» The Lunatic Fringe: MLP: FiM Comics #5 Review

With The Return of Queen Chrysalis at a close, the mainline Friendship is Magic comic books from IDW Publishing are at a crossroads. With Andy Price and Katie Cook back at the proverbial (and literal) drawing boards to work on the next set of stories starting at issue #9, we’ve got a new team of challengers to tackle our heroines. The new arc is helmed by a second creative team that has been flying a bit under the radar. Penned by Heather Nuhfer and drawn by Amy Mebberson, the two new members are joined by regulars Heather Breckel and Neil Uyetake on coloring and letters, respectively. How will this new creative team handle the subject of our model miniature horses?

Read more to find out.

Needless to say that this review will spoil some parts of the book in its analysis. Want to read the comics? You can find them at your local comic book store, buy printed copies online from a site like Things From Another World, or procure digital versions from Comixology and iTunes.

Don’t Call Them A B-Team

Heather Nuhfer and Amy Mebberson are names that, for most of the fandom, might not ring any bells. Mebberson should be familiar to some current readers of the books; she’s provided many alternate covers for the mainline and Micro Series comics. But if you haven’t collected any of those issues, you might not be aware of her contributions to the series. Comic readers who enjoy Disney works will be familiar with Mebberson, though, as she has contributed to all the recent revivals of DuckTales, Rescue Rangers, and Darkwing Duck. This is the first go at the franchise for Nuhfer, who is writing the upcoming Strawberry Shortcake comic in addition to her prior work on Archie’s Fraggle Rock (along with FiM Alum Katie Cook, interestingly enough). Unlike Price and Cook, who received a lot of press in the runup to FiM #1’s release, both Mebberson and Nuhfer have flown under the radar a little bit. Price had already made a name for himself amongst the fandom well before any of us had a clue that the IDW series was coming, with pieces that reflected what would come from the first arc.

This pseudo-anonymity has, I believe, worked to the advantage of Nuhfer and Mebberson. In the hype train for the first arc of the comics, the expectations spiraled out of control, pushed by Price’s amazing one-off works that oozed character and Cook’s articulate understanding of the appeal of Friendship is Magic. It was very hard to doomsay something that promised to look so good, and the team had largely delivered on those promises. But it wasn’t a sure bet, and working under such a microscope can be both motivating and a bit wearying. Their story brought back a fan-favorite character and pushed the boundaries of the Mane Six, a roller coaster ride that surprised us at every corner. But an interesting thing was going on while we were giggling at Pinkie and battling evil with Twilight. Without a spotlight shining on them, Nuhfer and Mebberson have managed to sow the seeds of an arc that has the potential to be even better than the first.

Keeping some continuity between the author and artist teams are Heather Breckel, who will be coloring all of the mainline issues, and Neil Uyetake, who has taken over for lettering the series from Robbie Robbins. Bobby Curnow edits all of the stories regardless of creative team.

The Lunatics Are On The Path

Nuhfer’s choice of debut story is an audacious one: What if Nightmare Moon were to return? An obvious idea in theory, but filled with traps in practice. The backstory of Friendship is Magic, particularly that of Princesses Celestia and Luna before the pilot, is left purposefully cloudy and vague, leading the viewer to fill in the blanks with her own interpretations and ideas. Addressing the return of Nightmare Moon, as Princess Luna or some other form, would require a delicate balance of character and story to keep the audience hooked. Something so close to the core mythos of the show is not to be trifled with; a bad interpretation will lose a reader far quicker than a new, albeit somewhat flawed, premise. A good one, though, could be co-opted and reintegrated into the TV series, making the series richer for the risk taken.

Princess Luna Discussing Luna lays it down.

Issue #5 proves to be one heck of a setup issue, laying down all of the story’s building blocks for new and seasoned readers alike. Without the burden that issue #1 had of trying to be an opener yet somehow stand alone, #5 embraces its “first part of a big story” nature and throws the Mane Six into a terrifying scenario preying on their deepest fears without any delay. After reading the issue a few times, I recognized that Nuhfer really has the characterizations down for each of the ponies, even though she is remarkably efficient with her storytelling. It feels as if she’s already a seasoned veteran, and comparisons to new show writer Corey Anne Powell are not inappropriate. The fact that they both started by tackling dreams and fears with Princess Luna as a key character doesn’t hurt such comparisons, either. Each of the dreams feels just right, in terms of what we know about the ponies and what they fear the most. Rainbow’s in particular is quite stirring, even though it only consists of one lush panel. A brand new reader won’t be lost, either, as each of the characters can be picked up cleanly without hitting you on the head with expository dialogue. Even Luna’s dichotomy between boisterous princess and troubled soul is preserved, though she has precious few panels in this issue.

