My Little Po-Mo vol. 3 Book Launch!

My Little Po-Mo vol. 3 coverMy Little Po-Mo: Unauthorized Critical Essays on My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic Season Three and Derivative Works is now available for purchase!
Like them or hate them, the fans of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic have created a plethora of derivative works, from the typical fanfiction and fanart to long-running comics, audio dramas, video games, songs, and even animation! Not to be outdone, licensed derivative works have proliferated as well in the years since the series began. But is this a natural and healthy expression of fandom? Or appropriation by adult men of one of the few quality works not created with them in mind?
This third volume of essays adapted from the blog My Little Po-Mo combines a critical study of the third season of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic with analysis of both licensed derivative works and a selection of fanworks to explore these questions and the show which inspired them.
This volume includes:

  • Critical essays on every episode of the third season.
  • Additional essays on licensed works such as the IDW comics series and the Equestria Girls spin-off movies.
  • Analysis of more than a dozen fanworks, including Friendship Is Witchcraft, Ask Jappleack, “Rainbow Factory,” and Mega Pony!
  • A case study of Doctor Whooves as an instance of fan influence on the show.

And more!
You can buy it as an ebook on Smashwords (preferred–you get it in your choice of DRM-free formats, and I get more royalties than the other sites), the Kindle store, Barnes & Noble, or the iTunes iBook store!
Or if you prefer, get it in print on CreateSpace (preferred–this site pays the author more royalties) or Amazon–other stores to follow!
ETA: And if you’re interested in the first two books in the series, or my other books, you can find them here!

Save Derpy (Doctor Whooves and Assistant)

Pop between realities, home in time for muffins.

Let’s talk about a pair of boxes.

In his excellent, ongoing project TARDIS Eruditorum, Phil Sandifer discusses the so-called E-Space stories of Doctor Who, a period in which the Fourth Doctor and his companion was thrown into an alternate universe by a deep-space encounter with a phenomenon referred to as a Charged Vacuum Emboitment. Sandifer makes the point that “emboit,” etymologically, looks like it should mean “to place in a box,” and a Charged Vacuum Emboidment is therefore a box containing a vacuum that has a charge differential across it, not a bad description of a CRT television screen. The TARDIS, in other words, smacks into the TV screen and ends up slipping into another universe (read: TV show).

Sandifer has a lot of fun with this concept of emboidment throughout the rest of the series, and of course he does not fail to notice the presence of another prominent box that contains the series, the TARDIS.

As I noted in my article on Time Lords and Terror, the TARDIS is a mobile version of a classic staple of British children’s literature, the everyday object that contains liminal space. Well-known examples include Narnia’s wardrobe, Harry Potter’s Platform 9 3/4, and (most importantly for the work we’re tackling today) Alice’s looking glass. These gates to another world normally lead to a new space where adventure can occur; what makes the TARDIS near-unique is that the space within it is entirely liminal; it is when one emerges that one finds oneself in a new world.

This pair of boxes is a large part of what gives Doctor Who its longevity; the power of the TARDIS is that it can emboit almost any genre or story, bringing it into Doctor Who and playing with it.

Early in the fan-made audio drama series Doctor Whooves and Assistant, Ditzy Doo mishears “paradox” as “pair of box,” spawning a minor running gag through the rest of the series. This is, of course, a complete coincidence, but it’s a fun coincidence. Let’s run with it.

Interestingly, just as the rigid structure of Ace Attorney ensures that any crossover with it becomes Ace Attorney with some unusual guest stars, the flexibility of Doctor Who has the same effect. Because Doctor Who is so readily able to emboit any other story it comes across (even, contra Sandifer, “the story where the Doctor is a serial rapist”–you just have to add the final twist that it was the Valeyard or the Dream Lord), almost any fanwork crossing Doctor Who with something else will tend to deform toward standard Doctor Who with characters from that something else as companions. Friendship Is Magic has the slight advantage in this regard of having no humanoid characters, but in the end this just means that Doctor Whooves and Assistant evolves toward standard Doctor Who with Friendship Is Magic characters as companions and a pony-shaped Doctor.

