Image at 25: How ‘Battle Chasers’ Brought the JRPG to Comics
Back in 1998, my comic hobby was fledgling at best. There was a decent local shop, but at the close of my junior year of high school, I had other priorities for where my money was being allocated. Still, when I could, I'd stop by and pick up some books just to see what had been happening since I fell out of the hobby after the conclusion of "The Phalanx Covenant."
But as luck would have it, all it would take for me to get invested once again was the familiar style of Joe Madureira calling to me from the shelves. Four years away from the hobby, and his distinctive style was still burned in my brain. I'd never seen anything like Battle Chasers as a comic before, but after flipping through the pages, I was hooked. Here was one of my favorite creators, and he was bringing Japanese role-playing games to comics. It was a high school gamer's dream come true.
Just a few months before Battle Chasers #1 arrived in April, I'd gotten a PlayStation and a copy of Final Fantasy VII for Christmas. That wasn't my first Final Fantasy rodeo, but as anyone who was old enough to appreciate that game's release in that moment of time can attest, Final Fantasy VII was different from everything that had come before. It catapulted Squaresoft into rarefied air, and turned a generation of gamers into role-playing game fanatics.
While Dungeons & Dragons and Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance novels were abundant in my household, there weren't really any comics delving deep into those worlds that I was aware of at the time. My collecting hobbies had been mostly focused on the likes of Marvel and DC, with a dabbling in Image when I followed Jim Lee wherever he went. Battle Chasers changed the game for me entirely. I had never seen such renderings of iconic tropes like the warrior, mage and rogue before. To be fair, I don't think a lot of people had seen rogues that looked like Red Monika before, though Garrison the warrior and Knolan the mage were certainly of a more familiar cloth.
With my fascination for JRPG just beginning to percolate, Battle Chasers was the perfect way to scratch the itch of wanting more from the genre. The book wears the influences of Square's and Enix's games, and to a smaller extent The Legend of Zelda as well, on its sleeves. You can see it in the fantastical armor designs, the creature concepts and within the realm itself. Of course, everything has that signature Joe Mad style to it, which was the main reason most fans put up with the infrequency of Battle Chasers' publishing schedule. From 1998-2001 only nine issues were ever published, but I'll be darned if each new issue wasn't just as anticipated as the last, even with months between them.
The influences of JRPGs on the book were a boon from an art standpoint of course. Every page brimmed with detail and characters that were larger than life. Seeing magic spells brought to life with the digital colors of Liquid (along with Christian Lichtner and Aron Lusen) made them feel as if they were truly happening. Joe Mad's layouts, particularly in action sequences, were thrilling and put you right in the mix of things. I can still recall the fight in the tower between Garrison and Brass Demur, and the throwdown between Calibretto and Bulgrim.
That said, Battle Chasers also fell prey to JRPG traditions in the narrative that Madureira and Munier Sharrieff crafted, with more than a dozen characters introduced in fewer issues than you could count on two hands; complex relationships and motivations expounded upon through loads of exposition; and an overarching narrative that was never really made clear. Most of that has to do with Battle Chasers stopping short so that Joe Mad could go explore video game development, but even in the issues that were released, it's hard to peg down the actual story this book was trying to tell.
Mostly though, Battle Chasers still kind of holds up through re-reading --- even if the lettering from Comicraft seems outdated. The advent of digital lettering led to a lot of books overusing multiple fonts to an incredible degree. That's evident from nearly page one of Battle Chasers where the fonts are flying fast and furious to convey tone and emotion, rather than letting scenes and dialogue speak for themselves.
Joe Madureira leaving Battle Chasers behind for a few years to develop video games wasn't all bad though. The franchise is actually getting its own game soon, and Joe Mad is going to finish up the unfinished arc as part of the crowdfunding rewards for getting Battle Chasers: Nightwar made.
Of course it's going to be a role-playing game, and of course the characters will all fit their familiar genre roles, but that's certainly not a bad thing. It's exactly what the kid who read Battle Chasers #1 had hoped for these last 19 years.