June 4, 2015

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Dragonlance Classics Vol 1


Written by Dan Mishkin
Line Art by Ron Randall, Michael Collins, and Randy Elliott
Color Art by Daniel Vozzo
Published by IDW (Originally DC)

Transport yourself back to the late 80s in this collection of two arcs based on the books from the classic writing team of Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis, back before writing licensed fantasy comics was cool.

Normally, I wouldn't have even looked at this one to read, let alone review, but two things caught my eye: 1) A lingering fondness for Dragonlance and 2) Ron Randall. In the end, this was an enjoyable trip that's worth a look to see some slick work from Randall--if a bit lost in 25-year old art conversion--with a story that does well with its fantasy genre and licensed world restrictions.

Once upon a time when I was in and around college, I used to read the Dragonlance books, and I still have fond memories of the original trilogy that started it all, even if I eventually decided I'm more of a sci-fi person, at least in prose. Still, it was fun to revisit the characters and concepts here, though funnily enough, I found myself far more engaged in the first arc, with characters I didn't remember, than in the second story here, where Raistlin hides part of himself in conflicted dark elf as part of yet another evil scheme. Overall, though, I started to skim more and more as things went on, as the walls of fantasy-speak just got to me after awhile. If you are bigger on that genre than me, you'll likely do better than I did--it's definitely one of those things you either enjoy or don't, and ultimately, it's not really my thing.

Part of the problem here, I think is that Mishkin doesn't try to do something new with the genre. I don't know if that was a his style or due to the license, but it does hurt the material. A little bit of "here's my honor code" and "I can't fairly fight you, evil character, if I have a better weapon" and the whole reluctant hero shtick go a long, long way, and they're all over this one. Similarly, the romantic sub-plot between a fallen knight and a strong woman who defies gender roles felt incredibly generic. When we get to Raistlin's arc, which sees mind control, a mindless beasts, and a reveal that feels driven from above, it's really starting to fall into trope territory. The action bits work well enough, and the plotting is fine, but there's just not a lot of life here. It works, but it's not exactly exciting.

So why am I even talking about this thing, if I seemed a bit bored? Because Ron Randall's art, particularly when he's doing pencils and inks, is outstanding. Though it sometimes is a bit hard to tell through the haze of a 25-year old reprint (there are coloring errors and other issues that I'm a bit surprised IDW didn't take a few moments to clean up), when things are clear, the page layouts, panel constructions, and particularly the portrayal of the female characters in the comic make it stand out, not just for the time period, but for comics in general. Riva is handicapped a bit when fighting due to Mishkin's plot, but when left to battle, Randall shows her as being just as aggressive and powerful as her male counterparts. Even when she's put in the "damsel" mode, Randall refuses to turn her into a weak-kneed image. There's no sexualization at all, and given this is 1988-89 we're talking about, that's really impressive to me.

As far as the rest of the story goes, the first four, Randall-centric issues look like they could have stepped out of a Prince Valiant or similar style. There's a very realistic take to everything, even the dragon men, skeleton warriors, and other elements of high fantasy. He does a great job with faces and facial expressions, giving more life to Mishkin's dialogue than it would have otherwise had. There's life in the movement of the characters, and a nice varied pacing, with close-ups and image choices that depict the action in ways that tell most of the story without a need to rely on the dialogue. Those who are fans of Trekker will have a lot to like here, though the latter is definitely a step-up, at least in my opinion.

When Michael Collins takes over the pencils for the Raistlin storyline, we lose some of the originality of the layouts, with a lot more "stand and talk" scenes--partly the fault of Mishkin, who's explaining in speeches at a mile a minute pace. The coloring is also a lot more muddied, as the darkness embodied by Raistlin tinges the whole arc. That means we see a lot less of the crisp linework and feature detail. It's definitely a step down, both in terms of the writing and what the art looks like. However, I'm not sure if that's the addition of Collins doing pencils or if it's because of the reproduction quality.

Overall, this isn't something I'd tell people is a must-purchase. But if you have a soft spot for Dragonlance and want to see some really nifty work by Ron Randall, see if you can find this one at the shop or on your favorite digital device. It's not groundbreaking, but is fun comics that fans of fantasy should like better than I did, in terms of the plot and script.