December 1, 2013

Sectaurs: Warriors of Symbion, issue 1 "Upheaval"

On the planet of Symbion, where humanoid life has evolved from insects, slaves toil in the Dark Domain, where Empress Devora rules from her capital city, Synax. The last piece of land left for her to conquer is the collection of free kingdoms known as the Shining Realm. A treaty exists between the two sides, but Devora is already testing the waters of resistance by invading small border towns under the guise of cleansing them of heretics known as Keepers. One such village is the hometown of Pinsor, a proud knight visiting his friends and family just in time to witness them fall under Devora's forces, led by General Spidrax and his faithful lieutenant Waspax.

There actually is a Keeper in the village, a protector of ancient scientific knowledge from a time before a man-made calamity brought about a dark ages the Sectaur race is still trying to emerge from. He escapes the invasion, retreating into a hidden mountain stronghold called a Hyve, but he's pursued by Skulk, the adopted son of Devora. Upon capturing the Keeper and discovering the Hyve, he and Spidrax (who wants to use the power of the Ancient technology contained within to put himself on the throne) disagree over how best to report the discovery to Devora. Manipulating controls, Skulk unleashes the forces of the Hyve, and a toxic cloud pours into the conquered town, killing everyone within - both innocents and invaders alike. The only one to escape alive is Pinsor.

In the shining realm, prince Dargon enjoys the thrill of the hunt as he and his best friend Zak, a rowdy young man recently expelled from the Royal Guard, take on a Venipede, a massive, insectoid water serpent whose venom is milked for the paralyzing ammunition of firearms. Zak fumbles his half, but Dargon bravely and brashly fights on until he gets his venom and lets the serpent slither away. Watching is Gnatseye, a guard who trusts the prince to take care of himself, and Mantys, an elder who's more than a little pissed.

Dargon's father, the king of Prosperon, the capital kingdom of the Shining Realm, went missing on a quest to find the remants of Ancient knowledge, the Keepers of which have now been vilified by Devora's propaganda, which is believed even by the people of the Shining Realm. Dargon's uncle, Galken, holds the throne as a regent leader, but is hesitant to raise any challenge to Devora, because he's merely a magistrate and is intimidated by the threat of war. Dargon is being groomed to take the throne, but is a warrior bored by magisterial responsibilities, which Mantys is trying to fix.

Dargon brushes off the latest criticisms from Mantys as the young man and his friends celebrate their victorious hunt at a pub, where they're spied on by Skito, one of Devora's men.

The toxic cloud has risen into the sky, creating a ferocious storm which suddenly barrels into Prosperon. The crushing winds and bolts of lighting do damage, but everyone rides it out until the storm dissipates. Mantys isn't the only one who sees the parallel in this storm and the artificial gusts of the legendary cataclysm, but opinion is divided between those who feel the Dark Domain is to be blamed, and those who curse the Keepers.

Galken summons a Council of Kings, where the matter is discussed, but little is settled beyond the majority continuing to blame and persecute the Keepers. Also, one of the council members is Belana, who's betrothed to Zak but has all the feels for Dargon.

Disappointed by the proceedings, Mantys invites Dargon to his lab, where he reveals that he himself is a Keeper, and that Dargon's father was a supporter of the forgotten knowledge of the Ancients, even though misuse of such knowledge is what created the cataclysm. There are still Hyves, repositories of this knowledge, hidden about the landscape, and how that power is used will be determined by the will and heart of those who control them. Dargon is doubtful, until Mantys presents the young man with his father's sword, leading to Dargon's regret about how flippantly he's handled his position.

A worn and battered Pinsor stumbles into the room, telling them of the invasion of the border town under the pretense of heresy. Dargon realizes it's up to him to set things right.

At Grimhold, Synax's central spire, Spidrax, Waspax, and Skulk are being chewed out by Senrad, the Empress's chief administrator. But he's brushed aside by Devora as she's fascinated by the story of the Hyve. Its power was spent in the storm it unleashed, but now she knows the legends of such places are real, and tasks the men with uncovering more.


Right off the bat, this take on the franchise proves itself to be one far bolder, richer, and vastly more thoughtful than the puddle of pointlessness we finished last week. Our two sides are much more firmly drawn, with the Dark Domains holding the most physical power in the realm, and the Empress Devora ruling with a harsh hand from her throne in Synax (which, in a great visual, is a massive bees nest of a kingdom hanging from beneath a cliff). Prosperon of the Shining Realms is a smaller kingdom, but has the will of the masses behind its much calmer rule, and the regent of the throne, Galken, is an administrator desperate to preserve what fragile treaties exist with Synax as he has little knowledge of how to conduct a war. Immediately, we have a world with a cleanly recognizable political standoff between the two dominant forces of a shared continent. We gradually learn they're a society still recovering from a past devastation of mad-made origin, so both sides are united in scapegoating Keepers, people who secretly keep alive ancient knowledge, who are blamed for all ills, branded as heretics, and used as justification for mutual atrocities.

