Friday, 5 June 2015

Shandalar #1-2

Shandalar #1-2


We start with Faralyn, who is now much more obviously insane, ranting and raving on Shandalar. He immediately gets killed by a Faerie Dragon (It's called an Astral Dragon here, but it's clearly a Faerie Dragon, one of the unique cards in the Shandalar computer game) send by Kenan Sharmal, the local guardian planeswalker. When the dragon leaves, Leshrac pops up, having spied on Faralyn's demise. He wards himself from Sharmal's sight, but finds that the local mana is hard to use. A few weeks later he still hasn't mastered it. Then Tevesh Szat and Lim-Dûl arive, straight from their defeat in the last issue of Ice Age. Szat isn't impressed by Leshrac's lack of progress.

A bunch of undead have also followed, but Lim-Dûl can no longer control them. As punishment Leshrac kills him. Only somehow Lim-Dûl did manage to connect with the mana of Shandalar and used it to hide. The thing Leshrac killed was merely an "aura manifestation". Dûl pretends to be Kenan Sharmal (who hasn't been seen in years) and lures a few of Sharmal's disciples to him. He kills one of them, making the other, called Bani Bakur, think Szat was behind the murder, setting the locals up against Szat and Leshrac. He hopes to instigate a battle in which Szat, Leshrac and Sharmal kill each other, allowing him to then take over Shandalar and lead it against Dominaria.

The disciples fight Szat but are clearly outclassed. Sharmal steps in, but Szat manages to capture him as well. Then Leshrac pays another visit, and the two evil planeswalkers deduce that Lim-Dûl has been draining their power somehow. Dûl shows his hand, Sharmal escapes, and another big battle breaks out. In the end Szat and Leshrac decide that Shandalar simply isn’t worth the effort of conquering.

Dûl stabs Sharmal, whose body vanishes. Dûl himself is decapitated by Bani Bakur. Only twelve years later he returns with a massive army of undead. Turns out he “spirit leaped” into Sharmal’s body to survive. The book ends with a blurb promising the coming of a noble hero that will save the plane, which seems a clear plug for the Shandalar computer game, but actually isn't. The game will take place centuries later and has an entirely different bad guy.

I'll be blunt: this one is kind of a mess. The main reason for that is that the plot hinges on all the peculiarities of Shandalar's magic, but those are never explained. We are shown that on Shandalar mana is plentiful, with even ordinary folk using magical spells. But the mana is also special in someway, sometimes described as being alive. Yet we are never told what that means. Why can't Leshrac and Szat use it? More importantly, why is Lim-Dûl capable of using it if those two can't? Never explained. Why does Bani describe the mana as tainted after the arrival of the three baddies from Dominaria, and what does that mean exactly? Never explained. In issue two we are all of a sudden told that Dûl has been draining the power of the two planeswalkers. How did he do that? Does that have anything to do with the special mana here? You guessed it. None of these questions are answered, even though most of the dialogue revolves around people asking them. Which makes for a very unsatisfying read, to say the least.

In addition to the vagueness of the plot, the characterization isn't particularly strong either. Bani and her companion each get the basics of a personality, but not more than that, and Sharmal remains far too enigmatic to be engaging. We are never told why he remains inactive in the beginning, nor why he suddenly has a change of heart in issue two.

The best character stuff is done with the bad guys. There is a good scene with Szat thinking about his long dead sister Tymolin, there is some nice banter between him and Leshrac, and there are hints of something interesting going on with Lim-Dûl, who is portrayed as having been a genuine Leshrac-worshiper before his "death", becoming bitter about being betrayed by his god later on. But even with those three the character work never really goes deep. And having the two planeswalkers just get frustrated and leave is a pretty poor way to end their part of the story. 

One specific thing I found odd was Faralyn’s quick exit. After playing such a prominent role in Ice Age you'd think that he'd have more to do. Maybe not here, this plot really isn't crying out for another evil planeswalker hanging about. In the over-arcing plot of the comics though, surely he should be on the top of Ravidel's hitlist. Why have him go out against a random dragon in a scene merely serving to (badly) introduce the weird mana of Shandalar? A bit of a shame.

Let's move on to the art, which is... serviceable. It's not terrible, though sometimes a bit stiff. Mainly I'm missing the great designs we saw in Ice Age and Arabian Nights. Shandalar looks like a very bland, by the numbers fantasy world. The only unique thing here are some cute flying sea horses seen for just one scene. A standard fantasy setting doesn't have to be that bad (Shandalar is looking pretty cool in the recent Core Sets for example), but the art here isn't strong enough to pull it off. We see lots of dull deserts, forests and caves, all drawn as pretty bare backgrounds. Not a very good introduction to this new world.

