Hey, uh…you guys like Critical Role? You know, that show with the voice actors and the Dungeons & Dragons?
Critical Role: Vox Machina Origins, vols. 1 and 2
Hunter Bonyun (Cover Artist), Matthew Colville (Writer), Jody Houser (Writer), Ariana Maher (Letterer), MSASSYK (Colorist), Matthew Mercer (Writer), Chris Northrop (Letterer, Colorist), Olivia Samson (Artist)
Dark Horse Comics
November 25, 2020
Here’s my poorly-kept secret: when I’m not yelling on the internet about comics (or action figures), I am thinking at nearly all times about tabletop gaming. I love it, and I have loved it for a long time. I’ve been an ardent player of D&D specifically since the old second edition days, when I found a Greyhawk boxed set nearly complete in a used bookstore. I was a kid at the time, I had none of the core books, and so I didn’t actually know how to play as much as I spent hours and hours poring over lore and doing my best to reverse engineer NPC stat blocks in order to figure out what a character I made should have. Theoretically. When I wasn’t doing that I was reading Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels, or occasionally Ravenloft, or maybe Dark Sun…well, you get the idea. Lest you think this is about establishing credentials and gatekeeping: All of that time, the one major, major thing I always wished for was for other people to love these worlds and these adventures like I did. I mean, presumably they did—there were books! Comics! The actual games themselves! That stuff was being made for somebody! It’s just that…I didn’t know any of those somebodies at the time.
Well. Fast forward to the last few years. With the rise of live-streaming, the actual-play show has gained a lot of prominence. In case you aren’t familiar with Critical Role, an actual-play stream (or podcast) is exactly what it says on the tin; you watch (or listen to) players playing an actual game, detailed discussions of how rules work, fumbled rolls and all. In the case of this show, because everyone at the table is a professional voice actor, there is a level of skill with improv and character development that goes far beyond what’s present at most tables. It’s engaging, dramatic, and utterly addictive.
And yet, I still couldn’t get into their first campaign (they are on their second now)! I tried it three separate times, but was always hindered by the way the show started; that game was originally their private one, and DM Matthew Mercer continued it when they started the stream. Because of that, and because I’m the kind of absurd person who hyperfixates on the details, the barrier of not knowing how these characters started, how they came to know each other, how they felt about each other initially; all of that kept me from connecting with these characters like I (felt I) should.
And now, nearly five hundred words into this review, we come to the subject at hand! As a means of bridging that gap, Dark Horse Comics began publishing Critical Role miniseries, entitled Vox Machina Origins. Vox Machina is the name of the adventuring party as a whole in the first campaign, thus, their origins. I very nearly bought the trades of these comics this past summer to read but then I saw an email announcement with the words “LIBRARY EDITION.” I, being both the opportunist and the sensualist I am, immediately reached out in response to review said edition.
Look, I love a heavy book, and this thing is MASSIVE. It’s larger than a comic, it’s larger even than a D&D book. It’s 12¼” tall, 9¼” wide, and 1¼” thick, three hundred and twenty glossy, thick pages, and it weighs…look, I dunno, a ton? I feel like I could do arm curls with it to tone my biceps. I spoke before in a Patreon essay about Transformers comics, and how I love IDW’s huge hardcover tomes collecting them, and this book is even bigger than those. Do I know where I’m going to keep it? No. Do I regret asking for it? Also no!
Of course, all this is meaningless if the comics inside the book aren’t great. It’s sort of a weird thing to talk your way around with a volume like this, because…well it’s not like this is the book you buy if you’re not sure about the property, right? This is the tome for folks with a vested interest; a platonic ideal of the comics that were originally released in single issues. Those comics are structurally solid, and broken into two arcs here; the first is scripted by Matthew Colville, a DM and game designer who also runs a series of Youtube videos specifically about playing D&D. The second arc is by Jody Houser, who is likely more familiar to the comic readers among you; she’s written comic adaptations of both Stranger Things and Doctor Who.
Of the two arcs, the second is stronger, be that a function of Houser’s experience or the fact that she had to do less team-assembling and was more free to simply jump into a story. That said, Colville’s writing is nothing to sneeze at; he does an excellent job of entwining three disparate stories in the first three issues of the initial arc, so that by the end of the final three, they’re one cohesive tale, bringing the full cast of heroes together as a unit. It’s a clever balancing act; sometimes working out how player characters meet can be one of the most frustrating aspects of a game, but it looks easy here. I particularly liked the way he used repeating motifs on the final pages of those first couple of issues to link them together, as well as the way he translated what was clearly a botched skill roll in-game into a decently amusing failure to achieve a character’s goal in one instance.
