Wakfu: Shak Shaka #1 Review

Wakfu is a pretty big deal.

Set in the world of Krosmoz, Wakfu is the anime-inspired cartoon tie-in to the French MMO Dofus, which takes place 300 years prior. After a surprisingly successful run of two seasons and three OVAs, the Dofus game got its own cartoon, while Wakfu got an MMO. Following the even greater success of both projects, the shows were adapted into collectible trading card games, unique toy lines, a tabletop game titled Krosmaster, a slew of French-language comics, a Kickstarter for a Blu-ray release, two more OVAs (one of which was animated by the legendary Studio Ghibli), and now two feature-length movies are in the works.

So it’s safe to say that this franchise is booming, and the good people at Ankama Games must be in dire need of a nap.

This first officially translated comic, Wakfu: Shak Shaka, sees several French creators brought to English-speaking audiences for the first time. Scripted by Kahel and drawn by Mig, the third team member Saturax pulls an admirable double-duty on both lettering and colours. Ivanka Hahnenbeger provided the English translation.

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Shak Shaka can be considered the franchise’s beachhead of sorts in North America. While the cartoon and its OVAs have been translated and made available on Netflix for over a year now, I still run across friends who haven’t heard of it. I always view that as some sort of personal failure on my part, because I know there’s plenty to love about Wakfu’s enchanting setting, unique aesthetic, slick animation, and endearing characters. For this reason, I was initially excited to hear that Titan Comics was pushing to get this four-issue story on comic shelves across the pond. After reading Shak Shaka’s initial offering, however, I’m left a little disappointed.

To understand why, you need to know the three things that make Wakfu so great. Fascinating lore, gorgeous art, and a masterful use of fantasy and video game tropes. Unfortunately, Shak Shaka delivers fully on only one of these fronts.

It begins with a deluge of lore to catch franchise newcomers up on things, which is both tedious to read and, at times, inaccurate. One positive point about the introduction is the character bios, which come in the form of RPG stat blocks and do an admirable job of getting the most important aspects of the characters across without relying on in-story exposition.

The art, while not replicating Ankama’s house style exactly, is still jaw-droppingly beautiful. Artists Mig and Saturax present us with some truly spectacular visual treats. Character expressions are over-the-top. The colours pop off the page. And the original designs of Shak Shaka’s Shakopark and Robomates align with the wild fun I’ve come to expect from Wakfu. However, the rectangular word balloons make for an odd, ill-fitting touch, adding little in terms of aesthetics and distracting from the art when they should work in tandem with it.

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Though perhaps my biggest disappointment is the general confusion about the comic’s intended audience. The confusion occurs in Kahel’s script. On its surface, Shak Shaka has a lot in common with the majority of Wakfu’s episodes: a standalone tale featuring the Brotherhood of Tofu (the name of the protagonists’ group) getting caught up on a zany side quest while navigating their main adventure. The problem lies in the fact that new fans don’t know, and therefore can’t care, about the main quest. Longtime fans have already absorbed over 45 episodes worth of hijinks via the cartoon; they’re better equipped to understand how all the events fit together – not to mention the relationships between the central figures.

Problems arise in individual characterization, too. Readers quickly surmise that Pinpin is an idiot, Eva is a wet blanket, Ruel is a dirty old man, and Amalia is a dramatic brat. Fans who already know these characters aren’t bothered by such negative introductions, because they understand that these archetypes aren’t what they seem. They lead in to the well-established Wakfu tradition of trope lampshading. Yes, Pinpin is impulsive and unintelligent… but he’s also courageous and honourable. Eva can be overprotective, but she also possesses a simultaneously snarky and quick-witted tongue. And so on from there. None of this is apparent to new readers, which leaves them one issue into a four-issue arc feeling forced to connect with characters they probably don’t really like, scratching their heads and wondering why they’d bother to buy issue two. Using an infodump to explain how characters have redeeming qualities isn’t enough to hook someone curious to jump into an exciting new fantasy series.

There is a reason why the manga went the intensely serialized route, and the OVAs all deal with large, world-changing events. Fans have consumed years of episodic cake, and are now hungry for some plot-heavy meat and potatoes. Ankama realizes that, and has been working hard to provide more substantial by promising the upcoming third season of the cartoon will be more story-driven.

Overall I’m sad to say Wakfu: Shak Shaka doesn’t live up to the promise of the preceding stories. Mainly because it doesn’t seem like it’s sure of what it’s trying to be. If it was made for fans already invested in the world, it would advance the story in the same manner as the other Wakfu comics. If it was made for newcomers to the fandom, it wouldn’t be set in medias res, and would spend time showing, rather than telling, why the Brotherhood members act the way they act and say the things they say. With the exception of the absolutely beautiful art, this comic seems designed to appeal mildly to all, but greatly to none.

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