Character design isn't very spectacular either. Kenan Sharmal is basically just a random dude, in stark contrast to the many cool planeswalker looks we saw during the Summit of the Null Moon.

I agree with Leshrac.

Also in the "just a random dude" department we now find Lim-Dûl, who’s latest make over is especially dull considering he was a huge hulking monster with antlers last time we saw him (He changes back after arriving on Shandalar, so it's not a continuity error.)

At least this downgrade has an explanation: it’s to make Dûl match up with his depiction in this piece of amazingness:

Before you ask: no, that’s not part of the canon! So feel free to ignore that "It's two thousand years after the Brothers' War" comment at the beginning, it's closer to three thousand years.

Like in the characterization department, the art is at its best when dealing with Szat and Leshrac. Both already came with great designs courtesy of the Ice Age comic, and artist Bo Hampton is clearly having fun with them. They come across menacing and otherworldly, just as they should be.

The cover art is just terrible. Lim-Dûl doesn’t look the least bit threatening on the cover of issue one. Instead he seems to be playing with a flashlight to do a stereotypical "spooky face". The Faerie Dragon behind him looks like Jim Henson's attempt at making Godzilla. Issue two isn’t much better, with a particularly silly looking Leshrac.

So yeah... hard to follow plot mechanics, bland characterization, mostly mediocre art... put it all together and you have a rather disappointing comic. The only saving grace here is that we get to see more of Leshrac, Szat and Dûl. Their innate coolness still shines through a little.

  • Lim-Dûl, if you want to manipulate people… why on earth do you assume a look that is so insanely sinister? I mean, yes, it works, Bani and her friend assume you are Sharmal, but that's more because of their own gullibility than your ability to inspire trust with those glowing red eyes!

  • Leshrac makes fun of Szat's name at one point. Not sure how you can know someone for thousands of years and not know how to pronounce their name, but Leshrac apparently managed it. Or perhaps he's just being a prick.

  • And... that's really all I can come up with here. Like I said, most of the comic is taken up with characters ranting about how mysterious the local mana is. It's interesting to note that this special mana is never referenced again. Odd, but not a problem really. In the game you mostly fight locals, who should be accustomed to the mana. The next time we see Shandalar after that is years and years later, in the recent Chain Veil storyline. Perhaps the Mending did something to the mana of Shandalar? Perhaps something else happened in the intervening 1000+ years? Perhaps the new style 'walkers react different to it than the old school ones? Any of those explanations would fit in my book.

So now I have to ask the same question I did for the Ice Age comic: is this thing still in continuity? As I discussed there, in the novel The Eternal Ice it is Leshrac who takes Lim-Dûl to Shandalar, doing so just before the World Spell. In this comic Leshrac has been hanging out on Shandalar on his own since the Summit of the Null Moon, with Tevesh Szat taking Dûl along a few weeks later. Even more problematic than that is that in The Eternal Ice Leshrac collects Dûl knowing that his undead army has been destroyed by the Kjeldorans and plans on having him construct a new one on Shandalar. Here only learns of the state of the army after Dûl has arrived on the new plane, and that is the reason he tries to kill him. The Eternal Ice is a revisionist source, and the follow up novel The Shattered Alliance pretty much hinges on the newer version of Lim-Dûl's trip to Shandalar, so clearly that is the canon version of events. The later parts of the comic, with Leshrac, Dûl, Szat and Sharmal fighting, can still have happened, but the first 15 or so pages simply can't have.

Chucking the entire comic out of continuity because of that is a darn shame. Especially since we know something like these events must still have happened. Leshrac and Dûl do still go to Shandalar for conquest. Heck, just last year their activities on Shandalar were referenced in an Uncharted Realm article that mentioned the city of Lesh, named after a certain planeswalker.

After weighing the options for a long while, I have decided to put this comic in the "apocrypha" part of my timeline. On the timeline proper I will put "Events similar to Shandalar take place". That seems like the best compromise. Having come up with this option, I now think this may also be the best solution for dealing with Ice Age issues three and four.

So, if these comics didn't happen exactly as printed, what did happen? Here's what I think would be the best option (with "best" being defined here as "involving the least amount of fanon")

Leshrac goes to Shandalar after the Summit of the Null Moon, as shown in Ice Age issue three. Then the first bit of Shandalar happens as printed: he lurks in the shadows, witnesses Faralyn's demise and spends some time trying and failing to connect with the local mana. 

Then the story has to deviate from the comic: Leshrac pops back to Dominaria to collect Lim-Dûl, probably deciding that if he can't conquer Shandalar on his own power he'll use Dûl's undead army instead. Unfortunately he finds the army in shambles thanks to the Kjeldorans and Balduvians, as shown in The Eternal Ice. He brings Dûl along anyway, hoping that he can reconstruct the army there. (Perhaps Leshrac has noticed that the mortals on Shandalar have no problem utilizing the mana and is hoping that Dûl will thus be able to do so as well?) Note that the Shard is still intact when Leshrac heads back to Dominaria, but he talks about "assisting through" Szat in Ice Age issue three, so presumably he's capable of keeping the hole in the Shard Faralyn made open. Speaking of Szat, this would also be the moment that he arrives on Shandalar, with Leshrac's help.