Rainbow's Lament This one’s a direct hit to your heart.

Thumbing through the pages, I felt that the book was perfectly paced. I was left wanting so much more at the end, not because I desired more funny antics, but because I wanted to know how the full story would unfold. Nuhfer is not afraid to foreshadow the arc’s primary conflict and twist, and does so in a way that maximizes tension. The reader figures out where they’re going with the story in a broad sense, but there’s so many unanswered questions that it almost felt like a crime to hold it back for #6.

For those that read the first arc, the tone of the book’s dialogue is considerably different, but not in a bad way. Nuhfer’s work is not as dense word-wise as Cook’s, though her dialogue is not any simpler. The first series of comics had an undercurrent of pushing up against their restrictions in page size and number due to the sheer number of main characters speaking all the time. In contrast, there is considerably less text-filled pages in this issue, with more room for Mebberson to use some visuals to gently guide the story along. That’s not to say that the book is slower; it’s actually faster to read due to the reduced density of words. It’s an economical story, where puffery is avoided. It’s not simplistic, nor does it talk down to the target audience. Exactly three panels tell you everything you need to know about Rarity’s character, motivations, and desires, but in a way that generates empathy and understanding instead of being a cartoonish stereotype.

Rarity's Plight It’s her worst nightmare, and it’s not going to get better.

The two books have two different flavors, both of which are compatible with our characters and their world, but as fun and adventurous as the first four issues were, I must say I prefer where we’re going with this arc. I’ve maintained that the popularity and appeal of Friendship is Magic circles around the core of its characters and the stories they have to tell focusing on their internal flaws. This investment in characters is what keeps us coming back in spite of memetic appeal that would otherwise wane over time. Cook’s arc did not do much to pull back the masks of our characters; it used them as vehicles for a pulpy romp. I love pulpy romps, but I love a dramatic character driven story even more, and the beginning here shows that Nuhfer intends to go in that very direction.

A Marvelous Night for a Moondance

Amy Mebberson has some very tough footprints to follow. As mentioned earlier, the erstwhile cover artist now has full control of an entire book, and with a much larger canvas she is able to spin Nuhfer’s yarn into a visually rich story. She has an excellent grasp of the style and anatomy of ponies, taking the show’s style and merging it with her own style. Instead of imitating Price, with his extensive use of ink shading and hatching, Mebberson insteads opts for super clean, consistent, and crisp lines. Don’t mistake this for a lack of detail; more that the book has just enough without feeling too crowded. There’s plenty for eagle-eyed readers to pick out, like cameos by Sailor Moon ponies, but Mebberson has made sure to keep her pages clear of distractions. That said, she knows when to flex, creating amazing flashback panels in the style of the pilot’s opening story about Nightmare Moon, which is so well crafted with the help of Breckel’s colors that it could have been plucked from that very sequence.

Luna's Troubled Past Princess Luna recounts past events in stylized flashback.

As a designer, I often look at comic pages with a slightly different eye to the artwork than the average reader. I’m always conscious of how the panel layout, text layout, and the natural flow of the drawings interact with each other and how they are used to further the story. Nuhfer and Mebberson already mesh together very well in producing a story that translates to sequential art, and it shows in Amy’s visual direction. Several pages in the book contain minimal dialogue, with Mebberson using the expressions and motion of the character to move things forward. It helps that she has significant practice with ponies already, and there’s very little redundant or similar panels. Reading through the pages has an overall form and motion that guides the reader along, even if they don’t realize it. The panel where Rainbow is zipping along to find a vanished Rarity is a prime example of this; it leads the reader along without cheap crutches like arrows in the way.

