• Let's Review: Friends Forever

    Friends Forever concluded a 38 issue run last week.

    Let's pause to look at some of the series' strengths and weaknesses and ask what might be done in the future.

    Check out a review after the break. I'll be referencing a lot of past issues, so watch out for spoilers!

    For a good while, Friends Forever has been my favorite of the IDW comic series. In many cases I felt it surpassed the main series and sometimes even surpassed the show itself. Whether in scope, characterization, humor, or a combination thereof, there was a lot to enjoy.

    That's not to say that every issue was perfect and there are cases where it fell well short. Yet the overall experience has been enjoyable and I'd like to look at some of the ideas that helped this stand out.

    The Focused Few
    The best aspect of this line was that it usually featured two lead characters. In some cases, like Cutie Mark Crusader issues, a group was meant to serve as a single entity but for the most part it was two characters working towards a shared goal. This is already a big lead over a recurring hurdle with the main comic line.

    Remember how much Rarity, Rainbow, and Fluttershy contributed to this adventure?
    Me neither!

    The main line has the challenge of presenting the Mane Six and others going on an adventure together. Often these conflicts involve large-scale threats that endanger Equestria. Even smaller-scale threats feature antagonists who are looking to steal valuables or take over a town. The end result being that all the Mane Six are forced into an adventure even if only a few have something to contribute. It's not uncommon for our favorite heroines to become background elements as somepony else struggles through the central conflict.

    Only two ponies in this shot are truly relevant to the story.
    That's right. The two talking to Rainbow Dash!

    Friends Forever rarely asked for the entire cast to make an appearance and was willing to make the conflict more personal. Some of the challenges involved were: caring for an elderly pony, a joke show, mending quarreling brothers, controlling one's appetite for sweets, and going to a high school reunion.

    Few appreciate the deadly power of Conga Lines!

    Granted, other conflicts involved a race to bring spring to the frontier, finding a crystal ghost, and preventing civil war between ponies and dragons. The conflicts could move to almost any scale depending on the parties involved but the key was that only a few characters were needed. If the comic struck the right balance then there was a very economic feel to the event. Each character provided as much as was needed without overshadowing the other.

    From this came one of the best Friends Forever stories.

    My favorite example for this is Spike and Celestia's journey in Friends Forever #3. Both had contributions to the story that made them relevant and allowed the audience to cheer. It never felt like one was along for the ride. Contrast that against something like Rarity and the Cakes in Friends Forever #19, in which Rarity is the most active character while the Cakes don't truly show their best until the very end. It was a balancing match between the leads and when an issue achieve equilibrium we could enjoy seeing each character.

    You Only Get One Shot
    With the smaller focus also comes a self-contained format. Each comic is its own story with little need for knowledge of prior comics. A reader can hop on to the series at almost any point, and if one comic does not impress then a fresh story is only a month away.

    I don't mean to say that I dislike FiM's multi-part arcs, but I find that these self-contained tales matched more with the spirit of the show. We enjoy two-part openers and finales, but a majority of the entertainment lies in slice-of-life episodes. Instead of the high fantasy I often enjoy, I've found that it's the characters more than the magic that draws me to this franchise.

    This issue featured the best brother-sister dynamic for these two.

    Friends Forever could bounce back from stumbling points swiftly. It's why I was able to stay with the line even after a disappointing first issue. Each subsequent encouraged my enthusiasm and left the memory of that first step far behind. 

    Expanding the World
    Some Friends Forever stories remained in familiar locals like Ponyville and Canterlot. Others would go places we'd never seen before. At the time I write this, Luna and Spike are the only pair to visit Fillydelphia. Rainbow Dash and Soarin' braved Mt. Everhoot's storms. Shining Armor and Prince Blueblood got farther than Pinkie Pie when visiting Yakyakistan. 

    Looking back on these new places, there is a common remark. No matter the artist, these new locations usually looked like something we'd see in the real world. That's not meant as a criticism. The show has a larger staff to conceptualize and render new locales while the comics rely on single artists with a colorist's assistance. I don't fault them for presenting tried and true ideas that are structurally sound. Yet I think these new locals are better as concepts than visuals.

    Can't beat real world practicality!

    The one exception is Agnes Garbowska's rendition of Dragon Town in Friends Forever #14. Though I think it was inspired by the Flintstone's town of Bedrock, it has a unique and believable setting that matched its residents. Sure, Fillydelphia looked more like your standard metropolitan locale, but the focus was clearly upon this sub-section.

