Confession time: I think Vecna, Acererak, Greyhawk, Mordekainen and all the rest are cool, but in the end, I like Pathfinder‘s lore and world so much more than Dungeons and Dragons‘. Hopefully, you like this fantastical, strange, foreboding and often hilarious world as much as me by the time you’ve gotten around to writer Crystal Fraiser and artist Tom Garcia’s Pathfinder: Spiral of Bones – the seventh Pathfinder comic volume. Otherwise, a good deal of the charm and effect might be lost in translation, as a good jumping on point or wholly cohesive fantasy story alone this is not.
What’s it about? Dynamite’s preview reads:
As the Pathfinder plunge into the history and mysteries below Kaer Maga-the no-holds-barred ‘City of Strangers’-Valeros plunges far deeper into the great beyond, defending his immortal soul in the courts of the dead! From Pathfinder author Crystal Frasier comes this scintillating tale of life, death, and what lingers when we’re gone.
Sounds broody, death-defying, and cosmically relevant, yeah? It is! But the great thing is that, with a little more telling than showing may be necessary, Fraiser actually manages to have more fun with the simple premise than one could’ve possibly imagined.
The grand twist of it all is that Valeros — our ever charismatic, affable, and so sincerely stupid fighter — is fighting for his soul in a literal court. One with demonic and angelic lawyers, cosmic death deities, and everything in-between. It’s well-balanced by body possession schemes on the mortal side, where Valeros’ companions — the sorceress Seoni, rogue Merisiel, and inquisitor Imrijka must contest with horrors of flesh and teeth, but also questions of whether or not Valeros is himself (the truth being that he’s possessed by a murderous wizard who is frankly…quite a dick). A compelling, wholly unexpected twist and subsequent plotting that could easily get lost in its own self-interest but stays easy to follow and that pays off in hilarious spades. It helps, of course, that through Fraiser each character has a totally unique voice that rings true of their archetypes, but also of the world at large.
That world at large really gets to shine here, too. In both dialogue and world design, these creators do a great job of littering the main plot as well as smaller corners of the art and story with those specific Pathfinder, gamey touches that draw you into the franchise feel. One of the party’s companions remarks that he can free himself from a stone prison after he rests and learns “Dimension Door,” and enemies like Cloakers and Caulborn, and even a pickle-munching goblin feature, too (all explained in fantastic, after comic lore addendums for use in game) That being said, this cuts the other way where remarks about a missing member of the party, the cleric Kyra, and the emotional resonance her relationship with Merisiel is supposed to have, will be totally devoid of meaning to readers who have not fully immersed themselves in the Pathfinder world, as will several other plot points which feel semi-self-indulgent. This is to say nothing of the rushed, impractical narrative ending that undoes a lot of the supposed work for the central villain when he starts acting in strong opposition to much of what we’ve been told about him.
Similarly, the artistic efforts here are of mixed success. The character designs, all belonging to a cast of characters who are essentially the mascots of the brand, are applied very inconsistently. Seoni is the most egregious as her proportions change seemingly at will, from a slight frame to an expansive, almost Liefeld-esque massive ribcage and breasts. It’s distracting, impractical, and unnecessary. Thankfully, it’s also oftentimes offset by incredible world design decisions such as a massive dragon masked crow monster, or the grim visage of a skulled moon hanging over a pristine dead city. It’s a careful balance that unfortunately tips more often into the poorly rendered or bland than it does the specific, warm and fantastical trademarks of the universe the artists could’ve played with, but does passable job – especially for fans like myself who are predisposed to reveling in the small details and gimmies that are here anyways.
This is the ultimate takeaway as well, that if you are a fan of the Pathfinder world at large, be it through the Adventure card game, the myriad PC games, or the O.G. tabletop roleplaying game — as I am — you will find a lot to love here in a great mix of witty and fantastical dialogue and high stakes action art with only the occasional flaw. If you are not, however, I would invite you to start at volume 1 and work your way up to this, or invest your time in something you’re more interested in from the get-go, as there are certainly more wholly worthwhile and contextualized fantasy comics around.