Following the events of “Shadow Play”, Sunburst is (cheerfully) preparing to rewrite all of his history notes based on the events he went through. Yet just as he is getting started, he gets a mysterious book and a note on his front doorstep, reading only that the individual wishes to tell his “side” of the story and signing it “S”. Guessing who it is, Sunburst digs in…
Stygian the unicorn was never brave, wise, magical, or considered himself a hero. He lived a quiet scholarly life studying the sea and looking to it for answers about where ponies came from. One day, however, he heard a voice calling to him from the sea and was surprised and delighted to find three “sea ponies”. The creatures introduced themselves as the Dazzlings and said they were sirens, and asked for his help in holding a concert in which everyone in the town could hear their voices. When Stygian hesitated, however, they suddenly grew vicious and angry momentarily, scaring him into running off. On looking at one of the guidebooks of his idol, Starswirl the Bearded, he discovered that while no one had ever seen a siren, he suspected that they thrived on the negative energy of others. Nevertheless, after calming down, he decided to research more about them and then meet with them again to see what he could learn about them, but first had to go and help with chores for a local elderly mare. Yet when she failed to return long after nightfall, Stygian went searching for her and found his entire town in the hypnotic grip of the Dazzlings, whose songs were driving them to fight with each other as they fed off the chaos that resulted. Being too far away for their song to hypnotize him as well, Stygian fled home but, not knowing what he could do, instead looked to his books and identified six of the greatest heroes of Equestria. He decided to recruit them to defeat the Dazzlings and set out to find them. After journeying for weeks, he finally arrived in a northern town at the edge of a volcano searching for the first on his list, only to find the villagers worried before suddenly falling into a hole that seems to appear out of nowhere. Not long after, however, a mighty stallion with a warshovel appeared to help him out.
Stygian recognized the pony as Rockhoof of the Mighty Helm, who was digging a new trench about the town in preparation for another volcanic eruption. Unfortunately, he seemed unable to help Stygian with his problem as Captain Steela needed his help with another problem: allowing a school of filter fish, which kept their water clean, to reach their destination while trying to fight off a swarm of lumber bears. The tasks seemed impossible as the river ran through a forest, where the lumber bears could rebuild themselves as soon as they were smashed. Stygian, however, got an idea to reroute the river around the forest, allowing the lumber bears to be defeated while sparing the fish. With Steela and Rockhoof helping him, he managed to enact the plan and help the town; and thereby got Rockhoof to willingly join him. Now with a companion, Stygian found the next leg of his journey much more bearable until they reached the swamplands of Equestria. Shortly after arrival, they were assaulted first by a vicious bunny and then a swarm of forest creatures, but were rescued by a blue pony in a bird mask. After mistaking her for a hippogriff, she removed it to reveal herself as Mage Meadowbrook. However, she declined to join the group as she needed to cure whatever was making the animals of the forest vicious first. When Rockhoof and Stygian offered to help, she initially declined based on how she had just saved them, but an off color remark by the two allowed her to realize that only the herbivores of the forest were going wild while the carnivores were hiding in fear of them–leading her to conclude the culprit was a local fungus affecting the plants. She returned to her home to start making a cure, but Stygian and Rockhoof soon found she wouldn’t have long to prepare it as the herbivores were massing for an attack.
To try and buy some time for Meadowbrook to finish her cure, Rockhoof barricaded the door with his own body while Stygian went upstairs; directed by Meadowbrook to use her potion collection to fend them off. The potions had mixed results at first, but eventually Stygian accidentally threw a strength-granting one that made the attacking bunnies a group of hulks. Fortunately, they broke in just as the cure was finished and Meadowbrook rapidly dispersed it to all the animals. The next day, Meadowbrook agreed to help out the group and they set off again. On the next leg of the journey, Rockhoof and Meadowbrook began to grow close to each other, but Stygian grew increasingly worried about the fate of his village. The group finally arrived at the training ground of the Royal Guard, where they were accosted by Royal Guard member Grimhoof. After “exchanging pleasantries” with Rockhoof, they asked if they could speak to the fastest of their order, Flash Magnus, only to find he was otherwise preoccupied with a a coming war…against the dragons.