Leshrac, Dûl and Szat then set about conquering part of the plane, perhaps setting up a base in what would later become the city of Lesh. Lim-Dûl turns against his master, I'm assuming because of the rather horrendous way he is treated at the end of Eternal Ice (Leshrac doesn't just take him along, he first first rips of his hand, then transmogrifies him into a still-living orb of flesh, promising to reconstruct his human body on Shandalar!). Dûl fakes his own death with an "aura manifestation", presumably having his simulacrum piss Leshrac off enough to get him to immolate it. At that point we have covered everything that is contradicted by The Eternal Ice and the rest of the comic can continue as written.

Two more minor points:

It is implied that Lim-Dûl followed Szat on his own power. Szat seems surprised to see him, and later he plans to lead Shandalar against Dominaria after he conquered it. In Eternal Ice it is clear that he can't travel planes on his own though. Now, Dûl's arrival on Shandalar as shown in this comic can't be in continuity anymore anyway, so that's not a problem. Plus, Leshrac just questioned Szat about his failed plans on Dominaria, so perhaps Szat is just acting surprised to change the subject. Dûl's later plans to return to Dominaria are more problematic, but perhaps at that point he’s already thought up the idea of "spirit leaping" into whichever planeswalker will survive the three-way battle he's setting up.

Speaking of that spirit leap... When Lim-Dûl returns after twelve years he says Sharmal is dead, having died before Dûl jumped into him. The Seer's Analysis article in the back assumes that Lim-Dûl preformed some kind of mind switch, so that when Bani decapitated Dûl's body, she actually killed Sharmal. Yet in the next review we'll see that Sharmal actually survived this whole ordeal! It's never explained how he managed that, only that he was "stretched to his limit" and has no magic left. Personally I think Dûl and Sharmal did swap minds, but since a planeswalker is mostly just a mind shaping magic to form a body (I'm referencing Zazdor's Center of Consciousness theory here) he could survive being decapitated. We'll look at what Sharmal did next in my review of the Shandalar game.

As you can see, the whole spirit leaping/mind swapping thing is deliberately done rather obliquely.

According to the Ice Age comic there's about three weeks between the Summit of the Null Moon and the World Spell, but here it is said twelve weeks pas between the demise of Faralyn and Szat and Dûl popping up. This doesn't seem a huge error though. Perhaps Szat took longer to planeswalk to Shandalar since he's still drained from being hit with the Amulet of Quoz?

Whatever the explanation, this still happens in the direct aftermath of Ice Age, so I've put it at 2934 on the timeline. Trickier is the placement of the epilogue, twelve years later. The storyline community seems to accept that Shandalari years (and Ulgrothan years, Ravnican years, etc.) are the same length as Dominarian years, but we don't have official confirmation of that. To prevent my timeline from turning into a horrible mess I'm sticking with the assumption that "twelve years later" means 2946, but be aware that this is debatable.

I hope you'll join me next time for a look at the computer game also called Shandalar (Well, officially its name is Microprose's Magic the Gathering, but everyone calls it Shandalar). For now, have one more drawing of Lim-Dûl, this time by Kenneth Martinez.


  1. I really enjoy your posts Squirle, you give me the possibility to experience all Magic's story without having the books (and the comics, the games, the maps etc.). Thank you. :)

    There's only one thing that I don't understand: why don't you compile the timeline in a more narrative way? Most of the time I see only the name of the book, or the comic. Because you don't want to crowd the timeline, or maybe because some of the events are not very important in the great scheme of things (for example, 2934 - Faralyn dies)?

    1. You're welcome. I'm glad people are enjoying my posts, and I'm happy to make older and obscure sources a little more available.

      About the timeline: I prefer to just mention the names of stories since a) that means there are fewer spoilers on the timeline, which in turn means that b) it can also function as a reading order. Oh, and c) it takes less work and d) will not spawn any discussions about what events are and aren't worth putting on the timeline.

      That said, it is still a work in progress. Perhaps eventually, when it is completed, I'll also make a more narrative, in-universe timeline. For now just doing the reviews is taking up enough of my time ;)

    2. Many thanks Squirle, now I understand your choices. Looking forward to read the next review! :D

  2. Hi, Squirle. Your blog is awesome, i´m reading it every time i could. ¿Can you send me your mail to ask you a few questions a told you other things? Mine´s Hope I hear of you soon.