Disney Kingdoms comics

I just happened to be in the Magic Kingdom when I noticed a comic book on the shelf at the Haunted Mansion gift shop, Seekers of the Weird. I didn’t pay much attention. I flipped through the book and decided that if it caught my attention again when the trade came out I’d give it a try.

Five issues came and went. The collected edition hit the shelves. It didn’t catch my attention.

Quite without my knowledge my wife had been buying issues of Figment for my daughter, a huge fan of the imaginary purple dragon. All five issues went into Destiny’s comic box without crossing my line of vision, accompanied a year later by the follow up Figment 2. When my wife discovered they had missed the five issue run of Big Thunder Mountain, she painstakingly tracked down and special ordered every one of them. It wasn’t until Haunted Mansion came out that they saw fit to approach me. “Destiny doesn’t want to read Haunted Mansion,” she said. “I need you to add it to your pull file so I don’t miss any of them.” Ah, me. Les bandes dessinées sont la langue de l’amour.

As part of their initiative to broaden their appeal to young boys and male teens, Disney had commissioned a line of comic books inspired by attractions in the parks. I’m not sure how well that part of the plan worked out for them, but the books certainly caught the attention of Disney fans like my wife. I went back and picked up Seekers of the Weird and made sure to snag Enchanted Tiki Room when it hit the shelves once Haunted Mansion concluded. Each five-issue limited series stood on its own merits, disconnected from the other titles, except for the two Figment books. All of them met with the approval of my wife and daughter, but I felt the need to see for myself just what they were doing with the tie-in media.

While the other books were nominally inspired by attractions in the parks, Seekers of the Weird came from an idea by Imagineer Marty McClure that never came to be. The original attraction was the Museum of the Weird and it was to be a walking tour through an old house with any number of strange and impossible items on display. The comic book told the story of brother and sister Max and Melody Keep, who find themselves suddenly embroiled in a war between an ancient magic user and the secret society that opposes her. Facing down a host of magical monsters and otherworldly entities, Max and Melody must team up with an uncle they barely know and don’t trust in order to save their parents, who have studiously kept the “secret” in “secret society”.

Seekers of the Weird (2014) #1

Figment told the story of Blarion Mercurial before he became known as Dreamfinder. An inventor frustrated by limits placed on his imagination by the laws of physics, Mercurial invents the Integrated Mesmonic Converter to draw energy from the stuff of imagination. Instead, he creates a tiny purple dragon named Figment. Mercurial and Figment then adventure into other worlds until they finally return home just in time to save the Earth from an alien invasion using the power of imagination.

Figment (2014) #1

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad introduces the reader to Abigail Bullion, a rebellious teenage girl whose father owns the Big Thunder Mining Company. Abigail travels west to live with her father in the mining town, but falls in with bandits and learns of the trouble brewing in the mine. Unable to stand still when she perceives injustice, Abigail begins taking measures to put things right. But things are not as they seem and none of the players have factored in the most important thing in this part of the Old West, Big Thunder Mountain herself.

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (2015) #2

Figment 2 returns us to the present day as Mercurial, now known as Dreamfinder, and Figment bring their adventures to a crashing halt at a little city on the coast of Florida. Dreamfinder runs headlong into the legacy of invention that began with his adventures nearly 100 years ago. Imagination, it seems, is limited by neither time nor space. Thrust into the modern world and surrounded by young geniuses with tools that far outstrip his wildest conceptions, Dreamfinder begins to doubt his own abilities and the real power of imagination. It’s up to Mercurial’s great- great- grand-niece Capri to save Dreamfinder from his own doubt with a little Spark of her own.

Figment 2 (2015) #3

In The Haunted Mansion, teenaged Danny is contacted by Madame Leota and informed that the ghost of a pirate captain is holding hostage the ghost of Danny’s beloved grandfather, recently killed during an adventure in the mountains. Danny must overcome his fears and confront the pirate captain, Constance the bride, and the 999 other ghosts within the mansion in order to save his grandfather and keep from becoming the 1000th occupant himself.

The Haunted Mansion (2016) #4

Enchanted Tiki Room hails back to the best of 70s and 80s television, with the four feathered hosts taking the place of Mr. Roark in Disney’s version of Fantasy Island. Guests arrive on the island to witness the magic of the Tiki Room and have their wishes granted by the Tiki gods. In the process, they learn a life lesson and hopefully emerge from the experience as better people.

Enchanted Tiki Room (2016) #3

With the exception of Enchanted Tiki Room, these are all straight-up adventure stories very similar to the movies produced by Disney Studios. The action is engaging, the pacing keeps the reader involved in the story, and the characters are likeable and relateable archetypes that grow through personal failings as the stories progress. They don’t obsess over the character flaws of the cast or devolve into tedious manufactured personal drama. They don’t belabor a social agenda or abuse the reader with heavily stylized art or “edgy” language. These books are designed to appeal to the widest possible audience and they succeed very well. The stories are approachable and easy to read, with crisp lines and a natural flow to the art. Anyone who picks up these books looking for an adventure story is going to find something they like.

