To the Mooooooooooooooooooon! (Nightmare Rarity, Parts 1-4)

Of COURSE Rarity has an awesome
meet-the-new-supervillain pose. That
is the sort of thing one practices.

The general fan consensus, near as I can gauge, is that the second volume of the IDW Friendship Is Magic comic is as good as or better than the first. I find this baffling, to say the least, but this is not a review blog, so we won’t be tackling the question of quality, at least not directly.

The second volume is immediately quite distinct from the first. The layouts are far more traditional, with none of the outré panel borders or splash-grid hybrid pages that enlivened the first comic. That makes sense for this comic, which is in many ways a more traditional Friendship Is Magic story. 
If you’ll recall, I described the first volume as “the Rainbow Dash approach done well.” That is, it successfully navigated the dangers of a heavily fannish approach, including both “cult” and “meme” elements, to produce an entertaining and engaging read that satisfied fannish desires for continuity references and memetic easter eggs. “Nightmare Rarity,” by contrast, takes an approach more similar to the show, incorporating a degree of continuity, expanding on backstory, and inserting a few gag allusions like the Mabel pony (all appeals to fannish tastes) while remaining an engaged, unironic, sincere story rooted in its characters.

It is here that the comic falls afoul of an excess of ambition in the face of the limitations of its medium, as it tries to simultaneously be fairly heavy on visual spectacle and action (for Friendship Is Magic, anyway) and a character study of Rarity, Spike, and Luna. This is potentially doable in a two-part episode of the show (“The Return of Harmony” in particular pulled it off quite successfully), but the show has the advantage of a fairly high-density medium, able to employ words, voice acting, individual visual moments, and movement to simultaneously convey the action and the character bits, while the comic has only words and static visuals. This is not to say that this kind of story is impossible to do in a comic, even one as short as this, just that it is much more difficult than doing it in the show.

A story like this becomes a juggling act, and the comic has only two hands to the show’s four. Given the number of balls it has in the air, it is unsurprising that the comic drops one–arguably, it is admirable that it drops only one. Though not to the level of the first comic, Amy Mebberson’s art and particularly Heather Breckel’s colors admirably accomplish the goal of providing entertaining action and visual spectacle: The fight to protect Ponyville from the shadow creatures is a highly entertaining visual spectacle, as is the scene in which Celestia and Luna lasso and pull down the moon so that the Mane Six can walk up the cord to it. Nightmare Rarity herself is an excellent design, clearly recognizable both as Rarity and as a variant of Nightmare Moon.

It is on the character front that the comic begins to stumble. As I said, it primarily focuses on Rarity, Luna, and Spike. Most of the other ponies are present and get their moments, but those three are the real stars of the show. Most of the comic’s problems–the one ball too many, to continue straining the juggling metaphor–can be traced to the inclusion of Spike on that list. Of the three, a character focus on Rarity is necessary because she is the one the Nightmare entity corrupts, and a character focus on Luna is important because she used to be Nightmare Moon.

The problem is that there are significant holes in both those character focuses. Luna fares well; this book gives more insight into her character than any episode of the show, “Luna Eclipsed” included. In particular, we see some suggestion of her state of mind at the time she became Nightmare Moon, that she was not only envious of the greater attention and love ponies gave to the day, but also afraid of being forgotten or tossed aside. (It is an interesting perspective on the character, so it’s somewhat disappointing that it seems not to have influenced her transformation into Nightmare Moon as depicted in “Princess Twilight Sparkle.”) Unfortunately, there also seems to be something missing; the Nightmare entity is able to cow Luna in the present by threatening to reveal her secret, but no indication is ever given of what that secret might be or why Luna eventually decides she doesn’t mind it being revealed. It cannot be that Luna’s emotional state opened her up to become Nightmare Moon originally, because that’s widely known both among ponies and to the audience. It could be that the Nightmare was an independent entity that possessed Luna, but it’s not clear why she would want that to be a secret; alternatively it could be that the Nightmare was created by Luna in some way, but again, Luna becoming Nightmare Moon is public knowledge, so that ship has already sailed.

