Adventure Time has a history of uncommonly dark world building, and as anyone who’s seen the episode “I Remember You” will attest, it doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to gut-wrenching backstories. Fans expect the show to push boundaries. The comics are no exception: they seem sometimes to be a vehicle for character exploration too troubling for television.
Volume Four collects issues 15 through 19 of the celebrated tie-in series. Its primary storyline is an examination of the ambiguously sympathetic villain, the Ice King. Ice King’s magical abilities include ice spells (obviously) and being woefully pathetic, but in his deluded internal narrative he is a heroic figure. Adventurers Finn & Jake take pity on him and they team up for a quest through a dungeon that the Ice King no longer remembers creating, battling magical creatures that are representative of his numerous insecurities. Along the way, the reader gleans insight into Ice King’s tragic past, though Finn and Jake remain preoccupied with battling gibbering cartoon beasties.
As they progress through the dungeon and the reader is drawn inextricably into Ice King’s suffering and confusion, the adventurers grow sad without understanding why. The story plays into a conceit deployed in the show’s more dramatic episodes. Though the reader is presented with enough information to piece together the disturbing implications of the story, its two protagonists are action-focused and happily oblivious. The hints that the land of Ooo is a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the Lovecraftian horror of the undead Lich and the Ice King’s fight to retain his humanity and remember those he once loved are plot elements that only impact the reader. Finn and Jake remain perpetually sunny and relatively innocent. They are caught up in events larger than they are comfortable with: Finn and Jake because they are action heroes, and Ice King because his memory is failing. It is no coincidence that a significant plot point is a quote from one of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s darkest poems, “Behold, we know not anything”.
If that sounds lofty and unsettling enough for you, Adventure Time Vol. Four is worth a look. There are also some pretty radical monsters to fight, and one particularly gruesome reveal that made me shudder. Writer Ryan North’s offbeat, on-point humor is never absent for long, and each page has a tiny line of commentary at the bottom for those of us who miss the alt-text experience when reading print media. (If his name sounds familiar, it’s because of Dinosaur Comics!) He tells an ambitious tale, sure to please avid Adventure Time viewers and those who just love a good story.
Here’s a preview: