Saturday 25 July 2015

Shadow Mage #1-4

Issue two has no inkers credit, issue three was inked by Rick Bryant and issue four by Bryant and Gonzalo Mayo

Issue one starts with Adam Carthalion (wow, a Carthalion whose name doesn’t start with a J!) having gathered his army to fight the evil planeswalker Ravidel. For some reason he has brought his infant son Jared (Ah, all is right in the world again), but once battle is joined he tells his spellsquire Ezer to get him to safety. Unfortunately Ravidel casts Syphon Soul, which mortally wounds Adam. makes Ezer look old and withered and Jared… eh… loses his hair and has a crescent moon mark appear on his cheek... (Ezer actually says Jared is “a freak” now, but that seems a bit harsh judging by the art). When they get to House Scarlet in the city of Arathoxia, which Adam was the head of, they are send away by the vizier who claims not to recognize them. The two are forced to live in the slums of the city from now on.

Look at that freak baby!

Seven years later Ravidel, having taken over Adam’s castle, discovers that Jared is still alive and starts sending summoned creatures after him. We are shown Jared taking care of an Aerathi Berserker with the ever awesome Ashnod’s Transmogrant/Detonate combo, and a Giant Spider with the help of a summoned Hurloon Minotaur, but given that he is sixteen years old by the beginning of issue two, there must have been quite a few more monsters send over the years! In that issue Ezer gets sick, and Jared goes to the Scarlet House to look for help. There he meets the mysterious wife of the Vizier. She gives him an Alabaster Potion for Ezer and also shows him around, revealing that the Vizier did recognize Ezer and Jared all those years ago. Turns out the Vizier is actually Ravidel’s spellsquire! Jared leaves, but not before nicking House Scarlet's most powerful artifact: a Black Lotus. Jared is then approached by Liana of Minorad, who has three Moxen hanging around her neck. She saves him when Ravidel gets tired of sending minions and decides to take Jared on himself. Turns out Liana, who Jared fancies, has some mysterious past with Ravidel as the two cryptically talk about ancient treaties.

Meanwhile, the sultan of Arathoxia refuses a treaty with Ravidel, who then decides to just crush the city, planning on killing Jared in the process. His attack is opposed by the heads of the four non-red houses of Arathoxia: Lady Verdenth, Tobias Kavrel, Marshal Bikov and eh… the black guy. Ravidel makes short work of them, and then drops a Chaos Orb on the city. Jared teams up with the bullies that tormented him over the years to save innocent lives. In the process he runs into a mortally wounded Scarlet Vizier, who Ravidel has killed for “playing both sides” (It's never really explained what the vizier's plan was.) The delirious vizier mistakes Jared for Liana (Must be the long hair) and makes some cryptic allusions about being involved in the murder of Jared’s mother Gwendolyn. With his last breath he releases Liana from his service, which surprises Jared, who didn’t even knew she worked for the guy. (He also learns that the mysterious old woman he met was also Liana. “Be you girl-child or noble matron, Liana, you’ve always reshaped yourself to appease my selfish whims” says the vizier... creepy fuck.) Liana then saves the day again when Jared tries to attack Ravidel directly. Obviously there is tension between the two now, but curiously enough it’s Ezer who tells Liana not to explain herself.

From left to right: Lady Verdenth, "the black guy" and Marshal Bikov, with the sultan below. The white house has already fallen at this point. Only the black lord and the sultan manage to escape the destruction of Arathoxia.

Jared and his former bullies decide on a raid on Ravidel’s castle, hoping use stealth and the power of the Black Lotus to defeat him, but the planeswalker has been expecting them. Ravidel then gives us some answers on the whole Liana/Ezer/Gwendolyn situation, revealing that Adam Carthalion was actually quite power hungry, and that he sacrificed his own wife to Ravidel in order to become a planeswalker! He was going to sacrifice Jared as well, but decided on the last minute that he couldn’t do it, deciding to fight Ravidel instead. That's why Jared was at the battlefield at the beginning of issue one! What Ravidel leaves out, but what Ezer simultaneously reveals to Liana, is that in his dealings with Ravidel Adam had learned that Ravidel answered to a higher force “bent on snuffing the very stars from the sky”, and that he perpetrated these evil actions to gather power against that force. (The delicious irony is of course that said power was eventually revealed to be Taysir, who was already being cleansed from evil by the Anaba!) Liana reveals in turn that she agreed to become the Scarlet Vizier’s slave because otherwise Ravidel would kill all the other Sages of Minorad. Ezer tells her that the Vizier released her before his death which apparently releases her from that bond. She and the old spellsquire teleport in to help Jared. Their help turns out not to be needed though. Just as they Jared use his Black Lotus to summon a… SHIVAN DRAGON!!!! (Don’t you just love early Magic?).