Stygian broke up the epic battle between the pegasi and the dragons by shouting out his request to them. At first they ignored him, but Rockhoof got their attention again by taunting them until Flash Magnus went down to see what they wanted. While Stygian talked with him, however, Rockhoof had Meadowbrook talk to the dragons and got them to retreat by giving them a cure for their scale rot (which is why they were attacking Equestria in the first place). Freed of his need to protect the skies, Flash agreed to help the group, and on the way Rockhoof explained he didn’t know if Meadowbrook could have gotten the dragons to retreat, but counted on either her or Stygian being able to resolve the issue without a fight. Stygian also revealed that individual talents alone weren’t his sole reason for choosing the six heroes that he was looking for…that he suspected, in reality, they all had a special quality about them that made them important when united. The four made their way to Southern Equestria in search of Somnambula, but instead found a hoard of mummy ponies hungry for brains. Rockhoof, Flash, and even Meadowbrook leapt into the fray to try and beat them all off, but there proved to be too many until Somnambula quite literally dropped in. Seeing them as a group of legendary adventurers, she readily joined up with them without hesitation and explained that this was all happening due to one pony in particular bearing a cursed gem. The five quickly worked out a plan that made use of all of their respective abilities that allowed Somnambula to shatter it; revealing that the whole thing was a nightmare Prince Hassan was having when he accidentally put on an evil enchanted emerald from his enemies. The land saved again, she enthusiastically set out with the group for their next destination. Meanwhile, in a far distant garden and greenhouse, the unicorn Mistmane addressed her plants saying that she would need to leave them for a time soon, only to suddenly be eaten by one of her own massive flytraps.
On arriving at the greenhouse, the group found it locked from the inside. Rockhoof and Flash’s attempts to force their way in went rather badly, but in doing so they discovered the plants inside themselves were barricading the way. Getting an idea from that, Stygian and Meadowbrook used one of Meadowbrook’s own plant growth potions as a bribe to trick the plants into opening up, but Flash (still groggy from hitting his head trying to dash inside), accidentally revealed the deception and got them all assaulted by the monstrous plants. Fortunately, Stygian and Rockhoof were able to open the flytrap that ate Mistmane, who, on emerging, revealed the plants were just afraid to let her leave and calmed them all down into releasing the others. She further revealed she knew they were coming all along; that she detected a change was coming across Equestria. She also guided them correctly to the future site of Canterlot and the nearly-completed Canterlot Castle for the final member of their group: Starswirl the Bearded. As he was Stygian’s idol, he initially felt too humble and afraid to even address him, but with some coaxing from Mistmane he approached Starswirl. After first getting detracted by giving his personal account of what he thought of Starswirl’s focal figures in “Great Heroes of Equestria”, revealing how much love and admiration he had for all of them, Stygian finally managed to explain why he came and introduced the wizard formally to the other five.
Before beginning the final portion of the story, the narrator of the book again explains that he isn’t a hero, and that he should have followed a rule about being a scholar – “Never meet your heroes”.
Starswirl the Bearded was marveled to meet the legendary heroes of Equestria but almost immediately began to overlook Stygian. On hearing about the Sirens, he joined the group but almost instantly supplanted Stygian’s role as the unofficial leader. He refused to let Celestia and Luna know about the group’s existence as well, as he believed that they wouldn’t be there forever and the two girls would eventually have to rule Equestria without them. As Starswirl began to connect with the others and largely overlook him, Stygian’s feelings of inadequacy continued to grow, right down to the point where Starswirl cut him off in the middle of him formulating his plan to defeat the Dazzlings with his own. He further supplanted Stygian’s own theory about them all having something special about them with his own version of it, believing they represented Sorcery, Strength, Bravery, Hope, Healing, and Beauty, and represented the “Pillars” on which the power of Equestria was upheld–that united they could wield a power that was far greater than any one individual could. However, when the others asked what Stygian’s virtue was, he refused to believe he contributed anything to the group, and despite the others assuring him that he had put himself through danger time and again to bring them together and that the friendship he displayed was it’s own virtue, both Stygian as well as Starswirl refused to see any value in it. Starswirl ended up rejecting any plans to try and reason with or reform the Dazzlings, declaring that “ponies don’t change” and that they needed to be banished to a magicless dimension instead. After a long pause, Stygian decided again he wasn’t a hero and deferred to Starswirl’s judgment. As a result, he was forced to stand to one side and simply be a spectator for the climactic battle with the Dazzlings. Right as Starswirl managed to banish them, he was happy that he had saved his town…but also told himself he should have been fighting the battle as well. The story ended with Stygian discovering a way to give himself greater abilities by borrowing a bit from each of his six heroes.
