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Thursday, April 21, 2016

Review: DARK SOULS #1 Lacks Patience

With any adaptation, there are two fundamental questions: Is this a good story in itself, and is it a good adaptation? And while the first question is the more important of the two - a great story can draw you in regardless of fidelity - the second is not unimportant. We often fall in love with the stories we fall in love with for specific, subtle, difficult-to-define reasons. The surface is easy to replicate but barely matters at all; it is the things that get under our skin that stick with us. Take, for instance, Dark Souls. Dark Souls is one of my favorite video games. I am currently about 40 hours in to the recently released Dark Souls III. And when I see people talk about it online, I always shake my head: "It's so hard," "It's so grim," "It's dark fantasy," "There's no plot." They say it as thought that is the reason the series has been such a monumental success, despite breaking so many of the rules of modern video games.

They're describing the packaging. Unfortunately, Dark Souls #1, the new comic book adaptation of the video game series that serves as a prequel to Dark Souls III, is all about the packaging, never engaging with the material beyond the surface.

In Dark Souls #1, a knight named Fira and a scryer named Aldrich hunt for the Dragon Augurer in the Crystalline Labyrinth. The Dragon Augurer holds a tooth from the Wyrm King Andolous, which they need for a quest they are on to end the undead scourge ravaging Ishra. It's a fairly stock fantasy plot, one that fits in reasonably well with the Dark Souls universe. It feels like a video game narrative: Go to point A, collect item B, proceed.

Except, that was never what Dark Souls was about. At its heart, Dark Souls is a story about humanity fighting against nature. It's not a mistake that most Souls games have very little dialogue or that what little there is tends to be looping and odd; this is a story about isolation, about walking into a hostile environment and doing everything in your power to not just survive, but to make the world even a slightly better place. You aren't trying to kill the undead king, but to relight a primal fire or destroy a corrupted dream; even that is mostly something you pick up in snippets of lore and some of the best world design I've ever seen. It's a game that seeks to set the quiet, contemplative moments right up next to the ones where you are desperately scrambling for any safe haven amidst a swarm of mysterious, implacable enemies. So many of the moments of the series downplay your character in favor of those environments, drowning them out against a mysterious skyline, a bleak forest, a town built on the cliffs above a swamp. Dark Souls #1 has none of that.

So, okay, it's a bad adaptation. For hardcore fans of the series, that will likely be frustrating, but most comic readers are not hardcore fans of the Souls games, so there's a degree to which that doesn't necessarily matter. Unfortunately, as a fantasy comic, it falls prey to all the stereotypical weaknesses of the genre without giving us much to hold on to. Dark Souls #1 opens with a full page of text outlining the mythology of the book, a dense bit of exposition that might be forgivable if the book didn't then go on to give us a page of meaningless fan service and then three more pages jam packed with exposition.

Indeed, for an epic fantasy, there's a lot of talking, and most of it is incredibly mundane. If they aren't expounding about who they are and what they want, they're talking about their inevitably tragic history, or being talked at about their inevitably tragic history. Even during the action, the characters talk like they're in a 1960s Spider-Man comic, giving artist Alan Quah less room to navigate and slowing down the pace of the combat. But even outside of combat, the mundane nature of the conversations works against the dark fantasy vibe the series is going for. Just like with Constantine: The Hellblazer and Doctor Strange and Scarlet Witch, it feels like an apology for the fantasy.

The issue also struggles with visual pacing. Quah has to jam in two full action sequences here, and as a result, much of the action is relegated to tiny panels in an odd order, often surrounded by text. It feels stiff, sure, but it also means that there's no sense of danger, no dread, no tension. We know people get tired because a character says so out loud, rather than because the art portrays a particular grueling fight, or even a particularly exhausted-looking combatants. Quah's art is solid and he's well paired with colorist Norah Khor, whose colors look elaborately painted, but the two of them feel jammed in, like they're trying to fit 30 pages of comic into 20 pages of space. Let them breathe a bit, and I think this becomes a different book entirely.

Dark Souls #1 isn't a very good book yet, though I can see how it could be. If Mann and Quah can slow down, if Mann learns to trust Quah's art to speak for itself and gives him the space to tell a physical story, I think the Titan Dark Souls comic could become a solid entry to the current fantasy-comics boom. I don't believe it will ever be a particularly interesting adaptation of the games, but if Mann and Quah can play to their strengths - the lush art, the more classical fantasy tone - this might be worth watching. As a debut issue, however, Dark Souls #1 does little to convince me to pick up more.

Dark Souls #1 was written by George Mann, illustrated by Alan Quah, colored by Komikaki Studio featuring Norah Khor TCS, and lettered by Rob Steen. Published by Titan Comics, Dark Souls #1 is out now with a list price of $3.99.
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