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The Dreamland Chronicles, Book One
Written by Scott Christian Sava
Illustrated by Scott Christian Sava, Karen Krajenbrink, Ivan Perez, Can Tuncer, Marcello Bortolino, Peter Starostin, Jenn Downs, Kobi Alony, Joel Carlson, Peter Wong, Trung Tran, Jeremy Chapman, Frank Lenhard, Stefano Tsai, Antero Pedras, and Heather Shipman.
This review is based on the Blue Dream edition of the book. The Dreamland Chronicles is currently published by IDW.
The first time I read The Dreamland Chronicles was in single issues when it originally came out. I remember being impressed with the three-dimensional, CGI artwork and entranced with the story. I’ll come back to the story in a bit, but first I want to talk about the art.
It was about that same time that I read another CGI book (the name of which mercifully escapes me) that looked like a bunch of stills from a low-budget kids’ cartoon. In comparison, The Dreamland Chronicles was gorgeous. The character designs are wonderful; second only to the fantastic imagination that went into creating the cities, buildings, and countryside for those characters to inhabit. And Sava knows enough about comics to lay everything out in an exciting way, not a collection of static shots. His characters are dynamic and his panels flow very nicely.
You can probably sense the “but” coming and it’s true. But I’m getting this out of the way now so I can spend the rest of our time in praise. Maybe it’s just that I’m seeing more of the artwork in this collection, or maybe it’s that I’m coming back to it with eyes that are over the initial “wow” of a professionally-rendered CGI book. More likely, it has something to do with Pixar and Dreamworks’ raising the bar on what “professionally-rendered CGI” is. Whatever the reason, I found myself nitpicking the art this time in a way I hadn’t a few years ago.
Mostly it’s the human characters. The elves and fairies and rock giants are all good (and some of them are great), but our hero Alex and his friends in our world generally have huge, stocky torsos that make them look like they’re wearing shoulder pads. There’s one shot where Alex pulls a sword from a stone and his body contorts in a way that would have any chiropractor heading for the Jaguar dealer. I don’t want to dwell on this too much, because it doesn’t get in the way of the story or anything. It’s just that the CGI looks a bit dated.
Having said that though, a lot of the art is gorgeous and Sava’s used it to create a believable world that’s a pleasure to explore. There are Elven tree-cities, teddy-bear villages, fairy-towns made from mushrooms, and a steampunk metropolis ruled by… well, I won’t tell you about its ruler. Discovering that is part of the fun of the book.
The story is about Alex Carter, a college student who used to have recurring, almost lucid dreams about a magic land until he turned twelve. Since then, there’s been nothing. But when his mom sends him a care package filled with a bunch of old toys and knick-knacks, he finds in it a necklace with a sword pendant that he doesn’t remember owning. That night, the dreams return.
There are two plots running side-by-side. One deals with Alex in the real world. He’s got a twin brother named Dan who loves Alex’s stories of Dreamland and has them all chronicled in journals. Dan doesn’t seem to begrudge Alex his gift except for when Alex doesn’t appear to appreciate it enough. For reasons completely external to the story, I don’t trust Dan. He seems like a good guy, but I’ve read enough fantasy to be concerned that Dan will at some point try to manipulate Alex and enter Dreamland himself, with disastrous results. I could be totally wrong about that, but I’m a little nervous. Part of that is because he comes across as a little unhinged, especially in the first part of the story. His emotions fluctuate wildly: first casually dismissive of Dreamland as a product of Alex’s over-active imagination, then offended because Alex doesn’t take it seriously enough.
Another person from the real-world is Nicole, a med student working on a dream-research project that Alex volunteers for in order to get extra credit he desperately needs. Nicole is pretty and Alex seems interested in her for a while even though she clearly thinks he’s not only immature, but also possibly delusional. Once Alex starts visiting Dreamland again, his interest in Nicole apparently tapers off. After all, Dreamland is where Nastajia lives.
In his childhood days, Alex spent his time in Dreamland with three friends: Nastajia the Elf, Kiwi the fairy, and a “rock boy” named Paddington Rumblebottom III. Now that Alex has grown, he finds that an equal amount of time has passed in Dreamland and he has to re-acclimate. Paddington has grown into a full-blown rock giant, Kiwi is sort of disturbingly sexy (she still wears her hair in pig-tails and likes the same, cutesy, striped stockings she did as a kid), and Nastajia is just drop-dead gorgeous.
My favorite thing about the book is Alex’s attempt to pick up where he left off eight years ago. Especially with Nastajia, which is why I wanted to talk about this story during Valentine’s Week. There’s a lot going on for Alex and Sava does a nice job of dealing with it without over-explaining it. Forgetting about Alex’s relationships with the disbelieving Nicole and the over-believing Dan, Alex has a lot to deal with in Dreamland.
I remember some very vivid dreams I had as a kid. Fantastic dreams that I hated – mourned even – waking up from. My heart stops when I imagine what it would be like to discover they were real and that I could visit those places again. The Dreamland Chronicles lets me do that in a way. Through Alex’s story, I’m rediscovering some of that old sense of wonder in a powerful way.
But even if I didn’t relate to the dream angle, I’d absolutely relate to the attraction of exploring an old relationship that didn’t end right a long time ago. That’s where Alex and Nastajia are. They were fond of each other at twelve – best friends really – but they were too young to attach any romantic meaning to their relationship. Another year and they would have, but Alex suddenly – through no fault or will of his own – stopped coming to Dreamland. Not knowing that Nastajia wasn’t just a figment of his imagination, he eventually forgot about her. Nastajia, on the other hand, was much more devastated. She knew her friend was real and she missed him. Now that he’s back, her fear of another abandonment and her disappointment that he doesn’t remember his old visits as vividly as she does makes her cold to him. Even as he’s starting to remember and is becoming interested in renewing their relationship.
This is potent stuff for me. I’ve got a great wife now and an awesome kid, but I remember too well younger, single years when the desire to have another shot at failed romances was consuming. I doubt there are many people who don’t have regrets about past relationships. Everyone wonders about what might have been. I dare say we dream about it.
The beautiful thing about The Dreamland Chronicles is that Alex is getting that chance. It may have dated CGI, and the fantasy quest story may be familiar (Nastajia’s parents have disappeared while searching for six tablets that hold the secret to saving Dreamland from the neighboring Nightmare Realm; Alex may be destined to rule Dreamland in accordance with prophecy), but the love story is timeless and fresh.
This is only Volume One, so I don’t know what happens to Alex and Nastajia. I suspect they’ll eventually get their happy ending, but my heart’s going to keep breaking for them until they do. And in spite of the few flaws the series may have, I’ll be following them to make sure they do.
Four out of five flying pirate ships.