Back in 2011, Blizzard paired up with DC Comics to produce a five-issue miniseries called Diablo: Sword of Justice, set a couple of decades after the Lord of Destruction expansion to Diablo II (but still before the events of Diablo III). It follows Jacob, the fugitive son of a mad northern king, and his desperate search for answers to a strange plague of violent insanity that threatens to overtake Sanctuary completely.
Sadly, not even the epic writing of Aaron Williams and brutal art by Joseph LaCroix couldn’t save us from a far greater threat than any epidemic: General Usage Comic Decay. It happens to the best of us; a favorite comic, after multiple reads, lending to friends, and being crammed onto the shelf between much sturdier-bound books begins to show wear and tear. The corners of each page bend. Colors fade. But Blizzard and DC are both in the business of making heroes, and just as it seemed we’d have to retire our individual issues to the world of bag-and-board, they showed up to save us all with the Sword of Justice trade paperback, available to preorder from Amazon and Barnes & Noble in both physical and digital formats for a July 16th release date (or hardcopy purchasable as of July 9th via the Blizzard Store).
Besides being a lot less fragile than regular comic books, the trade paperback contains a fascinating appendix of preliminary sketches for each issue cover, main characters, and some of the more intricate interior panels. It also looks badass on a shelf or left laying around for your friends to drool over, and much more “grown up” than a bunch of comic books stashed in a shoebox, if you’re one of those “adult” things I keep hearing about.
It’s also significantly cheaper and easier to purchase the trade paperback now if you missed the original release of each issue or are just now discovering the rich lore of Diablo. At just under $15, that’s only $3 per issue, versus the inflated prices I’ve seen for the individual comics — if you can even find them, that is — often hitting as high as $50 or $60 for the complete set.
Newcomers to the Diablo games need not fear being hopelessly lost with the content of Sword of Justice, either; being a lore expert is not a requirement to enjoy the story, which stands tall on its own even with limited prior knowledge of the series. It begins with a short recap of the fall of Arreat given in by Bahman, a blind storyteller who seems to be just another peddler swallowed up by the bustling marketplace he calls home. A hooded figure has listened intently to his words and now, as the tale ends and the crowd disperses, steps forward to impart upon the old man his own recollection of the horrors surrounding Arreat’s destruction, but is cut short when Bahman whispers to him that he has seen a man following him in a vision, and if he wishes to escape death, he must move quickly to seek what lies beneath a mountain peak in the northwest. Somewhat shaken, the mysterious traveler sets off in the direction indicated, and thus begins the story of Jacob…
Jacob’s homeland has been overrun by a terrifying madness that imparts an unquenchable thirst for blood and flesh upon its victims. Even his own father has fallen beneath its scythe, ordering that his own wife, the Queen, be executed for some imagined treason against the throne. Jacob can only watch in horror as his mother is beheaded for crimes she did not commit. He confronts his father in his chambers, but what starts as a simple accusation quickly turns to a fight for his life, ending with his sword buried deep in his father’s gut. With his dying breath, the King, in a moment of lucidity, cryptically warns his son that “the blood will mark” him. Now a wanted murderer, Jacob must stay one step ahead of the soldiers chasing him if he intends to find a cure for the madness that has destroyed his family, and may soon leave all of Sanctuary in ruins.
And that’s all you get, because the story laid out in Sword of Justice is so rich that it has to be experienced for itself. Spoilers just can’t do it… justice.
Jacob’s last name is never given, nor are his parents ever named beyond their royal titles, but the Queen’s execution seemed so familiar that I initially wondered if they weren’t intended to be the Mad King Leoric and Queen Asylla. Asylla, however, wasn’t even a part of the lore until Diablo III (although her execution took place during the time of the first Diablo game), and her death was at the hands of the treacherous Archbishop Lazarus, who does not appear in Sword of Justice either by name or by inference, thus the similarities are likely coincidental.
One thing I really appreciated about the series was the portrayal of the two main female characters, Shanar and Gynvir. Both are written as strong of mind and body, and neither of them are toting around breasts bigger than their heads. Compared to most other women in fantasy environments, their costumes are pretty reasonable, as well. Any midriff exposure is actually far more conservative than anything you’d see on a summer day in Southern California, and their breastplates don’t appear to be in danger of triggering a nipple-slip should they lift their arms too high. Though Shanar’s costume features some pretty steep slits up the side of her skirt, there’s no side-butt or sheer panels. Gynvir’s armor looks like it could actually withstand a decent battle, although the bottom half shares some similarities to Shanar’s; to be fair, these designs are identical to what appears in much of the game art, but I’m just grateful to see that no further artistic “liberties” were taken to hold male readers’ interests. In the sketch appendices, there are actually a couple of proposed versions for the cover of Issue #2 that would have had Shanar in what I like to call the “Slave Leia” pose, but they were scrapped in favor of a side-view that actually has her towering over Jacob, rather than at his feet making bedroom eyes.
Shanar, a wizard with a wit sharper than any sword, only relies on Jacob’s support in the most basic of ways, such as needing his help to stand up after unleashing a particularly strong spell twice in one battle, which she makes clear is not a spell that’s intended to be used so rapidly. It isn’t because she’s a female, and thus weaker; from her explanation, even the strongest male wizard would find himself drained in the same situation. It’s also worth noting that she is of Asian descent, as is the wizard class in general according to Diablo game art, but not fetishized or marginalized by the use of offensive stereotypes — her dialogue does not indicate any accent or broken English, and she proves to be anything but demure. She doesn’t throw herself at the male characters to try and get out of tricky situations; she throws it down. In fact, at the end of the comic, one of the soldiers refers to her in a manner she finds offensive, and she happily calls him out on it. When he continues to try and insinuate that she really wants him despite protestations to the contrary, she doesn’t back down, but makes her displeasure and disgust over it known.
The tactically skilled barbarian Gynvir is similarly independent and unwilling to take on her “traditional” gender role, shown in a later part of the story taking over a group of soldiers and chastising them for their lackluster performance just as well as any male leader would. Nor is she written as uneducated or typical “barbarian-stupid”; she speaks just as eloquently as Shanar and Jacob. She is fearless, and shows a great mind for strategy without which the group of adventurers would have been unable to progress. Would Joss Whedon approve? Absolutely. And then he’d probably stab Jacob through the heart with space debris.
We’ve already established that Aaron Williams does amazing things with words, but artist Joseph LaCroix is not to be forgotten. The stylized “sketchy” style fits in well with the battle-filled storyline, and the often bleak color palettes lend to the sense that evil and ruin is really lurking behind every corner.
Continuity in each panel is typically good, with only a few errors, the most noticeable of which is a panel in which Shanar’s eyes go from brown or black to a vivid shade of blue and it doesn’t appear to be due to lighting or magical invocation. There are plenty of bloody clashes, but none of them are overly gory to the point of ridiculousness, and LaCroix manages to capture the frantic movement of the battlefield in a way that has to be seen to be believed.
Whether you’re a long-time Diablo fan or just getting your feet wet, or even if you’re just a fan of awesome comics, Diablo: Sword of Justice cannot be overlooked. Sanctuary — and your bookshelf — needs you.