Timing: After Angel #23; sometime during Angel: Aftermath.
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: So this is pretty much a dream come true for me. The thing that intrigued me most about the events of Angel #16 was the fact that while everything was physically reset, everybody remembered everything. Gunn, specifically, remembered the taste of blood in his mouth, the death gurgles of his own victims, and the look in Angel's eyes when he killed Connor. That would make for some interesting character development. Then, with Angel: Aftermath, Kelley Armstrong just threw Gunn (who was supposed to be comatose) into a car next to Illyria, and let someone else tackle that story. And it was for the best, because Brian set up Gunn's character arc nicely with the beautiful Become What You Are issue. Well, now we're lucky enough to have a Gunn/Illyria spin-off miniseries alongside of the main title that focuses on the two characters most in need of redemption.
Scott Lobdell is tackling scripts, which is fine by me, as I loved his Viva Las Buffy arc from Dark Horse's pre-Season Eight run on BtVS. His work here is even better than the Buffy arc; he is true to both the voices and characters of Illyria and Gunn, and throws them into a really interesting situation. Illyria, intrigued by the idea of a wake, decides to visit her family when Fred's uncle dies. Gunn accompanies her, trying to come to terms with his own inner darkness while also trying to understand Illyria's motivation... no easy feat. Despite Illyria's cold remarks toward Gunn ("Nor would it have mattered to me if you had a heart attack or not"), it's clear to see that the two of them are bonding, albeit in a very strange way. In true Whedonesque fashion, Lobdell gives Illyria and Gunn a moment together in the car that is both funny, true to the characters, so strange, and even slightly touching in a way. (SPOILER:) After Gunn recounts a beautiful memory of how his grandmother once promised to get him and his sister out of LA, Illyria--with just as much nostalgia as Gunn had--reminisces on Los Angeles in the ancient times, when she would "amuse herself by tossing any who dared oppose me into oceans of lava." It's clear that Gunn is put off by what she says, but the look on his face betrays him; now that he was a vampire, a lover of brutality and violence, he relates to Illyria on an entirely new level. As foreign as a story about a monster reigning over her land might seem to him, when he thinks about it... he was in the same shoes a month prior.
Though the character stuff is fantastic, the issue contains both the positive and negative stuff that comes with being the first of a series. As far as the good stuff, the plot hasn't really developed yet, so Scott Lobdell had some time to set the scene and have some fun. The issue starts with Illyria and Gunn putting a stop to demon drag racing, shows more of Gunn teaching Illyria to drive, and throws them in a couple of new settings; a diner, Fred's apartment, Fred's parents house (yup), and a farmland that just happens to be infested with (SPOILER:) what appear to be harmless demons. But on the flip side, I did feel like there was too much time spent explaining back story. Everyone that reads this is going to know that Illyria infected Fred's body and that Gunn allowed that to happen by signing the papers, so that exposition could have been a lot shorter or just not included. I do like that Lobdell is showing all sorts of ways that Gunn and Illyria are connected, from that moment to the picture of Gunn and Fred (which is lovely), but I think this would have been better handled in dialogue. We got that exposition and exposition about Gunn being a vampire and then not being a vampire (more necessary). I do like the first person narration by Gunn, but I would have preferred if some of that had been woven into the conversation.
All in all, a very strong start. I can't wait to see what Scott Lobdell and Messina cook up for us next month, because from what I've read in the solicits... well, it's pretty balls out crazy. And I'm excited to see how Gunn and Illyria, at once at their most fragile and most strong, handle their new and old foes.
Art: The art is great. Messina is better than ever, creating more explosive action scenes and more emotional down moments. His likenesses have never been stronger, and his panels have never been more detailed. His improvement from his early ANGEL work to this is utterly phenominal. We're lucky to have him, along with Brian Denham, working on the on-going ANGEL title this coming December. I do have one quibble, though. Gunn's beard is super inconsistent. He has from pages 4-7, no beard on 8, beard on 9, no beard on 10-11, beard on 12-14, no beard on 15-19, beard on 21-22. I really hope that gets fixed for the TPB, because otherwise, this is some of the best art we've gotten in the Buffyverse, period.
Covers: Messina's cover is good. It's a great image of Illyria, a pretty cool image of Gunn, and a creepy ass skull in the background. It's the weakest of Messina's covers for the series, but that is more a compliment to his covers for #2 and #3 than anything about this cover. Dave Dorman's cover, on the other hand, has a great concept and so-so execution. Illyria is trying to get in touch with her humanity in this arc, so it's cool to have her, in normal clothing, playing fetch with the dog (and a glowing frisbee of energy)... but her face just looks weird. She looks like Kirstie Alley got her hair dyed blue. Gunn looks pretty awesome, though; I dig the painted look, and how it looks half storybook/half sitcome... but I just can't get over Illyria's face.
Extras: For an interview with David Messina concerning this series and his other works, click here. Interview with writer Scott Lobdell coming soon!
Characters We Know: Illyria, Gunn, Fred (flashback), Wesley (flashback), Spike (flashback), the Burkles.