I wouldn’t count myself among the Bronies, as some tend to take their affection for My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic a little too far, but I do enjoy the show.
It’s cute, well-animated and the writing is terraced with multiple levels so that different age groups can find something to enjoy. Regardless of whether it lives up to the hype the overenthusiastic fanbase has built up around it, My Little Pony is a well-crafted animated series with a lot of effort and consideration expended on its quality. Johnny Test this thing ain’t.
So when IDW announced that they’d be publishing an ongoing comic book series based on My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, I figured it was worth a look. Four issues later and I consider myself hooked. As with the animated series, nothing about the My Little Pony comic book is phoned in and every effort is made to exceed expectations in terms of storytelling and art.
The Return of Queen Chrysalis (MLP: FiM #1-4)
Written by: Katie Cook
Art by: Andy Price
Colors by: Heather Breckel
Letters by: Neil Uyetake
Edited by: Bobby Curnow
“The Return of Queen Chrysalis” acts as a sequel to the “Canterlot Wedding” 2-parter that capped off season 2 of the animated series. The premise is as simple as they come: Chrysalis, Queen of the Changelings, kidnaps the Cutiemark Crusaders (two of which are sisters to the Mane Six) and locks them up in her castle. She issues a challenge to Twilight Sparkle and the rest of the ponies to come rescue them, though of course she has a more insidious scheme in mind (to drain Twilight of her innate magical abilities).
While Cook’s basic plot outline doesn’t sound like much, it’s more the charm of her script that fuels the adventure. There’s a surplus of witty banter between the characters and she excels at capturing their voices. In regards to the dialogue exchanges, there’s a running gag throughout the arc that sees the Cutiemark Crusaders (Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo) act as a peanut gallery to Queen Chrysalis’s villainous monologues, critiquing and confounding her whenever she begins to slip into “Mwa Ha Ha Ha!” mode.
Cook also employs numerous film and pop culture references, though they’re executed with precision to compliment a moment rather than dependently relied on for humor. An example includes the first issue, when the Changelings invade Ponyville, trap the denizens in pods and take their places as hive-minded doppelgangers. Where’s Donald Sutherland when you need him?
My absolute favorite was in issue #4. The Mane Six (for reference, that’s Twilight Sparkle, Applejack, Rarity, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie) are trapped in an M.C. Escher room of endless doors and staircases, trying to find the right one to reach Queen Chrysalis’s chamber. What follows is a superb montage of horror movie parodies, done pony-sytle:
Because nothing says ‘All-Ages Comic Book’ like a clown that devours children.
Although “The Return of Queen Chrysalis” was a four-issue arc, Cook elected to pen each issue as its own self-contained story with a unique conflict to be overcome. In the first issue, the ponies have to rescue Ponyville from the invading Changeling army. In the second issue, they have to navigate through a Diamond Dog mine (shades of Moria) whilst eluding and battling various monsters dispatched by Chrysalis. The third issue sees them split up and encounter the carnivorous critters of the wilderness (from the Vampiric Jackalope to the Chupacabra). The final issue is a dungeon crawl through the Changeling stronghold and the final showdown with Queen Chrysalis herself.
I love this approach to storytelling. I’m not a fan over overly serialized and decompressed narratives (the “Bendis style” as it has become known) and comics that tell a complete story in one issue which acts as part of a larger narrative are right up my alley. My only grievance was with the subplot during #2 in which the ponies are duped by the Changelings (who can take on their forms) into breaking their bonds of friendship and splitting up (only to reunite an issue later). The 2-parter from the cartoon, “The Return of Harmony”, tackled the same subject (a villain using their powers to trick the Mane Six into disbanding) and gave it time to develop. Here, the ponies fall for what’s essentially the same ruse, making them seem foolish, and then get over it rather quickly, making it seem like a needless infusion of drama. Splitting the cast up made for some great action set pieces, but I felt the same end could have been met without recycling the “friends manipulated into falling out” shtick.
The artwork by Andy Price is some amazing stuff. He really goes all-out in terms of layouts, character design and expressions. The body language on the ponies is one of the first things that caught my eye; they stumble and react and never, ever look like they’re just standing around in stock poses. Not only does this create a great sense of movement and energy, but the characters look increasingly three dimensional. Often in comics, the illusion of depth is greatly dependent upon the staging and behavior of the characters, and that’s something Price has down pat.
Price’s work on My Little Pony reminds me of Dan Schoening’s work on IDW’s Ghostbusters or James Silvani’s work on (the criminally cancelled) Darkwing Duck. By that, I mean he slips a great number of Easter Eggs into the backgrounds, which is one of the most amusing ways to extend the shelf life of a comic book I can think of. I love going back and searching for all the little jokes I might have missed (several Ziggy Stardust references in the architecture of Diamond Dog mines escaped me at first) and it seems like I find something new every time I flip through an issue. Price also goes out of his way to avoid taking the “easy route” to telling a gag or laying out a page. Issue 3 begins with a recap, which is usually something to be skipped, but Price peps it up with a faux-Ub Iwerks art style and cute framing device (a penny arcade barker-style Spike introducing the “film”). His layouts incorporate things like sound effects, issue titles and humorous asides into the actual art of the story and you end up with something that’s a lot of fun to look at.