Houser’s work, the first arc to debut Vox Machina as a functioning team, really shines. I mentioned earlier that I had trouble watching the stream of the first campaign, and its her writing that alleviates that for me; I care about these characters in her hands. I want to know more about them, spend more time with them, and that’s exactly what I was looking for here. It’s not that Colville’s writing is bad, he’s capable of writing with wit and personality and it shows! It’s just that he writes these characters in a more…class archetype way. What I mean by that is that, as a longtime DM and game designer, Colville writes these characters as avatars of their in-game classes at times; the Barbarian acts like a Barbarian, the Rogue acts like a Rogue, etcetera. Don’t get me wrong, the fact that these are, ultimately, D&D comics means that some level of that will and should always be present! It’s just that Colville leans a little heavier on it than Houser does.
Of course…Houser gets to cover the introduction of one Lord Percival Fredrickstein von Musel Klossowski de Rolo III…or Percy, for short. There is…look, there’s something about that second arc, and I think it’s that all of the creative duties in the second arc are handled by women, and thus the gaze for the cast as a whole is decidedly more female. There’s that old David Willis strip about making comics appeal to women and…well, Houser and artist Olivia Samson certainly prove it here. Percy is…a disaster when we’re first introduced to him, left to rot on the floor of a jail cell and smiling wryly as he’s introduced to the other characters. He has that perfect mix of oily dirtbag persona and captivating charisma that is delightful to behold, and Houser and Samson both are right to follow their instincts and let him chew the scenery, while not shying away from the fact that his competence is paired with a tinge of arrogance, which can land him in situations he can’t handle on his own. It’s just…it’s very fun to read.
Perhaps unintentionally, this volume also provides a bit of an education on what different letterers and colorists can bring to a work. The first volume features lettering and coloring both by Chris Northrop, whereas the second splits those duties between Ariana Maher and MSASSYK. I’m not familiar with the latter’s color work prior to this, but the framing of both stories makes for fantastic comparison of styles; each arc opens in the woods surrounding the fictional town of Stilben, but Northrop’s colors are brighter hued, vibrant greens and blues, whereas MSASSYK leeches that vibrancy out, giving everything a more dank, oppressive feel, as the characters fight their way past monsters. MSASSYK’s colors are in general more atmospheric; fires cast golden glows that feel warm as they’re viewed, snowdrifts cast things in a paler light that similarly makes scenes feel more authentic. Once again, it’s not that the first arc is bad in any way, it’s just that it has the unfortunate luck of being paired in this single volume with another, one that reads like a masterclass in comics work.
This is as true of the lettering as it is anything else. Northrop’s letters get the job done, but they’re a bit more…workmanlike? Some of his balloon placement is organized in a confusing fashion, and he’s overall working in a much larger font size than Maher’s later work, which is then enlarged further by virtue of the entire thing being printed in an oversized volume. Consequently, while it might have been less notable in single issues, it’s very apparent here, especially at points where words are unintentionally crowding balloon borders, or one instance where text size changes between two joined balloons. I thought at first that last example might have been a character beginning to raise their voice, but there’s nothing that really gives it that indication. On the other hand, Maher’s lettering work is tighter, more precise; font sizes read more appropriately, and she shows a better command of when to bold and/or italicize language for emphasis. She’s also more playful with balloons that denote different character voices, and with caption boxes. It’s all subtle work but it has the same effect as MSASSYK’s colors, above—it’s more atmospheric, it draws the reader further into the story.
This being a fancy, oversized library edition, it also contains some fun extras; a foreword by Gail Simone, full-page leaves featuring cover art from the single issues, unhindered by trade dress, and a character design gallery by Samson in the back of the book. The gallery includes design work for each volume, which immediately made it more engaging. It was nice to flip between them and see the changes Samson made as she became more familiar with drawing the characters and their body language. I have only one real complaint about the cover reproductions, and that’s the choice to credit all of the individual artists at the front of the book, without detailing what page each artist’s piece fell on. I would have liked to see either a page number inclusion there, or a small note opposite each piece as it appeared in the book, listing the artist directly next to their work. Still, it’s a minor complaint, on the face of things. I also would’ve liked to see a ribbon for marking one’s place, but that’s just a personal desire, because I love them. They feel so fancy!
Over the course of my work as a critic, I often have to write about unpleasant things, be they creators who step over the line, companies who fail marginalized communities, or, more simply, sometimes just bad comics. Sometimes, though, I get to write about things like this; artifacts of comics creation that are lavished with care and aimed at a niche audience out of nothing more than love of the work therein and the craft of making them. Reading these comics for the first time in a book like this has fundamentally added to my experience of them; the weight of it in my hands, the feel of those pages against my fingers, all of it. If you’re a fan of Critical Role, and if you’re curious about the exploits of the show’s first cast of characters, this volume is a fantastic primer, and one you won’t regret.