One such atrocity is the sacking of Pinsor's village, which instead of being a past memory he's still working to live down, is now an immediate tragedy which betrays the deception of the Dark Domain, but still carries with it the excuse of cleansing out heretics. Thus, both a political and personal conflict is established in the opening act that I'm curious to see explored come the next issue.

Our heroes are developed far better. In the first episode, Tony made a comment about how brash and arrogant Dargon could be, then was disappointed that the show did nothing with it. Here, we're introduced to him needlessly risking life and limb just for the fun of it, only by issue's end realizing the full weight of responsibility which hangs on his shoulders. His uncle, Galken, is a skilled administrator, but knows nothing about war and avoids it at all costs. Dargon is a proud and daring warrior, but knows nothing about how to manage a kingdom. We end him on the great note of realizing his short-comings, but fearing he's wasted too much of his life to properly prepare for taking it on. I also like the addition of Galken as it creates an obstacle which doesn't allow Dargon to just run off and take whatever action he will against the villains. Galken, thankfully, isn't treacherous or evil, just of a differing mindset than his nephew, with different priorities as they both try, in their own ways, to live up to the legacy of Dargon's lost father.

Rounding up the cast, we have Zak, Dargon's best friend and supporter, who's just as brash but rarely as lucky as his temperament has him stripped of his position in the Royal Guard. Pinsor is still the muscle, albeit of a more noble variety, and he thankfully doesn't call anyone "maggots". Stellara, Dargon's flame and the local pub owner, is still just a background character, and there's some other dude named Gnatseye who likes to hang to the shadows and observe situations. A potentially interesting addition is Balana, a warrior holding the throne of another kingdom in the Shining Realm for an aged and ailing duchess. She has the hots for Dargon but has been betrothed to Zak since she was born, setting up the type of triangle that may be obvious, but often makes for good stories. Back to people we know, Mantor the mentor has now been named Mantys (less on the nose, which I'm thankful for), and not only is he the stern figure constantly trying to get the brash Dargon to take things seriously, but he's also one of the mysterious Keepers every ruling party has currently branded "Enemy #1" purely out of fear.

And they're not unjustified in doing so as, we've already established, the cataclysm that wiped out the prosperous society was a man-made result of science gone amok. I like that they've revised the cataclysm to weather control, removing the cartoon's detail of genetic mutation and just leaving this race of insect people (potentially) as the naturally evolved race of their planet. Weather control also gives us an understanding of what the Hyves are capable of, as the baddies get their hands on one and we witness the power it can unleashed, dropping a poisonous fog which wipes out an entire village, and raining a powerful storm on Prosperon which they barely survive. As Mantys admits, it's a power the Ancients obtained before they learned to control it, so the threat is now it falling into the hands of those who willingly use it for their own personal gain.

Which brings us to the villains. As with the great dynamics of Transformers and G.I. Joe, we have at the heart of the baddies people who don't like one another and are looking for any chance they can get to stab one another in the back. The spider-headed Skulk, barely a character on the TV show, is now the adopted son of the empress, and is devoutly loyal and desperately seeks out ways to make her proud of him. On the other side is General Spidrax and his loyal lieutenant Waspax, who use the power they've been granted to unleash their own sadism on the populace, and see the Hyves as a potential stepping stone to allow themselves to take the throne. Devora is teasingly kept in the shadows for the most part, but is shown as a skilled and charismatic leader, and filling other roles are Senrad, the Empress's lead advisor, who often takes it upon himself to give orders without checking first, and Skito, a spy tucked safely in the shadows of the Shining Realm.

I'll admit the characters still don't leave a strong enough impression for me to place all their names without checking, as there's a lot introduced in a short amount of time, and there's still the unfortunate sameness to a lot of their designs (though they did try adding some variety to the color pallet, but the muted tones don't really allow this to sell). That said, they definitely score points for actually giving characters their own unique personas, motives, and skills, and we're already seeing the dynamics weaving into place as they all start to play off one another. Bill Mantlo, one of my favorite comic book writers of all time, not only brings this world to life by putting into it the same depth of thought which made ROM and Micronauts classic titles which elevated beyond being mere tie-ins, but he really knows how to gradually unfold a tale so that it eases us into the setting instead of just heaving random shit at us. Even the monster Dargon battles has more depth to it as it not only explores his personality, but is revealed as being from the race of creatures from whom paralyzing venom is milked for weapons.