Ambiguity is not a bad thing. It is a narrative tool like any other, and can be used poorly or well, intentionally or accidentally. Unfortunately, here the ambiguity does not so much open up avenues for reader interpretation and speculation as shut down any possibility of figuring out Luna’s motivation. At the climax of Luna’s arc, the residents of Ponyville welcome her aid despite her secret (which, apparently, they somehow now know, leading to the natural question of whether it was a secret to begin with) and she stands by them against Nightmare Rarity. For this to have any emotional weight, the audience needs to understand the risk Luna is taking or the cost she is paying–but because the comic never never makes either clear, nor does it provide the reader with a sensible understanding of what Luna’s secret is so that they can work out the cost of revelation on their own, the scene falls flat.

The issue with Rarity’s story is similarly a result of apparent elision. Fairly early in the comic, we see Rarity have a nightmare in which her friends no longer need her, instead taking their fashion advice from an unstylish pony clearly modeled on the character Mabel from the Disney Channel cartoon Gravity Falls. While Rarity has consistently been shown to be very generous, this generosity has not previously been shown as being motivated by fear, but rather by Rarity’s strong aesthetic sense–she creates beauty for others because she cannot stand to see its lack. This is not to say that it is wrong for the comic to depict her generosity as being motivated by a fear-derived need to “buy” others’ friendship–any behavior which makes up that much of a person’s persona is likely to have multiple motivations–but it is new, and therefore calls out for detailed exploration.

That exploration appears likely to happen when the Nightmare entity corrupts Rarity by exploiting her fear of abandonment, telling her that while her friends might stop needing her and thereby abandon her, it still needs her. Unfortunately, Rarity disappears from the narrative at that moment; the story makes fairly clear that the Nightmare entity has taken complete control, and it is a stock villain with no characterization or motivation beyond being evil, so there’s little of interest from a character perspective there.

Instead, much of the latter half of the story is spent following Spike as he wanders around the moon, building his courage and facing temptation from Nightmare Rarity, which offers to make him a king with Rarity’s mind-controlled body as his queen–the implications of which become more disturbing the more one thinks about it. He overcomes this temptation however, and his “love” joins with the friendship of the other Mane Six and Luna in bringing Rarity back from her Nightmare Rarity state.

None of which sheds any light on what’s going on with Rarity, meaning that ultimately this ends up being a confusing story about Luna that flubs its climax, and a story about Spike entirely extraneous to the rest of the adventure, seeing as the other Mane Six free themselves from imprisonment. Despite the opening chapters more or less demanding that Rarity be the main focus of the story, she receives essentially no development, vanishing up until the other ponies free her.

By far the two most interesting story threads dangled in front of the reader are the question of what Luna’s secret is and what’s going on with Rarity, and both are neglected in favor of giving Spike a rescue-the-princess adventure that tells us nothing about him we didn’t already know. We never get to know a Nightmare Rarity who actually has some residual traits of Rarity, or see internal conflict between Rarity and the Nightmare, and none of the readily available explanations for why reflect well on Heather Nuhfer’s writing. Probably the  most charitable and excusable explanation is that Nuhfer shared in the common misunderstanding of where the tension lies in an adventure serial, and believed that the audience was in suspense regarding whether “our” Rarity still existed within Nightmare Rarity and could be restored–it is an extremely common error to believe that the core question of an adventure is “Will they make it out of this?” Of course any reader with even the basic level of media literacy necessary to make it from one end of the comic to the other knows that Rarity will be recovered by the end of the arc; the question is how.

In the end, the comic tries to do too many things, and in so doing, reaches beyond its grasp. That’s not an uncommon failing for a sophomore effort; it is a sign that success has yet to breed complacency, and therefore should give us hope for future arcs.

Next week: There’s a lot of objections to this, but I have to do it.

10 thoughts on “To the Mooooooooooooooooooon! (Nightmare Rarity, Parts 1-4)

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