As the dragon and Ravidel tear the building apart Ezer dies from falling stones (well done teleporting in to help old man!) Liana takes Jared and his one remaining former-bully-friend out, then detonates all the artifacts in the castle, seemingly killing Ravidel. She and Jared share a kiss, but then Jared takes off, heading out into Corondor to learn “the true ways of Magic”, becoming a Wayfarer instead of a Shadow Mage. (Hey, isn’t “Wayfarer” the name of the next miniseries? Wow, what a coincidence!) (Actually, Jeff Gomez told me #1’s sold much better, thus Armada told him to chop the story of Jared into several mini series, instead of one ongoing.)

To be continued!

And so, in our last few reviews of the Armada comics, we reach the beginning. Shadow Mage and Ice Age were the first comics to be released. The idea was that this story happened in the present day, with all the expansion stories were essentially flashbacks, just as how the base sets (Core Sets for you youngsters) showed the present while the expansions from Antiquities to Alliances were essentially one huge flashback showing the past of Dominaria. So in a way this is Armada's answer to Arena and the Greensleeves cycle: stories set in the present day and not linked to any expansion, but full of wizard duels in which references to individual cards abound. A classic set up, and I find it fun that these kind of stories bookend our look back at the pre-revisionist stories. (After the comics we still have some short stories that appeared in Duelist magazine or various websites to look at, but the main body of the pre-rev stuff exists of the novels and the comics. The Weatherlight Saga is drawing ever closer!)

The adventures of Jared are thus essentially the "main" story of the comic line, which you can notice if you compare Shadow Mage (and Wayfarer for that matter) to the other mini series. The story doesn't have to meander of to showcase some other part of the setting, like the Thallids in Fallen Empires or Lim-Dûl in Ice Age, and as a sort-off ongoing story mysteries and subplots have some time to build. Most importantly, not everything has to be wrapped up in a handful of issues. This both keeps the story focused and frees up some space, which is always at a premium in the Armada comics. Here the battles are all given several pages and the action is clearly shown, without narration having to expand on, or even explain it. In addition to better action, this comic can also take some time to build atmosphere or do character work. For example, I like the scene where Jared is mooning over Liana, only to get a rude awakening when Ezer tells him of his disease. A nice little scene, given the proper time, with an establishing shot and the dialogue spread out over the panels. Which sounds rather basic when you put it like that, but it genuinely works well, and is especially welcome after all the extreme compression we've been seeing in other comics.

Another example would be the two and a half dialogue-less pages in issue one in which some wolves attack baby Jared in the night and an Ironroot Treefolk steps in to help him.

But this segues nicely into my main criticism of the book: the extra space still isn't enough. The treefolk is later revealed to have been sent by Lady Verdenth, but how did she know about these wolves? Why didn't she aid Jared further, letting him live on the streets? I'm sure there are answers to those questions, but they aren't in the comic. Some subplots are also hurried through quite quickly. Issue two opens with Jared refusing to cast spells because he got mana burned the first time he did so, but then the Giant Spider attacks and Jared immediately decides he has had enough and summons a Hurloon Minotaur. Someone with spellcasting abilities refusing to use them out of some personal fear, but overcoming that fear with time? Yeah, that sounds like a good basis for a plot, but doing it all in the space of four pages, two of which are a giant splash of the spider bursting through the wall? That doesn't really work.

Ultimately Shadow Mage is a fun enough underdog-hero-versus-big-bad-wizard story, with fun enough characters and settings and always fun references to your favorite card game. I will say though, that it holds up much better when you also read the backmatter, to flesh out the world a bit more, and all the other Armada comics, so the backstories of Ravidel and Liana make a more sense. For example, Ravidel's preoccupation with dragons is a bit random if you haven't read Ice Age (and the Ice Age backmatter for that matter).

The art is fine. Val Mayerik does some swell action scenes and knows how to set the mood. The designs, especially those of the outfits, can be a bit weird, but makes sense if you know Mayerik got famous for doing Conan and other barbarian adventure comics. Soldiers without pants abound in those. As for Jared's long flowing mane... I was going to say "Well, it was the 90's", but honestly he looks more like a late 80's hair metal singer. I guess Mayerik didn't get the Conan-hair out of his art style yet. But you wanna know the real shame about the art? That Mayerik didn't get to paint the colors. While the inking on these issues is fine, far better than you'd expect from reading the ever changing inking credits really, they don't hold a candle to the art of Mayerik when he gets his pencils out himself. Want an example? Well, how about some actual Magic arts he did? Yup, the guy who did the very first Magic comic was later "promoted" to the actual card game!

  • With Ezer and the Scarlet Vizier this comic has plenty of spellsquires hanging around. In fact, this is where the term was introduced. As I said in the Fallen Angel review, I quite like the term and wish Magic would've kept using it. What is interesting is that in the beginning Ezer is actually carrying a bag with spells for Adam. A bit odd, especially since later in the story no-one seems to have bags like that, just casting spells from their minds. But there is a possibly explanation here: remember that this comic happens in the present day (or at least, the present day of the time, shortly before the Weatherlight sets sail for Rath), thus around the same time as Arena. The Scarlet Vizier even tries to hide Adam's death by claiming he has gone to the west to "enjoy the festival of the Arena"! Clearly Adam has visited Estark before and picked up a few of their spell-amulets while there! That's some pretty sweet continuity between stories released by different publishers!
  • Ravidel turns up on something called a Planar Barge, which he apparently uses to transport his army across the planes. Turns out it is actually made from the carcass of his old friend Chromium Rhuell! In issue one the Barge looks more like a proper ship, but in issue three it looks tattered and broken. I guess Ravidel never got around to fixing it after Adam set the thing on fire in their final duel.