For those that might not have cared for Price’s hyper-expressionalism, Amy has toned it down a bit, but still manages to sneak in her own brand of expression. There’s just enough exaggeration to channel the show’s calling-card facial expressions, but with several trademark Mebberson touches. Spike’s giggly looks in several panels is a recurring joke that I first spotted on the Twilight Sparkle Micro #1 cover. It’s cute and befits our favorite mischievous baby dragon. Pinkie Pie especially gets a lot of attention, with her fourth-wall breaking antics taking on a fluffier form. Amy’s lines render her as an airy bundle of energy, and if you could find a way to animate an otherwise still character on a sheet of paper, Mebberson’s Pinkie comes very close.

The only weird or interesting—depending on how you look at it—choice is to draw Princess Luna in her season one design. It’s slightly jarring to see it again after going two whole seasons on TV with her new design. However, I don’t view this as a mistake—more than likely it was an intentional choice and this will have some plot relevance in future issues, especially given the newly released cover for issue #8 drawn by Mebberson. Until then, we can only speculate as to why Luna would appear in her lesser form with no explanation.

Rainbow to Adventure A treasure trove of expressions that suits each character.

Something that helps bridge the gap between Mebberson and Price’s styles are Heather Breckel’s colors, which continue to be a lynchpin in the visual language of the comics. Having read two micro series comics with more pedestrian color treatments, it’s nice to see something that drips with atmosphere again. In the dream and night sequences her use of lighting adds considerable depth to Mebberson’s clean lines, reinforcing the nightmares as something otherworldly and alien—especially when the shadow creatures finally capture their prey. Her use of backlighting and light sourcing has increased considerably, and her judicious use of effects continue to impress. Since Mebberson has put less shading work in her linework, Heather has more room to use color for value and contrast, leading to a more modern look for the scenes. It fits in remarkably well and reminds me of the show’s increased range of lighting and color treatments in season three as opposed to the earlier seasons. As a nice touch, starting with issue #6 Breckel will be credited on the cover along with the other artists, a well-earned approval of her contributions to the series.

Sleepy Rainbow A prime example of judicious use of backlight and glow.

Neil Uyetake returns on lettering duty, with some steps forward and a step back. While I noticed less problematic layouts with weird balloon placements than his last few issues, there’s still some nitpicky problems with tails and positioning. Still, the job is acceptable, though purists and the minority of readers that pay attention to lettering like me will notice. The treatment given to the dialogue would normally be good enough for the book, but there’s another place where lettering is key, and that’s effects. A major drawback of having Price sit out this arc is the sudden lack of his hand-drawn effects lettering in the comic. Neither of the letterers had to add many effects in issues #1-4, as Price did 95% of the work for them. Mebberson provides only a couple instances of pen lettering in issue #5, leaving the rest up to the letterer. The effects are all typeset in Illustrator—Uyetake uses the same font for all of them—and it feels inappropriate in several places. An otherwise purposefully weak poof loses distinction when created similarly to whooshes and zips. There’s also several color choices that clash a bit with the art, like Rainbow’s yellow zips that distract instead of enhancing the scene. Using the same font and only varying the spacing and character width feels very mechanical, with little expression and texture. I realize that my criticisms on lettering are probably not shared by the average reader base but to see an average job done on a critical part of the reading experience when the other players are putting in superlative work sticks out like a sore thumb.

A wimpy poof Now imagine this if it was lettered with a wispy script or airy serifs like the cover’s “Stunt Pony” sign.

Dream The Night Away

With the beginning of a new arc, we can sit back and look at the comics with a fresh mind. If you didn’t care for Price’s art or Cook’s story, you can try again with this story. Those looking for less cartoony antics and more character will be pleased, and if you care to check the synopses and covers of upcoming issues you can see that there’s going to be a roller coaster ride in store. If you were worried about a second team working on the series, rest assured that it is in good hands. Comic books have so far proven to be a lucrative medium for this franchise, with IDW’s pony comics consistently topping the rankings in online and traditional retailers alike, which will hopefully bless us with many more stories to come. Given that FiM’s TV series won’t return until winter this year (likely December), these comic books are the next best thing to help keep you occupied during the Long Ponyless Most Of The Year. In a way, it’s not very ponyless at all if you have your twice-a-month hit of a mainline and micro comic!

Check back in a few weeks when #6 bows for the continuation of the story and my further ruminations. Until then, you can always chat about the issue with us in our forums. Happy reading! 

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