Title: Second Quest
Artist: David Hellman
Author: Tevis Thompson
Publication Year: 2015
Second Quest is a beautifully drawn comic that reimagines the Zelda mythos and explores just how bizarre it is that the Hylians consider themselves to be “the chosen people” who need to be “protected” from other races. What was Ganon really trying to do? Did Zelda really need to be rescued? Why is Link valorized for running around with a sword and smashing everything he encounters? What sort of cultural legacy does this create, and who suffers when outsiders are removed from historical narratives?
Of course, The Legend of Zelda is a keystone franchise of the global game industry, and licensing it is not cheap or easy, so all of the serial numbers have been filed off in David Hellman and Tevis Thompson’s interpretation. What this means is that Second Quest is accessible to non-gamers and people largely unfamiliar with the series, and it’s of special interest to readers interested in how Japanese stories have influenced people around the world to begin their own conversations.
Second Quest is about a young woman named Azalea who lives on an island that floats high above the clouds. The island is sparsely populated and immense, and vast ruins are buried just underneath its surface. Azalea is fascinated by this uncharted territory, especially since she has the mystical ability to perceive the past history of the objects she touches. The story begins when Azalea is struck by an especially forceful vision of a young woman fleeing from a unseen pursuer when she picks up a broken key deep underground.
Unfortunately, Azalea’s interactions with underground artifacts trigger an earthquake, an event that is especially frightening to people living on a floating island. The tremors lead to mass panic, and it is decreed that a cleansing ritual must be performed. This ritual involves the re-enactment of a great battle against the evil “pig thief” who, envious of the sky island people’s prosperity, had captured the human vessel of their goddess. Azalea, whom the island’s religious leader has designated as the newest member of an order of secluded women who silently pray for the prosperity of the island and its inhabitants, must play the role of the sacrificial princess in this ritual before she retires from the world to become a symbolic reminder of the past and future glory of people other than herself.
David Hellman’s line work is both intricate and forceful, but what I especially appreciated was the artist’s color palette. The majority of Second Quest is warm and dark, with the twilit purples of the first half giving way to the angry reds of the second half. These colors emphasize the enclosed and suffocating nature of the floating island and its society, and the sky, when we see it, is a frightening orange or black. When the sky suddenly turns blue during the enactment of the purification ritual, presumably to emphasize the characterization of the island’s people as being “on the side of light,” the effect is disquieting. The appearance of teal and green at the very end of the book is breathtakingly dramatic, as the major theme of the story – a quest for freedom from the past – explodes onto the page through a series of textless spreads.
Second Quest was promoted and published through a Kickstarter campaign, the seed for which was planted by an essay written by Tevis Thompson about how the Zelda series has been declining in quality since the early games. While the first Zelda games forced the player to explore a boundless world, the more recent games are nothing more than an extended linear obstacle course. Tevis writes:
Players are constantly reminded that they’re shackled to a mechanistic land. There is no illusion of freedom because the gears that keep the player and Hyrule in lockstep are eminently legible. You read the landscape all too easily; you know what it’s asking of you. One of the greatest offenders occurred early on with A Link to the Past: most bomb-able walls became visible. What had been a potential site of mystery in the original Legend of Zelda (every rockface) became just another job for your trusty keyring. Insert here. Go on about your business.
Personally, I don’t think the Zelda series is broken. Even in Skyward Sword, which can indeed be frustratingly linear, there is more than ample room for exploration. My own favorite thing to do in Skyward Sword is bug catching, an activity that encourages the player to explore the world of the game both thoroughly and nonviolently while closely observing the game’s lush scenery and the behavioral patterns of the creatures that move unobtrusively within it. There are any number of different ways to play the Zelda games; and, if the huge body of Zelda fanfic is any indication, there are any number of different ways to read the games as well.
Last summer, however, there was a small backlash of fannish frustration over Aonuma Eiji’s denial that the Link character in the upcoming WiiU Zelda game might be female, a possibility that had been met with surprising enthusiasm. Furthermore, Aonuma stated that the gender of the Link character is inconsequential; instead, the important thing is that the player is able to identify with the character. The implication of this statement, of course, is that it’s easier for gamers to identify with a male player-protagonist than with a female player-protagonist. Let us never forget that the normative identity is “male,” after all. Men are subjects, so it makes sense for the player to control a male character, while women are objects, so it makes sense for them to act as McGuffins that enable the plot.
It’s important to the critique implicit in Second Quest that its protagonist is female. This is not simple fanboy pandering but rather a conscientious effort on the part of the creators to tell the “legend of Zelda” from the perspective of someone who is forced into a role that doesn’t suit her. When the reader first encounters Azalea, she is actively exploring the secret and hidden places of her world. We later learn, however, that women are not allowed entry into the knight academy that trains the elite police force that seems to govern the floating island. She’s not allowed to question authority or to develop her talents, even despite her obvious leadership qualities and intelligence. Azalea thus allows us to see the story of so many video games, a story frustratingly repeated time and again, from the perspective of someone excluded from shaping this story in any way. Azalea sees things that we usually aren’t shown, and what she sees is troubling and thought-provoking.
Second Quest is absolutely brilliant. If you’re a gamer, get this book. If you’re a comics person, get this book. If you’re into the darker side of religion and folklore, get this book. If you’re into feminism, gender politics, and the deconstruction of gendered tropes, then by all means, get this book. Second Quest is a beautifully published and a true pleasure to read and share with friends. I’ve been waiting for this book to come out for a long time, and I’m thrilled that it turned out to be so fantastic and inspiring.
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