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Manga Review: World of Warcraft: Mage

Anne Stickney

I'm going to take a moment here, before I start, and talk about Warcraft: Death Knight. Death Knight was the precursor to the book pictured above, part of the "class" series of manga that TOYKYOPOP is releasing for Warcraft fans. Death Knight made a really, really good first impression of the series, outlining the lore behind the death knight Thassarian, who has been featured heavily both in the death knight starting area and later in Icecrown as a member of the Valiance Expedition. That's right, the Alliance forces -- and the book goes into his past and how he came to be, as well as expanding a little on the lore behind Koltira Deathweaver. That said, I was incredibly excited when I heard there was going to be a new "class" book coming out, and even more so when I heard it was going to be the mage class. I was hoping to see a book about Jaina, or maybe even something about Antonidas and his history.

What I got was Warcraft: Mage, a book written by Richard A. Knaak, illustrated by Ryo Kawakami. The book tells the story of a young mage in training named Aodhan, who we've never seen in game before, and an assault by the blue dragonflight on Dalaran that nearly led to the city's destruction, which we've also never seen referenced in game. This already had me questioning the book, but the premise seemed interesting enough given that the blue dragonflight did have their own story going on in Wrath, so I picked up the book and gave it a read.

It's hard to review a work when I so desperately wanted to like it -- as I mentioned above, Warcraft: Death Knight was an extremely well-done book that had me eager to see the rest of the series. This was in large part due to my apparent misconception of what the series was; I'd assumed that we'd be hearing the stories behind some of the lesser-known Warcraft characters that have played a part in lore, however minor. Death Knight did an excellent job of shedding light on the death knight class and exactly what it means to be a death knight; I'd expected the same for the rest of the series. Unfortunately my assumptions were wrong (which is what I get for making them), and Warcraft: Mage doesn't seem to have much to do with its precursor.

Ryo Kawakami is the artist on the book, taking a step up from his short story work in Warcraft Legends. Kawakami's work was first seen in volume four of the Legends series, and I have to admit at the time I was less than impressed with his ability. However, he appeared again in volume five of the series, this time with a story explaining the origins of everyone's favorite rhyming holiday villain the Headless Horseman, and in between the two books, his artwork seemed to have made an upward climb in quality. I was really impressed with Legends vol. 5. While Kawakami's style lends itself to long-legged, long-faced characters, his work lacked detail in backgrounds or settings -- he's very apt with capturing facial expressions and rendering emotion, but complex backgrounds just didn't seem to be his cup of tea. With the Headless Horseman story, there was a lot more background work and detail, so I was looking forward to seeing how he'd progressed between vol. 5 of Legends and now.

Unfortunately, it appears that his lack of attention to backgrounds carried over to Warcraft: Mage. Complex scenes like the assault on Dalaran pictured above just didn't quite come across. The screentones used for shading were done with flat fills rather than using them to emphasize curves or shadows. In the image above, it's hard to discern the dragons from the background of Dalaran, and the white outlines around the attacking blue dragon forces only complicate the image further. While I really do like Kawakami's work, I think it's probably better if he stick to the shorter stories for now; they give him more time to work out the details and shading in a way that suits the story being told.
Speaking of story, let's talk about the story behind Warcraft: Mage. This sadly isn't a book about a hero, or a kid who becomes a hero -- at the beginning of the book he's just an apprentice mage, and at the end of the book he's still an apprentice mage (albeit one who helped saved Dalaran largely because of his ties to its attacker). Without giving away spoilers, I can safely say that had Aodhan not had ties to the situation at hand, it's unlikely he would've been noted at all either before or after the volume's completion.

The part that really irritates me -- and again, this was me making assumptions about a graphic novel line when I'd only read one book in the series -- is that this volume had so much more potential from a story standpoint. There are countless mages in Wrath lore that could have benefited from a manga novel -- Aethas Sunreaver, Ansirem Runeweaver and Archmage Koreln, to name a few. Yet instead of tackling one of these lesser-known lore figures, the book gives us another throw-away character, this one with no special discerning powers of his own, and a throw-away story to a throw-away event that didn't exist anywhere in game. With Death Knight, we got a good look at a character we'd spent some time seeing around Icecrown; with Mage, we didn't get that.

Warcraft: Mage
also doesn't seem to have any reasonable lesson or motive behind it. With Death Knight, we saw first hand what it means to be a death knight, the sorrow and loss, the struggle of trying to fit in with a society you once belonged to after you'd betrayed it. Mage is simply a story about a young aspiring mage and an event that played out in his life; however, Aodhan doesn't appear to be on the path towards some great destiny -- and the most important lesson he seems to learn in the book is "focus," which in the grand scheme of things, doesn't really hold the same importance as any of what we saw in Warcraft: Death Knight. To be perfectly blunt, there's no real sense of dire threat or conflict in the book, nothing to draw the reader in. Even the final battle between the main "villain" and Rhonin didn't really hold any sense of urgency.
That said, let's take a moment and talk about the writing. I know in my recent review of Shadow Wing, I'd suggested that Knaak stick to writing novels and leave the comic writing for someone else. However, the writing in Warcraft: Mage was actually just fine from the standpoint of a graphic novel rather than a book -- the action flowed nicely from one scene to the next, and I wasn't left feeling confused or left behind by the events at all. All the characters were written well enough, the dialogue wasn't stilted in the slightest -- though given that Rhonin is Knaak's creation, this should come as no surprise. I think the major difference between this work and Knaak's other forays into comics is the scope of the story itself. Rather than an epic story spanning several novels, this is telling the story of one contained event, so there simply isn't opportunity for confusion.

The bad

Warcraft: Mage is a book that had a lot of promising possibilities that sadly never happened. The book covers a small section of time that players never really saw referenced in game, featuring a character that players have never encountered in game, with a resolution that again, will likely never be referenced in game, leaving little for the average Warcraft player to care about. The artwork sadly falls a little flat due to lack of detail, especially in comparison to Kawakami's work in Legends vol. 5. While the writing is technically apt, the story itself doesn't really seem to hold any importance in the Warcraft universe, leaving me wondering why I bothered picking up the book in the first place.
The good

Despite the lack of background detail, Kawakami is still just as good at drawing people and expressions as always. The villain has a distinctly "creepy" vibe about him, and Kawakami did a good job of capturing that slightly "off" feeling you get when you sense someone isn't quite right in the head. Knaak's writing is solid in this book, and the story itself is easy to follow -- the attack by the blue dragonflight and their motives for doing so is never brought into question; it's made crystal-clear.

Warcraft: Mage ultimately left me confused as to what exactly the common factor was between the class manga series. While Death Knight was very clear on its story, motives and what it set out to tell us, Mage fell sadly short and makes me question whether there really is a cohesiveness to this series beyond the titles. If you are a fan of Warcraft manga, Richard Knaak or Ryo Kawakami's work and want to complete your collection, go ahead and pick this manga up. If you're looking for nail-biting entertainment or expansion on Warcraft lore, I'd give this one a pass -- the story itself has no bearing on current events in game, so it doesn't appear you'll be missing anything lore-wise from skipping this book.

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