June is Derivative Works Month, when I take a break from analyzing Friendship Is Magic and instead focus on a mixture of fanworks and officially licensed works other than the show.
The comics that are the topic of today’s post were released over a six-month period, from August 2013 to January 2014. As such, giving top songs, films, and news stories is once again unfeasible.
Unlike the first two volumes, the third and fourth volumes of IDW’s Friendship Is Magic comic do not each comprise a single four-part story, but rather two two-part stories instead. As each individual story is thus too short to really get its own article, I shall cover all four arcs here in a series of two-shots.
“Zen and the Art of Gazebo Repair”
This and the following story restore the creative team of the first comics arc, writer Katie Cook and artist Andy Price, and it shows. Particularly welcome is the return of Price, whose busy, gag-filled backgrounds and fascinatingly complex layouts work extremely well in this comedic slice-of-life story following Big Macintosh as he desperately searches Ponyville’s end-of-summer fair for the one pony that can sell him the nail he needs to repair the Apple family’s gazebo. The first issue in particular is quite fun, as Big Mac is dragged repeatedly into the chaos of the fair, most notably a series of standard festival contests (a three-legged race, a pie-eating contest, and so on) partnered with Princess Luna. Also quite entertaining is the scene where he collides with the pegasus Fleetfoot and she, in a marvelously busy splash page, falls instantly in love and envisions their entire life together, including marriage, children, and retirement–only to be revealed on the next page to be suffering a concussion, not lovesickness.
Price plays extensively with the way time is portrayed on the page. Basic comics literacy tells us that splash pages establish a single moment in time in detail while breaking the page into panels shows a progression of time. Price starts the arc calling this into question by employing a technique he used heavily back in “The Return of Queen Crysalis,” namely using a visual element of a splash page as panel borders into to achieve the effect of both simultaneosly. In this case, the first page of the comic looks into the Apple farmhouse through a window, using the window frame as borders to embed three panels of dialogue into the splash page. However, he also employs several other techniques to the same effect. Fleetfoot’s coma-induced daydream is in some ways the inversion of this technique; she serves as a frame around the page, while countless little images with no borders fill the space she thus creates, telling a story but relying on the reader to supply the order. Somewhere in between the two is the technique he borrows from Bil and Jeff Keane’s Family Circus: a single full-page image showing an aerial view of the fair, including multiple amusing micro-scenes, and a dotted line showing Big Mac’s meandering quest, a montage in a single image. Our usual rules for depicting time on the comic page are not as absolute as we might think; the page can convey time in any way the artist can make work, because the page contains only space. Time in comics is an illusion. How very Zen.
Speaking of time, the next arc is a nostalgia trip, a journey back into the teen romantic comedies of the 1980s as first Shining Armor and then Princess Cadance relate the story of how they first met and fell in love. Price’s artwork continues to be strong, but it is Cook’s writing which shines here, as she subverts the romantic comedy formula common to such films. First, she quite deliberately tells the story twice, once from Shining Armor’s point of view and once from Cadance’s. In the first part, we see Shining Armor as the underdog nerd, picked on by the handsome bully. Of course Shining Armor falls for Cadance and believes he is unworthy, while the bully gets to go out with her, and of course Shining Armor and his friends concoct a series of wacky schemes (themselves homages to movies from the 1980s, most notably them dressing as the nerd band from Revenge of the Nerds). All of this is standard for the genre, in which, very frequently, women are depicted as agency-less prizes to be won via scheming and manipulation. (Revenge of the Nerds is particularly noxious on this front, depicting rape by fraud as both funny and a positive act which “earns” the rapist the love of his victim.) However, in a subversion of this narrative all of Shining Armor’s schemes fail, and he is left alone.
This thread is picked up in part two, subtitled “Presentable in Periwinkle,” in which we see Cadance’s perspective and discover she is anything but agency-less. She never fell for the bully, who is as transparently obnoxious in her story as Shining Armor’s, but he kept maneuvering her into appearing to be with him–in other words, his selfish behavior includes doing precisely what Shining Armor is trying and failing to do in the first part. In the end, it is Cadance who “wins” her preferred partner, not by game-playing but by first honestly telling the bully she has no interest in him, and then finding Shining Armor and telling him about her feelings. Romantic success, in other words, is not a product of flashy gestures or elaborate schemes; it is simply two people honestly expressing that they care for one another.
“My Little Pirate: Friendship Ahoy”
For the fourth volume, “Nightmare Rarity” writer Heather Nuhfer and artist Amy Mebberson return, joined by new co-artist Brenda Hickey. This first story, while an energetic and fun adventure romp on the high seas, lacks the energy and panache of the Cook-Price team. In particular, Mebberson and Hickey’s art has more expressive faces, but this does not quite make up for the loss of Price’s layouts and backgrounds. Nonetheless, it’s a fun little story, a pastiche of pirate stories and particularly the Pirates of the Caribbean movies in which Hoofbeard, a pirate stallion clearly modeled on Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow, leads the Mane Six in a quest for his lost treasure, which turns out to be his mermare lover. Along the way we get to see Twilight demonstrate why you do not try to kidnap an alicorn princess in a bar brawl and an extended reference to the short-lived brony meme of Rarity fighting giant crabs.
There is nothing much going on in this straightforward adventure-pirate-love story, but it does have a nice counterpoint in its B-plot, which follows Fluttershy’s overprotective smothering of a fish she nursed to health shortly before the start of the plot, and her eventual realization that she has to let him go back to his family for his own sake and theirs, just as Twilight’s magic empowers Hoofbeard to join the mermare’s family. The two stories balance one another nicely, and help make clear that, like the previous arc, this is not a story about chasing down and controlling the object of affection, but instead about mutual care and love.
Untitled Sixth Comic Arc
The second story of the fourth volume is the most enjoyable of these two volumes, a metafictional romp as the ponies jump in and out of different stories pursuing a bookworm, whose eating is causing the stories to fall apart and the characters to emerge in Ponyville, where they cause chaos. The ponies discover that they can recreate the stories by filling in the roles of the missing characters, but since they do not get the stories quite right, the resulting books are distortions of the originals–and the bookworm soon realizes what they are doing and eats the story from around them, leaving them stuck in extradiegetic white space. Eventually they realize they can make up their own stories and fill the white space, which they hope will draw the attention of the bookworm and cause it to create a path they can use to get home. Meanwhile, stuck out in Ponyville with the fictional characters, Applejack, Fluttershy, and the fictional Daring Do team up to create their own comic, which they use to communicate with the rest of the Mane Six in the white space. Ultimately, it turns out that the bookworm loves the stories he is devouring, and is searching for a story with a worm hero. Twilight then tells the tale of how the worm used his memories of the stories he loved to restore the eaten books and return all the characters to their rightful worlds, saving the day. The story ends with the worm announcing his intentions to go out into the world, have adventures, and tell tales of heroic worms that all worms can take joy and pride in.
Metafictional fun aside, this story is a paean to fiction in general and fanfiction in particular. As fans of the various stories they travel into, the ponies create distorted versions and thus make space for themselves within the original narrative, which is one of fanfiction’s major social functions. This is particularly important in the case of the worm, who is a member of a marginalized group that don’t get to be heroes in the narratives of pony culture. By serving as the deconstructive critic, shredding the stories that have no place for him, he calls the attention of readers and gatekeepers (of which Twilight, as a voracious reader and politically powerful librarian, is both) to the problem. Then, inspired by someone at last making a story with room for someone like him to be a hero, he is able to model that behavior himself, and go on to make more stories for his people. This story is thus more than a metafictional romp; it is an object lesson in the importance of inclusivity and diversity in fiction.