Most tellingly, Doctor Whooves and Assistant‘s serial nature (to date, four of the six stories occur across multiple episodes) causes it to develop a similar property to Classic Who, which is that it is nigh-impossible to marathon. (A fact which I learned to my dismay this past week.) The pacing of episodes makes attempting to watch them back-to-back extremely grueling, which isn’t helped by the fact that this is amateur work. Most of the episode ideas are quite good, but the execution is sometimes lacking, most notably with the painful age-regression sequence in Episode 5 and the interminable, mediocre musical numbers in Episode 8 Part 2. Like the classic series, there is quite a lot of padding, especially in the crossover with Doctor Whooves Adventures that comprises episode 7, where the split across two series means that many scenes depicted twice, those which aren’t frequently have to be summarized for characters that weren’t present, and on top of that many ideas and debates are recycled for no apparent reason. Coupled with the lack of any banter between the two Doctors (the primary source of entertainment value in any multi-Doctor episode) and the total run time of three and a half hours, this makes episode 7 the most grueling slog of the series. (Though it could be rather a lot worse–the same writer, under another pseudonym, is responsible for the vile “Ask Discorded Whooves” Tumblr.)

At the start, the series seems to invert the emboitment which Doctor Who usually performs. The first story, which takes place across episodes 1 through 3, places the Doctor entirely within Friendship Is Magic. Indeed, his presence is entirely irrelevant; he ends up (together with Ditzy Doo) witnessing but not influencing the events of the Friendship Is Magic premiere, reflecting his and Ditzy’s roles as background ponies. The next story, episode 4, appears to continue this trend of placing the Doctor on the fringes of a Friendship Is Magic episode, as the Doctor returns to Equestria for Winter Wrap-Up and is guided through the pony holiday by Ditzy. However, once the two of them stumble upon and thwart an alien invasion of Equestria, the story becomes one of the most familiar and well-established story structures for Doctor Who, the pseudo-historical.

In a pseudo-historical, the Doctor lands in an established period of history (or at least, that period as filtered through the popular consciousness), but rather than interacting with that history itself, he instead deals with some science-fictional menace that threatens to disrupt that history; examples from the most recent Doctor’s run include “Cold War” and “Vampires in Venice.” However, because Doctor Whooves and Assistant takes place in the world of Friendship Is Magic, the equivalent to history is aired episodes of the show; it is thus the stories set in the “present day” of the program that function as pseudo-historicals.

In other words, episode 4 (as well as episode 6, which is set during “Over a Barrel”) emboits the Doctor within an episode of Friendship Is Magic, but then emboits that episode within a standard Doctor Who formula. Episode 5 then takes this further by placing all of Equestria within a Doctor Who episode. In this episode (on of the series’ best), the Doctor travels to the future of Equestria only to find a Cyber-pony invasion underway, having an adventure which is both recognizably in Equestria and in a Doctor Who episode (notably, the episode’s climax is reminiscent of both Doctor Who‘s “Closing Time” and Friendship Is Magic‘s “A Canterlot Wedding”).

The most recent episode, episode 8, is notable for introducing the first real continuity to the series, something which is much more pronounced in Doctor Who than Friendship Is Magic (the vague hints of a season-long arc in Season 4 of the latter notwithstanding). The presence of another time traveler, the introduction of a new companion, and the first defeated villain to swear revenge all suggest that the series is starting to develop an overarching plot in addition to the individual stories making it up, becoming more serialized and thereby more Who-like.

In the end, Doctor Whooves and Assistant has little to say about Friendship Is Magic or Doctor Who. Increasingly, it is just a fan-made Doctor Who audio drama with a lot of pony puns. But that’s a fairly entertaining thing to be, especially if taken in chunks no larger than a half-hour or so.

My favorite background pony is Applejack (Background Pony)

“I got this at Hot Trotic, do you like it?”

