In January 2018, I sat down to watch the first episode of Critical Role’s second campaign, The Mighty Nein. Within minutes of encountering him, I decided that Caleb Widogast was my favourite character. At the time, all we knew was that Caleb was a dirty, sad wizard. To quote Liam O’Brien, who played Caleb, “I’m pretty filthy… It was a rough day yesterday.” But, as is the way with things, Caleb Widogast would prove to be more than just covered in dirt and filled with sadness. Of course, both of those things were still there for a not insignificant part of the campaign, but there was more to Caleb than just his tragic backstory and depression.
Before we go any further, I need to explain what Critical Role is to anyone who may not know. Critical Role is a web series where professional voice actors play the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. The first campaign, Vox Machina, ran from 2015 to 2017, with the second Campaign, The Mighty Nein, running from 2018 to the summer of 2021. The current campaign, which has yet to be named, began in October 2021. In the seven years since they started streaming, Critical Role has grown from a single stream to a media empire spanning Dungeons and Dragons sourcebooks, original novels, board games, an animated series, and comic books.
Like Vox Machina Origins aims to do with the first campaign, the Mighty Nein Origins series of graphic novels are intended to present the backstories of each member of the Mighty Nein, the adventuring party from campaign two. In Mighty Nein Origins: Caleb Widogast by Jody Houser and Selina Espiritu, with direction from Liam O’Brien and Matthew Mercer, Caleb’s origin story is told. And it’s not a happy one.
Mighty Nein Origins: Caleb Widogast opens on Bren Aldric Ermendrud’s hometown of Blumenthal on the morning of the entrance exams for the Soltryce Academy, a school for magic. Bren rushes through breakfast with his parents, spends some time with his pet cat, and is off to the exams. That morning, Bren and two other local children are accepted to the academy, where they are eventually taken under the wing of Trent Ikithon, an instructor at the Soltryce Academy. Ikithon puts Bren and the others, Astrid Becke and Eadwulf Grieve, through inhumane treatment, turning them into weapons for the empire they live in and in the process, drawing them closer together. After months of gruelling training, Ikithon gives the three a final test; after sending the students home under the guise of a well-earned break from their studies, Ikithon plants false memories of hearing their parents speaking treason into their minds, pushing them to kill their parents.
Astrid and Eadwulf complete the task without difficulty. Bren on the other hand snaps as he hears his parents cry out for help, attacking Astrid in the process. During a brief scuffle, Eadwulf knocks Bren out and they leave him in front of the remains of his childhood home. In the morning, Ikithon arrives and carts Bren off to an asylum, where he stays until another prisoner heals him. He breaks out, beginning a series of panels in which Bren introduces himself to people under various assumed names, summons his familiar, Frumpkin (who looks an awful lot like his childhood cat – something which nods to the fact that Liam O’Brien, who plays Caleb, named Frumpkin after one of his own childhood cats), and eventually, meets Nott, one of his future travelling companions. This is when he becomes Caleb Widogast, introducing himself to someone who he thought he would be parting ways with by day’s end, and who instead became family. It’s something that speaks to the almost-accidental nature of how the Mighty Nein at large went from being strangers who decided to become travelling companions to being each other’s family.
The panel layouts, more specifically the panel layouts when it came to Caleb’s perspective, were something that struck me upon further read-throughs; in the earliest moments of the graphic novel, artist Selina Espiritu makes use of larger panels, giving us (and Caleb) more room to breathe. Contrast that with the scenes set at Soltryce, with the way the panels become smaller and the pages more crowded, claustrophobic in a way that reaches its apex as Trent Ikithon, Caleb’s former teacher and his abuser, performs ghastly human experiments on Caleb and the two other students from his town, Astrid Becke and Eadwulf Grieve. And then, at the moment that everything shatters and that Caleb comes back to himself, the panels follow suit, become angular, scattering out like broken glass. The next time we see Caleb’s perspective is in the asylum and each of the panels are either askew or have angular bottoms reminiscent of knives. We don’t see the panels return to a normal, ordered arrangement until after Caleb introduces himself to Nott as Caleb. It’s a tiny touch, but it adds so much to the story in a more subtle way.
The subtlety is, in and of itself, reflective of who Caleb is. In many ways, he hides the truth of who he is under layers of dirt and grime. His outward appearance becomes a defence that you need to look through to see the peeks of himself. As I said, it’s a tiny detail, the kind of thing you might overlook. But it strengthens the story in a way that it would be missed if it weren’t there.
Mighty Nein Origins: Caleb Widogast is an excellent adaptation of Caleb’s backstory and comes to us from some very talented creators. Like the man himself, it’s mostly sad, but it also contains a hint of hope for something better, even if that hint is buried deep down and in need of excavation.