Dynamite has sent us a writer’s commentary from Crystal Frasier for Pathfinder: Spiral of Bones #2. The book has a cover by Marco Santucci and interior art by Tom Garcia.
My creative writing teacher back in high school once told me “always start with a flashback.” Either that, or “never start with a flashback.” I’m not 100% sure. I actually have a lot of trouble remembering the past. Regardless, Spiral of Bones #2 opens with a glimpse into Valeros’s childhood, learning to read from an overbearing woman in a bob haircut who likes to keep the price tag on potions she buys.
One of the sad truths you learn doing licensed work is that these awesome characters you write for rarely have named family members, so in this case I had to give Valeros a set of parents, and then THOSE parents some parents. But obviously things must be great, because grandma is taking some time to teach her grandson how to read! Bonding time!
Surprise! It’s not quality bonding time! Valeros’s family is just as screwed up as yours. Plus grandma and all his uncles were wizards, apparently, which has to make family reunions even more awkward. For the family that’s still alive, at least… which seems to just be this household.
I do love how Morgan Hickman handled the colors on these pages. They’re faded and dreamy, but not so faded it looks artificial. Combined with the black, starry borders and there are plenty of little touches that say “flashback” without me having to label it “once upon a time” or “many years ago.”
And what could make this moment MORE awkward? Why, Valeros, of course! The boy has always been blunt, but in his defense it seems like a family trait. That and passive aggression.
I had originally wanted this flashback to be a little longer and give us a more nuanced look at Val’s parents and grandmother and show that they aren’t dicks to each other ALL the time, just in regards to Valeros. It’s surprisingly hard to fit a good story into 20 pages, though, and so I had to trim the fat from my personal favorite section. Lots of cool characters to introduce, so…
Hey! We’re back in the present and here’s Valeros being dragged from the River of Souls by a night hag! I don’t believe Old Meg ever gets an official label as a night hag in the book, but we can leave that as content to be explored later.
Some people might wonder why all of Valeros’s clothes and armor and weapons died with him, and believe it or not we cover that later!
Old Meg is interested in selling Valeros at the soul markets of Abaddon. If you follow the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, you’ll know that Abaddon is a terrible city in the great beyond where nefarious folk buy and sell souls. If you only know Abaddon through mythology or the Supernatural television series, you expect Abaddon to be an unpleasant person. Either way, there are soul markets, and not the kind that specialize in soul food and soul music. Those soul markets are awesome. The Abaddon soul market is not awesome. Valeros is not getting cornbread or Otis Redding.
And now we get to the real stars of Spiral of Bones: psychopomsp! In the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, psychopomps are a breed of magical creatures who escort and judge the souls of the dead. Some of them are scary flying skeletons with animal skull heads, called vanth, while others are adorable tiny birds in masks.
Old Meg is a tricky girl, though. She’s trying to downplay the whole “stealing souls and selling them at a market that doesn’t even offer collards” thing, but we’re wise to her tricks. White eyes are a dominant trait, and Valeros clearly has brown eyes. HE’S ADOPTED!
We get a cool little fight here, showing off how tough vanth are. Night hags aren’t slackers when it comes to messing people up, but vanth are soldiers who guard the dead for a living (get it?). And Wini (you’ll learn her name in two pages, so it’s not a spoiler) likes feeling tough despite being a tiny bird, and I love accommodating her. I would write an entire comic about Wini if anyone would let me.
Originally Meg was set to return later in the storyline, still missing a hand and ready to collect Valeros’s soul again. The actress had prior commitments, though, and we had to re-write. Also the story worked a lot better without reaching back and re-introducing her.
Okay, we’re finally getting some input from Valeros, so it’s like he’s a real character and not an attractive lamp everyone wants. Turns out he’s dead, and maybe it was that questionable meat pie from issue 1? Let that be a lesson in comic writing, kids: Set up a gag in issue 1 that pays off in issue 2… which comes out a month later and by then your readers will have completely forgotten about it!
But yeah, Valeros is dead and has learned an important lesson about always letting the thief check for traps before touching large, ominous jewels. I mean, it’s a little late and won’t help him out, but think of it as a PSA: Kids, don’t touch ominous jewels, even if all the other children are doing it!
Scene change. Welcome to the Boneyard! In the Pathfinder world, this is the city of the dead. It’s basically a massive court where everyone gets judged for their deeds in life to decide what kind of afterlife they get. Tom Garcia absolutely floored me with his amazing designs here: it’s gloomy and oppressive, but also pretty cool. I would’ve hung out here in high school in my Hot Topic dress and dock martins and black lipstick. The moon even has a name: It’s Groteus, and he’s a dead god of the apocalypse! The Boneyard is so metal, even their apocalypse god is dead.
