Hit its weak point for massive damage (My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, Volume 3 and 4)

I met Jeff Keane at a party once.
Perhaps inevitably, it turns out Little
Jeffy grew up to be a boisterous,
hard-drinking,  foul-mouthed, bull-necked
mountain of a man with a linebacker’s
build and a red crewcut. He made by far
the strongest impression of the dozen-odd
newspaper cartoonists I met that day. And
yet the strip he draws is the most
notoriously insipid, toothless crap on the
comics page. And so I was enlightened.

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.

“Neigh Anything”
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.

To the Mooooooooooooooooooon! (Nightmare Rarity, Parts 1-4)

Of COURSE Rarity has an awesome
meet-the-new-supervillain pose. That
is the sort of thing one practices.

The general fan consensus, near as I can gauge, is that the second volume of the IDW Friendship Is Magic comic is as good as or better than the first. I find this baffling, to say the least, but this is not a review blog, so we won’t be tackling the question of quality, at least not directly.

The second volume is immediately quite distinct from the first. The layouts are far more traditional, with none of the outré panel borders or splash-grid hybrid pages that enlivened the first comic. That makes sense for this comic, which is in many ways a more traditional Friendship Is Magic story. 
If you’ll recall, I described the first volume as “the Rainbow Dash approach done well.” That is, it successfully navigated the dangers of a heavily fannish approach, including both “cult” and “meme” elements, to produce an entertaining and engaging read that satisfied fannish desires for continuity references and memetic easter eggs. “Nightmare Rarity,” by contrast, takes an approach more similar to the show, incorporating a degree of continuity, expanding on backstory, and inserting a few gag allusions like the Mabel pony (all appeals to fannish tastes) while remaining an engaged, unironic, sincere story rooted in its characters.

It is here that the comic falls afoul of an excess of ambition in the face of the limitations of its medium, as it tries to simultaneously be fairly heavy on visual spectacle and action (for Friendship Is Magic, anyway) and a character study of Rarity, Spike, and Luna. This is potentially doable in a two-part episode of the show (“The Return of Harmony” in particular pulled it off quite successfully), but the show has the advantage of a fairly high-density medium, able to employ words, voice acting, individual visual moments, and movement to simultaneously convey the action and the character bits, while the comic has only words and static visuals. This is not to say that this kind of story is impossible to do in a comic, even one as short as this, just that it is much more difficult than doing it in the show.

A story like this becomes a juggling act, and the comic has only two hands to the show’s four. Given the number of balls it has in the air, it is unsurprising that the comic drops one–arguably, it is admirable that it drops only one. Though not to the level of the first comic, Amy Mebberson’s art and particularly Heather Breckel’s colors admirably accomplish the goal of providing entertaining action and visual spectacle: The fight to protect Ponyville from the shadow creatures is a highly entertaining visual spectacle, as is the scene in which Celestia and Luna lasso and pull down the moon so that the Mane Six can walk up the cord to it. Nightmare Rarity herself is an excellent design, clearly recognizable both as Rarity and as a variant of Nightmare Moon.

It is on the character front that the comic begins to stumble. As I said, it primarily focuses on Rarity, Luna, and Spike. Most of the other ponies are present and get their moments, but those three are the real stars of the show. Most of the comic’s problems–the one ball too many, to continue straining the juggling metaphor–can be traced to the inclusion of Spike on that list. Of the three, a character focus on Rarity is necessary because she is the one the Nightmare entity corrupts, and a character focus on Luna is important because she used to be Nightmare Moon.

The problem is that there are significant holes in both those character focuses. Luna fares well; this book gives more insight into her character than any episode of the show, “Luna Eclipsed” included. In particular, we see some suggestion of her state of mind at the time she became Nightmare Moon, that she was not only envious of the greater attention and love ponies gave to the day, but also afraid of being forgotten or tossed aside. (It is an interesting perspective on the character, so it’s somewhat disappointing that it seems not to have influenced her transformation into Nightmare Moon as depicted in “Princess Twilight Sparkle.”) Unfortunately, there also seems to be something missing; the Nightmare entity is able to cow Luna in the present by threatening to reveal her secret, but no indication is ever given of what that secret might be or why Luna eventually decides she doesn’t mind it being revealed. It cannot be that Luna’s emotional state opened her up to become Nightmare Moon originally, because that’s widely known both among ponies and to the audience. It could be that the Nightmare was an independent entity that possessed Luna, but it’s not clear why she would want that to be a secret; alternatively it could be that the Nightmare was created by Luna in some way, but again, Luna becoming Nightmare Moon is public knowledge, so that ship has already sailed.

Ambiguity is not a bad thing. It is a narrative tool like any other, and can be used poorly or well, intentionally or accidentally. Unfortunately, here the ambiguity does not so much open up avenues for reader interpretation and speculation as shut down any possibility of figuring out Luna’s motivation. At the climax of Luna’s arc, the residents of Ponyville welcome her aid despite her secret (which, apparently, they somehow now know, leading to the natural question of whether it was a secret to begin with) and she stands by them against Nightmare Rarity. For this to have any emotional weight, the audience needs to understand the risk Luna is taking or the cost she is paying–but because the comic never never makes either clear, nor does it provide the reader with a sensible understanding of what Luna’s secret is so that they can work out the cost of revelation on their own, the scene falls flat.