Unfortunately, it also means they’ll probably find very little that stands out. Unless you are a massive Figment fan or devoted to the lore of the rides, these books don’t add much to the experience already provided at the parks. Lovers of weird fantasy will enjoy these romps but find they follow a familiar formula and lack grounding in an external setting. These are not bad books and the collected versions make an attractive package at an excellent value. Like many Disney adventure films, each of these adventure stories is a beginning without a continuation, an introduction to a world the reader will likely never visit again nor further contemplate. And that, I think, is a great failing.

G.K. Chesterton wrote about the purpose of myth and fantasy in The Everlasting Man, saying, “We know the meaning of all the myths. We know the last secret revealed to the perfect initiate. And it is not the voice of a priest or a prophet saying ‘These things are.’ It is the voice of a dreamer and an idealist crying, ‘Why cannot these things be?’” The failing of the Disney Kingdom adventure books is that they do not leave the reader asking if these things can be, desiring to protect the world from the supernatural with the Seekers of the Weird, or fearing the crushing weight of a perpetually unfulfilled afterlife in The Haunted Mansion.

Dreamfinder encourages others to seek the spark of imagination within themselves. Young Danny receives a lecture from his ghostly tour guide that depictions of death should properly be a celebration of life. They are both exhortations that ring hollow, for if humanity could find fulfillment within themselves, we would have little need of a savior. As it is, God has placed eternity in the heart of man so that we would look outside of ourselves to examine His waiting revelation.

Finally, I must address Enchanted Tiki Room. The situations are ludicrous without being funny. The characters are quirky without being engaging. The dialog is informative without being witty. The story structure is formulaic without being satisfying. The art, however, is clear and crisp with an eye for motion and the ability to make the attempts at physical comedy seem funnier than they actually are. Horacio Domingues handled pencils, inks, and colors for the title and deserves massive props for his efforts. I shall speak of this title no more.

Each of the Disney Kingdoms titles must be found under its own name, and I encourage fans of weird fantasy and sci-fi adventure to not dismiss them out of hand. They really do make nice companion pieces to the attractions and most every audience will find something in them appealing. I give Seekers of the Weird, The Haunted Mansion, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Figment, and Figment 2 Quality scores of “Satisfying Reads” and Relevance scores of “Missed Opportunities”.

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Winston Crutchfield has loved comics ever since he discovered his older brother’s stash of Spider-Man and What If? books forgotten in a dresser drawer. He blames his mother for teaching him to read and his grandmother for fooling nobody by “accidentally” picking up new comics at the drugstore with her crossword puzzles. He is the publisher and small business service provider at Critical Press Media, and may be found in the Christian Geek Central forums as “MindSpike”.

Dungeons & Dragons by Jim Zub

I don’t remember exactly how I stumbled onto Humble Bundle; it probably came up in one of the forums or newsgroups I read. However it happened, I arrived just in time to purchase their Dungeons & Dragons digital comic book bundle. The bundle included the complete runs of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Forgotten Realms books that DC Comics published in the 80s and 90s. It hadn’t really been on my radar at the time; I was mostly into superhero books. At the moment, though, I was craving good fantasy adventure and wanted something to go along with our current D&D campaign. Good value, good cause, great buy.

Better than I knew; the bundle also included the more recent books published by IDW. When I flipped open the first pages of Legends of Baldur’s Gate I discovered hidden treasure. It was there that I met a desperate elven sorcerer named Delina, on the run from the minions of the Cult of the Dragon and unable to wield her wild magic effectively. Her flight leads her to Baldur’s Gate and the statue of Minsc, the Beloved Ranger who generations before was one of the original heroes of Baldur’s Gate. Delina’s wild magic brings him to life and the fight is on!

Minsc’s first words struck a chord deep within me, ringing a note I hadn’t realized I’d been desperately missing. “Stand down, dirty minions of evil, or face my hamster’s wrath!” Here stood a hero.

Dungeons & Dragons: Legends of Baldur’s Gate (2014) #1

I’d pretty much given up on comic books entirely five or six years before. The current generation of creators simply wasn’t telling stories I wanted to read. My present comics consumption consisted of a scant handful of web comics that I read whenever I remembered to catch up. Suddenly I remembered how much I loved this art form and how much I missed it. I have more than two decade’s worth of back issues in a wide variety of titles, but there is joy in the discovery of new material entirely separate from the nostalgia of rereading favorite stories. I now had a new hero.

The more I read, the more familiar he seemed until a soft light finally dawned. It was as if Ben Edlund had come to his senses and fled the insanity of Hollywood to return to his roots. If The Tick wore chain mail and fought evil with a broadsword, this is what it would look like. The rest of the book remained rooted in the serious pseudo-realism of dramatic fantasy, without the trappings of the absurd that made The Tick’s entire world surreal. Minsc, however, perfectly echoed that hero’s oblivious optimism and charisma. He was that one guy at the gaming table, the one who just shows up to have fun and smite evil while the rest of the party deals with their intrigues and personal drama. I flipped to the credits page, fully expecting to see Edlund’s name as the headline.