Joy is not shallow.

We as a culture tend to treat it as being somehow less worthy, less deep, than other emotions. We associate joy and happiness with childhood, and cynical world-weariness with adulthood (the precise opposite of my own experience of maturation), and so we tend to see happy, joyful things as less important, less serious, than the somber, the despairing, and the angst-ridden.

Angst, however, is itself an adolescent phenomenon. In English, the word originates with Kierkegaard, who used the term to refer to the anxiety that comes with freedom, the fear and stress created by the need to choose between possibilities. It is, in other words, an emotion felt by one who is no longer bound by the strict rules and supervision that encompass childhood, but has not yet attained the equanimity, confidence, or self-assurance to make decisions without agonizing unnecessarily over them.

This does not mean that only adolescents experience angst; rather, any experience of angst is an opportunity to mature past that angst. Maturation is not a linear process with a fixed end-point; no one living is ever completely grown up. This also does not mean that any anxiety or emotional pain is adolescent; rather, it is self-inflicted anxiety, anxiety in the absence of something actually worth worrying about, that is immature. Anxiety because of a probability of something going wrong is natural and inevitable; self-destructive angst because something might not go right enough, or might go right in the wrong way, is childish–the Internet meme of “first world problems” is a close equivalent. However, this should not be taken to mean that angst is somehow not a legitimate emotion; it of course is precisely as legitimate as any other emotion, because legitimacy is itself a purely emotional concept–but by the same token, there is no reason to treat angst as more legitimate or more serious than any other emotion, joy included.

Finally, angst should not be confused with genuine clinical depression or anxiety. These are medical conditions, and the emotional distress they produce is a symptom of a disease and source of genuine suffering. At the same time, as symptoms of a disease, the feelings produced by clinical depression and anxiety have no greater philosophical or artistic depth than an impacted tooth or a collapsed lung.

All of which serves as preface to the following statement: Background Pony is half a million words of pure adolescent angst, a determined rejection of joy and light in favor of wallowing in despair for no better reason than a delusional belief that misery is somehow more serious and worthy than the fun offered by the source text of Friendship Is Magic.

The premise of Background Pony is actually a fascinating idea, filled with potential: What if a background pony–those characters who recur throughout the series in the backgrounds of shots but rarely or never speak–existed as such in an intradiegetic sense as well as extradiegetic? What, in other words, if she were in some sense invisible to the other characters? Thus we have the story’s main character, Lyra Heartstrings, one of the better-known background ponies in the fandom. As the story opens, she has been living in Ponyville for nearly a year, cursed to be unable to leave the town and to be almost immediately forgotten by anyone she talks to.

As a metaphor, this forgettability could be deployed in countless ways. It is an excellent metaphor for the breakdown of community, for instance–the way in which most of the people we encounter in modern urban life are strangers, alienating us from the geographic community in which we exist. It works well as a metaphor for homelessness and poverty (a concept which early chapters flirt with and then largely ignore). Most of all, it works well as a metaphor for feelings of isolation, loneliness, depression, and angst, which is largely how the story uses it.

This is where the trouble begins, because the nature of a metaphor is that one concept signifies another. The presence of the signified undermines the metaphor. To use an example, part of Lyra’s curse is that she feels cold when it takes effect–the reason she cannot leave Ponyville is because she feels colder the farther she gets from the center of town, and she gets chills whenever a pony forgets the interaction with Lyra they just experienced. This chill serves well as a metaphor for fear and loneliness, except that at the same time as she feels cold Lyra is talking (and talking, and talking, and talking–this story never deploys a few precise words when it can vomit up dozens of sloppy (and frequently straightforwardly wrong) words instead) about how frightened and lonely she is. The result is that the declaration feels even more blatant and unsubtle than it already is, while the metaphor, with nothing left to signify, ceases to be a metaphor and becomes just a chill.

