Timing: Directly after (and a bit of it during) "Time of Your Life Part I."
REVIEW: It's a good issue. Doesn't quite crack great, and it definitely doesn't make a jump-shot for perfect like the last issue did, but it was entertaining enough not to be much of a letdown. But I'll start from the beginning, much like this issue did.
I liked that the first half of this issue sort of parallels #16, in that it shows what Fray and co. were doing before she ran into Buffy. The fact that we get to see this through Fray's eyes shows that Joss isn't just throwing Fray into BtVS as a minor character, but that this is a true cross-over and that both Buffy and Fray are, rightfully so, co-stars. It's great to see Fray, Erin, and the villainous Harth again, but something is noticeably off with the most important character in this crossover. And that's Fray herself. I don't know if it was all set-up for Buffy to say the "I should have treated (the English language) better, maybe it was make Haddyn more like the futuristic world of Firefly, or maybe it was just Joss trying to have fun, but Fray is speaking like she's a different character altogether. While she still has Fray's back story and design, she simply doesn't speak the way that Fray from the FRAY series does. In fact, every single sentence she says in this comic has a futuristic slang word in it. Surely, language would evolve (and break down) after hundreds of years, but it throws the consistency of the character out the window. The Fray series was peppered lightly with futuristic slang, but in this it's pretty much a Futuristic Slang Party With A Free Futuristic Slang Keg Open All Night, Drinks For Free! I just want that character to be more similar to the character I read and loved in FRAY.
That's the only majorly bad thing about this issue. The build-up to Fray's clash with Buffy is nice, as are the side stories. Harth has teamed up with a major villain from Buffy's past, who is cloaked on shadow on the cover. People have been guessing that it's Drusilla, even after the cover for Part IV showed Dark Willow, which sort of boggled my mind... but I'll let you see for yourself who it is. The last page, like many Buffy issues, is the big villain reveal, though in reality the colorist revealed who it was on Page Seven. You'll see what I mean. I like her relationship with Harth and her extreme creepy way of talking, to show how far this character has come since hundreds of years have passed. It's a really exciting plot that has plenty of room for Joss to break our hearts, so that is pretty much what I'm most excited for in this issue.
The Dawn and Xander plot continues on, and gets really good. They don't have as much page time as I would have liked, but let's just say that the missile--as I speculated--was not merely an explosive device. Oh it, to quote Kate, "s'ploded" some things, yeah, but it also made some really interesting, really green problems for Xander, and I ain't talking Ralph Nader clones. Another great thing about this scene was the sexual tension between Xander and Dawn when she tells him that he has to ride her. This ain't Season Five's Xander and Dawn, and if you don't mind a bit of speculation, I'd say that Xander is about to be real close-like with a Summers girl.
Overall, it's a good bridge between issues, with a few problems here and there. In addition to the Fray talk, Willow gives a really not-so-good written expository speech about how Buffy was sucked into the future. It's fine, making sense wise, but it takes a bit of re-reading to suss out what she means. This may seem negative, but those are really the only two things about this issue that bother me, so in the end it's an issue with one huge problem, one teensy problems, and a lot of awesome stuff that almost makes up for it.
Art: It's Karl Moline, so you know it's gonna be great. There are some really awesome pages and some that are not so much. My best guess was that he had less time to work on this issue, because it lacks the extreme detail of #16, but it's still good enough to make me stare at each panel with a dazed look of joy in my eyes.
Covers: Both covers are attractive pieces. Jo Chen's cover isn't as beautiful as her contributions to the other issues in this arc, but it is still a very good looking piece. We're looking up at Buffy and Fray through the watery screen of Gunther's tank, while said "mer-sleaze" swims toward us. Very dynamic piece, but wouldn't be listed as one of Chen's best--or most details--paintings. Georges Jeanty also gives a good looking cover with a great concept behind it, and it's always cool to see different artists tackle new characters (in this case Harth). It's a very shadowy cover, and basically created to make us wonder who the "mystery woman" cloaked in shadow next to him is.
Characters We Know: Melaka Fray, Erin, Harth, Willow, Kennedy, Xander, Rowena, Leah, Dawn, Buffy, Gunther.