Fairy Tail: Ice Trail Volume 1; Shades of Gray

For the last decade or so, when it comes to shonen anime or manga, the so-called “Big Three” of Naruto, Bleach and One Piece have ruled supreme. However, in recent years they have found their territory encroached by  Hajime Isayama’s Attack on Titan and Hiro Mashima’s Fairy Tail, both of which happen to be published by Kodansha Comics. Fairy Tail, in particular, with its group of pioneering wizards has tapped into the nakama fueled story-telling that once epitomized the shonen genre. More so than some other series, Fairy Tail managed to create an endearing cast of characters with a humor that often betrays a darker history. Each of our heroes has a troubling past that motivates them and many of the arcs are introspective in this regard. The Ice Wizard; Gray Fullbuster is one of the first characters to get this treatment with his relationship with his deceased master being central to his development. given his popularity, it was almost inevitable that he would be the subject of a spin-off.

Fairy Tail: Ice Trail is written and drawn by  Yuuske Shirato and gives the reader an insight into Gray’s life before joining the titular Fairy Tail wizard guild. We meet Gray at a low-point in his life, his master; Ur, has recently sacrificed herself to save him and their village from a demon’s wraith. Gray travels the country hoping to improve his skills and fill the void his master’s death has left in him. The young wizard feels responsible for her death and this pervades throughout the volume. Indeed, there is a touch of PTSD to his experiences which demonstrate his fragility. The first chapter has the young wizard face off against a guild aimed at reviving a demon, but the demons that Gray faces aren’t external, but internal in nature. Gray is a character who tries to put on a cool facade, fitting of his powers, but at times like his ice, it melts and the grief of a child emerges. Despite this, like the hero of an action-drama from the 80s, he constantly tries to do what is right, even when the best thing he could do for himself is to walk on. It’s questionable whether at this stage of his life, the young Fullbuster is looking for a good death worthy of Ur’s memory, but it makes his attempt to sacrifice himself in the Galuna Island more poignant. Gray is alone in the world and looking for a place in it, as the specter of his master looms over him. This part of his life is a pivotal to his development and something long-time fans will appreciate. Ice Trail is shows us hints at the man he will become and the traits that make him suitable to be a Fairy Tail wizard.

tumblr_ntv28zI2E11s7mwd3o2_500The side-characters in this piece are nothing to write home about, a couple of Dark Guilds who serve as action fodder more than anything else. Fairy Tail has always been quite anthology-like when it comes to its side-characters. The introduction of new locations, guilds and characters has often been done as part of a process of world-building then it has anything else. Ice Trail‘s side-characters each serve their purpose in the story, but they won’t leave you longing for their unlikely return. It’s worth-noting, however, that Gildarts, a prominent Fairy Tail character, does make an appearance mid-way through the volume and acts as a mentor to Gray. Without going into spoiler territory, it is suffice to say that the character is as charming as ever, acting as the necessary big brother/father-figure to a troubled young wizard in need of guidance. Gray and Gildart’s play off each other well and its clear that as the story progresses they warm to each other, recognising the inner strength and morality of their companion. Fairy Tail tends to focus on the Gildarts-Natsu relationship,  but Ice Trail highlights a hereto unseen connection between Gray and Gildarts which makes the young wizard respect for him more palpable.

The art like the main series itself is quite good. Shirato sticks pretty much to Fairy Tail house-style established by Mashima. As such, its quite clear that this is an artist emulating another’s work and there is very little that distinguishes it from its parent series. If Shirato has a distinctive style, its not apparent here. That isn’t to say that the art is bad in any way, quite the contrary. Indeed, emulation as evidenced by Toyotarō’s work on Dragon Ball Super, is not in itself problematic. There is a dynamism to Ice Trails action scenes that few other series can capture.  The use of the intense close-ups have always been a staple in shonen fiction and Shirato excels in this area. The eyes are the windows to the soul and the ability to convey subtle changes in emotion through them is the mark of a great artist. Character designs are often ridiculous and bizarre, but that is part of the series’ charm and always has been. Throughout the volume there are subtle visual callbacks to characters that we know and love from the core Fairy Tail title which assist in helping to establish this as part of the canon. Its the good kind of fan-service, one that speaks to the history of the series and respects its audience. It’s refreshingly not the kind that objectifies and demeans its female cast.

Fairy Tail: Ice Trail is an interesting look at the beginnings of one of the series’ most popular characters. It is rare the prequels capture the spirit of the original, but Ice Trail succeeds where others have failed. As an isolated work, I’m unsure how it stands up. It’s an origin story, but one which is heavily reliant on your knowledge of the character and the parent series to be most effective. It may serve as an interesting entry point for someone into the world of Fairy Tail, but it is clear that its intended audience are those already converted. Readers may be tempted to leave this spin-off out in the cold, but for those willing to invite it in, they will be pleasantly surprised.

A review copy was kindly provided by Kodansha Comics.

Gary Moloney
Gary Moloney
Some would say that he is a mine of information, too bad most of it is useless. You can read his own comic work over on garymoloney.tumblr.com. Follow him on Twitter @m_gearoid.