That, of course, is only a problem with the metaphors that are actually explored. Many, many more are simply declared and then left to sit, a recurring feature of the story’s purple prose, along with what later chapters describe as “philosophizing,” which appears in this story to mean the declaration of aphorisms and leading questions without any attempt to construct an argument or address questions of ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, politics, or any other known branch of philosophical inquiry.

Which is not to say that the story is all bad. It does do some things right–certain chapters, most noticeably the self-parodying Pinkie Pie encounters in Chapter 10 and the four musicians’ stories in Chapter 14, work extremely well because they are able to temporarily set aside the angst and bathetic, interminable purple prose and tell a story. The breakdowns of reality in chapters 16 and 17 are likewise well-handled, paying off the use of first-person perspective throughout the story.

This last requires some expansion. In some ways, first-person is the most natural perspective to tell a story in, because the context in which most of us tell stories is in response to questions about ourselves–for example, when a parent asks “What did you do in school today?” Amateur writers thus often instinctively default to a first-person perspective in their stories. However, first-person is the most limited of all perspectives, unable to convey any information to the reader except for what is filtered through the perceptions of the perspective character; anything outside those perceptions is lost. Thus, more mature writers will generally avoid first-person unless there is a reason to employ it, either to explore the way in which the character perceives reality (most obviously, in the use of an unreliable narrator) or to deliberately hide information from the reader. Background Pony does an excellent job of the latter; magic is at work that obscures perception and erases memory, and as the story enters its second (vastly superior to the first) half, we learn that Lyra herself is not immune to these distortions.

Chapters 16 and 17 also benefit from the horror element at work in them; in general, the story is at its most effective when dealing with objects of terror and fear, where the purple prose helps disorient the reader, and at its least effective when dealing with Lyra’s feelings, where the prose is simply pompous and self-serious. The entire story remains continually at a register of maximum emotional intensity for everything (for example, Lyra, not suffering from any sort of heightened sound sensitivity, describes the sound of a quill scratching on a parchment as setting her nerves on fire), with almost no contrast, so rather than seeming poignant or sad Lyra’s continual losses and failures blend into an indistinguishable blur of misery. Those rare moments that appeal to other emotions (most particularly the horrific description of the Unsung realm) are thus an extremely welcome touch of color in an otherwise gray emotional landscape. Unfortunately, the story does not permit them to last for long; the horror-humor (as I’ve argued before, these are closely interrelated genres) of Chapter 16, for example, gives way to the absurd bathos of Discord–Discord, the unflappable trickster god!–giving up on life in despair over memories of a lost love.

Ultimately, the biggest problem is that the premise of the story makes it impossible to take its relentless despair seriously. We know it can’t be that bad to be Lyra for two reasons. The first is that she is someone who observes the lives of the residents of Ponyville, comes to know and care about them, while remaining utterly unknown to them and able to influence them only indirectly and with great effort. This is precisely the relationship between the fan of any work and the characters in that work, and we know, because we experience it, that fandom is much more a source of joy than despair.

Second, we know that it can’t be that bad because nothing in Equestria is that bad. This is a world where curses explicitly do not exist according to a highly accomplished scholar of magic, where friendship and love are the most powerful known sources of magic, and where the cosmically empowered ancient evil has become an ally of the heroes by the end of the second episode. Simply put, the problem of Background Pony is the problem of any grimdark pony fic: since Equestria contains no grimness or darkness to speak of, the only grimdark is that which the author brings with them–it is not recognizable as a derivative work of Friendship Is Magic, but rather appropriates the names of a few characters and locations to tell an entirely unrelated story.

When it comes down to it, the problem with Background Pony is in the claim that Equestria began with a song. Oh, there is nothing surprising in that suggestion itself; that Equestria began with a song is self-evident. The fundamental error of Background Pony lies in the suggestion that this song is an elegy or suite of elegies; there is nothing elegiac, mournful, or grim about the song that began Equestria. After all, by this point we all surely know it by heart:

I used to wonder what friendship could be
Until you all shared its magic with me…

Next week: Feeling a bit boxed in…

Hate Detected (Turnabout Storm)

Meanwhile, in the Lunaverse…

Turnabout Storm is a six-episode, eight-and-a-half-hour fan-made video series crossing over the Ace Attorney video game series with Friendship Is Magic, which tells you most of its major problems from the start.

