Sun Dragon's Song Issues #1-2 by Joyce Chng and Kim Miranda
Sun Dragon’s Song is a fantasy tale in the “hero’s journey” mould, specifically the “young protagonist goes to magic school” subset of coming-of-age stories. As far as all-ages comics go, the series has a lot to recommend it (a disabled but capable protagonist of colour, beautiful art) but its plot rarely breaks from convention, hitting familiar beats that even its young readers will recognize.
Ho Yi is a young boy living in a feudal Asia fantasy setting. His parents are dragon riders, humans who ride dragons and protect villages from bandits and other threats. While his parents are off having adventures, Ho Yi is stuck at a boarding house where he has to deal with bullies and chores. One of his duties is tending the cave crystal farms (dragons love to eat the crunchy, brightly coloured crystals). Because Ho Yi needs a crutch in order to walk, he figures he’ll never be a sun dragon rider like his parents. As far as he’s concerned, the closest he’ll ever get to dragons is feeding them crystals from the caves. But when Ho Yi’s parents come to visit, they bring a surprise for him: an acceptance letter to the dragon rider academy!
It’s nice to see a young protagonist who isn’t an orphan, who has loving parents that are just unable to look after him at the moment because of their work. The scene where the three eat dinner together is fantastic; it pulls double duty as we get to learn both about the world and about the different viewpoints of Ho Yi’s parents. Ho Yi’s father talks about fighting what seems at first to be a powerful bandit, only to discover that the bandit is a young girl Ho Yi’s age, stealing food to feed her family; Ho Yi’s father let the girl go, a decision Ho Yi’s mother disagrees with. Seeing Ho Yi’s parents argue is a nice, natural moment, a reminder of that pivotal time in childhood when you stop seeing your parents as a unit and instead as two people who sometimes have differing views.
Most of issue #1 serves as set-up for the larger story. Even in issue #2 it is a while before we actually get to the dragon academy. First there is a mini-arc featuring Ho Yi’s bully at the boarding house, Tian Yu. Upon the news that Ho Yi is going to be a dragon rider, nearly every kid suddenly wants to be his best friend. All except for Tian Yu. Tian Yu waits until Ho Yi is alone in the crystal caves and beats him so badly that Ho Yi needs to spend a couple of days in the nurse’s office. Tian Yu is kicked out of the boarding house. The problem with this event is that it seems wholly incidental—it doesn’t stop Ho Yi from going to the dragon academy, and even if it delays him that doesn’t seem to have any serious repercussions on the story. Maybe there will be a payoff to the Tian Yu/Ho Yi rivalry in later issues, but right now it feels like you could take any pages on which it features out of the issue, and not miss anything in the larger plot. The sequence also feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity on the level of the deeper themes of the series. As Tian Yu attacks Ho Yi, he yells about how Ho Yi only got into the academy because of who his parents are. From what’s presented in the comic, it certainly seems that way. Ho Yi has to work harder because of his disability, but he also has advantages (loving parents who can get him into the academy) that Tian Yu doesn’t seem to have. Not that this excuses Tian Yu, but it would have been nice to see the series delve into the issue a little bit more (one can only hope that it does down the line).
Once at the dragon academy, the Harry Potter vibe gets amped up as Ho Yi and the other students attend classes and dine together in a large hall. Ho Yi makes a couple of friends, who are understanding about his leg and make a point of keeping pace with him in gym class. They also point out some other disabled students at the school, leading to one of issue #2’s funniest moments: “Why is that kid talking about me?” a blind student asks her friend as the characters talk about her in the background (p. 23).
The best scene in issue #2, however, features another character whom like Tian Yu, almost feels incidental at this point. To get from the boarding house to the academy, Ho Yi catches a ride with Siri, a fully-fledged sun dragon rider like his parents. As they fly, Ho Yi gets his first taste of actually riding on a dragon, and the art conveys the terrifying but exhilarating feeling of flying through the air. Indeed, Kim Miranda’s art in general is a huge draw for the series. Her depictions of dragons moving through the sky (or even just sitting on their whimsical, Dr. Seuss-like, perches) invokes the same wonder of a Miyazaki movie. For any comic book readers who fell in love with the Flight anthology series, this comic will scratch that same itch. Miranda’s art is also good when it comes to humans—the facial expressions during the dinner scene in issue #1 let you know what the characters are thinking even before they speak. The colouring is also superb. While the dragons and the crystals are drawn with bright (but not too bright) pinks, blues, and yellows. Everything else is largely coloured with a drabber, darker palate, making the mystical elements pop all the more.
There are also some typesetting issues throughout the first two issues that jump out while reading the series. Sometimes a blank line will appear in the middle of a speech bubble, making the sentence within look odd and disjointed. Also, there’s an inconsistency with the terms: sometimes it’s “sundragon” instead of “sun dragon,” “dragonriding” in one case where it should be “dragon riding.”
Issue #2, however, ends on a cliff hanger with the announcement that the country is now officially at war with the Bai Shi (the bandits) after the bandits attacked a couple of northern villages. Ho Yi’s first thought is for his parents who were stationed up north. Did they survive the attack? In this way the story to this point seems like mostly set up, though it will be interesting to see how (and if) certain things payoff. Will Tian Yu make another appearance? Will Siri? Sun Dragon’s Song is supposed to be a 4 issue series, though at the end of issue #2 it feels more like the story is just starting rather than being at the halfway mark. Still, issue #2 is a lot faster paced than issue #1, so I wouldn’t be surprised if writer Joyce Chng continues to ramp things up and packs in even more development in issues #3 and #4. One can only hope that, if she does, the story breaks from its bildungsroman conventions and does something interesting with all of its potential.