This column has been taking a look at obscure comics for five months. For every every sixth month, instead of taking a look at a comic that nobody talks about, this special edition will take a look at a comic I feel not enough people talk about.
Pathfinder by Jim Zub and various artists – Dynamite 2013 to present
Contains Mild Spoilers
I love the fantasy genre. I love made up languages and made up lands. I love ancient prophecies and mystical powers. I love elves and dwarfs and orcs and dragons. I love deconstructions, reconstructions, but most of all I just love straight po-faced don't-give-a-shit high fantasy. I loved it after my mum guilt tripped me into reading The Hobbit as a kid and I loved it playing the Baldur's Gate series through my teens.
I also love comics, but one thing that had never really crossed over to my love of comics is my love of the high fantasy genre. Fantasy, when it comes to comics, has always come from a different heritage than that of the sweeping sagas of Tolkein and Lewis. This heritage instead is that of Burroughs and Howard, gritty, bloody tales of in your face violence and unbridled testosterone.
For comics, the faces of the fantasy genre were that of Conan and Slaine and Valiant. Occasionally there were offbeat, quirkier entries like the Pini's Elfquest and the scene was no stranger to the occasional Forgotten Realms comic, though these were few and far between, and rarely considered classics.
Novels were home to the high fantasy setting. They were scene setters, world builders. Comics didn't have time for all that. That was a medium of action, and rarely could the marriage work. I tried reading a comic book adaptation of one of Salvatore's Drizzt books, it bored me to tears. I thought I'd never find a high fantasy comic that I could really enjoy.
It remains to be seen if things have changed, but here's hoping we're on the cusp of a golden age. Roger's Dungeons and Dragons series (now sadly on hiatus) really set the bar, and has been joined by Legends of the Sword Cost, Demon Knights and the wonderful Rat Queens, as well as Rucka's upcoming Dragon Age: Magekiller. Of all the series that have hit the stands however, it is Dynamite's Pathfinder that I love most of all.
Pathfinder isn't the best of the bunch, D&D takes that spot, and it's not the smartest either (hello Rat Queens!) but it's got a hell of a lot of heart, and a hell of a lot of charm. Jim Zub is better known for series like Skullkickers and Wayward, but he's still firing on all cylinders here. He manages to introduce us to an intricate fantasy world without losing momentum, and how he does that, quite simply, is by trusting his audience.
Art By Sean Izaakse
Jim Zub knows that he doesn't need to waste time introducing us to this wild and wonderful world. If you're a Pathfinder player, then you already know the setting, and if you're a new reader then you can pick it up as you go along. If you've seen Lord of the Rings, played Warcraft or took even a cursory glance at a Magic: The Gathering card, you know the difference between an orc and a goblin. You're going to be okay.
What's smart is that Zub uses this audience familiarity in order to cut to the chase. There are six heroes that our story follows, stock archetypes all, but we don't need complex motivations and back-stories for each. Warrior Valeros is there to smash things and quote one liners, dwarf Harsk is there to complain and mage Seoni is there to shake her head while giving aside glances. While these characters are far from two dimensional, they're not the real focus of the plot, and are more there to serve as catalysts for the other three more interesting characters.
Valeros is here, he gets some cool moments, but Zub knows audiences would tire of the same old warrior protagonist fast. Instead we get more detail into the lives of flighty rogue Merisiel and her constantly fluctuating loyalties, while Cleric Kyra serves as an audience surrogate of sorts as she struggles to understand the customs of her companions.
By far the most interesting character though, is Ezren. At first glance he appears to be the age old sagely wizard, but instead the rug is pulled from under us. Ezren is in fact the least experienced member of the group. His tale is that of a man only becoming and adventurer in later life, and trying to prove that he's more than a pathetic old dreamer. His story is equal parts inspiring and heartbreaking, and an excellent fit for the cast.
The plot flies along quickly and comfortably. Each arc lasts about five to six issues and there aren’t many dangling plot threads or mysteries left over at the end of each. Pathfinder finds inspiration in the tabletop game that it's based on. As players, we don't play these games because we want to defeat the villain or stop the prophecy, we play because we like spending time with our friends.
Art By Jack Bilbao
There's the real appeal of the book. The plot is merely there to facilitate spending time with these characters. It's not a massively complex multi-layered plot, and that's because it doesn't have to be. We're hear to see Ezren and co roll with the punches and support each other more than we are to see them stab a cyclops in the eye.
The rotating artists do wonders with the script too. We know how sleazy Valeros is from the moment we see him. Ezren's internal doubts are betrayed in each and every worried look he gives. The lead up to Meri and Kyra's relationship is communicated through subtle expressions and the body language they have around each other.
Like I said, the book trusts it's audience, It doesn't need to signpost every piece of world building and character development and that gives it room for some real drama and to occasionally pepper us with titbits about the setting.
I'm not going to talk about Pathfinder's reputation as an LGTB friendly IP, though believe me, I could talk for hours about it if I wanted to. What I will say though is that the tradition continues in this series, and dealt with rather well I feel. Kyra and Meri's relationship unfolds naturally and is depicted sweetly with minimum fanservice.
Art By Leandro Oliveira
Speaking of fanservice though, if Dynamite's Pathfinder has one downside, it's the design decisions. See, I was surprised to find that the Pathfinder RPG only launched in 2007, since the character designs feels more reminiscent of 1997. A lot of the characters look as though they've stumbled through a Devonshire antique shop. While they're hardly terrible, the character designs lack a clarity and cohesion that a fantasy setting really needs to reinforce it's identity.
By far though, the worst offender is Seoni. Dressed in what little fabric she has, Seoni looks as though she's one gust of wind away from a wardrobe malfunction. Of course, the problem isn't with Seoni's design as much as how it contrasts with her personality.
See, when you dress a character in revealing clothes, it communicates to the audience that there is a sexual element to the character. In X-Men, Emma Frost is a character very much in control of her sexuality and how she uses it, so it makes sense that she dresses that way. In Dragon Age, Isabela is always ready to jump in bed with someone at the drop of a hat, so it makes sense that she'd not wear any pants.
But Seoni? She's the straight faced one. She's the team mom. She's the de-facto leader and the voice of reason. There's nothing sultry or seductive or sensual about Seoni's personality. The only reason she is dressed that way is because that's how the original RPG character sheet depicted her, and the only reason for that was fanservice. The contradiction is palpable, and the story suffers for it. Valeros and Harsk look and act consistently, but Seoni is a paradox that the story struggles to find a place for.
It's a minor kink though (no pun intended) and one I hope subsequent volumes will iron out. As of writing the series has hit three volumes (not counting the prequels and spin offs), meaning it looks to last longer than the IDW D&D series did. This is great, I've enjoyed what Zub and the team have done so far, and I look forward to seeing where they take it in the future.
All things considered, Dynamite's Pathfinder is everything I could have wanted from a high fantasy series. All the tropes and cliché’s from Tolkein to Brooks, a diverse and quirky cast on par with the best of the tabletop and computer RPG's, and colourful and stylish art that I can drink up like I'm there.
If we are on the cusp of a golden age, I can only hope it's a long one.
Art By Leandro Oliveira
Jack Harvey 2015. Pathfinder (c) 2007 Paizo Publishing, published by Dynamite Entertainment and written by Jim Zub. Images used under free use.