Sunday, 12 April 2015

Arabian Nights #1-2

Today I start the next leg of my journey! The coming weeks I will be reviewing the Magic: the Gathering comics published by Armada, a division of Acclaim Comics. I’ve been looking forward to this! Partially because these comics are tied much more closely to the card game than most of the Harper Prism novels, partly because they have a much more involved continuity, with characters and plots from one comic turning up in the next,partially because now I will have loads of images to go along with my reviews! No more scrounging the game for somewhat related cards to use as illustrations!

Pretty pictures!

A little note before we dive in to our first feature. With the Harper Prism novels I reviewed everything mostly in publication order, but for the comics that is tricky, as the various mini sereis were released simultaneously. For example, Arabian Nights #1 has advertisements for Wayfarer #3 and Antiquities War #3, while #2 has advertisements for Wayfarer #4, Antiquities #4 and the Homelands one-shot. Hopping between series wouldn’t do the reviews any good, so I will review each mini series as a whole, going through them by their in-universe chronological order where possible. Keep in mind though that this was not the order in which the comics were released! Today’s subject contains the origin story of the character Taysir for example, but those buying the books in real time would already have seen him appear in the Ice Age comic.

I said just now that I would be going through the comics in chronological order, but actually, this week I’m breaking that rule. The actual oldest comic (in-universe) is Fallen Angel, but that’s one of the more peripheral entries in the line. I wanted to start this part of my project with a more interesting comic, both in terms of story, continuity importance and links to the card game. Also, the timeline placement of Arabian Nights is a bit vague, so doing this one first allows me to get the whole discussion of the Acclaim timeline out of the way first. Finally, it introduces one of my favorite planeswalkers! So I hope you all can forgive a little self-indulgence on my part. Next week we’ll see Fallen Angel, and after that we’ll stick to the chronology, I promise!

Arabian Nights #1-2

 


SUMMARY
The story opens with a guy called Taysir killing himself. No, he's not committing suicide, he’s killing someone else, but that someone is also him, and… okay, maybe we need to take a step back.

The story of Arabian Nights was originally just the book of “1001 Arabian Nights”, which takes place on our own earth. To bring the set into Magic continuity, its setting was changed to Rabiah, a plane styled after the Arabian Nights, just like Kamigawa would later be styled after Japanese mythology. (Only by the time of the revision Magic was stuck with the names on the cards, so Cairo, Alexandria, Sindbad, Ali Baba, and even Allah and Islam are all still part of Magic's canon!) To incorporate the “1001” part of the title, or perhaps just to explain why there could be multiple Sindbads on the battlefield at the same time, it was said that the plane of Rabiah had been copied 1000 times, so that there were 1001 near-identical planes, all called Rabiah, hanging out in the multiverse. 

So that’s what’s going on here. Taysir is killing one of his counterparts from another Rabiah, and absorbing his essence. You see, Taysir is unique in that there are only five versions of him, one for each color of Magic. There is a prophecy which says that if all five versions are united he will become the most powerful wizard ever. So it is basically Magic doing “The One”, six years before Jet Li did it.


The evil Sorceress Queen Nailah has seduced the black Taysir and had him kill his green counterpart, hoping to be able to control the united Taysir via her seduction of his black part, gaining an all-powerful minion. Having absorbed the memories of the green Taysir though, black Taysir comes to realize he’s being a horrible person. Nailah takes him to a different Rabiah using the Ring of Ma’rûf (simply called Maruf here) to kill the red Taysir, but black Taysir rebels against his mistress. Nailah soundly trounces him and he’s chucked into an Oubliette. Red Taysir acquires the ring in the battle, and uses it to hop to another Rabiah, tracking down his white counterpart. He’s only heard a few instructions the black Taysir managed to yell at him though, so both Taysirs are rather confused upon meeting, but luckily it turns out white Taysir’s leper side-kick Raghib as once Nailah’s lover, when they were both apprentices of the great wizard El-Hajjâj. (Just called El Hajjaj here. The lettered must really not have liked the spelling used by Wizards!) He has been hanging around white Taysir for decades waiting for this moment and explains that the Taysirs must not be joined by force. Nailah turns up and tries to seduce the confused red Taysir. Battle is joined, red Taysir is critically injured, and he willingly gives his essense to his white counterpart. White Taysir and Raghib take the Ring of Ma’rûf and teleport to the location of the last Taysir: the castle of El-Hajjâj.


