Wednesday, January 21, 2009

"After the Fall" Reaches Its Climax

What Is It?: Angel- After the Fall: Issue #16 (written by Brian Lynch, plotted by Joss Whedon and Brian Lynch.)

Timing: Directly following Angel #15

WARNING: The bigger spoilers will be written in black text. Simply highlight to read. As this is a review, there will be some minor "spoilers" sprinkled throughout the text that don't warrant being hidden. If you have not read the issue and don't want to know anything about the plot, don't read this. Spoilers for previous issues will obviously not be covered.

REVIEW: Words like "beautiful" and "love" are used way too often. We're all guilty of using those words, when we really mean "pretty" or "nice." More often than not, the music we call "beautiful" is really just good. More often than not, shows that we say we "love" we really just like. They're extreme words that pack a lot of meaning into a compact unit, and I find myself using them a bit too liberally.

That being said, Angel: After the Fall #16 is beautiful, and I'll be damned if I don't love it.

As we all saw in the-preview-that-wasn't-meant-to-be-but-was-anyway, the issue starts with a tragic image. The first panel features Angel holding Connor, then a newborn baby, in the alley he was born in. The next panel is a direct copy of it, except they're in Hell, Connor is a teenager, and he's dead in Angel's arms. It's tender and tragic, and as rough to read without tearing up as Wesley's death in Not Fade Away is to watch. And the worst thing that has ever happened to Angel, of course, leads to the climax of the series.

We've been waiting for this since November. Brian started the story with a bang, revealing that Gunn is a vampire, Wes is a ghost, and that Angel's plan peeved off Wolfram & Hart so much that they sent the entire city of LA to Hell. What a story. What potential. And how daunting a task for Brian to deliver on the promises that the first issue. With so many people so emotionally involved in the series, it almost seemed impossible for the climax to be as fantastic as all the considerable set up. But I'll be damned (again) if it wasn't.

Filled with references paying tribute to iconic moments at the start of the series, major revelations, emotional character moments, and--of course--explosive action, Brian Lynch delivers a fitting climax to say the least. It starts with a tender moment, and explodes into a fit of violence when it finally sinks in that Connor is dead. Angel strikes out at the demon army that, under orders from Wolfram & Hart, doesn't fight back. Because if they did, and if Angel dies, Wolfram & Hart would have to pull a different Angel out of a different timeline. (SPOILERS:) And Wesley, "as usual," used that bit of information to help Angel win the day. He's a bit closer to Wolfram & Hart than anyone else in the group, due to his status as the last official representative of the LA Branch, so he knows that the whole Hell situation? The way they're doing that is freezing Angel between moments. I can't really go on in the review without spoiling what happens, so please keep this in mind... it's better if you read it. If you haven't, I'm going to take a page from Spike's book and tell you to piss off. If you have read... Wesley bids a final farewell to Angel, who responds "Thank you, rogue demon hunter" (brilliant), and waits by Illyria's fallen body until Wolfram & Hart responds to what happens the way he knows they will. Angel makes Gunn kill him. The scene is so emotional, and has been building since we learn that Gunn is a vampire. He has it in for Angel, and he finally gets to kill him. Moreover, he finally gets to step up, finally gets to be a hero... because killing Angel forces Wolfram & Hart to reach back into time, because Angel's timeline here is ended. They have to go back to the alley, the last moment where Angel was alive. You might think this is a reset, but it's not. I'll explain why later. I want to elaborate on the moments leading up to the return to the natural plain of existence.

Anyone can tell that the script is fantastic. The dialogue is spot on, timing and mood is perfect. But the things that's easily forgotten is the plotting of the series. Brian Lynch and Joss Whedon worked together to break the story, and woah what a job. Every moment led to this, and how all the numerous plot threads were all tied together in an issue that was only one page longer than normal just shows how much thought put into the actual plotting of the arc. Unlike breaking the story of a movie or a miniseries, this is a seventeen issue title complete with a four issue spin-off. Huge task, carried out exceptionally well. Brian's insights into how the series changed as it went along also shows how well this was carried out, because the fact that he was able to get to the same point in an unexpected and more natural way shows a natural understanding for the way that stories work.