Jim Zub? Never heard of him. Let’s see … Skullkickers – heard of that but never read it. Pathfinder comics – saw them in the store but never bothered. Samurai Jack – how on Earth did I miss a Samurai Jack comic? Figment – my daughter loves that book. This could be pretty good, I figured, but I’ll save my verdict for the end of the book.

I loved it. I loved reading comics again. The bitterness and frustration of the past few years washed away with the discovery of new heroes, irredeemable evil, and a sense of adventure with momentum like a freight train. I was very excited when IDW announced a new Dungeons & Dragons series that would follow up with the characters of the Baldur’s Gate story. This new book would also be penned by Zub and feature vampire Count Strahd von Zarovich as the principle antagonist. Excellent.

With some temerity, I began to investigate other comics. I quickly shied away from the Marvel and DC superheroes when a glance at the shelves revealed the continuing presence of the same elements that had previously driven me away. I landed at Titan and picked up a new line of Doctor Who books. I drifted past DC and noticed they were going to try and reinvigorate the Hannah-Barbera properties. Archie Comics called to me with the presence of Mark Waid’s name on the cover of a re-imagining of the Riverdale gang and a trade paperback showcasing Mega Man squaring off against Sonic the Hedgehog. Once again, I could read and enjoy comic books.

But I had to finish reading my stock of Dungeons & Dragons books first. They were all pretty good. Alex Irvine and Peter Bergting took me to the world of Dark Sun and the quest of a slave for survival and freedom. Paul Crilley reminded me that comics told mystery stories as well, on the world of Eberron. John Rogers and Andrea DiVito introduced me to Fell’s Five in the Forgotten Realms, a party of adventurers drawn directly from my gaming table but who didn’t shy away from the consequences of their actions or the implications of their powers. And of course no one does the Forgotten Realms quite like R.A. Salvatore and Drizzt Do’Urden.

Dungeons & Dragons (2010) #5

And then only Jim Zub and Legends of Baldur’s Gate remained. While Minsc and Boo tackled the forces of evil with tireless good cheer and inevitable purpose, the rest of the party rebelled against their parents, quested to save their family, or hung around simply because they had nowhere else to go. The stakes of the story rose to a firey crescendo that swelled and crashed in a wave of action and tide of ebbing emotion. The pacing kept me turning pages, torn between astonishment at each panel and a desperate need to see what happened next. The characters involved me in their personal motivations and desires without dragging me into a morass of juvenile emotional obsession or pedantic explanations of the obvious.

The party’s adventures continued in the next volume with Shadows of the Vampire. The corruption of the realm of Ravenloft touched the heroes, laying bare their weakness and beating them down against the power of Strahd and his ability to destroy hope. Through it all, Zub continually threw the actions of hero and villain into sharp contrast, filling the world with people who are selfish, desperate, and compassionate. The stories haven’t delved deep into the philosophical discussions of the fantasy realm. They haven’t explored the implications of a world populated by deific monsters and mortals who can challenge the gods. But they haven’t needed to; Zub’s stories possess humanity. These are the people we hope we would be if we found ourselves in their world.

Dungeons & Dragons: Legends of Baldur’s Gate (2014) #3
Jim Zub (left), author (right)

I met Zub at the 2016 GenCon quite by chance. He was working a booth (for his publisher, I presume) and I saw the display of Skullkickers and D&D trades. I commented to my wife that it would be very cool if I could get a signed copy of Legend of Baldur’s Gate. From the other side of the display, I heard a voice pipe up, “I can do that.” We spoke for a bit; he was very gracious and patient with me (no small feat). He’s clearly a fellow comics and fantasy fan blessed enough to be living his dream job. He convinced me to give Skullkickers a try, and signed that book for me as well.

Zub continues to write for the industry, picking up more work for Marvel as the writer on Thunderbolts and Avengers, for UDON Entertainment’s Street Fighter license, and for Image in the pages of Wayward and Glitterbomb. The adventures of Minsc and Delina continue in the pages of Dungeons & Dragons: Frost Giant’s Fury from IDW. I’ve picked up his entire run of Pathfinder comics; Skullkickers is next on my short list. I give Jim Zub’s Dungeons & Dragons books a Quality score of “Excellent” and a Relevance score of “High”.

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Winston Crutchfield has loved comics ever since he discovered his older brother’s stash of Spider-Man and What If? books forgotten in a dresser drawer. He blames his mother for teaching him to read and his grandmother for fooling nobody by “accidentally” picking up new comics at the drugstore with her crossword puzzles. He is the publisher and small business service provider at Critical Press Media, and may be found in the Christian Geek Central forums as “MindSpike”.