Taysir and Raghib make their way through the escheresque castle, while talking about the backstory of Raghib, Nailah and El-Hajjâj. Turns out El-Hajjâj is Nailah’s dad, and died protecting the fifth Taysir, who Raghib thought also died. from his daughter. Raghib admits to giving the black Taysir to Nailah initially. They find El-Hajjâj, who somehow is still alive and has hidden the last Taysir in a City in a Bottle. White Taysir enters, finds his last version to still be a baby (Funnily, under the current color pie that would've be the green one.) Somehow the baby can offer his life willingly, holding a bloody stylus in his hand. White Taysir absorbs his essense. Then he, Raghib and Hajjâj confront Nailah. Naiah kills Raghib and (probably) Hajjâj, and mortally wounds the black Taysir. He gives his essence willingly though, and Taysir is united as a planeswalker. He drops Nailah into a Sinkhole, imprisoning her deep inside the earth. Taysir feels she still has influence over his black part though, so he planeswalks away from Rabiah, vowing to one day return, when he's strong enough to end her evil for good. As he leaves however, Nailah weaves a spell that prevents him from ever returning to Rabiah.

Meanwhile he vows to be a superhero.

REVIEW
You should commit the following phrase to memory, since I'll be using it a lot in these reviews: "This was pretty good, but it could have used an extra issue." Most of the Armada comics have very cool ideas and characters that show hints of very interesting layers and personalities. However, as most of these stories are relegated to two issue miniseries, or one-shots (over-sized one-shots, but still) the ideas and characters lack the space they need to really shine. Characters have a tendency to spout exposition and relationships are more often than not explained to us, rather than shown through quiet character moments. It might turn people of, and there is some truth to that old UGMadness comic making fun of the overuse of narration in the Ice Age comic, but when the problems stem from trying to put to much cool stuff in a comic I can forgive a lot.

For example, there are some very intriguing lines of text in the Arabian Nights comics. After absorbing the child version of himself the white Taysir says 
“I can feel the child’s purity…. Such peace… contentment… I have prayed for such serenity for as long as I can remember.” 
There is a hint of cool characterization there. I envision the various Taysirs feeling they are missing part of themselves, with the white one being devoting himself to religion (He's a dervish) in the hope of finding fulfillment. Unfortunately, this is really the only line in the comic that hints at what white Taysir was doing before red Taysir found him. Another example: when Nailah confronts El-Hajjâj, she asks
“And were you any better, father? What did you intend to do with a United Taysir? Would you have used him the same way you used me? Would you have torn his heart out and made it your own?!”
Another very intriguing line, which suggests El-Hajjâj isn't the nice guy he appears to be and sounds like Nailah wasn't always the power hungry and evil sorceress we see in the comics. Again though, neither possibility is explored further. It sounds cool though, and it really makes me wonder how great this comic could have been if Acclaim would have had the possibility of turning it into a four or five issue series.


At certain points the lack of space does become a bit annoying. Takes the following scenes for example. Red Taysir gets told not to take another Taysir with violence, yet within a few pages he's threatening to do just that. Or when white Taysir and Raghib run into a guard in El-Hajjâj's castle demanding the head of one of them to allow them to pass. Raghib tells Taysir to get his head cut off, but when the guard disappears the moment his blade hits Taysirs neck, he declares it’s a miracle and asks Taysir if he’s hurt. Now, neither example really is an error. The red Taysir only heard a few shouted instructions of his black version, so it is very understandable that he’s confused about what is going on, and unsure about what he should do. And perhaps Raghib recognized the guard as a test from El-Hajjâj, but was unsure about what exactly would happen. However, since the comic simply doesn’t have the space to delve into each character’s mind and explain what exactly everyone knows, it does come across like people don't really know what they are doing. The previous examples sound to me like "We had no space for all this cool backstory, so we're just going to give you a little tease", which I like. These later examples, while you could read them as hints of deeper characterizations, mostly just confuse matters.

One final quote I'd like to mention is this one, from Nailah when she breaks out of Raghib's paralysis spell"
“You never knew how to hold me Raghib! Not when I was a girl, not when you TRIED to make me a woman… AND CERTAINLY NOT NOW!”
OUCH! BURN! 

Nothing much to say about it, I just love that line.

Of course, now that we're covering comics rather than novels, we'll also have to cover the art! And here, the art is great! This comic is actually one of the earliest works of Alex Maleev, who would later become very famous for his work on Daredevil with Brian Michael Bendis. I didn't recognize him at first, as this is early in his career and he's missing the distinctive painting-like quality of his Daredevil work, but once I saw it was him in the credits and went back, I did start to recognize a number of Maleevian faces.


What I'm most impressed with is not the artwork itself, but the designs. Maleev is clearly having a lot of fun with the designs of El-Hajjâj's castle, for example.


The character work is also great. Nailah looks suitably creepy and otherworldly, while still being clearly influenced by the Kaja Foglio design on Sorceress Queen.


...and I especially like the creepy, wasted look that is given to the leprous Raghib. A very nice touch is the way shadows are used to imply he no longer has a nose behind that mask of his.

Okay, maybe "nice" isn't the right word.