The first of those is its length, barely an hour shorter than an entire twenty-six episode season of the show, while telling a story only barely more complex than a typical two-parter. Part of that is a testament to the efficiency of the show, of course–the writers are able to convey surprisingly complex story structures such as “The Cutie Mark Chronicles” or “Princess Twilight Sparkle” in very short running times and in ways still simple enough for the extremely young primary target audience to follow. Turnabout Storm lacks that efficiency, and at times (particularly in episode two) can become something of a slog.

The more interesting problem, and the one the series itself seeks to tackle, is the simple incompatibility of the two series. For all that both are heavy on puns, meaningful names, friendship, and a generally positive, sincere outlook on life, Friendship Is Magic is a utopian show that depicts a society of peace and order that is only ever interrupted by external threats, while the Ace Attorney series is set in a world where murder is so common a defense attorney can spend his entire career on nothing else, criminal trials are massively unfairly biased in favor of the prosecution, and said prosecution is so corrupt that, in his first three years as an attorney alone, main character Phoenix Wright uncovers murders by two prosecutors and the chief of police, not to mention instances of blackmail, evidence tampering, and the creation of fraudulent evidence.

The two worldviews fundamentally cannot coexist, and from the moment the series begins, this tension works to undermine and corrupt Equestria, the setting for almost all of the crossover. Despite that setting, as well as a cast in which only two Ace Attorney characters have large roles (though a third has a small but very significant part), it is the worldview of Ace Attorney that seems to win out for most of the series.

This is perhaps inevitable as a result of the choice by the creators to impose the Ace Attorney structure on Equestria. For those unfamiliar with the games, the Ace Attorney series has a fairly rigid structure for each case: a brief (and usually misleading) scene shows a significant event related to the case (usually a murder, but sometimes another event related to the motive for the murder), then has an “Investigation” sequence in which main character Phoenix Wright (or, in some cases, another lawyer) enters the mystery’s setting, encounters some of the major players in it, and is hired to defend someone falsely accused of murder (with, as of the series’ fourth installment, one case that does not initially involve murder and one where the client is guilty). The next morning the first trial sequence begins, during which the prosecution plays ridiculous games like concealing evidence until the most dramatic moment or trying to trick the defense into a rhetorical trap, while the player character (again, usually Phoenix )interrogates witnesses and tries to get them to contradict themselves or the physical evidence. Eventually, he exposes a whole in the prosecution’s theory of how the murder occurred or casts suspicion on a suspect other than his client, and the trial is suspended for a day, leading to another Investigation sequence that afternoon. The next morning the trial resumes, and this second day of court is usually where the really ridiculous courtroom shenanigans occur: the most eccentric witnesses, such as parrots, puppets, or ghosts, the absurd bluffs Phoenix throws up in an attempt to stretch out the trial until he can figure out the real killer, and usually (some cases, especially early in the series, stretch into a third cycle of investigation and trial) dismantling one of the witnesses’ stories and getting them to confess to the crime.

Turnabout Storm follows this structure to T. One might argue that this represents a narrative collapse from the Equestrian point of view, but not quite–there is no threat to the continued ability to tell stories, but rather the imposition of a new way of telling stories and a new genre of stories to tell. It is the imposition of a new narrative, but the old continues underneath. The essential tension between the generally sugary world of Friendship Is Magic and the brutal fact of murder necessitated by the imposition of the Ace Attorney structure is constantly highlighted throughout the story. Most obviously, the contradiction created by the crossover is used to create a diegetic justification crossover: no attorney or judge in Equestria is willing to take on a murder case, so Phoenix Wright and the nameless Ace Attorney judge are summoned magically from their world.