The story over, Sunburst seeks out Stygian in the Crystal Empire, who, following his time as the “Pony of Shadows”, feels more weak and unheroic than ever. Sunburst, however, points out that Stygian brought the element of friendship to the group and says that, under a different set of circumstances, he could have been his generation’s “Twilight Sparkle”–something that brings tears to Stygian’s eyes. As the two walk off, Stygian admits he has other stories besides that journal about the Pillars of Old Equestria, and Sunburst proposes the interesting theory that, given all of his mess-ups, Starswirl the Bearded might secretly be the greatest villain in Equestrian history.
Now this is what I “paid to see”.
I considered “Shadow Play” to ultimately be a failure for all of its buildup due to a combination of factors. The one that impacted both it and the comic was the need to cater to a younger audience and thereby had to water down some of the stakes and relationships, but aside from that there was the fact that it had so much character overload that it ended up being mostly an exposition dump. Not just for the plot itself, but for the character relationships. Most of the Pillars of Old Equestria didn’t even get a chance to speak more than a couple lines, and Stygian himself was largely a plot device. Unlike a similar situation with Tempest Shadow, who managed to not only have some emotional buildup but managed to tell her story by showing the audience rather than orating it to them, everything was so thrown out at once that we had no chance to connect with any of the characters.
The nice thing the comic did, especially in this six-part miniseries, was not only get into greater detail about who the main characters were but actually formed some solid relationships between them, and ones that didn’t require the narrator to spell out.
Finally, in this comic, we get a sense of who Stygian was. In a sense, one can see him as the sort of reluctant hero or individual who needs to step out of his comfort zone and realize his own potential; sort of like a Bilbo Baggins type character. Just like the titular character in “The Hobbit”, Stygian initially doesn’t expect much out of himself and is content with his peaceful, quiet life. Yet when disaster forces him to be spurred into action, and he finds himself reluctantly going on an adventure, he gradually shows that that he does have a spark of true bravery and heroism in him.
The difference, however, is that unlike Bilbo, Stygian never realizes he has greatness inside himself. And one can attribute that difference from something like “The Hobbit” to Gandalf vs. Starswirl. Gandalf always saw “the spark” inside Bilbo, and he always treated him as if it was there even when Bilbo adamantly refused to believe it was. By comparison, Starswirl snuffs him out as soon as he begins. Whereas Gandalf eventually threw the burden of responsibility and leadership on Bilbo, knowing that he was ultimately capable of handling it even if he didn’t at the time, Starswirl seizes the role of leadership from Stygian just as it begins to become clear to him that he has that capability, and, through his actions, destroys what self-confidence Stygian has and leaves him forever feeling “less” than the Pillars of Old Equestria…completely forgetting he was the one who gathered them together. Having no faith in himself, he stands aside and lets the history books erase him even from the footnotes and his “idol” gets all the glory.