Some fans have shown disfavor toward his way of drawing the ponies, calling them “off model”, but I think that’s being disingenuous. Price has his own unique style of drawing the characters and rendering their established models. What separates “off-model” from “stylistic choice” is whether or not the artist remains consistent with themselves. Price’s take on the ponies is, in fact, consistent with itself (save for a tendency to forget to draw the Pegasus Pony wings when they’re folded) and I really, really dig it. For an example of “off-model” artwork, check out the My Little Pony Microseries #1: Twilight Sparkle issue, where artist Thomas Zhaler has trouble keeping the features and shapes of the characters steady from panel to panel.
One criticism I’ve read that I think deserves discussion is whether or not this comic is too “dark” for its source material. To take the “dark” comment literally, Price’s inking is heavy. While the My Little Pony cartoon is recognized for being bright and candy-colored and cheerful-looking, the heavy inking creates a very moody, spooky atmosphere. Heather Breckel’s colors are fantastic (I was really impressed by the sepia-tone transition from the framing device in issue #3) and I think it helps to offset the overall “darkness” of the inked line art, but honestly, much of this arc takes place in mines, castles and late at night. It sort of HAS to be “dark”.
Another example cited for the comic being too “scary” or too “violent” as compared to its source material is the portrayal of Queen Chrysalis. She had very little screentime in the cartoon (appearing as herself only for half of one episode) and so she never really got much characterization beyond being an evil shape-shifting conqueror that feeds on emotions. Price’s portrayal of her in this book is stunning in how fluidly she transitions from a suave and plotting overlord to an exasperated guardian for the Cutiemark Crusaders to a snarling, hideous creature. It’s another great example of Price’s skill at expression and the schizophrenic take on her appearance befits her status as Queen of the Changelings. Sometimes, though, she can maybe look a little “too” creepy for something branded My Little Pony…
More of Breckel’s awesome colors.
But then, the Cutiemark Crusaders are always there to take the edge off of her villainy and menace, which was a great strategy of Cook’s. Still, one scene in particular elicited some dissension amongst readers. In issue #3, Queen Chrysalis appears to splatter the guts of a small animal all over a wall just to traumatize the Cutiemark Crusaders:
And it’s pretty much exactly what it looks like.
That was definitely a shocker, but so far as violence goes, I felt it was done tastefully. The splatter isn’t blood-red and the act is done off-panel, leaving the violence implied rather than shown. That same critter shows up at the very end of the issue in the framing device with Spike, so we know he’s not “really” dead.
If the argument is that IDW’s My Little Pony comic skews older than the demographic of the cartoon series, I don’t think that’s necessarily a factor against it. Licensed comics based on popular cartoon or toy franchises tackling darker and more mature scenarios is nothing new. Compare the old Marvel Comics G.I. Joe and Transformers series with their contemporary cartoon shows of the era and tell me which one dealt with higher stakes and more violent consequences. Heck, this trend dates further back then the ‘80s. Try watching the old black and white Mickey Mouse shorts and then read the comics by Floyd Gottfredson, or compare the original Popeye comics by Segar with the Fleischer Bros animated shorts. There’s no contest.
It’s natural for a comic incarnation of a property to skew older and tell more complex and dangerous stories than its animated counterpart. The question is whether the comic still retains the spirit of its source material and avoids crossing lines in regards to content (I dare you to read Wildstorm’s Thundercats comic where Monkeyen fondles Cheetarah and Wiley-Kit gets stripped down to her undies and becomes Mumm-Ra’s concubine). Even considering the “splatter” sequence, no, I don’t think IDW’s book crosses that line. Cook’s writing may be targeting fans a bit older (and not just adults, though there are plenty of in-jokes for the online fandom tossed in), but never at the cost of character and setting integrity.
I suppose the real question now is if you don’t give a s--t about Ponies… will you want to read this?
Well, if you already hate My Little Pony because of the internet hype machine or because you think Bronies are creepy and obnoxious or because you want to punch Pinkie Pie’s stupid face, then no, this isn’t going to make you a believer. If you appreciate certain qualities about the animated series, but think its demographic is a bit too juvenile for your tastes, then yes — I think you might want to give this book a shot. It includes more gags for older kids and adults than even the TV series and the overall tone is more in the realm of fantasy adventure than saccharine antics. And if you’re already a fan of the cartoon then, well, I can’t think of any reason why you shouldn’t be reading this book.
If you’re a fan of all-ages comics in general, then I say it’s worth a look. While newcomers are at a disadvantage, with this being a sequel to an episode of the TV series and all, Cook and Price find fun and innovative ways to bring the audience up to speed without bogging down the story. If the narrative doesn’t grab you at first, then hopefully the art will. There are even variant covers from popular mainstream comics talent like Amanda Conner…
And… J. Scott Campbell?
Dear, sweet Celestia…
- Snappy dialogue and characterization.
- Amazing art and colors.
- Fanbase baggage.
- Requires prior knowledge of the show.
Is It Good?
All in all, “The Return of Queen Chrysalis” was a great read for a casual fan like myself and I know the more dedicated fans are eating it up, too. I’d recommend it to newcomers that may be on the fence about the whole Pony thing and fans of all-age comics. While the overall quest is a little typical and we don’t learn much more about Queen Chrysalis than we did during her 10 minutes of screentime in the show, the sense of humor and sensational art fill this book with plenty of surprises.
You can pick up the first four issues of My Little Pony Volume 1: Friendship Is Magic in trade paperback format from Amazon for less than $10.