You’d expect the Dark Souls comic, which released April 20th from Titan Comics (story by George Mann and art by Alan Quah), to be a series of washed out, sad monsters and silent knights postured among intricate weather-worn medieval architecture. But after reading the first issue, I’m taken by surprise: the panels are detailed and colorful, the characters are chatty, and the plot is far from convoluted. It doesn’t adhere to subtler methods and isn’t necessarily worse for it, but tonally, the comic feels out of touch with the restrained nature of the games.
Our adventure begins with Fira, a knight who sets out to find a way to save the kingdom of Ishra from descending into an age of darkness. There’s a dangerous cave, the curse of the Undead, ancient knights, and dragons involved. Sound familiar? It’s the same basic plot from every Dark Souls game, but set in a different time and place. The series is all about the repetition of cycles and how people interpret light and dark in spiritual and moralistic ways as their particular doomsday approaches. I’m curious to see Ishra carve out its own identity and I hope Fira’s story puts a unique spin on a plot we’ve seen three times so far, but even after the first issue it’s hard to see where everything is headed.
The whole of her first issue adventure feels like the sequence in a movie before the opening credits: intriguing and action-packed, but low on characterization. We only know that Fira left her distressed people to seek a different means for their salvation, but by the end, all we know is that she’s juggling the guilt of leaving with her long term intentions. Whether or not Fira resolves that guilt and accomplishes her goal (and at what cost) remains to be seen, but since the comic starts in the middle of her adventure, I found little reason to care about her problems beyond her supposed ties to a few familiar Dark Souls characters.
Fira is accompanied by a scryer named Aldrich, a notable name to players of Dark Souls 3. Enough hints are dropped to safely assume that this Aldrich is the same Lord of Cinder who, upon consuming too many men, transformed into a sentient puddle of goo. But in the comic, he’s a solid human person with hazy motives. His character bio says that he saw Ishra’s redemption in a prophecy of “dirt and fire and blood and bone” which led him to team up with Fira. Whether or not his intent is to help Ishra or to use her for some nefarious means is unclear, but it’s the biggest hook the comic set by a long shot, even if his inclusion is troubling.
I’m excited to see such an important character explored in detail, and my hopes are that the series covers his descent into cannibalism, maybe his appointment as a Lord of Cinder. It’s rare to have outright answers in a Souls game–but, the mystery of Dark Souls’ lore is key to its intrigue. Without an endless stream of questions, so goes my investment, especially if Aldrich’s characterization is flat. I have an existing idea of who Aldrich was based on the information peppered throughout Dark Souls 3, and I’m worried that meeting the expectations of my imagination will be impossible, like falling in love with a novel and then reading the casting news for the movie adaptation. (Tom Cruise as Aldrich? What were you thinking, Michael Bay?) And based on my impressions of the writing and art, I’m not exactly hopeful.
Dark Souls characters don’t say much, and with good reason. Swerving into melodrama is easy in such a bleak world composed of familiar medieval imagery, so when the dialogue is deployed, it’s meant to hit hard—most often as a sad, insightful elegy for the world and its inhabitants, and rarely as casual conversation. Which is why the constant talk between Fira and Aldrich lack the levity I’m accustomed to. The writing humanizes them, but simultaneously slips into a swashbuckling Dungeons and Dragons tone from time to time. Instead of a quiet battle with an impossible foe, the comic climaxes with a chatty finale; two combatants discussing hits and expository one-liners in equal measure.
The art in Dark Souls speaks for itself instead of relying on text-heavy bouts of storytelling to explain it away. In the comic, the opposite is true. I don’t think the art is poor, but I’m not entirely sure why Quah chose to represent Dark Souls’ bizarre dreamlike fantasy world in such a traditional way. There’s very little mystery to its strong lines and bold colors, even if there’s plenty to admire. The Sandman series from Vertigo or Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth both come to mind; the former maintains a good balance of grounded scenes and experimental collages that illustrate the dreamier sequences, while Asylum uses black space to convey the mystery and tightness of its dark corridors.
Nearly every environment in a Dark Souls game can be studied and dissected for its narrative meaning. The comic is mostly a series of bland crystalline backgrounds that don’t serve much purpose beyond disorienting the reader. That said, the intent may be to keep it straight and clean for the first issue, then to mirror the series’ slow descent into wonder and awe by experimenting with style as the issues release.
Knowing who’s who and what’s what is strange for Dark Souls, but if the story Mann is setting up can stay interesting on its own while tying into the greater Dark Souls lore in a meaningful way, then I’ll keep reading. I just hope they take bolder steps in their attempts to capture the slow-drip horror and sublime beauty that the games owe their successes to.