  • Ravidel has picked up a blue skinned minion called Narok since we last saw him. We don't lear much of him, but the back matter calls him "an alien being", whatever that means in the context of the Magic multiverse. Ravidel refuses to send him after Jared since his bizarre appearance would cause chaos in the city... but a rampaging Aerathi Berserker or a Giant Spider wouldn’t?
  • Another cool bit of continuity: The minotaur Jared summons introduces himself as Sings Two Ways but later reveals his real name is Eusomoné. This matches with the double-named Hurloon we saw in the Harper Prism novels, most notably in Final Sacrifice. His appearance clearly shows the problem with summoning real creatures: “I was about to take my monthly bath” he says upon materializing. Lucky Jared called on him just before he put down his sword!
  • Issue two comes with a glossary of terms used in the comic. It tells us that the continent of Corondor exists of three area's: Stonehaven, Casindral and "Gothonor", which is called Golthonor in all other sources. Stonehaven was mentioned in the Greensleeves trilogy as being to the east of Aerona. The timeline in the Fourth Edition Pocket Players' Guide actually called the entire continent Stonehaven, but that clearly was a mistake. The guide did come out before the first comic was released, so there must have been some miscommunication. Corondor first originated in Jeff Gomez's Dungeons and Dragons campaigns. He explained to me that the cultures and history of the continent were mostly ported over from the original version, but that the characters from the comics were all new.
  • Some other things of note: Let's start with the continued confusions over Dominia and Dominaria. Here the later is called a planet, but the former an infinite multiverse, even though issue one called it just a universe. It's becoming quite clear to me why Wizards decided to retire the name Dominia for the Multiverse!
  • Jared is called a “Shadow Mage” because of being hit by the Soul Syphon. This is not made explicit in the story itself.
  • Ravidel apparently specializes in blue/black spellcasting. Actually, we see him slinging just about ever color over the course of the Armada comics. Heck, in this very series he was summoning Aerathi Berserkers and Giant Spiders… funnily enough, Ravidel was considered (briefly, and never seriously) for the RED planeswalker in Commander 2014!
  • The Sages of Minorad are described here as having fled to their current home after the Antiquities War. In Wayfarer it is revealed they actually came after the Ice Age. Which is technically still after Antiquities, but not quite what you'd expect from the explanation given here. "World War II happened after the fall of the Assyrian Empire" is also technically a true statement, but rather misleading.
  • Another interesting tidbit from the backmatter is this description of Ephren en Arathoxia. But what really catches my eye here is the description of known continents at the top of the page. It calls Terisaire a "lost continent" but then mentions Upper Videnth as the archipelago created when Terisiare fell apart, at least according to rumors. The only other place I'd ever heard of Upper Videnth is this post by Pete Venters in an MTGSalvation thread discussing Dominiaran geography, where he describes it as a portion of Dominaria's polar continent. I guess this was either changes in story revisions, or the result of miscommunication. The story Pete mentions is "The Light in the Forest" from Tapestries. That story never named the region it happened in though, so now I am wondering where the Armada people first head about it. Behind the scenes documents? Maybe it'll turn up in one of the earliest issues of the Duelist once I start going through those...

The remnants of Terisiare are on the left of this globe, disappearing in the shadow. According to Pete Venters Upper Videnth does not refer to those remnants, but to the peninsula of the polar continent stretching towards them. The landmasses on the right form Aerona. (You can compare it to the map of Aerona I posted in the Whispering Woods review.)
  • Now I'm posting maps anyway, have a map of Corondor with a cheeky little sun in the corner. We'll see a more detailed map of the continent when we get to the Battlemage video game.
  • Finally: The main characters name is JARED, not JARETH. This is one of those things I always get wrong, so I've probably slipped up a few times during this review as well.

Not much to talk about here. Continuitywise everything pretty much fits, except for a few minor glitches in the backmatter that I've already covered. To be honest, mistakes in the backmatter never bother me much. They're like MaRo getting lore stuff wrong on his Tumblr: as long as the stories fit together those other mistakes are easily ignored.

Timelinewise I'll note now that the narration places the Battle of Aster Falls (the battle between Adam Carthalion and Ravidel on which the comic opens) in the autumn of 1265 by the Reckoning of the Sages of Minorad. The rest of issue one happens seven years later and the others in 1280 by the same Reckoning. What this exactly means in Argivian Reckoning... we'll get to that when we cover the Planeswalkers War itself, since Shadow Mage, Wayfarer and the Battlemage game all directly follow on from each other. So Shadow Mage won't go up on my timeline until I've covered the rest of the Armada stories.

Next week though we'll deal with one final distraction when we cover an oddity that happens during the events of Shadow Mage, the story of everyone's favorite burning horse: Nightmare!

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