This tension also manifests in the conflict between Phoenix and Twilight Sparkle that defines Part Three of the series (which is actually the third and fourth episodes, one following each character). Phoenix has more than once ended the first day of trial by casting suspicion on someone he believes is innocent, as a delaying tactic to give him time to gather more evidence and find the real guilty party. He is forced to do this at the climax of the second episode, leading to the arrest of Fluttershy. Twilight Sparkle reacts to this as a complete outrage–she hired Phoenix to clear one of her friends, and now two are being tried for murder–and so she and Phoenix separate for the second investigation phase, allowing for the inclusion of more characters (Phoenix teams up with Pinkie Pie, which is delightful, and Twilight with Apple Bloom, which is all right) and a great deal more evidence-gathering and interaction, important since in addition to the (relatively complex) murder mystery itself there are also the ongoing story threads of why Phoenix in particular was summoned and why Trixie (who is serving as prosecutor) is so determined to destroy Twilight and her friends.

That last becomes important in the final two episodes, after Twilight and Phoenix reconcile and begin cooperating again. The two apparently incompatible structures of the murder mystery and the friendship lesson begin to merge as Sonata–who is clearly framed from fairly early on as the killer–takes the stand and begins bullying her former classmate Trixie, forcing Phoenix, Twilight, and Trixie to work together to take her down and heavily hinting at Trixie’s reasons for hating Twilight so much. This could fit in either world–it is particularly likely to occur in Ace Attorney where Edgeworth is involved–but the twist that follows makes it clear that the two structures are merging.

After Sonata finally confesses her guilt, Phoenix recognizes that there is still a contradiction in her testimony. He considers whether to simply accept his victory, but chooses instead to object, because an established and oft-repeated theme of the Ace Attorney games is that uncovering the truth is more important than winning the trial–that a correct verdict is better than a favorable one. In the case where Phoenix’s client is actually guilty, for example, the player has the option at the end to clinch the verdict of not guilty, or expose the client; the one that leads to a happy ending (which is treated as having happened by later games in the series) is the one where he gets his own client found guilty. Here the inverse occurs; Phoenix’s client is innocent, and he can either let Sonata go to jail for the murder everyone–including Sonata herself–believes she committed in self-defense, or he can pull on the one thread still dangling.

He of course chooses the latter, which is consistent with how the Ace Attorney universe works, and what he discovers partially restores the Friendship Is Magic universe to innocence: there was no murder. There was an attempted murder of one pony by another, of course, which is still worse than anything we’ve ever seen ponies do to one another in the show–as of this writing, the most evil act by one pony against another (assuming that Nightmare Moon blotting out the sun would not cause massive ecological devestation because Magic) is a toss-up between the callous greed of the Flim-Flam brothers in “The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000” and Silver Spoon and Diamond Tiara picking on Scootaloo for her disability in “Flight to the Finish.” But there was no actual murder, just a terrible accident that happened to the very pony trying to commit murder; Sonata is guilty of blackmail, but not murder, even in self-defense.

Equestria restored, Phoenix must return to his own world before his presence (and the Ace Attorney rules he brings with him) can cause another murder. The ending is long, happy, and silly, including both the traditional “everyone shouts Objection!” formula from Ace Attorney and the Friendship Is Magic letter to Princess Celestia. There are still questions left unanswered–most prominently, exactly what happened to Trixie to make her so bitter, and what exactly Rainbow Dash was doing in the pictures Sonata and Ace Swift planned to blackmail her with–but we get enough information to form our own theories, and more importantly we know enough to understand why the characters react the way they do.

And maybe having some mysteries left is a good thing. After all, both Ace Attorney and Friendship Is Magic continue on, restored to their own original structures, but both with hints of how this collision will affect their now-separate futures; Trixie has softened slightly, Rainbow Dash has joined the community of professional racers, and Phoenix has the magician’s hat he wanted as a kid, which looks suspiciously like the one his adopted daughter Trucy will have in the fourth game. The two seemingly incompatible worlds have influenced one another for the better–a concept which fits well into the themes of both series.

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.