Thursday, January 8, 2015

Comics Review: MY LITTLE PONY: FRIENDSHIP IS MAGIC #25-26 (IDW Publishing, November and December 2014)

What is it about "Wild West" themes and the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic franchise that causes the best of creative intentions to result in something... um, less than optimal?  The TV show's two stabs at Western stories -- season one's "Over a Barrel" and season two's "The Last Roundup" -- are generally not that highly thought of, though, for my own part, I found their biggest sins to be ones of dullness.  Katie Cook and Andy Price sent Rarity and Applejack on the Equestrian equivalent of a "West Coast road swing" during FRIENDS FOREVER #8, during which the "odd couple" took a stagecoach ride and dispatched a bunch of would-be cattle rustlers in the process, but it's hard to separate that incident from the issue's somewhat questionable (in my mind, at least) characterizations of the two "mane" principals.  During that story, one of the defeated rustlers did the "fourth wall" thing with the reading audience, informing them that the gang would be back in a future issue.  Well, here they are, terrorizing and extorting from a small town, like the "bullies" that they literally are. Everything seems to be in place for a good, new-fashioned Western parody.  Instead, we get, by far, THE single worst story that has been dished up in ANY of the IDW MLP comics... and, yes, that includes even the weakest of the defunct MICRO-SERIES offerings.  From Cook and Price, the bellcows of the entire MLP comics franchise?!  Unfortunately, yes.

This failure is basically on Katie Cook, almost 100%.  There's nothing at all wrong with Price's artwork.  Cook, however, seems to have forgotten rule number one about dealing with well-established characters: Never let the desire to tell a particular story tempt you into pulling one of the characters completely OUT of character in order to achieve the goal.  The damage that Cook inflicts in her handling of Twilight Sparkle here, combined with the problems we saw with Rarity and Applejack in FF #8, have combined to make me a little apprehensive about future stories by this creative duo.  Why is Cook suddenly having so much difficulty getting the "Mane 6"'s characterizations right?  And make no mistake, this was a BAD misstep... so much so, in fact, that some people immediately declared that they'd NEVER buy the comics again if the comics could get things THIS wrong.


Given her magical powers AND her status as an alicorn princess, you would think that Twilight would be well-equipped to help Applejack and her other friends handle an invasion of the tiny town of Canter Creek by the massive steer, Longhorn, and his beefy buddies.  Even if Twilight were too nice to get really rough with them, surely she could magically imprison them, or put a protective force field around the town and Applejack's Great Granduncle Chili Pepper's ranch, where the rustlers have squatted in Chili Pepper's absence.  Evidently, however, things are more... um, nuanced than that:

As I said before... there are many different ways in which Twilight could use her magic to neutralize the bad guys, none of which involve the use of lethal magical force.  For example, she could have tried flooding them out, using the same simple magic that she did when she and Rarity (!) knocked down a water tower in order to put out a barn fire that had been set by Longhorn and his meaty minions:

But, no... apparently, the rules for alicorns involve a liberal application of the old "Mutually Assured Destruction" doctrine from the Cold War years.  When it comes to using magic against either "sentient non-magical beings" or "Equestrian citizens" -- Cook doesn't seem to be certain as to which -- Twilight appears to think that there's no alternative between doing nothing and using overwhelming force.

The "logic" behind this... uh... operational paradigm is simply mind-boggling.  If you're a magically endowed villain, like Tirek in the season four finale "Twilight's Kingdom," then it's perfectly OK for Twilight to use any and all magical means to deter you, including... well, if there's a magical equivalent of advanced weaponry, then she certainly used it at some point during her battle with Tirek.

However, if you're a garden-variety, non-magical, "schemer/plotter" type villain, such as, say, The Phantom Blot... OK, I know that his "garden" is far more varied than most, but you get my point... then getting the best of Twilight and the other unicorns and alicorns of Equestria is cake.  Simply find some way to get yourself declared an Equestrian citizen, and then, violate laws with impunity.  St. Paul appealed to his Roman citizenship for a good cause, to demand a trial in Rome, so it would make perfect sense for a villain to use the same tactic for evil.  Actually, the Blot would probably go it one better and get himself attached to an embassy in Canterlot.  It's not as if he hasn't tried that before.

It would have been a simple matter for Cook to have written Twilight completely out of the story, letting her travel with Spike to the Pony Trek convention (now, there's one real-world Equestrian parallel that didn't need to exist...) and leaving Applejack to take the lead in fighting back against villains who have, after all, taken over HER relative's ranch.  In fact, that's what Applejack eventually does, picking up the defeated Sheriff Tumbleweed's discarded star at the end of MLP #25 and becoming the sheriff herself.  For AJ, this represents quite a nice bounceback from the "all ya gotta do to sell apples is sell apples" dumbitude that hamstrung her in FF #8.

The ponies' resulting plan to foil Longhorn, while it pleasantly brings to mind ideas from one of the most-beloved Western spoofs, isn't without its own share of nits.  It only works because Longhorn, having basically already won the battle, decides to figuratively "sweep around the telephone poles" and legally take control of Chili Pepper's ranch.  Uh, why?   Why do the "Mane 6" figure that it's all right to temporarily kidnap a clerk and impersonate a legal official in order to flummox Longhorn, right after Twilight had freaked out over the others trying to destroy Longhorn's (notarized) paperwork?  (Twilight definitely was schizophrenic in this story, wasn't she?)

At least Twilight puts her legalese where her magic normally is, when she zips off to Canterlot and returns with... no, not reinforcements, but a surefire legal way to allow her to finally use her magic against Longhorn.  (Of course, it requires Longhorn's unknowing cooperation, but that doesn't prove to be much of an obstacle.)  Alas, even the traditional "stroll into the sunset" doesn't work when the "Mane 6" exit without evincing any interest whatsoever in whatever happened to Chili Pepper.  

Aside from Applejack and, yes, Rarity -- who flirts with multiple stallions, contributes more than her mite to the anti-Longhorn scheming, and gets to use her generally finesse-oriented magic to move houses, knock down water towers, and perform other intriguingly unladylike operations -- the rest of the gang walk through the story as if they're in a daze.  Twilight's deficiences here are manifest, but Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy contribute virtually nothing -- you would think that both of them, especially the former, would be hacked off at the sight of their friend Applejack getting knocked through a barn wall by Longhorn, but no joy -- and even Pinkie Pie is somewhat lacking here.  (A joke about a character eating a red-hot chili pepper, making faces, and then saying that they like it?  That has SO been done... and, therefore, it probably isn't worth wasting Pinkie on.)

So... yeah, a really bad one.  I'm not going to bail, of course -- Cook and Price are doing the very next arc in MLP #27-28, and I'll be interested in seeing how well they can bounce back.  There is some work to be done here, though... if nothing else, to reassure those who, like me, have been on board from the very start.

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