There are some great panel transitions as well. Earlier on in the review you already saw two examples of characters planeswalking, which were done great, but here is a differnt example, of the Guardian Beast waking up when Taysir picks up the City in a Bottle.



The one downside of the art is that it is sometimes lacking in establishing shots. That last picture is about the closest look you get of the Guardian Beast's face, for example. That does get in the way of storytelling near the end unfortunately. For example, this is the last we see of Raghib and El-Hajjâj:


They are clearly hit by a spell from Nailah, but what actually happens? The next panel Nailah says Raghib is dead, but no word on El-Hajjâj. Each Aramada comic comes with a text piece analyzing the story and showing off which cards are use throughout, but this time the writer of that article mentions not knowing what exactly happened to Hajjâj. That's... a tiny bit embarrassing. On the whole though, the art gets a huge thumbs up from me.

So in conclusion, this comic is not perfect, but it is still a lot of fun. If you ever see the comics for sale, I would heartily recommend picking them up. While the Harper Prism books were fun as individual books, this is really where you'll see Magic developing an ongoing story, and a fascinating one at that.

TRIVIA
Anyone using the Ring of Ma’Ruf can apparently hop from Rabiah to Rabiah. It is not clear if it allows you to travel to any plane though. Nailah travels between Rabiahs even without the ring, and El-Hajjâj's dialogue makes it sound like he was able to do it as well, before Nailah imprisoned him in his castle. None of the characters are planeswalkers though. Perhaps Nailah and Hajjâj are Thane Du-Morris-style planeswalkers? Although I can also imagine hopping from Rabiah to Rabiah is easier than traveling between other planes.

El-Hajjâj’s castle is hidden by a lake created by a Phantasmal Terrain spell. So white Taysir dispells it by… calling upon the red Taysir’s powers. Huh. I guess it’s not a complete color-pie violation as red has Red Elemental Blast, but still… How useless is white Taysir? Even back then he should have been able to cast Disenchant on the Terrain!

After ascending Taysir starts speaking in the majestic plural...


...luckily he stops doing that after one page. Taysir is one of the most frequently recurring characters in the Acclaim comics, and him talking like that would've gotten old very fast!

The letters page from issue two tries to explain the real-world references by saying our Earth is part of the Multiverse, and that Islam actually ended up on Rabiah thanks to a planeswalker visiting us! That explanation doesn't stay in continuity though!

As I've mentioned above, each Acclaim comics has a feature called "Seer Analysis", in which Shawn Carnes describes which cards are used in the story. He explains that one of the spells Taysir uses is Mind Bomb, and that since Mind Bomb is a blue spell, Taysir must've learned it from his baby version. That is one bad ass baby!

Finally, take a look an this very interesting scan, containing a pronunciation guide to the various people, places and concepts from the story, as well as a timeline for the various appearances of Taysir. We'll need to have a discussion about that timeline in a moment though...


It's pretty weird to read that Nailah's sanctuary is in Sana'a, which has been mentioned in the newspapers pretty much every day in the last week, because of the war in Yemen. Arabian Nights' real world references are weird like that.

What is really interesting is that the list mentions Rabiah as “a multitude of planes” and the introduction talks about "Rabiah the Infinite", while the number 1001 isn't mentioned anywhere. In fact, in the comic itself Nailah says 
“This Rabiah and the Rabiah from whence we came, are but two of thousands, the same, yet all somehow different”
That really surprised me, since I really thought this is where the 1001 Rabiahs were introduced. The "Thousandfold Refraction", the event which copied Rabiah, isn't named here either. I'll keep my eyes open for other references to these terms, to see where they are introduced. Maybe in another Acclaim comics? Or maybe only on the Encyclopedia Dominia site?

CONTINUITY & TIMELINE
Now, on to my favorite subject: endless yammering about the chronology of Magic stories! First of, I'm afraid we're just going to have to ignore that timeline I've just posted. It rather messes up the placement of Homelands, which is supposed to take place after the Ice Age, not before Antiquities! This comic was written before Homelands was released, so presumably the writer of this editorial didn't know all the details of that plot yet. In addition to that, later stories, from Urza's block, also force a placement of Homelands after the Ice Age. But we'll discuss that in more details when we get to the Homelands comic in a few weeks.

Unfortunately this isn't the only conflicting source we have on the placement of the Armada comics. We already saw one problematic source, the timeline from the Pocket Players’ Guide. It was produced before these comics, and places Arabian Nights in the present day. Makes sense in a way, as Arabian Nights came out before Antiquities, and Antiquities was supposed to be a flashback. Surely everything before the flashback takes place in the present? Unfortunatly, as you can see in the scan above, Taysir turns up in Ice Age, so this story has to happen some time in the past. Thus we can consider the line about Arabian Nights’ placement from the Pocket Players' Guide as having been ret-conned.

