Katie Cook and Andy Price are through playing around. Turning the romance of Princess Cadance and Shining Armor into a pony version of an 80s "teen movie" seemed daring at the time, but the duo's most recent four-issue story arc, "Reflections," is dead-certain sure to boost the blood pressures of a certain class of continuity-obsessed Bronies. The "target" this time is none other than Princess Celestia, who, while possessing a bit more personality than Cadance and Shining did before C&P signed them up for the Equestrian Breakfast Club, has never been what one would consider a fully realized character. Earlier IDW MLP comics have nibbled at the problem of making Celestia interesting, giving her a chance to defend an old friend and colleague and allowing her to team up in an adventure with Spike, but even these efforts stuck closely to the established template of "the wise and supportive ruler." For their part, C&P have previously added some welcome humor to Celestia's daily activities, allowing her to partake in day-long sauna trips, dressing her in a bathrobe, giving her an "I Hate Mondays" coffee mug, and injecting similar homey touches into the quotidian life of an alicorn quasi-goddess. But giving the princess a romance-tinged, bittersweet backstory -- one that she has kept hidden from her closest friends and even from her own sister, Luna -- is something else again. As the consequences of the actions of a younger, somewhat more heedless Celestia begin to manifest themselves in modern-day Equestria and in a mirror-world counterpart, we begin to see Celestia in a new light, as a flawed but noble heroine. One commenter on Equestria Daily observed that Celestia seems "perfect" now only because she's lived so long that she's had time to make every possible mistake. "Reflections" does a remarkable job of recounting her biggest mistake of all and the sacrifices that she and other characters are forced make in order to put things right.
** SPOILERS **
One of the things that distinguishes this "alternative universe" story is that it resists the temptation to try to do too much. We don't see the "nega-versions" of the "Mane 6," for example, except in a single gag page at the end of the last chapter. That isn't too bothersome, though, because the Elements of Harmony are essentially supporting players here. The gals do get to perform in concert as the Elements in #20, but they're basically knocked out of commission before the denouement. Twilight Sparkle might be unnerved at C&P's refusal to hit all of the expected bullet points, but I appreciate the restraint. Throwing a "Mean 6" into the mix would have detracted from the main conflict and cluttered up the story unnecessarily. The "Mane 6" will have more than enough future opportunities to take center stage in this title, after all.
King Sombra" is a noble hero, and so forth, is depicted in a fairly sketchy manner; we see and read just enough details to get a general gist of the place. Again, this is acceptable, because this is less of a sprawling mega-adventure and more of an examination of the consequences of following the dictates of one's heart. As a youthful (comparatively speaking), impetuous, and somewhat uncertain princess, Celestia accompanies the legendary magician Starswirl the Bearded on trips to various dimensions through the medium of a magic mirror (no funny faces required for activation). These chronological cruises culminate in a visit to "Nega-Equestria," where Celestia and Nega-Sombra meet and fall in love. Though Starswirl warns Celestia of the dangers of using the mirror too often, Celestia can't help making a series of quick trips to be with her beloved. Now, with the two Equestrias "leaking into" one another and the evil Celestia and Luna plotting to take advantage of the fact and literally find a new world to try and conquer, Celestia must attempt to repair the damage with the help of the "Mane 6" while facing up to the fact that her own actions have placed everything that she loves and cares for in peril.
The story unspools with great sensitivity, more than ample "Heart," and just enough humor to make the grimmer parts go down more easily. The romance between Celestia and Nega-Sombra is handled with the correct touch, being neither overamped nor downplayed. Physical action, somewhat lacking in the first three chapters, dominates the final issue, as we get the expected "conflict between worlds" and a "final sacrifice" that is one of the more stunningly mature things that I've ever seen in a "kid's comic" (hey, Pinkie Pie called it that, not me, and she would know). Suffice it to say that the "sacrifice" is far more complicated than simply "laying down one's life for one's friends." It even promises to have aftereffects, as Celestia, even though her regime has been saved, will always be aware of what had be done in order to restore the "balance" between the two worlds. I have to think that we will see references to that in future stories. In a soft-pedaled and easily overlooked subplot, Twilight, who is still trying to grow into the role of a princess -- or, rather, what she expects a princess to be -- learns that, while others can serve as one's role models, one must ultimately fashion a personal "leadership style." This high-octane, emotionally sophisticated version of the familiar "Be yourself" trope ties what Celestia did long ago back into what Twilight will presumably have to deal with as she accepts more responsibilities in the future, starting with her accession to the nebulous, but unquestionably challenging, title of "Princess of Friendship" in "Twilight's Kingdom."
I really wish that Cook and Price could do every issue of MLP:FIM, but, if occasional hiatuses are needed in order for them to maintain the remarkable level of quality seen in "Reflections," then I'm OK with that. Breaking with the expected while still maintaining the spirit of the source material is a very tricky business, but C&P have proven to be masters of the form, and I look forward to seeing what they will conjure up next.