It was with a mix of anticipation and apprehension that I wrote about the Ashbringer Trade Paperback by Wildstorm which collects all four issues of the limited series. After all, I wasn't entirely impressed with the regular series featuring Varian Wrynn but thoroughly enjoyed Tokyopop's Warcraft Legends manga, so while I was decided upon getting Ashbringer, I had moderately low expectations.
The good thing about having low expectations is that it's hard to get disappointed. It turns out, however, that I didn't have to set my expectations so low... the Ashbringer comics are a very good read from start to finish, particularly for readers who play World of Warcraft. In fact, that might be its one caveat -- the Ashbringer limited series is a decent read for the average reader but truly shines for players, who are familiar with the story and recognize the characters.
Fans of lore will appreciate reading the story of Alexandros Mograine, even though most lore nerds will already know it. The real treat of the comic is the wonderful work of Tony Washington, who colors over Ludo Lullabi's pencils. The colors are done in a painterly style, complementing or enhancing Lullabi's art better than the traditional ink and colors of his initial run with the Varian Wrynn story arc. This isn't a knock on Sandra Hope's inks or Randy Mayor's colors, but Lullabi's art in the original series was sometimes somewhat sparse in detail. This isn't the case in Ashbringer, where Lullabi draws some breathtaking panels, and in the spaces where he leaves empty spots, Washington takes over. The result is one gorgeous comic that is an unmistakeable emulation of Joe Madureira and Christian Lichtner's pencils + Painter collaborations.
It's not quite Madureira-Lichtner just yet, but considering JoeMad produces comics at a rate of one every decade or so, Ashbringer is a pretty good substitute. That might seem like an unfair assessment that does Lullabi and Washington a disservice, but Ashbringer is worlds better than the World of Warcraft comic which indicates that Lullabi is only getting better. Fans of veteran colorist Washington can also check out some of his other work, which are astounding, as well.
Story-wise, Ashbringer benefits from a well of preexisting lore instead of having to shoehorn a new character into canon and the game world. There are also little nuggets that should make a player smile, such as the appearance of many characters you'd find in Old Hillsbrad, Scarlet Monastery, or Light's Hope Chapel. Even Zabra Hexx, the Troll Priest from DC Unlimited's line of World of Warcraft action figures, makes an appearance. The story's pace feels a little rushed at times, however, a consequence of trying to cram a lot of lore in just four issues.
Slightly disjointed pacing aside, writer Micky Neilson -- part of Blizzard's creative team -- handles the story rather deftly. I have to confess there were moments in the series where I felt an embarrassing well of emotion. Neilson builds up drama in a way that doesn't feel forced or contrived, and players who enjoyed the climax of the Death Knight starting experience should get a fulfilling kick out of Ashbringer. There's a lot of drama and plain good old storytelling here, enriching the game world the way the comics are intended to.
The weakest part of the comic is also ironically one of the more enjoyable ones, where Darion Mograine leads a charge into Naxxramas. It is a silly mission in game terms -- a mere handful of heroes go in and try to take on a raid instance, ending as a player might expect (you guessed it, pretty much a wipe). But even though it drives the story forward and is actually necessary, this part of the story felt a little like an excuse to tour Naxxramas. Players will recognize and enjoy the cameos, though, and many will even relate to what the protagonists go through and smile.
One surprising thing for me while reading the comic was being reminded of just how young the Ashbringer (sword) is. It has a very brief history, less than a generation old, that takes away some weight from one of the most fabled weapons in the game (or more accurately, not yet in the game). But it turns out that a lot of what players know as Azerothian lore isn't very old at all -- classic WoW "begins" a mere four years after the events from Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne. What it all indicates, actually, is that the players are right in the heart of Warcraft's story as it unravels. As a reader and a player, the immediacy of things makes it all the more special.
The painted covers by Chris Robinson sweeten the deal, as well as the token bonus sneak peeks into the penciling and coloring process. The latter could've used more pages with bigger images, but we'll take what we can get. Ashbringer is a good read with gorgeous art and should be on every comic book nut and World of Warcraft players' bookshelf.