December 8, 2013

Sectaurs: Warriors of Symbion, issue 2 "The Deadly Fog"

Dargon, Pinsor, and Mantys are making their final preps to set out and investigate what happened to the farming village. Zak insists they let him join, but they want to keep the party light, and his fiance, Belana, is fearful for his safety. Regent Galken then intrudes, furious the Prince would put himself in danger, and continuing to spout the council's stance that the Keepers are to be blamed for the storm and peace negotiations with Devora are to be respected. He's hit with two surprises: 1) that Dargon has his father's sword, 2) that Pinsor lost family in the town which was sacked, and witnessed the atrocities committed by the Dark Domain. Galken then orders them to go ahead with the investigation, but to take no action against the Dark Domain until any evidence they gather can be presented to the council.

As our heroes pass the Crimson Claw, an armored Stellara asks to join. She spent years fighting alongside Pinsor after he rescued her as a child from a ruined village, until she lost her Insectoid in a battle. She survived the telebond shock, which is fatal to most Sectaurs, and is in search of another Insectoid. Dargon respects her skills and drive, and tells her she is welcome to join his ranks on the day she forges a new bond.

This is all witnessed by Skito, who passes the info to the Dark Domain, where Spidrax has assembled an army to investigate the fog-shrouded village and reclaim the Hyve. Looking over the scene, Waspax and Skuld seethe over the power and trust given to Spidrax, but Devora reveals she's aware of the General's intent to betray her and claim the throne for himself, and is using his drive to let him uncover the hidden power of the Ancients before she and her more loyal forces relieve him of such "burdens".

Spidrax and his forces reach the village, but hold back when a few scouts are stripped down to their bones by the flesh-eating fog. He and his forces take to hiding and wait as they see Dargon, Pinsor, and Mantys approach. Pinsor is overwrought at the fate of his villagers, especially when he sees the skeletons the Dark Domain forces have been reduced to. Mantys remembers the Sentinel Plant, the leaves of which can filter corrosive toxins out of the air, so they set across a nearby ravine in search of it. As Dargon's Insectiod can fly, he presses on ahead as Pinsor and Mantys look for a way to cross, and when the prince spots a Sentinel bush, Spidrax swoops in for an attack so as to claim the bush for himself.

It's a fierce, evenly-matched battle until Pinsor and Mantys arrive, tipping the scales and allowing Dargon to reclaim the bush from the retreating general. Weaving the leaves into cloaks which will protect their skin from the fog, the three set into the town. The only skeletons they find are from the Dark Domain, with no remains of the villagers in evidence. Pinsor inspects his brother's home, but finds nothing but a medallion strung up so as to point to some clue. Dargon finds a sealed slave transport and hears sounds from within, suspecting them to be the missing villagers. Mantys finds the hidden Hyve, doing his best to work the controls so as to sweep the wall of fog away from the town. This allows Dargon to open the transport and free the villagers, among whom Pinsor's brother is still mysteriously absent.

Mantys suddenly runs into the group and tells them to flee as the Hyve goes up in a series of massive explosions as a result of a safeguard he triggered. With this Hyve gone, Dargon is further fueled to find the rest before they can fall into the clutches of the Dark Domain.


I know what you're thinking, but "The Deadly Fog" is not a story about chili night at the Thingvall residence. In fact, it's really not about much of anything at all. But there are still some interesting nuggets tucked in amongst the rather dull and by-the-numbers story. Unfortunately, not all of them are good.

For one, the potential love triangle between Zak, Belana, and Dargon may have been diffused before it even got started. The idea of a forbidden love angle had overtones of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot (with the stations of the two males switched here). It could've been really juicy, but suddenly Zak seems to think of Belana as a ball and chain and envies his friend's domestic freedom. Wave bye-bye to conflict and confrontation on this plot line. I just don't understand why you'd even bother setting this up in the first place if all you're going to do is essentially make it moot before it has a chance to pay off.

I also wish Galken would be more of a genuine foil for Dargon rather than a well meaning, but misguided, bit of bluster. I realize that a comic can't really sustain Game of Thrones level machinations, but if Galken is shown to have had a hand in the disappearance of Dargon's Father, or to be in league with Empress Devora, it would take things to the next level. Maybe that's all ahead of us and I'm simply putting the cart in front of the Battle Beetle here. We'll see.

The other thing I take issue with is the confrontation between Dargon and Spidrax. It's implied that it's the first time the young prince and the seasoned warrior have faced each other one-on-one, and in my opinion, Spidrax should've won this first round decisively. Not only would that give Dargon's character room to grow, it would create more anticipation for their next battle. More important than either of those two things, it would make Spidrax a more ominous figure in our minds, and a greater threat to unseat Empress Devora and defeat the heroes.

On a more positive note is the brief encounter with Stellara. On the surface, it seems like wasted motion, and a missed opportunity to involve a female character in the action. But I see it as set up for something bigger down the line. There's a hero moment coming for Stellara, and I hope the series lasts long enough for us to see it.

"The Deadly Fog" is a bit flat compared to the first issue, but it still exhibits a sense of purpose largely absent from the cartoon. I remain excited to see what happens next.