There are two other lists that give the order of the comics. One is given in Wayfarer issue three, as part of a contest in which the readers have to put the comics published up to that point in the correct chronological order.


As you can see, this one has the downside of being incomplete, having been published before all comics were released. It has a lot of credibility tough. It was published closest to these sources, after all. Note how the second letter puts Arabian Nights after Antiquities, and is corrected for it.

A second list was given in Urza-Mishra War #2, the last of the comics actually published.


This one IS complete, including even the placement of the unpublished Alliances, Prelude to War and Planeswalker War comics. Unfortunately, this one may have a mistake in it regarding the placement of the Elder Dragons comic. That comic heavily hints that it takes place after Dakkon Blackblade. Again, I’ll talk more about that soon, when I review those stories. All the other placements make sense though, so this reinforces the placement of Arabian Nights pre-Antiquities. Unfortunately there is one more source, and that one contradicts this.

I mentioned that Prelude to War and the Planeswalkers War were never released. Instead we got the Battlemage computer game to tell the story of the war. To give people a bit more backstory, the accompanying website gave a summary of all the comics leading up to the war, in a text called "The story of the Battlemage Ravidel". Unfortunately the site appears to have evaporated, but luckily a smart and handsome young storyline moderator had the foresight to repost the story over on MTGSalvation about ten years ago. From that story we get this quote…
"Not long after these events [[meaning Antiquities]], in the world of the Arabian Nights on the plane of Rabiah, Taysir, one of the most powerful planeswalkers in the history of Dominia, was born and had many fantastic adventures. His final adventure on Rabiah set him against the Sorceress Queen Nailah, a powerful and vindictive mage who used her last ounce of strength to ban Taysir from his homeworld forever." 
So now we have one source claiming Arabian Nights predates Antiquities, and another saying it’s the other way around. Personally, I think the Arabian Nights-first approach is more logical. It was written closer to the release of the books. The explicit correction of the guy who put Antiquities first especially lends strength to the claim in my eyes. It shows that the authors really thought the placement through. The videogame's website was released a lot later. It also makes a mistake with the relative placement of Fallen Angel and Dakkon Blackblade (All together now: More on that in coming weeks!) so it is not the most credible of sources.

The MTGSalvation wiki does base its placement on The Story of the Battlemage Ravidel. I went on a quick forum dive and brought up the thread in which the placement was discussed, and found that at the time, neither of the timelines from Wayfarer #3 and Urza-Mishra War #2 were discussed. Quite logical really, as they are really rather obscure sources. Now they've been unearthed, they really should be considered however. 

Unfortunately, while I personally lean towards placing Arabian Nights first, I can't really give definitive proof of that. So instead, I turned to a higher authority: Jeff Gomez, the line editors of the Armada comics, and author of a number of them! He got in touch with me on Twitter after I first announced my blog, so I send him this question. He told me that there was some tweaking done to the chronology of the comics as Wizards started moving towards a tighter continuity, but that in his eyes Arabian Nights still happened before Antiquities. The comics were written with that placement in mind after all. 

That... doesn't solve the problem as neatly as I'd hoped. Normally I'd be most inclined to say "Well, Wizards altered the chronology, so we'll take that as the original placement being ret-conned", but in this case... Technically either order could work, but the only source we have supporting the later placement also messes up the Fallen Angel/Dakkon Blackblade order, and there it directly contradicts facts from the stories themselves, making it seem like the altered chronology wasn't thought out very well. In addition, there isn't anything dependent on the later placement, so I don't really see the reason why they would've moved the position. Unless they wanted to tie the Thousandfold Refraction into the Sylex Blast? For now, I think I'll put Arabian Nights on my timeline pre-Antiquities, but I'll be fair and put a "placement contest" addition to it. Maybe I can track down Scott Hungerford and ask him about the reshuffled placement... So... possibly to be continued!

1 comment:

  1. I must say that I disagree with your claim that current color pie ideologies would place the baby version of Taysir as Green. I believe that although color pie mechanics have changed a lot over the years, color pie flavor & ideologies have changed less so. In fact, I'd say that all 5 of these different versions of Taysir actually fit pretty well with current color pie theory. Sure they may seem a little generic, now that we explore the depth & breadth of the colors more & more, but they still fit very well. My case for the baby Taysir being Blue stands in the idea of Blue's love of maximum potential. Green does like life & it's beginnings, but Green also wants things to be in the know & not always up to chance if it can help it; hence the reason Green Taysir is a wisened nomad. Blue loves the mere possibility & implications of achievement & development of a thought process, idea, or person, even if said process/idea/person is not yet fully formed. The many possible ramifications of a potential project gets Blue excited! Which is why a baby makes sense, because unlike the other Taysirs, who are defined, ridgid, & fully formed, a baby Taysir could become anything.

    ReplyDelete