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Shadowhawk reviews the first volume of the Shadowplague arc for IDW’s Dungeons & Dragons series, collecting the first six chapters of the story of Adric Fell and his band of adventurers.
“One of the most gorgeous graphic novels with a rock-solid storyline that gives you a definitive alternative gaming experience.” ~The Founding Fields
I’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons, it just wasn’t ever popular in India when I was growing up, and the same in Dubai. Even in college, I never bothered to get into it, mostly due to a lack of knowledge about the whole affair. I have tried my hand at some RPGs though, mostly the Deathwatch series by Fantasy Flight Games. And I have watched bits and pieces of the old Dungeons & Dragons animated TV show that used to be aired ages back. Regardless, I’m a complete green rookie when it comes to D&D, so when I sawShadowplague, a quick flip through of the book was enough to get me interested. Besides, who doesn’t love a good graphic novel, especially when it’s D&D inspired, and when the reader is a fan of the D&D-inspired Dragonlance setting.
Shadowplague is one of those few graphic novels that I’ve approached with really high expectations. If you take a look at my reading list for the year so far, you’ll see that I’ve been reading widely when it comes to comics, and have read some really spectacular issues/collections. John Rogers and Andrea Di Vito had a lot to live up to in that regard. I wanted to be utterly mesmerised and hooked until the end.
That’s what Shadowplague does, and does it so well that by the end, I was wishing the story hadn’t ended.
In any story, regardless of medium or style, the characters are the most important element first and foremost. In my experience, as well as personally, readers forgive an imperfect world but not imperfect characters. The characters should be realistic and not caricatures, the reader should be able to connect with them and feel that he or she is right there with them. John Rogers’ characters achieve that in Shadowplague because they are an everyday representation of RPG gaming groups all over the world. They are serious when needs be, and they are humorous in equal measure when the situation calls for it. Or even when it doesn’t to break the tension that is prevalent through the script. With respect to the plot itself, and to the setting, the characters are gold because at no time did I feel that I was just watching a play of dice and stock characters performing actions. The characters live and breather.
Invariably, I found three characters to be the most… alluring: the Dwarf paladin Khal who is always huffing and puffing and grumpy, Adric Fell who is the “warrior” of the group and is usually the most level-headed one of his companions, and the tiefling warlock Tisha who is the most mysterious of the group, in my opinion. Varis, as the Elf ranger, and Bree, the halfling thief, were interesting characters sure, but I was drawn to the other three much more. This is a group that, especially once Tisha joins, really knows how to work well with each other. They talk back at each other and they tease. The group dynamics are portrayed really well, and that’s where John Rogers really excels.
The script itself is intriguing. It involves dragons, a zombie-ish plague, shapeshifters, black sorcerers, and dimensional warfare. Plus the fact that for some of the characters, their past comes back to either haunt them or goad them into annoyance. The way each “chapter” installment progresses on from the previous ones, and the entire collection in general, it really gives you a feel that you are watching a grand adventure unfold. It is a personal experience, the way it is all written, rather than the somewhat detached feeling you’d generally get reading collections such as these.
And as such, the pacing is always spot-on. The highs and lows are all in the right places and the script never loses focus or sight of its goal. Not an easy thing to do across six chapters! Each installment ends at pretty much a perfect cliffhanger that makes you want to keep reading and find out what’s going to happen to these characters in the next few pages. The story just…. flows and you flow along with it because it is that immersive an experience.
The artwork is fantastic. Small, minor niggles here and there (such as the eyes on a particular human mage) but overall, the internal art is really gorgeous. For me, where Andrea Di Vito (plus the colorists Aburtov and Graphikslava and Andrew Dalhouse) really exceeded themselves were in the sharp, clear lines on all the characters, and the ambient lighting most of all. The contrasts between the characters, whether for their armour/gear or their surroundings matched the overall style that is running through the panels. Taken as a whole, Shadowplague is one of the most well-drawn graphic novels I’ve read of late (or even to date as it were). The postures of the characters were always appropriate, the tiny effects such as the glowing, bright eyes of the gnolls, the variety of expressions on the characters, the “racial appropriateness” of some of the characters’ gear/clothes (such as greens for Varis), it all added up to make for a complete experience.
If you can’t already tell, I loved this graphic novel.
What’s more awesome about this are all the rulesets and playsheets at the end of the book. For D&D enthusiasts, there are ample materials at the back to recreate the scenes from the book on their gaming table or even just take these characters and take them on new and exciting adventures. It all makes me wish that I played D&D and had access to a gaming group for it as well.
As a side-note, I have to say that I’ve been really impressed with all the stuff from Wizards of the Coast I’ve read this year, be it the novels or the comics. For me, they are definitely in the top publishers out there of genre fiction, just as much as Angry Robot and Black Library. That’s not to say that I haven’t liked stuff from other publishers, my various reviews across the board make it clear that that’s not the case but still. The quality so far has been top-notch. The pairing between Wizards of the Coast and IDW Publishing is also a rock-solid one as far as I’m concerned, and it’s a relationship that is really getting things done right, in my estimation. I have several other D&D comics from IDW waiting in the wings, ready to be read and I can’t wait to get to them.