By Devin T. Quin
Picture a young boy, probably seven or eight years old, wandering in an inhospitable land of crazed, stunted trees and huge mile high rock cliffs. The boy has no idea how he got there. He hears a cry for help, and without thinking runs to investigate. He finds a dying nursemaid who has lost her charge, a beautiful princess who has been stolen by creatures that are part goblin, part drooling pit bulls.
“YOU are a child of destiny, ” she rasps. “Find her, Find the Princess” she requests, and then speaks nevermore.
The only protection this kid has is a wooden sword given to him by a cowering old man hiding in a cave, too afraid to venture forth into this strange landscape. Suddenly, man-sized blue and red land-squids, their bodies puffy and swollen from a life out of water are upon him! They fire gigantic boulders out of their anterior funnels in spiteful defense. They are fast, they are deadly, and they are all around!
Planting his feet firmly into the gravel, this kid twists the wooden sword in his hands in preparation of the attack. He vows he will survive this barren wasteland, he will get revenge upon the death of this kind old lady and he will rescue this princess. A princess he’s never met, never seen and never heard of. A princess with the unmistakably goofy name of “Zelda.”
And there, in dramatic prose, is the first thirty seconds of the now classic Nintendo Entertainment System 8-bit, old school video game The Legend of Zelda. One could argue that LoZ singlehandedly created the modern video game. While LoZ had many obvious innovations such as an inventory screen, expandable life meter, side-quests and, let’s face it, AN ENDING, the real reason LoZ fueled an industry was one of its subtler additions: Mood!
It was spooky, it was weird! The world was so complete that, with only about 32 colors you felt you were in an alien environment where sea creatures walked the land and shallow lakes held hidden fortresses! It made perfect, enjoyable sense that the most useful item you could carry was a boomerang, or that flutes could summon giant dust devils to teleport you to inaccessible islands.
LoZ secured Nintendo’s spot as the video game kings, and spawned countless sequels, as well as the ancillary merchandising that comes with such success.
The history of Legend of Zelda comic books, however, is less than stellar. In the late 80’s Nintendo of America knew it had mega-hits on their hands with Zelda and Super Mario Brothers, but they didn’t always know what to do with those successes.
Nintendo licensed a poor quality Saturday morning cartoon show off of Zelda that tried to supplant mood with snark. In keeping with later games, Link, the young hero, was now a teenager, but rather than the stoic warrior gamers came to love, this Link was transformed into an annoying whiner who spouted his catchphrase “ Excuuuse ME, Princess” almost as often as he preened his hair.
The first American Zelda comics were published by the now defunct Valiant Comics Company in 1990 and were based mostly on this terrible show. All of the mystery and fun from the game were washed out by the bland American art style and hokey tone.
Fans didn’t have to wait long for some actually decent Zelda comics, as 1992 saw the publication of a serialized version of Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past in the pages of Nintendo Power Magazine. This adaptation was done in a vibrant, full color Japanese manga style by Shotaro Ishinomori and better captured the bizarre nature of Link’s adventures.
The problem this adaptation made, and really the problem most comic books make when dealing with video game subject matter is its slavish, linear approach in the translation from screen to print. The 1992 Link To the Past comic was a near perfect panel-to-panel recap of what transpires in the game, making comparisons between the mediums unavoidable. It was plain to see that PLAYING a video game is far more enjoyable than READING about one.
While all of these comics are extremely easy to find online as free downloads, Zelda fans have driven the demand for the actual physical copies of these flawed, early works through the roof! Copies of the Valiant comics can easily fetch anywhere in the $30-40 range and are a safe bet for comics investors.
Over the past decade Nintendo has been allowing Vizkids Media the translation and import rights to its popular and successful line of Zelda mangas from Japan. Starting with the Nintendo 64 mega-hit Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time and continuing onward, these manga are drawn in a friendly, action packed style by Akira Himekawa. December of 2009 saw the release of the most recent edition, Vol. 8, adapting the 2005 Gameboy Advanced game The Minish Cap…. And here we hit another speed bump.
Great art, great pacing and the right publishing format make these books an easy sell, but the speed at which the Vizkids team publish makes them relics practically before they ship. Remember: Minish Cap the game came out in 2005, but the manga adaptation didn’t ship till 2009. Four years might not seem like much to comic book fans, but entire video game systems have arrived and expired in that time-span.
The Zelda fan base is a rabid fan base, and maybe they will take the more “Completest” view-point towards their comics collection than others, but still: Since 2005 there have been three more big budget Zelda video games. With three more Zelda games to adapt, will readers still bother to care years after the launch of the games they were associated with? Fans maybe, but casual readers probably won’t.
One of the problems facing video games is the widening gulf between “casual gamers”, folks who want to play a game for a while and then move on, and “Hard-Core” gamers, folks for whom gaming is their main source of entertainment and therefore their main drain to their entertainment budget. Comic Books are going through the exact same crisis.
As the entertainment companies of the world try to satisfy the demands of their core-fan bases with esoteric products and streamlined properties appealing to a varied few, I want to remind everyone what made that first Legend of Zelda game such a success.
With no words and in as little time as possible from turning it on you were transported to a new, exciting and magical realm of mystery and fun! The best comic books work the same way: open the cover and step into you imagination.
The Legend of Zelda is a marketing giant, and comic books make up one tentacle on that multi-armed Octorok. Zelda comics are never going to sell as much as the games their based on, and neither is ever going to be able to stand up against a NEW idea, fast fun and accessible based purely on creativity and imagination.