Mark Texeria's art (inked by Joe Del Beato and Art Nichols), is a little wonky at times, but is largely dynamic and expressive, giving everything the power of pulp fantasy, and capturing our characters equally well in quiet moments of levity around a dinner table, stoic political hearings, heroic action as they fight off foes, and draining tragedy as when the entire town chokes on a blood red cloud of fog. You can see him playing with the designs, and original characters do stand out - not to mention marvelous setpieces like the hanging city of Synax - but he's still saddled with the action figure character models of existing characters, the blandness of which we've already explored. Also, I don't know that it was the right choice to largely remove the pupils of the characters' eyes, instead giving them the multi-faceted grid pattern of insects. There's an expressiveness which still allows the characters to convey personality and feelings, but the overall effect is almost a bit too alien to fully adjust to, at least right away. Maybe I'll get over this in a few issues. We'll see.

Overall, this is a really solid book, and one hell of a step up from the cartoon. The world is sprawling and rich, the conflicts intelligent and believable, the characters dynamic and interesting, and the art strong and expressive. High fantasy is a realm comics don't explore often enough, and rarely have I see such a series open as strongly and thoroughly as they do here. Sure, Mantlo's dialogue has its trademark stiffness, but I've always found it to work better than people give it credit for, and here, it's perfectly at home as people speak with the grandeur of ancient hero ballads and pulp legends of old. It won't work for everyone, sure, but for me, it's far more than good enough to keep me reading for the next 7 weeks, and I'm already feeling bummed it won't continue on for weeks beyond.


Having an animated show run concurrent with a comic book series is tricky. You obviously want to maintain at least some measure of integrity regarding the overall canon of the property, but without the comic simply being a beat for beat rehash of the cartoon. Ideally, there's a synergy between them, with each medium handing the baton back and forth to tell different stories in the same continuity. That sort of thing is rare however, as Noel and I found out when we did our Visionaries Showcase a few years ago. In the case of Sectaurs, it's even more pronounced. These are really just two different interpretations of the same material.

At first blush, I'm fairly impressed by the inaugural issue. The art is a little lacking, even by 80s standards, and the dialog is stiff and a bit too courtly-formal for its own good at times, but the back story, politics, and character relationships are fleshed out in a richer and far more interesting fashion than they ever were in the animated series. I used the term "world building" a lot in my review of the cartoon, but I realize now why Noel took me to task for it. Lakes of Blood and Acid Deserts are nothing more than superficial baubles. This - what we see in the comic - is true world building. This place has a history, its people a set of values. There's conflict here that goes beyond mere good and evil, and it's those details that bring this story to life and give it weight. Please don't misunderstand me, this isn't groundbreaking stuff, but compared to its animated counterpart, its Shakespeare.

A larger stage requires more actors, and the comic has several new faces. The addition of The Empress changes the entire dynamic of the villains. In 80s terms, Spidrax goes from being Megatron to Starscream. I'm not certain why they felt the need to keep her cloaked in shadow, unless there's some twist to her identity, but this one change in their hierarchy instantly makes the bad guys more interesting. On the other side, there are a whole host of new characters that help to enrich the previously dull and flat Sectaurs. The loose cannon Mantys sort of plays Qui-Gon to Dargon's Anakin, and it's just the pinch of salt needed to make the latter come to life. More interesting still, but not yet explored in depth, is the potential love triangle between Dargon, Zak, and comic-only character of Belana. This is an example of the power of one well placed character. In the cartoon, the relationship between Dargon and Zak is... well, there really isn't one. But insert Belana, and suddenly these characters become entangled like weeds in a garden.

The biggest change here is not with the characters, but with the Hyve. Or should I say, "Hyves". That's right, plural. In the cartoon it's this lone storehouse of... well, we never really find out what. Here, it ties in directly into the back story of how Symbion came to be while still maintaining the all-important mystery aspect. I have to think that its rendition in the cartoon was an attempt to copy Masters of the Universe and its famous Castle Grayskull. Hard to blame them, considering how many Castle Grayskull playsets Mattel sold, but strictly from a story-telling perspective, it works much better here.

So far, so good. This first issue smoothly and economically introduces a host of characters, relationships, and a rather dense back story, and puts a number of interesting pieces in motion. I don't think I ever found myself looking forward to the next episode of the cartoon. Such is not the case here.

We'll be back next weekend with another Sectaurs adventure: "The Deadly Fog".

In the early 90s, writer Bill Mantlo was tragically struck by a hit-and-run driver and left with a debilitating brain injury and insurance woes, all of which are chronicled in this moving article. If you've enjoyed Mantlo's work and would like to contribute to his ongoing care, please consider a donation.

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