Right up front, I'll admit this issue is a little slow to get going, most of which we can pin on Bill Mantlo. As I said in the last post, I absolutely love Mantlo, the richness of his characters, the plotting of his stories, the bold, imaginative ideas that boost his stuff beyond mere adventure filler (to the point where I regret he and Jack Kirby never became a team). I love what he says in his work, he's just not very good at saying it, with very heavy, awkward wording that's so eye-rollingly purple that it can distract from his strengths. To be fair, over-writing was the majority status quo in comics until the brisker influence of manga settled in during the 90s (which isn't to say there weren't tighter writers before then, but that's when a big shift took place and most comics could suddenly be read in less than half the time they used to), so I can't hold it against him for following suit with characters describing each blow of their attack or taking pages to recap the events of the previous issue through very forced exposition. That said, Mantlo's own ponderous wording makes the said forced nature stand out even more prominently, especially since the first half of the book is mostly people just standing around and talking. It's about important stuff, some of which I'll get to in a moment, but whew it takes a while to shove through.

Once we reach the second half, things really kick into gear. The fight between Dargon and Spidrax is exciting and sets the stage for what will be the primary conflict of the series: a power battle between two proud and skilled warriors who both see themselves being the future rulers from their respective thrones, one craving power, the other taking responsibility. It then clears away so we can get to the really interesting stuff, namely exploring the state of the town swallowed by the deadly red fog. I'd actually written this off last week as a thread fully explored, as the damage was done and Pinsor was left with a driving loss. Instead of feeling like they took a cheap road out by saving the innocent villagers, I like the thought given to their discovery, with our heroes weaving cloaks out of a protective plant and searching through the remains until the truth is uncovered and Mantys can rescind the cloud. Even then, I like that there's still a mystery to the fate of Pinsor's kin, and that Mantys, for all his wisdom, is inexperienced in operating the Hyve's machinery, thus setting off an explosion that robs it from ever being used again and increases the urgency in finding additional Hyves.

Returning to the first half, I like that Spidrax has pinned such a target to his back that even his lieutenant Waspax has doubts about his thirst for power, leading Empress Devora to reveal she only wants Spidrax to succeed long enough to take him out and claim whatever he finds. He really is a man alone, and it'll be interesting to see if he realizes this, further fueling his drive for power. At the other kingdom, Regent Galken now comes off as a bit of a dick, which I hoped he wouldn't do. I liked the idea of he and Dargon merely representing two angles from which the same problem can be looked at, but by trumping up Dargon as now patient and intelligent, they have to tear Galken down by showing him as weak and unwilling to confront any sources of potential conflict, to the point where he's even bullied into letting the heroes go about their business. This, however, is made up for by continuing to explore central dynamics, as well as finally letting Stellara take the stage and nearly stealing the show. Her full-armored design is great, standing out from the boys without going the skimpy route of comics at their worst, and I like that we get a rich backstory that shows why she's so hardened and loyal, but not to the point of being without a sense of humor or desire for fun, hence her running a pub. I also love the bit where the drunk dude passing by scoffs at the idea of a female warrior, only for her to hoist him off his feet and tell him to never set foot in her bar again.

Stellara's distinctive design does, however, speak to one of the book's other continuing weaknesses. I do quite like Mark Texeira art. He has the occasional awkward angle and his layouts aren't the cleanest, but his figures and faces are strong and expressive, and he crafts this world in very fine, lush detail enhanced ably by inker Joe DelBeato. The problem isn't them, it's still that they're stuck with largely indistinct designs from the toy company. On the villain side, it isn't an issue as everyone finally has a story to make their distinctive look separate itself from the crowd. On the heroes, it's still a bunch of similarly built dudes all wearing the same blue armor, with their only differences being their heads. Even then, with the main trio of this story being Dargon, Pinsor, and Mantys, all of whom have very different heads from one another, the wide shots will pull back so far we can't make out the details of who's who. And Mantlo doesn't hold up his end by putting some form of distinction or even a name drop in the word balloons, so I don't know who's saying what at times. It's not so bad as to completely boot me from the reading experience, but it is awkward and does call attention to itself.

Overall, this is a so-so issue. There are some strong bits in the second half - nothing mind-blowing, but still well done - but the first half is a chore and everything does have the coating of visible clumsiness to the execution, which even mutes the bits which excel. I'm still enjoying the book, though, so I'm hoping this is less a plunge and more just a dry spot as we keep building towards new things.

Random thoughts:
  • I have to give the book points for not holding back on violence. Yes, the villagers were saved, but we see the Dark Domain scouts in agony as the fog eats away their skin, then the littered bones left afterwards. I can see why Marvel didn't make this a Star title.
  • As stiff as Mantlo's writing is, I'm still charmed by the middle ages inflections he flavors it with. And I'll absolutely take a "Ho! To battle!" over whatever that trilling battle cry was that the series kept trying to do.

We'll be back next weekend with another Sectaurs adventure: "Treason".

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.


Strannik said...

Even if it is a weaker issue, it still sounds more interesting than the cartoon (80s Marvel Comics stylistic trappings and all)

Speaking of stylistic trappings - I remember Jim Shooter writing in one of his Defiant Comics columns that he mandated that every issue includes a recap of the events of the previous issues, because every issue has a potential to be someone's first. It's also why we had X-Men recapping their powers every single issue.

Tony Williams said...

The recapping issue is a double-edged sword; On one hand, you don't want to build walls so high that new readers are too intimidated to scale them. On the other hand, constantly re-hashing events and characteristics already familiar to the vast majority of your readership can get really annoying.

There's a litle bit of the latter in issue #3 re: a heretofore background character's backstory, but as for the issue itself... check back this weekend. I will say this much. It rebounds from issue #2.