Chaos Arena: Crystal Fighters, Chapter 1, written and illustrated by Jen and Tyler Bartel. Digital comic. Stēla. 2016.
This is a digital comic, new within the last few months, with a magical girl theme and an unusual premise. I’d like to be able to say more about it than I’m going to, but aside from its first chapter, it is, unfortunately, available only behind a paywall on the Stēla comic-reading app, which is available only on the iPhone.
I have an Android. So I’m going to discuss the first chapter (which you can read online for free) and say what I think so far, and then I’ll leave those of you with iPhones to decide if you want to shell out in order to read further yourselves. The Stēla people need to get their act together and port their app for the rest of us.
Also, you’ll notice I don’t have a link to Stēla’s website or the free first chapter. That’s because I read the chapter on my phone using the web browser, but now that I’ve sat down at my PC to write the review, I find that my anti-malware program has blocked Stēla’s site for malicious content. That could be an error on my end, or it could mean that the Stēla people really need to get their act together.
If you’d like to check it out without risking the site hosting it, The Mary Sue has a preview, not of the first chapter but of a later one.
The story is a sort of magical girl version of Fight Club. According to Sam Maggs at The Mary Sue, the comic is about “the toughest gang of video game magical girls ever,” having apparently never heard of Magical Battle Arena.
Sometime in the near future, our protagonist, the angry and ungrateful teenager Stella Kim, has received a virtual reality set, but her parents, concerned about pervasive violence in video games, will only allow her to play a saccharine magical girl MMORPG called Crystal Fighters.
After Stella loads up the game, she soon meets her bubbly cousin Jessica (how Jessica recognizes her in the virtual world is not explained), who immediately hits us with an infodump about how Crystal Fighters works: it’s a tongue-in-cheek poke at the magical girl genre, in which players defeat enemies by turning them into friends with their wands.
Stella finds this to be incredibly lame and stalks off in anger, only to find herself, due apparently to a software glitch, in a secret arena where players of Crystal Fighters duke it out in magically enhanced slug-fests, apparently without knowledge of the game’s designers. This type of gameplay, of course, is more to Stella’s liking.
Unfortunately, that’s all we get to see without the app. The comic’s layout is unusual: the panels are large and arranged vertically, as is apparently standard in Stēla, to facilitate reading on a phone. The artwork is decent, though the magical girl outfits, what I’ve seen of them, are uninteresting when they aren’t downright ugly. No effort appears to have gone into the environmental designs, either: it’s supposed to be a virtual fantasy world, right? But all I see are some washed-out trees in the background.
The basic concept is not shabby, but the first chapter feels very rushed. It breezes through as quickly as possible to make sure something important has happened by the time it’s ended. And the infodump dropped into the middle, before we know anything about the characters or why we should care, severely disrupts the flow.
Depending on the price, I would probably be willing to pay for at least three more chapters to decide if I like it, but I can’t say that the first chapter hooked me or drew me in. It tries to get an awful lot done in just a few brief pages, and it sacrifices any sense of mystery or intrigue in the process.
Just off the top of my head, I can think of a few places this comic might go. Judging from the sneak peek on The Mary Sue, it appears to be avoiding the standard plot of most VR stories, in which someone gets trapped in the virtual world and will die for real if he dies in the game. That’s been done more times than I could count, but it’s done so often because without such a plot device, or something similarly unlikely, the stakes in any story about a video game are necessarily pretty low.
If Chaos Arena doesn’t go in that particular direction, another possibility would be to follow the lead of its inspiration and go full Fight Club, with this secret band of two-fisted virtual magical girls morphing over time into a cult. I have no idea if it intends to go there.
But I suspect not. The interview with the Bartels at The Mary Sue rings my warning bells. Jen Bartel says:
I grew up with Sailor Moon, Magic Knight Rayearth, Cardcaptor Sakura, etc.—I loved those properties so much and they really shaped a lot of aspects of my life, but the Magical Girl genre is sort of based around this idea of being a “pretty soldier” (bishoujo senshi!) and I really wanted to modernize that idea and frame it in a way that resonated with today’s audiences.
The whole point of these girls creating the battle arena is that it’s like a safe little nook in the game where they can wear their customized outfits that better express who they are and duke it out instead of conforming to how the game says they should look and act. We wanted to make a “magical girl” comic that was about girls taking the genre and doing what they want with it.
When an author says she wants to “modernize that idea and frame it in a way that resonat[es] with today’s audiences,” that’s usually code for, “I’m going to betray this utterly and completely eff it over.” That’s the kind of pretentious babble a gender studies major utters when she’s censoring Shakespeare.
Also, I have to laugh a little at this idea that we have to modernize franchises from the 1990s. Because that’s, like, ancient history, right? Does she honestly mean to say that today’s audiences can’t grasp or relate to something written only twenty years ago? I think she just insulted today’s audiences’ intelligence.
And what’s this about a “safe little nook”? Who the hell wants to read about that? Safe characters are boring characters.
And for your (or her) information, the magical girl genre was already more than just cutesy stuff before the Bartels got to it. As early as the 1970s, magical girls were already engaged in physical combat. By 1997, Revolutionary Girl Utena was wallowing in rape, incest, and estoria, and by 1998, Phantom Thief Jeanne was pulling off the plot twist that Puella Magi Madoka Magica would wrongly get credit for inventing more than a decade later. By 2004, Pretty Cure had upped the physical violence to the level of a boys’ show. Today, magical girls are as likely to be soaked in blood as coated in sugar, a là Day Break Illusion.
And, in fact, magical girl fighting games do exist. Most originate in Japan (naturally) and don’t cross the Pacific, but Steam has at least one, Magical Battle Festa: Magical Girl Ion. It’s gotten mixed reviews.
Another warning sign: The Mary Sue, in both its articles on this comic that I’ve linked here, points out that Chaos Arena: Crystal Fighters is “diverse.” That’s the one compliment The Mary Sue pays to this title.
Now, I’m all in favor of diversity in a cast, since variety is the spice of life and all, but when either a reviewer (or worse, the author) feels the need to point out the diversity, that generally means the characters will have a range of skin tones but otherwise be made of cardboard, because people who toss the word “diverse” around usually don’t get it that the kind of diversity that’s actually interesting comes from variety of personality, experience, and ideas rather than variety of melanin content.
Now, having gone off on my little rant there, I must hasten to add that none of this may actually affect the comic. Sometimes creators say unwise things in interviews but can still generate good content. I do like the basic concept. The idea of pretending to be going into a girly game only to put on a punk outfit and punch somebody out in an underground arena certainly has an appeal. It smacks of cyber-crime, even if a secret fighting tournament isn’t quite as sensational as, say, that teenage kid who ran a virtual brothel in The Sims Online.
I do hope it’s not simply a round of make-believe fights, but has some kind of overarching plot that raises the stakes. If the story is only about magical girls hitting each other in a video game with no serious consequences, I’m not interested. If I want that, I can just go play Magical Battle Festa instead and indulge in the virtual violence myself.