Special thanks to Harrison Barber, who gave me the trade paperback of the comic on the condition I did this review. Bribery: It works!
Last week, I talked about “Snowdrop” getting the “Applejack” approach to the show right, and a few months ago I talked about “Double Rainboom” getting the “Rainbow Dash” approach wrong. But what does getting the Rainbow Dash approach right look like?
It would be hard to think of a better example than “The Return of Queen Crysalis,” the story comprised by the first four issues of IDW’s My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic comic book, written by Katie Cook, art by Andy Price, with colors by Heather Breckel and lettering by Robbie Robbins and Neil Uyetake. To recap past discussions, the Applejack approach is characterized by adherence to the traditions of past generations of My Little Pony and sincere emotion, as befits the Element of Honesty; its primary pitfalls are a tendency to become cloying or overly sentimental. The Rainbow Dash approach, by contrast, is hip and modern and tries to reward fans by giving them what the want, as befits the Element of Loyalty. Its primary pitfalls are a tendency to become cynical or overly fannish.
From the start, “The Return of Queen Crysalis” is definitely fannish. Just in the first issue, we have the return of a fan-favorite villain seeking revenge for her defeat in the show, coupled with a host of geeky references to classics like The Prisoner, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Indiana Jones. Plus, the Cutie Mark Crusaders are kidnapped, which I’m sure was almost as satisfying to the fans who dislike them as their depiction as annoying and oblivious in the second through fourth issues. Throughout the series, the Mane Six act like exaggerated caricatures of themselves of the sort that drive memetic humor, whether it’s Twilight discussing research papers on cave trolls while fighting one or Fluttershy being an enthusiastic walking encyclopedia of monster lore.
But “Double Rainboom” did the exact same sort of fanservice, and failed. Why does “The Return of Queen Crysalis” succeed? First and foremost, it is an extremely well put-together comic. Its use of layout is particularly masterful; one of the challenges of laying out a comic is that space on the comic page represents both space and time. In general, large panels suggest size and scope of a space or scene, as well as allowing for more detail, but they also slow down the passage of time. A full-page spread gives a sense of importance and size to a scene (as long as the comic doesn’t overuse the technique), but it slows the comic nearly to a halt as the reader stops and looks at the page, subconsciously expecting, and therefore taking the time to look for, as much information as a standard six- or nine-panel grid, but still only receiving a single moment of the comic. By contrast, many panels arranged in narrow horizontal slices cannot fit much detail in any single panel, but give the impression of time passing swiftly as events flicker past.
|Okay, who read my comic while
eating nachos and goop?
How, then, to create a sense of physical space while keeping the flow of time? One of the best solutions the comic finds is by using the panel borders to set a stage of sorts that fills the page, and then using the panels themselves to depict moments occurring on that stage. For example, in the first issue, when the ponies enter the changelings’ lair in Ponyville, the panels are irregularly shaped, and instead of borders they’re separated by the changelings’ goo, which results in an entire page dominated by that goo. This creates an impression that the characters have entered a space that belongs to the changelings, one that is so defined by them that they even distort the panel shapes. This utter changeling dominance of the space could also have been established by a splash page showing the ponies small and surrounded by changelings, but at the cost of halting the story for that page; the approach chosen instead allows the story to continue to flow. The irregularity of the panels creates a sense of stumbling, being out of control, but the story doesn’t slow or stop; it keeps flowing to the next page, where the regular panels in the midst of a splash page re-establish a pony space within the changeling space, allowing the ponies to begin fighting back.
But “Double Rainboom” had its technical merits as well. Ultimately, it is on the story level that it stumbled, and the story level on which “The Return of Queen Crysalis” succeeds. Starting with the second issue, the ponies leave the familiar portions of Equestria and set off into regions the audience has never seen before, escaping one of the major pitfalls of the Rainbow Dash approach, the tendency to fill the work with either memetic references (in the case of a meme depot) or continuity references (in the case of a cult show)–because we are in new territory, we have little opportunity for either memetic background ponies or locations and characters from past stories. Instead, we get new gags and references, such as the toy-collector troll or Pinkie Pie’s costume (though the latter does suspiciously resemble Max Gillardi’s design for Pinkie Pie in his .mov series of parodies).
Most importantly, Queen Chrysalis works well as a villain here, perhaps even better than in the show. She is able to use her minions to trick the ponies into fighting and splitting up, not too differently from Discord in “The Return of Harmony,” but with the added wrinkle that she is doing it solely to convince the ponies she doesn’t want them to reach her. In actuality, she does want them to confront her, so that she can drain Twilight’s magic. Further, her trick against Twilight in the last issue, is, while fairly cliche–sticking to the letter of the agreement to not hurt Twilight’s friends by making Twilight do it–nonetheless one of the most sadistic things any villain in the show has done. It fits well with Chrysalis’ personality as it’s presented in the comic, which is to say savvy, cruel, and ironically detached.
That last is a great way for the comic to avoid one of the other pitfalls of the Rainbow Dash approach, which is that too much irony in the story can detach the reader from caring about it, and render the story insincere. As I have said many times, sincerity is Friendship Is Magic‘s strongest point, so irony is a dangerous thing to play with. However, by putting the snide remarks and clever asides in the mouth of the story’s villain, “The Return of Queen Chrysalis” is able to fully exploit the humor potential of that irony without encouraging the reader to join in it, since the characters we root for are still fully engaged and sincere.
For example, Chrysalis is disgusted and unsettled by the teddy-bear “Wuv” creatures, which is likely the reaction of most readers, but Spike happily embraces them. Additionally, throughout the story Chrysalis is impatient and snarky with the Cutie Mark Crusaders, while the Mane Six go to great lengths to rescue them and clearly care a great deal about them. Chrysalis functions as a way to give voice to the reader’s tendency toward irony and cynicism, serving as the sort of knowing nod that categorizes the Rainbow Dash approach, but because she is the villain and therefore will be defeated in the end, we know that sincerity will ultimately win out.
In the end, “The Return of Queen Chrysalis” is exactly what it sets out to be, a well-executed, highly enjoyable comedy-adventure story of precisely the sort Rainbow Dash would choose to read.
Next week: The single derivative work I’ve been most requested to cover.