In a way, this is probably one of the more mature ways the series as a whole has ever portrayed a “villain”. Starswirl the Bearded is often called a jerk in the main series, and with some good reason. Here…you can’t really blame him. He’s an individual used to everyone always looking to him for answers and wisdom. He’s a wizard who’s accustomed for everyone to come to with problems they need solving. There are a few moments in the last issue where, if Stygian had more confidence in himself, he might have changed his mind. He didn’t, however. He kept repeating a mantra of self-depreciation and failure: “I am not a hero”. As a result of this, it’s mostly another mark against the Pony of Shadows. The hate and animosity he built up against Starswirl was, in fact, partially his own fault. He blamed Starswirl for what was essentially his own feelings of inadequacy. And even at the end of the six-part series, Stygian still doesn’t quite believe there’s anything to him even when Sunburst says that he’s the same kind of individual Twilight Sparkle herself is.
To sum up, the series does everything that the main series tried to do with Stygian in 44 minutes: it establishes his character from when he was still a good pony who nevertheless never had enough faith in himself, it shows that his corruption was partially due to external factors and relationships, but it also does not fully absolve him of his own role in his own corruption. In doing so it takes him from being a friendship plot device to a genuine character you actually care about.
That was the main thing that was good about this arc. There are other good things, but…they’re watered down by other factors.
This comic is now likely the “canon” introduction to the Dazzlings in their original forms, usurping the rather comedic, tongue-in-cheek version from the “FIENDship is Magic” series. It works well in establishing how, even in their native forms, they prey on the innocence and friendliness of their victims; relying on the natural inclusiveness and friendship of ponies to seize upon them. It also clearly shows this is all nothing more than deception toward their truly vile and hate-filled natures, as when Adagio snaps viciously at Stygian when he hesitates. However, it makes Aria and Sonata pretty much carbon-copies of Adagio as well. Aria’s more hostile personality is omitted as is Sonata’s cluelessness.
One opportunity that this arc had was for the Pillars of Old Equestria to finally be seen in relation to one another, getting a chance to dig into their personalities and teamwork and interactions with each other. And it seized upon it…a little. Rockhoof is shown to be something of a mixture of Applejack and Thor. He definitely has a bit of an ego about his own athletic prowess and feats but not an overbearing one, and, just as Stygian says, he has a nice vibe with him that looks like an older-brother/younger-brother dynamic. And that’s great, because that’s something the show has never touched on before except extremely briefly in “Marks and Recreation” with Thunderlane and Rumble. Mage Meadowbrook is also good. In spite of her caring personality, she shows she also has a touch of personal pride and ego about herself. Like Fluttershy, she prefers to work alone and without involvement of others, explaining her isolation, but not from a perspective of being naturally shy and timid around others. Quite the contrary, she actually is very self-sufficient and independent and actually has a bit of tomboyishness to herself as well as a desire to prove herself, but none of it is overbearing or in your face as her character. And, of course, the romance they hinted at between her and Rockhoof was a really nice touch that I really wish the main series had rolled with in “A Rockhoof and a Hard Place”.
Yet after those two, the series starts suffering from the same thing the main series did: character overload. As more Pillars of Old Equestria got introduced, less time was devoted to them and their relationships. Flash Magnus has a bit of a nice attitude in spite of his own ego, but other than him puffing himself up in a Rainbow-Dash-like manner we never see much of it. Somnambula is pretty much in her own little domain most of the time, much like Pinkie Pie. And Mistmane fulfills the role of most of the sage-ly types you find in this kind of group and is pretty much just there to look wise and mysterious. Stygian even says the only thing about her is her mere presence is calming, rather than anything she says, does, or how she acts. Neither this arc nor her stand-alone ever draws attention to the fact that Mistmane is not an elderly pony…she merely looks that way as a result of the spell she performed. Mentally, she should not only still be in the prime of her life but still have a more youth-orientated world view.
The biggest disappointment, however, and what ruined the potential for the group to be shown interacting with each other was the fact that the entire series was merely building up to the Pillars of Old Equestria’s first major challenge: defeating the Dazzlings. Not only was this already seen in the main series, it eliminated the chance to see them working as a group or team on any other threats they could have encountered in original stories. Granted, this was something of how it had to end since it was mostly about Stygian and how he faded into the background once Starswirl joined, but it was another possibility that had to be eliminated in the end.
