“Salem’s Secret” (part 2)
The Plot: The warlock Salem and the pirate queen Nocturna invade the Island of Elves in search of the fallen unicorn horn that will give Salem ultimate power. Foreseeing this possibility, the elves have set up an impenetrable mystic barrier. However, an orphaned elven girl could be the key to getting through it.
Commentary: What seemed to be a story about the history of the duality wands that caused Sabrina so much grief in previous issues turns into an examination of Salem’s character. Longtime readers (and TV viewers) are aware that Salem was once a warlock who tried to take over the Magic Realm and failed. For his crime, he was changed into a cat. So we’ve always known Salem was a “bad guy” but he’s been presented mostly in a comic manner. Here writer Tania Del Rio shows once and for all that Salem the warlock was not a nice man. His dialog and actions clearly prove he was willing to do anything, use anyone, to accomplish his goals. Whether it’s an innocent child or the love struck pirate Nocturna, Salem’s willing to sacrifice them. However, Del Rio does not leave him unredeemed. In one poignant panel, she reveals that whatever the man might have been, the cat has learned something since then.
Del Rio has worked so hard making Nocturna a fully-rounded character that it’s impossible to believe she won’t reappear at some point. The pirate, who at first glance appeared to be nothing more than an opportunistic thief, shows here that there’s much more to her than that. She turns out to be surprisingly sympathetic, with a strong sense of what’s right and wrong. One of the best lines of the issue is her response to Salem’s, “You are a pirate, right?”: “Of course! That doesn’t mean I don’t have morals!” There are certain lines she’s uncomfortable crossing, and only her infatuation with Salem allows her to do so. She dislikes using a child to get the unicorn’s horn, and her real goal seems to be to create some kind of family for herself.
While the main thrust of the issue is character development, Del Rio balances that with action and humor. The scene where the elves drive Nocturna’s ship from their shores successfully incorporates both, while the panels depicting the elf messing with Salem’s head is just plain funny.
What would be extremely helpful for readers at this point – well, this reader anyway – is a timeline of events in the Magic Realm. Just when did Salem get changed into a cat in relation to this story? How long has he been with Sabrina’s aunts? Just how old is he anyway? Given certain hints in this issue, these points are sure to become important later on.
Chad Thomas’s art still isn’t a match for Del Rio’s, but there’s been a marked improvement from last issue. He has created very distinctive pirates and elves, who express a great deal with their body language. His Nocturna still looks too much like a boy in some panels and his unicorns are too toon-like for my taste, but he is capable of some absolutely stunning individual sequences. The two panels in which Salem pulls Nocturna into his arms and the couple goes into a liplock crackle with energy, though they can’t compare to the spectacular panel showing Salem’s dreams of the future. It’s a standard fantasy image – the evil figure surrounded by vicious minions, dark clouds, and lightening – but Thomas imbues it with a strong sense of power and menace.
Thomas also has an interesting way of randomly simplifying faces in an almost manga “deformed” mode. There doesn’t seem to be any particular reason for doing it, but it does change the visual and emotional impact of the panel. Sometimes that’s good, but at other times it becomes a distraction. You’re hunting for a reason “why” instead of focusing on the story.
Jim Amash does his usual super job of inking, making sure that all the important details are there to see, while not obscuring Thomas’s distinctive style. His work on the unicorn headstone is particularly nice. The glyphs look like they mean something, while the surrounding rock has a chipped, aged look.
As always, Jason Jensen’s colors are beautiful. He has a particularly effective lighting technique involving two shades of yellow that practically glows on the page. Likewise the brilliant green-yellow he uses for the elven sea magic gives an other-worldly look to the battle, while the deep lavender and blues of the later sea storm heighten the feeling that this is a major turning point.
Although “Salem’s Secret” works well as a “Part Two” and has all these great things going for it, I’m not sure it works as well as a stand alone issue. Unless you know going in something of Salem’s history, the story of the duality wands, and the current intrigues of the Magic Realm, it won’t mean as much. Yes, it’s a well-told tale, but it’s not exactly what you expect when you pick up an issue of a comic called Sabrina the Teenage Witch. The teenage witch makes only a token appearance on the cover and in one panel at the end of the story. A casual reader could very well be disappointed. But for those who follow the series, Del Rio and company have put together a fascinating look at Salem’s past – a past that will no doubt play a large part in Sabrina’s future.
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