02 August 2017

Tell a Good Story - Issue #3: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad

Spoiler Free Synopsis: In 1978 Abigail Bullion has lost her mother and is being sent to live with her father, Barnabas, in Rainbow Ridge, Arizona. The town has grown out of Barnabas’ gold mine deep within the heart of Big Thunder Mountain. Abigail, or Abby, is a free spirited young woman who has long to travel west and see what adventures it offers. Barnabas, seeking to protect her, confines her to their manor house until he can find a suitable boarding school to send her off to. This does not sit well with our heroine who, along with her trusty horse Jaggers, sneaks away to see just what is happening in Rainbow Ridge.

Meanwhile, the mining operation is on the edge. Business is no longer booming, accidents continue to pile up, and Barnabas’ lead foreman, Willikers, is convinced the miners just aren’t being pushed hard enough. While a forthright miner named Chandler disagrees and urges caution in angering the spirit of Big Thunder, Willikers wins out and the mining operation is to push deeper into the mountain.

With Abby sneaking into the mine, bandits rustling the gold, Barnabas trying to do what’s right for the town, the mine, the miners, and his business, and Big Thunder awakening to intruders, we’ve only begun this wildest ride in the wilderness.

Disney Source Material: Page one, panel four features a goat gnawing on a stick of dynamite. If that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about the use of source material in Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, then I don’t know what will! The story takes place in Rainbow Ridge, a Frontierland location that predates Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in Disneyland. Barnabas T. Bullion is a recent addition to the attraction backstory in multiple iterations, and bears a striking resemblance to the Imagineer, Tony Baxter. The Bullion residence, with its clapboard Victorian motif, has more than a passing likeness to Disneyland Paris’ Phantom Manor. Throw in dinosaur bones, color-rich caverns, Cumulus Isobar, bats, and a mining train named I.M. Brave and it is hard not to draw straight connections between the attractions and the story.

While the inspiration is clear, the fact that multiple versions of the attraction, as well as Frontierlands themselves, are merged together so effortlessly shows a lot of skill. While the story leans heavily on the relatively new history of Big Thunder that includes Barnabas T. Bullion, if anything this story only adds depth to the attraction itself. While Tony Baxter has never wanted Bullion to be the villain of the Frontierland tale he helped to create, writer Dennis Hopeless does a masterful job of threading the needle on a character who is conflicted and occasionally makes poor choices.

Marvel Storytelling: As we have just mentioned above, Dennis Hopeless is our writer here, and he creates a world and a whole host of characters that the reader is quickly invested in. There are a ton of plot threads running between our characters, but none of them get muddled and every resolution further progresses the story of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Whether it is a father and daughter spat, bandits imbued with a sense of purpose, or turning a mountain into a full-fledge character with its own language, Hopeless does an excellent job of keeping the story clean and making us care about what is happening.

Meanwhile, artists Tigh Walker and Felix Ruiz share the duties of taking Hopeless’ words and fully crafting that world. Walker does the heavy lifting of setting this western fantasy world down in real places that feel tangible to the reader. I could almost feel the dust in the saloon and the vast open wilderness, which could get away from an artist is given is due respect, but also harness effectively. Walker’s characters are unique, yet recognizable, and that only further ingratiates us to their plights. With Ruiz taking over artist duties for Issue 3 and Guillermo Mogorron finishing on Issues 4 and 5, there is plenty of room for artistic continuity to be lost, but it is never a matter that needs to be addressed as the three do a remarkable job of keeping the cohesion strong and our focus on the story.

As you move through the coloration of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, from the dusty yellows and oranges of western vistas to the violets and blue of mine life, you may get a sense of déjà vu. The colorist on the comic is Jean-Francois Beaulieu, whose work we were introduced to in The Haunted Mansion. He continues to impress here, especially in a western environment where it would be easy to muddle some of the earth tones.

The story presented to us in Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is complex, probably one of the more complex stories we’ve come across in the Disney Kingdoms comic line, but it doesn’t feel that way. Western comics are nothing new, and one of my favorites (and perhaps most recognizable) has always been DC’s Weird Western Tales. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad does its predecessors proud in terms of supernatural western yarns, while also enhancing the world of Frontierland in all of Disney’s parks. This isn’t a story that we know, a retelling of long-established park lore, but there is enough of that world in Big Thunder Mountain Railroad to hook the reader and then give them one heck of a ride.

Bonus Time: Talk about a gold mine! Yes, we have the cover art and variant cover images here, included a completed piece of art from a set of interlocking covers, but that is just scratching the surface. There are also character studies from Tigh Walker alongside attraction posters from Jim Michaelson, with Rudy Lore and Greg Paul. In the vein of concept art we have pieces from Jim Heffron and Carline May, Joe Warren, Tony Baxter, and Dan Goozee. There is also a considerable amount of art from Clem Hall, including a gorgeous aerial vista of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad that covers two pages. Last, but certainly not least, are a pair of letters from Creative Adviser and Imagineer, Tony Baxter, and the Executive Production Designer Vice President of Imagineering, Skip Lange. From Tony Baxter we are treated to a tale of designing the first Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, with particular attention paid to Marc Davis’ Western River and Thunder Mesa project. Skip Lange’s letter takes readers on a whirlwind tour of the construction of Big Thunder Mountains in parks all over the world.

Conclusion: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was my favorite attraction growing up, and when it comes to the Magic Kingdom it is still the place, along with the rest of Frontierland, that has the firmest grip on my heart. When the comic of Big Thunder Mountain was announced I was ecstatic, but I was also very nervous. I have an ideal of what that story should be, I’ve written my own stories, steeped in Frontierland lore, many times over my life, and I wasn’t sure how this comic would hold up. A western, blended with a ghost story, isn’t exactly new territory to venture into, but that only makes the stakes all that higher. By not playing into the trope of good guys wear white hats and bad guys wear black hats, by giving us honest, flawed characters, and heaping on tons of fun and comedy Hopeless and team have presented us with a Big Thunder Mountain Railroad tale that I am happy to applaud and will definitely reread again.

Further Reading:
Tell a Good Story – Issue #3: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad

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