Now onto some of that (SPOILERS:) pre-return content. Brian's been talking a lot about his favorite scene in the series, and I have an idea of what it is. It's either a talk between Spike and Wesley or a moment between (SPOILERS:) Angel and Connor at the end of the book. Both moments are equally glorious, but the Wesley and Spike talk really sums up both of their "After the Fall" arcs and speaks volumes for their relationship to Angel, Wesley, and Illyria. Spike's emotional explosion ("What the hell is that? What the hell is THAT?") when he runs over to (SPOILER:) Angel's dead body is almost sob enducing, and the sensitivity of the conversation between him and Wesley that follows is remarkable. Also, a nice touch is the (SPOILER:) blade that goes through Spike's arm, same one as in the First Night flashback, when LA returns to normal.

And wanna know something? We finally get to see something we've all been aching for since the first issue. (SPOILERS:) The alley fight, from beginning to end. And with the dragon, now alive and on Angel's side, it goes quick. But let be rewind a bit, and ease all those "Booooo, it's a reset" folks. Thing is, it's not. Everything happened. Everyone remembered. Though none of the deaths that happened took, everything that everybody did matters. Gunn still felt himself kill Connor. He felt how evil he could become. Illyria, now restored to Fred's "shell," has a better grasp of humanity and finally understands how her infecting Fred destroyed Wesley. Angel gave up his humanity again, and still very much felt his son die in his arms. Connor still found love in Gwen, and she still knows that she betrayed him... and so does he. Also? Everyone else recognizes Angel. Even... wait for it... Westerberg from EVERYBODY'S DEAD, who was in LA at the time. He makes a cameo, and reveals to Angel that he's a big time LA celeb.

Before I go on, there is one flub in the issue, and that's when Angel is (SPOILER:) carrying Gunn. One moment, he's in front of Illyria and walking forward. Next, two panels, he's behind her and walking forward. One smallll other tiny thing is that the doctor who leans over Gunn looks too much like Wesley. A bit disorienting, especially since he seems to be looking wistfully at Angel in the second panel of page 20.

Running out of steam here, so this is where I start listing shit. Highligh to read, it's all spoilery.

+ So many awesome references to the first issue. (SPOILER:) The dragon returns, alive, with a callback to his reveal in the first issue. Snurt, followed by a blast of flames to destroy demons in an alley. Perfect for the climax of the issue. Makes me nostalgic for something that just came out a bit over a year ago. I'm crazy.

+ 'Nother dragony callback. (SPOILERS:) Triumphant, the dragon flies over LA, reminiscent of the huge spread in #1 where the Dragon flies over Hell-A.

+ This time, (SPOILERS:) Angel saves Gunn. And he deals with Gunn's sire (by the way, is the dude meant to look/speak like Desmond from Lost? Awesome if he is. I was so pleased to find out that my suspicions of Jeremy being modeled after Jim from The Office was correct.) That Angel gets to right one of his biggest wrongs here is so powerful, and Gunn's plea to have Angel let him die is just proof how much the "After the Fall" arc mattered.

+ Hospital scene is a dose of reality that really grounded the issue. Didn't know I needed it, but I did. Worked great.

+ And the first, tragic page (SPOILERS:) was paid off with the Angel/Connor conversation at the end. Seeing Angel so openly emotional, and his dialogue is so moving. Especially the last bit of-
CONNOR: It's okay, dad. It's okay. In fact, it's kind of a happy ending, isn't it?
ANGEL: I'm not sure... ...I've never had one before

+ Chris Ryall cameo. Now he AND Brian have been in Buffyverse books.

+ (SPOILERS:) Dragon in normal LA. Hilarious gothic juxtaposition.

+ Nicely sets the stage for things to come.

I know there's one issue left. I know I plan to write a huge "letter" to the series when it is, the same way I did with my "A Year With Buffy" post at the end of 2007. (Was gonna do it at the end of 2008, but I figured it would be better if I waited.) But this concluded the story arc of "After the Fall," and the next issue will be the epilogue and tie any loose ends (are there any?). So it's such a pleasure to know that Brian Lynch, Joss Whedon, Franco Urru, and everyone else involved were able to bring this series to an end that was even better than the way it started. I couldn't be happier with the book, and I couldn't be happier that it's going to continue.

Beautiful job guys. Loved it.

Art: My one and only qualm with Franco's art, since I first saw it in Spike: Asylum to his run on Angel: After the Fall, was that when he did wide shots, the characters' faces became somewhat distorted. The panel in Angel #4 where Spike first takes Angel down to his safe house to see all the people he and Connor were saving together comes to mind. Everything else was spectacular. His fight scenes are unrivaled in Buffyverse art, and the way he conveys emotion on characters faces is truly remarkable. His stylized art rubbed some the wrong way, but for me, he's the best at interior art we've seen, despite the aforementioned weakness. But here? Heh. There is so much going on in the panels that almost every shot features characters from a distance... and Franco completely nails it. Throughout this series, he's gone from a great artist to simple one of the best. To see how much the dude has improved, take that aforementioned panel from #4 and compare it to the panel where Spike runs to a (SPOILER:) decapitated Angel, grief stricken, throwing his sword behind him(and it smacks into a peeved Betta George). Spike is as far from the "camera" here as he was in the #4 panel, but the detail here is incredible. From the considerably numerous battle scene, to the two epic splash pages, to the callback to the (SPOILER:) Dragon's flight over Hell-A, to the callback to the Dragon's "snurt" reveal in #1, to a certain crazy emotional page, to his depiction of the instantly recognizable Westerberg, Franco Urru has done more than justice to the continuation of my favorite story, which--thanks to Brian, Franco, Chris, Stephen, Nick, Alex, Fabio, and more--is now my favorite comic. And speaking of Mr. Fabio Mantovani, he does an even better job here than he did last issue. There was a lot of nice, textured panels in the last issue, especially on the panel where Illyria falls. But, aside from those hauntingly beautiful panels, I can't say that I didn't miss Ilaria's coloring from the earlier issues. Well, much as I love her stuff, the coloring here couldn't be better. (SPOILER:) The way the atmosphere from Hell-A to normal LA changes is all thanks to the coloring, and Mantovani excells at both the Hell panels and the cityscapes. The coloring perfectly compliments the art here. The coloring never intrudes on the story the way that Art Lyon's did in his issues, but instead only compliments it, building on the emotion and highlighting all of the big moments, but never letting the smaller moments slip by. All in all, the art is shiny.

Covers: Pleasant surprise here. From the back of #15, we were lead to believe that the big "double cover" from Urru that featured the AtF villians on one side and the heroes on the other would be split between Issues #16 and #17. But nope. We get a new Urru cover here, one of Angel shattering a glass structure with a sword. In each shard of glass, we see some images that happened in "After the Fall," such as all the major characters, the death of Connor, Angel after he jumped from the building from #4's flashback, and some other cool bits. The other cover? Best of the series, easy. Another Alex Garner masterpiece, this one features a perfect likeness of Angel blowing away in a cloud of flame and dust. It's a great image, and something that will likely be frozen on many a desktop for many a month.

Characters We Know: Angel, Spike, Wesley, Gunn, Betta George, Nina, Illyria, (SPOILERS:) the Dragon, Connor, Westerberg (from Everybody's Dead).

Rating: Are you kidding me? 10/10 Classic.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Locke and Key: Head Games #1 is out today, so if this sounds any good...

Non-Buffyverse related

What Is It?: Locke and Key- Welcome to Lovecraft hardcover collection (Written by Joe Hill, art by Gabriel Rodriguez)