In conclusion, there was a lot to like in this arc, but not as much as there could have been. It did its main job well and much better than the main series, but as for all the “side quests”, so to speak, it only managed to pick up some of them. The ones it did do were done so well, however, that it increased the feeling of disappointment that it couldn’t cover everyone.
Nevertheless, a good arc and, in my opinion, one of the more solid ones in the entire series, and a chance for the IDW writers to shine.
On one final note, one thing that this series failed to do was enhance the prestige of the Pony of Shadows at all. He had considerable buildup in both the comic and the main series, but when push came to shove he was an even bigger letdown than King Sombra ended up being. I had entertained some hope that the comic could fix that issue. This arc failed to do that, but as it turned out there was one entry left that would…
Stygian’s appearance in the comic is slightly different from that on the show, making him a bit “cuter”. To emphasize looking weak and unremarkable, on the show he had more of a body type akin to Snails with smaller pupils. In the comic, his neck is thicker, his eyes are larger, and his head isn’t quite as elongated, making him more similar to other characters.
The appearance of the Dazzlings in this arc effectively retcons “FIENDship is Magic #3” completely. The original story in that one was radically different from how they entered Equestria and encountered Starswirl the Bearded. See my review for details.
Ms. Malus, the Latin word for apple, is likely an ancestor of Applejack’s family.
Stygian spells out his logic for his selections for the group throughout the story. Rockhoof’s job is to hold off the worst of the hypnotized ponies. Mage Meadowbrook’s job is to break the hypnotic spell. Flash Magnus’ job is to serve as a diversion to the Dazzlings. Somnambula and Mistmane’s jobs were to provide their own brand of unconventional wisdom.
In referring to taking on a challenge, Rockhoof says: “Remember the oat boat?” That was the first eating competition Rockhoof won in his stand-alone “Legends of Magic” comic.
The attack of the rabbit might be a reference to “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”.
“Every good party needs a healer!” Basic RPG Logic. 😛
A “William Wallace” bunny breaks into Mage Meadowbrook’s house.
Somehow, Meadowbrook has spray bottles in spite of the time period. Also, in true Southerner fashion, she treats Stygian and Rockhoof to lemonade and rocking chairs.
Mage Meadowbrook mentions she stopped traveling after she ran into a town of zombie ponies, a reference to her own stand-alone “Legends of Magic” comic.
When Rockhoof is trying to remember Flash Magnus’ name, he throws out various “pony-fied” names of individuals who were the Flash of DC Comics. (Such as “Mare E. Allen” = Barry Allen.)
Flash Magnus tends to act a lot like Rainbow Dash, having something of an ego and being raring and eager to go into the first sign of a battle. However, this is perfectly canon considering the fact in “Shadow Play” the two hit it off so well they pretty much imitated each other.
When bombarding the fake mummies, Somnambula yells “Stay on target!”, an allusion to “A New Hope”.
Flash Magus nicknames Somnambula: “Cleopatrot”.
Somnambula is worried the site of Canterlot Castle might have snakes around, a reference to her own stand-alone “Legends of Magic” comic.
When Stygian meets Starswirl the Bearded and says he read his book about “Great Heroes of Equestria”, he mentions that he made Somnambula sound “a bit stuffy”. This might be a subtle way of trying to harmonize the IDW comic portrayal of Somnambula and the main series version by explaining the reason she didn’t act more silly and cheerful in “Daring Done?” was because that wasn’t actually Somnambula but rather Starswirl’s interpretation of her.
Celestia and Luna briefly reveal they can pull off the same instant teleportation that Twilight Sparkle is infamous for.
Rockhoof states that there’s actually been several “warshovels”, saying the first was ruined by the cherufe in his stand-alone comic.
Somnambula nearly says “friendship is magic”, but in the end says “friendship is…not nothing”.
The fateful moment in which Stygian is told to decide what is to be done about the Dazzlings mirrors Twilight Sparkle’s own moment in which she had to choose to follow Starswirl’s advice or try and save Stygian in “Shadow Play”, only Stygian elected to go with Starswirl.
4 Stars out of 5