I love the gag of Valeros trying to do his own Pathfinder journal entry to fill us in on what’s going on. He’s a sweet guy, but not a great narrator. Still, he’s doing his best. He focuses on what’s important: the who, what, why, and how do I get alcohol.
It’s a little bit of a reach back, but that last panel gives us a cameo of Zadendi, the half-elf Sarenrae priestess from the City of Secrets arc way back in 2014! She recognizes Valeros and shoots him a dirty look, but obviously she’s got to get to her own courtroom. Bureaucracy first, then vengeance.
This is another great page for general worldbuilding, and words cannot express how much I love this little lineup of psychopomps on their breaks, just hanging out and chatting. Look at that little pair in the foreground, with a little wing out and a head cocked to one side. You know one of them is telling the other all about her weekend and the other is just like “I don’t care, Jennifer!”
I know I said this once already, but it bears repeating: Tom really went the extra mile in making this surreal world come alive!
So now we get to more characters: Aquisto and Geos, the devil and angel fighting over Valeros’s soul. But wait a second…. What contract? Did Valeros sell his soul for power? How drunk was he in Runescars?!
More flashbacks! And now Valeros is out of character and out of costume. It’s not like him to spill wine.
Flashbacks continue, but this time in a different color palette so we know someone else is talking. Did the artist forget to draw Valeros’s pet peacock in the flashback we have back on page 1? Or maybe we have an unreliable narrator!
So yeah, Valeros has a cosmic mistake of mistaken identity. Or actually a cosmic case of identity theft. His name is not nor has it ever been Zeladar.
I love the very simple body language in panels 2 and 3, because we’ve all been there, trying to explain something so fundamental and basic that you don’t even know how to put it to words and just fall back on wild gesticulations. And Wini in the background as a little peanut gallery is priceless.
And now we get to the Valeros I love: the problem-solver! Val isn’t as book-smart as his spellcasting friends, and maybe he’s not as smooth as Merisiel, but when it comes to shoving cosmic entities into mugs, his game is strong! How many other adventurers would think “I’m in a tight spot, but everything will be fine if I can slap my tankard over this force for cosmic justice!”?
And now he just nonchalantly escapes death with a bird in a cup. Go Val! And we get a moment that I think really showcases the kind of person Valeros is: He apologizes for kidnapping Wini. he’s got his own agenda that he’s really panicked about, but after a second it occurs to him how rude he’s being and he apologizes. It’s not hard, people!
There’s another cameo in panel 1: Veltus Vesk, from Pathfinder Origins. Valeros and Amiri killed poor Veltus with a large rock, so it’s a good thing both of them are really focused on their psychopomps or else this would be awkward.
And we continue with the characterization: Val’s honestly kind of an insecure guy and sensitive to boot. He just wants someone to get his name right, because this is sort of a bid deal. And we get to see Wini being honest and sensitive for once, not just an exposition dump.
I’ll be honest: I don’t do emotions well, and was sort of strapped for where this should go. Do they hug? Can Wini hug with wings? Is Val going to cry? Do they get wine and laugh and share childhood stories? Anyway, like one of the great writers, Raymond Chandler, used to say, “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a a strange speech affectation and no shirt.” Meet Kyron.
Kyron is an inevitable. In the Pathfinder Mythology, they are cosmic beings who enforce the laws of creation. If you screw with the laws of creation, they come down and put a stop to it. Kyron here is assigned to stop people from screwing around with the laws of life and death, so he has some harsh words for Valeros.
And he punched a sparrow. That’s illegal in this jurisdiction, but Kyron doesn’t care. Valeros sure as heck does, though, and BAM! Rock to the face!
I don’t know why, but I am infinitely delighted by scenes of birds getting punched by obviously superior opponents (Comedically! Not, like, in a mean way). I think it’s because we had a cockatiel growing up that would routinely punch me in the back of the head.
Valeros is pretty confidant because, hey, he’s dead. What’s the big stone dude gonna do? Double-kill him? But pain still works even after you’re dead, so there’s that.
And it turns out Wini doesn’t have a glass jaw overall. She’s just sensible and playing dead while she waits for backup.
Boom! And here comes Yindaal. She’s a yamaraj, a breed of raven/dragon psychopomps who act as judges. And she is having absolutely none of Kyron’s tomfoolery.
So yeah, Yindaal’s pretty chill about the kidnapping and the assault thing. Happens a lot, I imagine.
But of course she can’t sort this mess out or else our story would be over. So now we get a twist ending: Valeros isn’t dead at all! And he’s renamed the Pathfinder group the “Mavens of Battle,” which would be an amazing metal band. What is even going on here? Plot, that’s what!
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