REVIEW: With his first comic series, "Locke and Key," Joe Hill shows that he's already among the best of the best. The series kicks off with a six-issue arc, "Welcome to Lovecraft," that shows the Locke family moving into Keyhouse, a mansion their father grew up in, after the murder of their father by a crazed student at the school he worked at. The house is a mysterious place, complete with doors that enable you to leave your body behind for a while, and a mystery involving keys that turns out to be the catalyst for the main conflict in the arc. It's a fantastic way to kick off the series, leaving enough up in the air to maintain excitement for the next volume, but also ending the arc in a way that really satisfies. When reading the six issue series together in this beautiful collection, the scope, unity of vision, attention to detail, and character development make it feel more like a novel than a comic miniseries. Joe Hill isn't just a writer to watch, and "Locke and Key" isn't just a series to enjoy. With "Locke and Key: Welcome to Lovecraft," Hill has already put himself among the current comic greats, such as Brian K. Vaughan and Joss Whedon (both of whom he drops references to in the story), creating an engaging story that, like all the truly great works in any genre, truly transcends its medium.

Art: Just as good.

Ever since seeing his art in Chris Ryall's comic adaptation of Clive Barker's The Great And Secret Show, I knew that Gabriel Rodriguez was an artist to watch. He has a very specific style and certainly excels at drawing monsters and gruesome gore, but "Locke and Key" showed that he also nails the character moments. And Joe Hill writes plenty of tender character stuff that really allows Rodriguez to flex his muscle. The third issue even ends, instead of with a scare or a huge revelation as expected, with a really great character moment for Kinsey, which Rodriguez draws the hell out of. His art manages to be tender and relentless at the same time, and is nicely complimented by Jay Fotos' lush colors.

Presentation: When IDW knows they have something special on their hands, they really go all out with the presentation. Like the hardcover collections of Brian Lynch's Angel: After The Fall (personally, my favorite comic), IDW presents "Locke and Key" in a beautifully crafted hardcover edition that will really stand out on your bookshelf. Complete with a nice introduction by Robert Crais, a cover gallery, some concept work from Rodriguez, and even a bookmark, Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez's hit series is given the five star treatment. It's a deserving package for a brilliant series that fans of good stories need to own, medium be damned.

Rating: 9/10

Non-Buffyverse related

Angel: After the Fall Cover Gallery Volume One

What Is It?: Angel- After the Fall: Cover Gallery, Volume One. Collects the covers to Angel: After the Fall 1-5 and the complete Spike: After the Fall cover collection

The Covers: Instead of tackling the book page by page, I'll write about each artist as they appear in the book, and what contributions they gave to this book.

Angel started with Ex Machina's (one of the best comics out, in my opinion) Tony Harris on cover duty. He did the first iconic cover, a red tinted Angel over what seems to be a sanscrit background. The next cover, even better than his first, a yellow tinted Spike surrounded by flames and hellish demons. He's one of the most celebrated artists in comics, and it was great to kick off the series and this collection with him on cover duties.

Then we get some greatness from series artist Franco Urru. His cover to Angel #1 is still my favorite ever, but he's made so many epic contributions to the series, and a lot of them show up in this volume. The cover to Brian Lynch's wedding gift version of #1 is collected here, along with Franco's covers to Angel #1-5 and Spike #1-4. Franco is one of those artists that never fail to amaze, but the special thing about his work is that you notice little details upon second and third viewings that make the covers even more special. The way his Angel #3 seems to be a moment frozen in time, complete with Angel's coat, Illyria's body, and the axe all in motion is just astonishing. His balance between the actor's likenesses and his distinctive style is never better than in his cover work.

David Messina also has two covers in here, both for #1. One was an exclusive online cover and the other was the one that kicked off the BCC: T&S: Slay Alive Angel Interaction competition. Messina has always been a great cover artist, but I'm loving his work on Smile Time so much now that his art, as a whole, I feel I can appreciate more. His cover to the competition was never my favorite, but even that manages to capture the iconic feel of Angel's "last stand" and the emotion all four of our heroes are feeling in that alley.

Then we've got Mr. Stephen Mooney, who would later take on interior duties for #12, 13, and 14, which contained some of the most climatic moments of the series. After seeing his cover work here, there is no question in my mind why Brian Lynch and Chris Ryall wanted to work with the dude. The detail in his Angel Interaction #2, for example, is mind-blowing. From the face and mouth of the dragon to the Hellish landscape of LA below, that cover is one action packed, iconic image. His covers to the Angel Interaction issues 2-5 are all collected here, and from the highly praised Western standoff between Angel and Illyria in #3, to the match-up of Illyria and Gwen in a clash of blue and red on #5, these constantly remind me how lucky we fans are to have talent like this working on the series. I mean, Mooney, Urru, Harris, Messina have already been featured, and that's just for the first five issues.

