What’s this? I’m actually doing a proper article this week instead of some self-aggrandizing op-ed piece? Well aren’t you just a lucky duck. But to be fair it’s still a bit of a fluff piece, talking about one of my favorite comics as a young lad and a piece of video game history to boot. Surely those of us who grew up in my generation recall the constant televised plugs urging us with an almost hypnotic chant to “get the power, Nintendo Power“. Well I never got “the power” myself. I just got stuck a lot. I didn’t have a subscription to any game magazine until I was a teenager toting my several year long subscription to PSM. But thanks to a friend I did discover a piece of what I’d been missing out on. It was upon visiting him for a sleepover one night when I was about twelve years old that I discovered a trade paperback featuring a collection of comics, all piled into one neat tome.
And what was this grand comic adventure? A graphic novelization of The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past. (Note: Spoilers ahead.)
Zelda comics nowadays are everywhere, most notably in the form of the truly excellent collected manga by Akira Himekawa. If you weren’t aware, this incredible artist has covered Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, Twilight Princess, the Oracle games, Minish Cap, Four Swords, Phantom Hourglass, and Skyward Sword. But there’s one more work that Himekawa covered. The game that many veterans of the franchise (myself included) argue may be even better than the fan favorite (and MetaCritic topper) Ocarina of Time. And while I’m certain Himekawa’s rendition is fantastic (it being one of the few that I haven’t read) there is another version that holds precedence in my heart.
For you see, Nintendo Power gave us a rather stunning retelling of A Link To The Past back in the 90s.
Shotaro Ishinomori, creator of such wildly successful Japanese series such as Cyborg 009 and the Super Sentai series (you know, that thing that spawned the Power Rangers state-side) was given the task of taking the epic 16-bit world of Zelda and breathing a colorful new life into it. Suffice to say, his work was exemplary. Originally the comic was part of the yearly Nintendo Power serial comics, such as the almost equally impressive Super Mario Adventures comic by Charlie Nozawa (who goes by the pen name Tamakichi Sakura) and Kentaro Takekuma. Beginning in January 1992 and ending in December of that same year, the 12 chapter comic series completely retold the game, adding some unique characters and breathing a unique depth into certain innocuous scenes. The only area that is glossed over is significantly shortening Link’s quest to rescue the seven maidens in the Dark World.
So what make’s Ishinomori’s version so spectacular? For one thing I would say the unique art style which crosses seemlessly between cartoonish and goofy Link, to beautifully drawn stained-glass window worthy depictions of the Hero of Hyrule. Knowing that Link’s lonely trek through Hyrule would be quite dull, Ishinomori breathed new life into the story by taking a few established characters and giving them a bigger part to play, most notably the elder Sahasrahla and the villagers of Kakariko. The villains in the comic are numerous, each with their own unique personality, from mindless monster to be slain, to comic relief. Lieutenant Big Bad “Aghanim” is wonderfully nefarious in a kid-friendly sort of way. And you’ll be happy to know that Princess Zelda is more than just a damsel in distress, acting as a sort of spiritual guide for Link along his journey.
The comic also introduces one of my favorite original characters, Roam. A knight who takes on the fearsome bird-warrior visage of those obnoxious bastards from Zelda II’s Great Palace. Using a crossbow and serving as a pseudo-rival to Link throughout the comic, believing himself to be the legendary hero, his arrogance is backed up by skill making him the kind of badass you love to hate.
And it’s not all kid friendly lessons of morality and saturday morning cartoon villainy either. One thing that sticks with me is that the graphic novel actually has a kind of a sad ending. Rather than going with the easy “and they all lived happily ever after” ending, we get a true “Hero’s Journey” style ending reminiscent of Lord of the Rings. There is a hopeful note, but it is decidedly somber nonetheless. I remember that kind of an ending leaving me with a pit in my stomach – a bold choice for a story aimed at kids. But it’s one of the major decisions that I think elevates this into legend instead of “just another comic”. The decision to show that classic “Hero’s Journey” arc play out – that sometimes the adventure can change the hero to the point where they can never go back to the way things were – is a deep concept for kids to tackle. But ultimately, again, I believe it was the proper way to end the adventure.
As many of you may know. Ishinomori died just a few years after completing this comic, in 1998. While it was not the last thing he ever worked on, I feel the message at the ending is an appropriate one. Ishinomori gave us a whole new way to experience and learn from an adventure that many of us grew up with – masterfully retelling a tale that we thought we knew. And I, for one, will always remember the time I spent with Ishinomori in the land of Hyrule.