The issue with Rarity’s story is similarly a result of apparent elision. Fairly early in the comic, we see Rarity have a nightmare in which her friends no longer need her, instead taking their fashion advice from an unstylish pony clearly modeled on the character Mabel from the Disney Channel cartoon Gravity Falls. While Rarity has consistently been shown to be very generous, this generosity has not previously been shown as being motivated by fear, but rather by Rarity’s strong aesthetic sense–she creates beauty for others because she cannot stand to see its lack. This is not to say that it is wrong for the comic to depict her generosity as being motivated by a fear-derived need to “buy” others’ friendship–any behavior which makes up that much of a person’s persona is likely to have multiple motivations–but it is new, and therefore calls out for detailed exploration.

That exploration appears likely to happen when the Nightmare entity corrupts Rarity by exploiting her fear of abandonment, telling her that while her friends might stop needing her and thereby abandon her, it still needs her. Unfortunately, Rarity disappears from the narrative at that moment; the story makes fairly clear that the Nightmare entity has taken complete control, and it is a stock villain with no characterization or motivation beyond being evil, so there’s little of interest from a character perspective there.

Instead, much of the latter half of the story is spent following Spike as he wanders around the moon, building his courage and facing temptation from Nightmare Rarity, which offers to make him a king with Rarity’s mind-controlled body as his queen–the implications of which become more disturbing the more one thinks about it. He overcomes this temptation however, and his “love” joins with the friendship of the other Mane Six and Luna in bringing Rarity back from her Nightmare Rarity state.

None of which sheds any light on what’s going on with Rarity, meaning that ultimately this ends up being a confusing story about Luna that flubs its climax, and a story about Spike entirely extraneous to the rest of the adventure, seeing as the other Mane Six free themselves from imprisonment. Despite the opening chapters more or less demanding that Rarity be the main focus of the story, she receives essentially no development, vanishing up until the other ponies free her.

By far the two most interesting story threads dangled in front of the reader are the question of what Luna’s secret is and what’s going on with Rarity, and both are neglected in favor of giving Spike a rescue-the-princess adventure that tells us nothing about him we didn’t already know. We never get to know a Nightmare Rarity who actually has some residual traits of Rarity, or see internal conflict between Rarity and the Nightmare, and none of the readily available explanations for why reflect well on Heather Nuhfer’s writing. Probably the  most charitable and excusable explanation is that Nuhfer shared in the common misunderstanding of where the tension lies in an adventure serial, and believed that the audience was in suspense regarding whether “our” Rarity still existed within Nightmare Rarity and could be restored–it is an extremely common error to believe that the core question of an adventure is “Will they make it out of this?” Of course any reader with even the basic level of media literacy necessary to make it from one end of the comic to the other knows that Rarity will be recovered by the end of the arc; the question is how.

In the end, the comic tries to do too many things, and in so doing, reaches beyond its grasp. That’s not an uncommon failing for a sophomore effort; it is a sign that success has yet to breed complacency, and therefore should give us hope for future arcs.

Next week: There’s a lot of objections to this, but I have to do it.

Nightmare Rarity…

Two bits of site business: First of all, if you left a comment on a post in the last few days and I haven’t responded, please don’t think I’m ignoring you. Google/Blogger has been behaving very strangely for me lately–the Reply button frequently doesn’t do anything, and when it does, there’s about a fifty-fifty chance that it just eats my comment instead of posting it. I really need to get off my butt and finish the transition to the new site, so we can get on a non-crappy commenting platform.

Second, the liveblog of the new episode tomorrow is GO! I will post some time in the late night/early morning with details of where to go to participate via IRC (pretty much as soon as I know what those details are…) We’ll watch the East Coast broadcast (10:30 A.M. EST)–if you don’t have Hub on TV, Equestria Daily should have links to livestreams you can use. If you don’t have IRC, you can use the comments on that post to record your thoughts, and after the chat, I’ll update the post with a log of the IRC conversation.

Am I the only one who was just plain unimpressed by the second arc of the Friendship Is Magic comic? I don’t mean that I hate it or anything, it just… left me flat. Part of it may be expectations–I was told going in that the first arc was only so-so, and I was utterly blown away. The second arc, on the other hand, had significantly more hype, and I don’t feel like it really lived up to it–or, for that matter, to the standards established by the first arc. I’m looking forward to eventually reading the third arc, though, since that was apparently made by more or less the same team as the first one?

MLP Comic, Volume 2

Apologies for the lateness. I always forget the weekend is not actually at the end of the week, but split between end and beginning. As a result, I saw that I had thoughts of the day queued through the second-to-last day of the week, and thought that included today. Sorry!

Just got the second volume of the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic comic (thanks to the reader who sent it to me!) and it’s good! Not as good as the first, mostly due to the lack of humor and gloriously weird layouts, but good.

Mods Are Asleep (The Return of Queen Crysalis Part 1-4)

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.

Pony Thought of the Day: Put it this way. My niece calls me “Unca” instead of “Uncle.”

As I believe I mentioned, a reader sent me the trade of the first four issues of the MLP comic (the “Return of Chrysalis” arc). I received it this weekend, and read it last night. I like it! The art style is very different from the show and took some getting used to, but I came around. Actually, between the general nature of the story, the presence of the CMC as a greek chorus of sorts, the periodic tossing out of factoids, and the enormous number of funny background details and references, this reminded me less of the show and more of the Scrooge McDuck comics by Carl Barks or Don Rosa. As those are the best comics ever created, that is not at all a bad thing to be reminding me of.