We've also got three covers from Andrew Robinson. I really like the Illyria cover he provided for #3, but his #4 and #5 proved to be a bit too stylized for me. However, who I fell in love with was Rebecca A. Wrigley, the Rouge Angel artist who provided an awesome image of my favorite pairing (Wesley and Illyria) for #5. The Sharp Bros, Joe and Rob, provide covers for each issue of Spike: After the Fall, giving a nice realistic look in contrast to Franco's more comicized images. There are also three photo variants, one two-page spread from the reprint of Angel #1 and two Spike incentive covers, one from Angel #2 and one from the Spike spin-off. If that wasn't enough, the black and white version of Franco Urru's #5 is also featured, along with the initial pencils that Tony Harris painted over for #2, which is an exclusive image to this book.

Altogether, thirty-one fantastic covers from the first five issues of the series.

The Presentation: IDW really gives Angel the royal treatment. I saw a few forum posters a bit let down that this wasn't being released as an actual book... but hell, from the way the thing is handled, I can't see how it could have been better. The cover is stiff, extra thick, and glossy. Even glossier than a TPB cover, which makes the image they used on the cover--Franco's #5 done up to look like a portrait--jump out even more. It's really, just like the first two hardcovers, a sight to behold. On the flipside of the cover, we see a sort of inverted version of the image on the cover, with the Franco art looking like the negative of a photo. Then, it goes right into the covers, which are given the full page treatment. On the back cover, we get some thumbnail versions of the inside covers, much like they'd have on a calendar. How they managed to charge the price of a regular comic for such an extravagant item is beyond me, but I couldn't be happier that the title is in such good hands. If they ever release more volumes, I do hope they make a hardcover collection of these, but the issue is beautiful enough to stand on its own.

Rating: 9/10

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Great Tie-In Material, Decent Comic

What Is It?: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight, Issue #21: Harmonic Divergence (written by Jane Espenson).

Timing: BtVS, Season Eight. Short while after "After These Messages... We'll Be Right Back."

REVIEW: I gotta hand it to Dark Horse, they truly went all out with the promotion. There were awesome articles on MTV about the comic and a nice effort was made to keep the public aware that this is a big event without making it as extreme as the press stuff with #12. Also, Myspace Dark Horse Presents put out a tie-in webcomic called Harmony Bites, written by Jane Espenson with art by Karl Moline. Fantastic little comic, which I enjoyed to the fullest. If all that weren't enough, Jane Espenson also dropped by MTV to do a little guest blog, in character as Harmony Kendall titled Tune In. If that's not enough, all the other Dark Horse comics that were released today feature more little Harmony tidbits. I hope Dark Horse learns, this time around, that they now have ample material for a special features section in the TPB that includes this issue, because they did an astounding job with the tie-in material and I wouldn't want to see any of these quirky little works forgotten.

Now onto the issue. I wish I could say I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed all of the surrounding stuff, but I didn't. There are a few gaping flaws in the issue, and though the problems are less apparent later in the book, the overall effect of the comic is damaged. Previous Buffy: Season Eight writers all seemed familiar with the medium of comics. Joss Whedon's written many a funny book, they're Brian K. Vaughan's biggest passion, and Jeph Loeb is one of the most well known comic writers there are. Drew Goddard and Jane Espenson have about the same experience in comics, both of them being featured as writers in previous non-canonical Dark Horse Buffy books as well as the canonical Tales of the Vampires/Slayers series... but Drew Goddard is definitely more skilled at crafting a story in this medium, because Espenson's story just doesn't flow very well. But that confuses me. I enjoyed some of her short comic stories in the past, as well as her three issue Buffy: Haunted book, which was a cool bridge between seasons three and four. So maybe it's the fact that this is a one-shot and she tried to cram so much into it that it felt stilted. But I think it's a bit more than that. The placement of the internal thought captions doesn't really make sense to me, nor do the actual words sound like Harmony. This is most evident in the opening pages, when Harmony tries to get into a club. Her first internal thought is in a panel where she isn't even visible (maybe they should have at least had her looking over her shoulder), and says the following: "Ooh. Someone famous! I've got urine running down my leg!" The next few captions read like this: "Here's the thing about fame. It's good to touch. I'm gonna touch some fame." To me, that sounds nothing like Harmony Kendall. Which is so, so strange, because all of the dialogue that Harmony actually says out loud and some of the internal thoughts later in the issue are so her. However, she uses the word "zeitgeist" twice. Do we really think Harmony knows what zeitgeist means?

