school ads (my favorite was the "Three-Way Battle for Gettysburg" toy set that featured invading extraterrestrials along with Union and Confederate troops), and scrawled illustrations and comments by the comics' unseen prior owner ("[The Tooth is] only 60% as strong as Superman but just as tough.")
This is an intriguing layout, as we learn much of The Tooth's back story laterally. This ephemera-centric framing technique should be familiar to fans of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier. Fake bullpen articles from the Tooth's editorial team inform the reader that we're not dealing with the original Tooth, but a canonical reboot of the hero.
Angry letters from fans tell the history of the prior Tooth's now-defunct rogues gallery. Advertisements for tawdry Tooth Halloween costumes indicate that the character is venerable enough to be monetized. We're unceremoniously thrust into the center of a fictional publishing history of a fictional anthropomorphic tooth.
These world-building embellishments are fun, but they would be for naught if the main story wasn't any good. Thankfully, Bunn and Lee do a crackerjack job emulating the tone of old 1970s horror comics. In short, Graham and his girlfriend Beatrice inherit a creepy old manor from his dead grandfather Ezekiel. The home is filled with odd artifacts whose uses are lost to time and Graham, whose troubles begin when a tooth begins tailing his every movement.
One of the book's more entertaining flourishes is the Tooth's taste for wanton violence, specifically tearing the limbs off of bad guys. The Tooth's many dismemberments and disembowelings evoke nightmare-fuel funny books like The Spectre and Tales From The Crypt.
Despite the titular character's penchant for butchering baddies, he's still the star of a book marketed toward kids. There's something quaint about a comic hero that's honest about his violence (the Hulk has swept his rampages under the rug dozens of times). Still, he's likable enough that you can imagine a young nerd relishing the daydream of having an angry incisor for a bodyguard.
Bunn and Lee have spun a funky retro yarn here, and Kindt's pencils give the welcome, weathered look of a yard sale gem. The Tooth is gleeful, ghoulish fun. By the time you're done, you'll be sad his comics don't exist.
The Tooth hits stores Wednesday, June 1 from Oni Press.