If ever there was a Nintendo game that encapsulates Joseph Campbell’s concept of the Hero’s Journey, it would be The Legend of Zelda. The franchise hero, Link, is an unwitting yet fated hero swept up in a fantasy adventure above his pay grade, a blank slate of sword-swinging and rupee-hunting onto which players can project their own desires. I say this from experience as a child of the ’90s whose older brother subscribed to Nintendo Power, the monthly gaming news magazine that serialized Shotaro Ishinomori’s The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past, loosely based on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System game of the same name.
Let me repeat that a little more breathlessly: one of manga’s greatest legends produced a full-color adaptation of one of the apexes of one of the greatest video game franchises of all time (edited by Shigesato Itoi of Earthbound/Mother fame, no less). None of that meant anything to me at five years old; I was having enough trouble parsing names like Agahnim, Sahasrala, and Kakariko to bother with any reputations or franchises. I only cared that the art was gorgeous and every chapter’s cliffhanger ending left me dying to know what happened next. I share these details in the interest of full disclosure, because revisiting the comic in Viz’s collected edition has been a serious nostalgia trip for me, largely bolstered by the lasting quality of Ishinomori’s artwork and layouts. It’s also a case example that the book is great for younger readers, but your mileage may vary.
For new readers, that cover is a dead giveaway that something legendary is about to unfurl: the Master Sword in the stone, Zelda’s own version of Excalibur, covered in moss and waiting for a worthy hero. Within the first 15 pages of story, Link is already on a quest to avenge his fallen uncle, rescue the kidnapped Princess Zelda, and recover the Master Sword from fell soldiers of darkness. Over the course of 12 chapters, Ishinomori more or less recreates the structure of the Link To The Past video game, MacGuffins and all. The story feels like an abbreviated video game in many ways, as Link is often snatched from the jaws of death through an array of deus ex machinas. Danger and violence toward Link are frequently defused into humorous panels with rocks bouncing off his head or his face exhibiting a goofy expression. Story holes abound, in some cases warping Link from one setpiece to another with nothing more than a brief narrative cue that he moved at all, but Ishinomori’s watercolors and impeccable eye for design render the world of Hyrule with such attention-grabbing grandeur that most of the story’s shortcuts are easy to forgive. When the Master Sword crackles with lightning, Link sails a sled across a snowplain, or any of the series’s massive beasts fills the frame, readers are treated to full-page or even two-page spreads that will leave them gobsmacked at the sheer clarity and scale.
Beyond swordplay and magic powers, there is a morality to Zelda’s world that is charmingly simple. There exists a “Dark World” version of Hyrule where one’s evil thoughts and actions turn them into beasts. Link is constantly at risk of losing himself there, and he meets a fellow adventurer, Roam, who takes advantage of a birdlike transformation in his own identical adventure. Will Roam defeat the evil Ganon, or is it up to Link, aided by mystics, fairies, librarians, and the magic of Zelda’s pure heart? Across bloodless action scenes and eye-popping journeys from castles to jungles, deserts, temples, and mountains, this adventure is worth taking for all ages, from the young at heart to the young in age.
Let’s take a moment to address Zelda’s role in all this, especially as she’s the title character of the franchise. She would seem to be the primary mover of the quest, despite her captivity: Link is more or less her tool, motivated by her psychic missives and pleas for help. While Link is rumored to be a legendary hero with knightly parentage, Princess Zelda is relegated to a prison or locked in solid crystal throughout most of the story. At one point, when Link’s hand turns into a painful claw, Zelda bandages it in a dream sequence and eases his nerves. Yet after Link and Roam consider the prophecy of who will ultimately defeat the evil Ganon with a mysterious enchanted arrow, it’s ultimately Zelda who fires the arrow, with the implication that she enchanted it herself just before firing.
The ending, draped in career success and personal tragedy, shows Link as the leader of Hyrule’s knights. He bows to Queen Zelda as she departs on horseback, lamenting that she and Link felt closest when they were linked in danger, and now she’s alone in peace while Link still acts as a guard. The journey turns out to be more important than its ending or beginning, inviting readers to start all over.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past
by Shotaro Ishinomori
Viz Media, 2015