When I wrote about previous issues of Scales & Scoundrels, I compared it heavily to Dungeons & Dragons, from tone, to humor, to the name itself. I maintain that I was right. But, particularly from issues #7 and 8 on, another element of the series came to the fore; something older and more archetypal even than a forty-five year-old pastime of nerds at a kitchen table. With notes of Elfquest and bandes dessinées, Scales & Scoundrels quickly established itself not only as a modern fantasy comic, but as a timeless adventure magazine.
That trend continues into issue #12, the second part of the series’ first multipart story since the arc plot ended. Last issue took the focus off of Luvander and brought us to the home of Dorma Ironweed as she brought her brother’s memory home for interment. Trapped in the dark, we get to see how the journey has helped Dorma grow. Sebastian Girner opens the book with a recreation of a scene from earlier in the series, allowing Dorma to learn from its example as well as demonstrate how her reactions have evolved. From there we see how the guide looking for guidance of not so long ago has grown into a leader and a hero.
At its core, this issue is not terribly complicated. There’s not a lot of action to test Dorma, nor does she learn any of her grand lessons within these pages. Instead this issue functions as a test for Dorma, allowing her to prove to us and to herself how she’s grown. The real arc is discovering how Dorma and Taras fit into the society that idolized him and turned its back on her, what minor deviations between them justified those views and were scaled up or overlooked to support them, and how Dorma brings both of their stories to a close for now.
That’s enough to propel Scales & Scoundrels #12 along. The series has already displayed an incredible potency for its endings and meanings in Dalden Laira, so it should come as little surprise that there really is something touching in the epilogue of Dorma and Taras’ story. Girner isn’t afraid to leave some of his breadcrumbs as precisely that, little nuggets of insight that must be followed to be appreciated. But even so, the explicit ending of the tale serves as a remarkably poignant examination of how people mean different things to different people and how that’s ok. Dorma defines what Taras’ legacy means to her, while acknowledging that he didn’t belong to her alone. It’s actually a rather beautiful and underutilized little moral that doesn’t side against the outcast but doesn’t crow and award difference for its own sake as many hollow Aesops do.
As has become a staple of this series, it’s the acknowledgement of scale and reality that makes it work. In so many comics, for children and adults alike, there’s a constant drive towards greater stakes. There’s always a demon or a volcano looming over our heroes because concepts have to be put into words and pictures to make them immediate and tangible. But an issue like this reminds you how effective it can be to just be direct and honest and trusting of your readers. It may either seem surprising or make perfect sense for a book that’s also marketed at kids, but Scales & Scoundrels #12 feels real and spine-tingling – not in the cliché marketing way but in the conjuring of the actual sensation – for its decision to make the main threats darkness, loneliness, and hopelessness. Sure, we could have a creeping shadow from the deep places of the world or magic crystal that enforces silence and isolation growing in the walls, but Girner draws all the same emotions out of less, which is all the more fitting for the particular fears that he’s bringing the table.
Speaking of fears, the introduction is one of the most frustrating elements of the issue. Beset by a mysterious voice, Dorma finds herself confronted by her worst fears. There is some evidence to suggest that her tormentor is merely Dorma’s fear of the dark and isolation, however it’s definitely written as though it was a cause of those fears rather than a symptom. Unfortunately we may never know exactly what happened, as the series’ premature cancellation leaves it dangling before us, clearly the hook for a story that may not come. Girner & co.’s hopeful words about the series’ future make me think that they felt it was worth seeding for a possible continuation, but, as it is, it’s a jarring inclusion that feels quickly forgotten.
The issue also feels a bit unconnected. There’s something nice about seeing the rest of the scoundrels again one last time and the growth it displays is, to say the least, very charming, but it also feels kind of cut off from the rest of the issue. One wonders if this wasn’t a case of two separate ideas called upon for one issue, or maybe even another striking issue in the model of S&S #9 combined into its own conclusion.
I could probably go on all day about Girner’s writing; how it effortlessly paints its subtleties into clear focus or how it shoots right at the heart of big questions without moralizing or how it speaks to what is mature better than many, many comics while still remaining accessible and appropriate to children; but, if I did, we’d never make it to the art!
Galaad remains a reason to buy this book all on his own. There are very few active artists in comics I can think of that have regularly churned out a book of such consistent quality, especially considering the number of disparate elements that one would identify as Galaad’s strengths. Combat and motion are obvious highlights, but primacy of expression and emotion are there in quieter scenes, both likely the wages of Galaad’s history as an animator.
This series finale is not without its challenges for Galaad, however. In the dark of the caves, some of the artist’s greatest weapons are taken away from him. Much of this issue has to make do without the brilliant colors and rich backgrounds of the series and, while it does make do, there’s no denying that it would have been nice to end with a little more of the vibrancy that we’ve come to expect. The presence of a large number of nameless characters, mostly appearing in a single light source, also hurts, as there isn’t quite as much room for Galaad to play with the layouts and lighting and some of the crowds are a little less polished than shots of the main cast, though still better than some comics at their best.
But even with all of these limitations, there are some wonderful scenes. Dorma’s emotional journey is handled expertly, with real, anxiety-inducing terror in her face giving way to something oddly wholesome before the weight of leadership hardens her resolve. Likewise, there are still a host of clever lighting and coloring tricks that help sell the scenario. And when the adventure comes to an end, the return to the light feels all the more powerful for your eyes actually almost needing to readjust.
This is a series whose cancellation I feel more keenly than most. If this is my last chance, let me say it clearly: I think everyone should be reading Scales & Scoundrels. It’s one of the best all-ages comics I’ve read in ages and a fantastic fantasy series without any qualifiers. If you’re reading this and you haven’t tried it, do not let cancelation keep you from it; the first ten issues are collected in very affordable trade paperback. It perfectly blends the excitement of a great shonen anime, a fine D&D session, and a classic euro-comic together into a mix that, more than most comics, deserves to be called beautiful, from top to bottom.
Scales & Scoundrels #12 is another wonderful addition to that impressive pedigree, if not quite the triumphant send off I would have hoped for. The setting ultimately proves too restrictive for the team to rank it among the series’ best. However, the sheer style of Galaad’s art and the immense emotional kick of Girner’s take on Dorma and Taras ensure that it remains highly recommended reading. These characters feel like family now and this issue takes full advantage of that. Though it doesn’t quite feel like an ending to the series, with any luck, it won’t be.
Scales & Scoundrels #12 is currently available in comic shops from Image Comics.