The issue definitely picks up when Harmony pitches her show to MTV. Focus, however, is then shifted away from the lovable bloodsucker to a young Latina slayer who wants out of her gang, Las Chucuillas. When she's free of that gang, however, she naturally resists Buffy's urge for her to join another "family" of sisters, leading to the girl waging her own solo war against vampires. This is an awesome bit, because it sets up the conflict in the issue (Harmony/Latina slayer) and also speaks for what's going on with Buffy, about how she can't really connect with any of the slayers that she's empowered. She's lost her ability to speak effectively to these girls, and I'm thinking all those speeches she gave in the seventh season took all the speech-giving-ability out of her.

Andrew gets a lot of screen time here, as does... wait for it... Clem, which is one of the high points of this issue. Jane handles him nicely, as she does with Harmony and the majority of the rest of the issue. Most of the problems--which are pretty big--are all focused on the first seven pages (another issue is why isn't there a bigger reaction when the world realizes that vampires are real?), so the rest of the issue is pretty much smooth sailing. I did enjoy it for the most part, but to say I'm also let down is an understatement. The issue had enormous potential and should have been among the best of the series so far, but strange storytelling choices in the beginning took away major points. What saves this book from being as bad as The Chain or last month's abysmal After These Messages is the attention to detail. There is always something else going on in panels, such as the scene where Buffy calls the Latina slayer... in the background, you can see a horse charge at Dawn (still a centaur) while Xander tries to hold it back. Also, after Harmony bites the star who made "urine (run) down her leg" (Andy Dick), TMZ reports that "Hot Vamp Gets Taste of A. Dick." If nothing else, the issue is good for the expected laughs it gives.

Art: It's great to have Jeanty back as the main artist again. He excells in drawing the main characters (Buffy, Dawn, Xander, Willow, Andrew) and is especially talented at crafting meticulously detailed backgrounds. Clem's likeness is also perfect, and the medium of comics gives a lot of opportunities with a character that looks like that. The panel where he stretches his skin out to look for a tattoo is hilarious. Who Jeanty is not that good at drawing here is Ms. Harmony herself... who looks just like Buffy. In a few panels, she looks quite a bit like Mercedes McNab, but in most others she looks just like Buffy, especially in the panel where she's sitting at her computer desk. The only way to tell them apart is her surroundings, that she's always smiling (even when she's being rejected at a club on the opening page, which was odd), and her dialogue. I'm glad the two didn't have any scenes together, otherwise it would have been a bit difficult to follow who is who. The coloring here is fantastic, giving the right tone to all of the scenes. Michelle Madsen, whose style I was unsure about when she first joined the team, is a realllly skilled colorist.

Covers: Jo Chen's cover, as usual, is a perfect likeness. It features Harmony holding two of her dogs with a drained corpse in the background. Her smile and the "perky pair" of dogs are gothically juxtaposed to the corpse, which really sets up the mood of the issue... and the whole series. Funny and light on the surface with dark stuff moving underneath. Jeanty's cover, which features Harmony holding a pomeranian over a while background, seemed dry at first... until the full version was released. It's set up like a fashion magazine cover with hilarious headlines and is just one example of how much great work was put into making this issue stand out.

Characters We Know: Harmony, Andy Dick (the celeb), Buffy, Willow, Xander, Dawn, Andrew, Vi (only on a TV screen), Clem.

Rating: 7/10