    Dragons! Meet the dragons! They're not like your average family!

    Adding locales means adding new characters. Some were friends and guides, others were antagonists. I think the antagonists were easier to accept due to their role. It sounds cynical, but we're often more ready to accept an opponent than we are a new friend. So rivals like Buried Treasure, Nosey News, and even Submarine Sandwich can enter the story without a lot of audience resistance. Though for my money the most frightening opponents were Fawn Doo and Marcie Pan. Awesome names, but they're surprisingly sinister.

    The attitude of every candy bar company given form!

    Allies are a trickier topic. If the goal of this comic line was to star two characters from the show, introducing a comic-exclusive character threatens to shift some of the focus away. Perhaps it's unfair to criticize that because there have been some comic-exclusive members of Friends Forever that I enjoyed. Mina the dragon of issue 14 was an interesting character, as was the idea behind Thestra from Friends Forever #28. Yet when the comics advertise a lead duo, that promise is undermined if another character steps in to save the day.
    Wow, I just realized that without context,
    this looks really creepy.

    Though I just realized that both examples I cited involved Princess Luna. Funny how the princess of the night draws competition.

    With the series finished, I can safely say 
    Toffee Truffle was the weakest contribution.

    I think some of this concern comes from the very first issue, where Toffee Truffle became more of a central focus and even ousted Applejack to help save the day. Yet for all that there have been supporting ponies like Calamity Mane, the Diamond Dogs, and Tadwell who acted in service to the story without stealing away focus. Much like sharing the focus between the two leads, it was a careful task to allow other ponies to participate.

    Rediscovering the Characters
    There's an ongoing debate about how much the comics should be considered part of the story's canon. Some view them as an alternate storyline. Others say it's as much a part of the canon as the show. The most popular interpretation is that these comics are canon until the show contradicts them.

    I go by the philosophy of "a good story speaks for itself". A contradiction can still cause the story to stumble, but if the characters and conflict are presented well then I quickly get over it. There have been Friends Forever issues that not only offered a great story but offered some new consideration on characters we take for granted. Even if the comic isn't canon, I'll enjoy it if it raises the right questions.

    Biggest question: What kind of parents would name their child "Fancy Shmancy"?

    Case in point, Friends Forever #13 raised the question of how Rarity got along with her own family as she discovered her love of fashion. It was something I'd never considered before and I enjoyed how the story explored that concept. Same goes for issue #15, which presented the idea that Applejack might one day make a good mayor for Ponyville.

    The opposite affects are issues where I feel like a character is poorly represented and thus done a disservice. Case in point, Friends Forever #25 featured Twilight trying to defend her ascension to alicorn princess, but I thought it did a poor job. Granny Smith's hostility in issue #27 felt out of place and made for a weaker entry.

    The new Applewood Drama:
    Carting Mrs Cranky!

    I've enjoyed the issues that encouraged me to re-evaluate the characters and that's something the IDW comics have often presented. Which leads us to a final question.

    Could FiM Learn from Friends Forever?
    It's sad to see this series come to a close. There are so many character combinations that could be explored and Equestria has never lacked for story avenues. Yet just because the comic line has ended, the talent behind it remains.

    I started this entry by stating the advantages Friends Forever enjoyed over the main line, but FiM has its own strengths. Case in point, it has done single-issue stories before and it has enjoyed some slice-of-life storytelling. My favorite entry of any IDW comic remains Big MacIntosh's quest for nails.

    He's looking for nails.
    She's struck by cupid's arrow!

    If I could ever present a wish-list to the IDW leadership, it'd be to ease off the need for multi-parter adventures featuring the entire cast. A rotation of single-issue stories focusing on just a few of the Mane Six or their friends would give the comics some breathing room and add gravitas to multi-issue events. In fact, since FiM doesn't have to feature a duo lead like Friends Forever, the writing staff could enjoy better flexibility. Some of the criticisms that hounded Friends Forever would lose traction within the main line.

    This may be wishful thinking and I have no idea how things will develop from here. Yet rather than regret something ending I like to focus on what worked and how that could travel forward. I think Friends Forever carried the spirit of the show well and drew greater enthusiasm from the fans. I think those achievements can adapt to other MLP comics. Time will tell, but for now I will look forward to the conclusion of the Shadow Locke arc and see what Legends of Magic has to offer.

    Plus there are still more than a dozen back issues I'll get to review. Sometimes it's it's fun to look back and see what worked.

    I'm Silver Quill. Thanks for reading!