The Best Part of Pandaria So Far is This Gorgeous Graphic NovelSThe Mists of Pandaria parted in World of Warcraft last week, unlocking a long-hidden, lore-heavy civilization for players of the popular MMO to explore. The most enjoyable tale out of the land of pandas, however, can be found between the covers of the Pearl of Pandaria graphic novel—a work that began development before the expansion pack was a going concern.

When Blizzard publishing head Mickey Neilson began working on (Pearl of Pandaria$24.99, DC Comics), Mists of Pandaria did not exist. He was kicking around ideas for the book around the time The Burning Crusade, World of Warcraft's first expansion pack. He wanted to showcase the fan-favorite furry bear race, exploring their culture and history—subjects no one imagined at the time would be ever be broached in-game.

Pearl of Pandaria was originally more of a travelogue than an adventure. The coming of Mists of Pandaria brought changes to the script and redesigns for the art team, headed up by the incredibly talented Sean "Cheeks" Galloway.

As Neilson told me during a phone interview with he and Galloway prior to the book's launch, it was through insane coincidence that Pearl of Pandaria became an adventurous tie-in to the fourth World of Warcraft expansion pack.

The graphic novel tells the story of Li Li Stormstout, an adventurous young cub that eschews the self-imposed exile of the Pandaren living on the back of the giant turtle Shen-zin Su (aka the Pandaren starting zone), setting off on an adventure across pre-Cataclysm Azeroth in search of her famous uncle, Chen Stormstout. The graphic novel is being followed up by the four part Quest for Pandaria, an online tale that takes the characters from Pearl into the Mists era.

The story of this dauntless young explorer experiencing Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms for the very first time takes me back to 2004, when places like Stormwind and Orgrimmar were strange and exotic places, filled with mystery and wonder. She is the millions of people that crowded the servers in late November eight years ago, eager to take it all in and fearless in the face of danger.

I'm jealous of Li Li's fresh experience. My first steps into Pandaria as a level 85 mage showed great potential, but soon I was trapped once more in a series of kill-eight-spiders type quests, a place I've been far too many times. I envy Li Li's sense of wonder — her uncanny ability to wander the land without having to collect or kill a certain number of things.

That sense of wonder is due in no small part to the animated movie quality artwork of Galloway and his team. The soft-spoken artist doesn't play World of Warcraft himself, worried that he'd "get too addicted and get nothing done". Members of his team know the game like the back of their hands, however, and it shows in every panel. If there ever was an animated cartoon based on the MMO, Galloway, who was an artist and character designer for The Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon, would be a guy I'd love to see take the reins.

The Best Part of Pandaria So Far is This Gorgeous Graphic NovelS

With 128 colorful pages presented in landscape format to give it that cinematic animation feel, Pearl of Pandaria is a gorgeous graphic novel that is so much more than an introduction to the Pandaren race for World of Warcraft players. Indeed, Neilson feels the unique volume has the potential to reach beyond Blizzard's built-in audience.

"I hope this kind of book appeals to not just the hardcore or casual players, but to folks that haven't played the game at all."