REVIEW: Tears of the Dragon, Volume 1

I’ve not always been the biggest fan of fantasy.  Sure, earlier in the decade I got caught up in Lord of the Rings fever with much of the rest of the world, but aside from that it’s not a genre I’ve generally immersed myself in.  I’ve found that to be changing in recent months.  It began with my rediscovery of The Princess Bride, watching it on DVD after not seeing it for many years, and falling in love with it all over again.  Then it was taken to the next level by Game of Thrones, HBO’s brilliant adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s novel.  Most recently, amongst the barrage of news regarding DC Comics’ big September relaunch, one of the new titles I’m most looking forward to is Paul Cornell’s sword-and-sorcery themed Demon Knights.  Fantasy has suddenly became a genre of much interest to me.

Another major part in my own personal fantasy revival has been Tears of the Dragon, the excellent webcomic from writer Tyler James and artist Koko Ambaro.  For those of you who don’t follow webcomics, fear not: the series thus far has been collected in this gorgeous graphic novel edition, presented in a landscape format to preserve the layouts as originally presented online.  Something as simple as this – the fact that it’s shaped differently from  other graphic novels – is another small way the book stands out.  It reminded me of Daniel Clowes’ Mister Wonderful, which is rather nice company to be keeping.

But I’m not here to talk about how Tears of the Dragon will look on your coffee table, but rather about the story inside.  It is a story of two quite distinct halves.  The first, “To Become a King”, reads much like standard swashbuckling fantasy fare.  We open with a grandparent telling his children a story of long ago, a bookend which instantly put me in mind of the aforementioned The Princess Bride – something Tyler James himself acknowledges as a major inspiration.  Like that film, the story at this stage is injected with a certain relish for the genre.  Koko Ambaro throws himself into the epic widescreen panoramas with gusto, as we watch prospective king Torvuld do battle with a dragon.  It is in his rendition of the dragons that Ambaro really gets to strut his stuff.  Under his pen, their sheer size makes them intimidating, but they are brought to life with a fluidity that suggests grace as well as power.

The coloring of Paul Little in the first 10 pages gives the story a nostalgic glow – it’s story-time for the kids, and the aesthetic almost feels like a children’s storybook.  But when the talented Miguel Marques takes over from page 12, he brings an earthier tone to the colors, which in turn seems to herald a deeper complexity in the story.  After Torvuld is victorious and is crowned as king, we return to the dragon Sythic, and see him crying over his lost love, slain dragon Mettai.  This dragon is not just another monster, but rather a complex character in his own right, who as this chapter comes to a close we get the sense we’ve not seen the last of.  Then again, as the narrative continues, we learn this is not just another fairy tale either.

It is with the longer second chapter that makes up the bulk of this first volume, “Torvuld’s Plight”, that we get a stronger sense of the tale Tyler James is crafting, and that Tears of the Dragon truly comes into its own.  We still get a fare share of dynamic action and classic fantasy tropes (take a bow, tomboy daughter who wants to be a warrior like the boys), but its laced with poignant human drama, and some really powerful, dark moments.  “I don’t think I like this story, grandfather,” says the little girl as decidedly modern story beats we’re not used to seeing in a fantasy tale start to infect the narrative.

Tyler strikes an effective balance with the voices of his characters, making them feel authentically of a fantasy time and setting, while still feeling striaghtforward and relatable rather than overblown and stilted.  But his true strength comes in his plotting and structure.  You get a sense that this first volume is but the tip of the iceberg for where this story is going, but that every plot development and character established here is done so precisely and deliberately, set to play a bigger role in the future.  Indeed, this volume’s front cover shows us characters we haven’t met yet, and others who look much different to the way they look at this early stage in the narrative.  Clearly, Tyler has meticulously planned well ahead.  But with the way it’s all paced, we never feel like we’re getting an info dump, as the story thunders along and there’s always a more present drama or conflict to occupy our attention.

If there’s any complaint to be had, it’s that it’s over all too quickly.  In the closing pages, we get a twist on that bookend with the grandfather telling the children a story that seems to up  the stakes, while the story of Torvuld and his children takes a tragic turn.  But just as both plot threads seem set to become really compelling, volume 1 is over!  Have no fear, though, because the webcomic resumes in August.  There should be just enough time for you to buy this book and get all caught up.

Tears of the Dragon is a great showcase for all involved.  Tyler James, who already impressed me with his work on Over, shows here an increase in scope and ambition that suggests he is continuing to evolve as a writer.  Koko Ambaro’s simple yet dynamic art is the perfect fit for the story, and is perfectly showcased in this widescreen format, allowing for lush, at times even poetic page layouts.  The colors of both Paul Little and Miguel Marques work to set the tone, with the increasing darkness in the pallette reflecting the direction of the narrative.  Top notch work from all involved.  If you’re a fan of fantasy, this is a comic you need to add to your collection.  With the diversity of its respective plot threads, Tears of the Dragon deserves a place alongside both The Princess Bride and Game of Thrones.

Tears of the Dragon, Volume 1 is now available to buy from Amazon.

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