Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Armstrong Takes a Step in the Right Direction... Ross, Not So Much

What Is It?: Angel #20- Aftermath part III (written by Kelley Armstrong).

Timing: Directly following Angel #19

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: Okay. That's better. The book still isn't nearly at the level it should be, but certain aspects of the story have improved a lot between the last issue and this. The two most interesting things about Aftermath so far--the fallout of After the Fall and Dez--are expanded upon greatly in this book. The dialogue is still totally dragging the story down, and the characters aren't really acting like themselves. There were also two lettering errors, but I've sorted out what was meant to be on the page and will post it here for anyone who was confused.

So first a bit of goodness. The plot is definitely coming together. You can definitely tell that Kelley Armstrong is a novelist by trade from the way she hits her plot points, and from a story perspective, that's a good thing. Angel has never been plot driven, and the monsters and even long term arcs often take a backseat to character development, but the plot in the arc has become good enough to sit back and enjoy. I've read a lot of people talking about how they didn't like Armstrong's choice to squeeze the angels (Potentates) into the After the Fall storyline, but I think it was well done. To me, it makes sense that the Powers that Be would eventually (SPOILERS:) figure out how to help Angel in a real way... and I find it incredibly interesting that Angel didn't need their help in the end. This works as a plot point for Aftermath as well as a cool character moment for Angel, because the realization that the Powers that Be are still invested in him must mean that they aren't convinced that the Shanshu means what Wolfram & Hart said it did.

Now, something not so good. Angel has always been a character driven show that thrived on witty and realistic dialogue. While a great and well thought-out plot is always nice, it comes at a distant third for me... but the thing with Aftermath is that it doesn't really have much going for it other than the plot. The dialogue is just bad; the responses of the characters don't logically flow or make sense in the context of the situation. Take this scene for example. Kate (SPOILERS:) points a gun at Dez when she tackles Gwen, giving Gwen the opportunity to shock her. Together, they throw Dez into the basement. And then this happens:

GWEN- You think I'm being too harsh.

KATE- I just think we didn't need to--

But wait a second. Kate helped her. Kate did everything alongside of her, at the same time as her. Where was there any indication that Kate wasn't 100% in this until that exchange?

Then, Gwen goes on to say this: "We did. Every cop knows it's easier to get a confession when you don't have to follow the rules. You're not a cop anymore, Kate. Time to stop acting like one." Interesting character stuff Armstrong is trying to play with, but the sentence doesn't make sense. Gwen establishes that cops know things are easier with no rules; then she goes onto say that Kate's cop-like behavior is preventing her from acting on this knowledge. Had the sentence been written better, it would have conveyed the message I assume Armstrong meant to convey--that Kate's adherence to the rules of the law is what prevents her from doing what needs to be done DESPITE her knowledge that things are easier with no rules. But that's not the way the sentence is structured. Also, Gwen's bad cat puns during the fight with Dez are just... yeah.

On the other hand, Angel has a pretty cool exchange with the Potentate he encountered at the end of the last issue. Armstrong takes a jab at Angel's wit for one of the first times in her run, and succeeds with the line "Kidnapping angels? That's ballsy." The entire scene went over really well for me, as did the scene that ran parallel to it; Dez's flashback. After (SPOILER:) Gwen and Kate throw her into the basement upon discovering a strange experiment she seems to be doing, we get to see Dez at various stages in her life. We discover that Dez wasn't originally human, and... I won't go much into it, because it's really interesting stuff. As I said, the plot here is A-Okay. Spruce the character stuff up, improve the dialogue, and this series could run consistent 7/10s. There isn't much more it could get due to the terrible art, but the story does seem to have a sense of purpose that it lacked in #19.

A big issue I had was the omniscience of the book. We get to hear the internal thoughts... of everyone. If there's going to be captions, we should hear the thoughts of one character, two at the most. However, we are privy to Angel's thoughts, Dez's thoughts, Gwen's thoughts, and Kate's thoughts... sometimes all on the same page. It bogs down the story. There might as well be thought bubbles, because that is the way that the captions are functioning at this point.

Lastly, there were a few lettering issues that confused me a bit until I figured out how the book was supposed to read. Here are the corrections:

PAGE 12: The bubbles are out of order. Angel's "We don't have time for this" should come before James's "In quite a rush for an immortal, aren't you? All right, I'll take it with me."

PAGE 15: James hands the sword to Angel, which burns him. The "Yoww!" dialogue bubble points to James, when it should point at Angel.

PAGE 17: There is a caption with quotes that reads "But it's a theory I'm willing to take." If it was spoken by Dex, as it seems like it was supposed to be, it should be a speech bubble. The caption with quotes is used for voice over, when dialogue that someone else is saying is supposed to be said over images from another scene. Like Angel's monologue in #13 over the deaths of Spike and the Dragon. If Armstrong meant to use the caption with quotes, it should have been placed at the top of the next page. As is, it should be a speech bubble.

Art: I hate to say it, but Ross's Angel art has been certified with a PhD in horribleness. I've seen his work in other comics, and he's definitely not a bad artist; his other pencils have pretty cool details and originality. This, however, is just awful. Though the layout of the panels is certainly a collaboration between Armstrong and Ross, the artist usually tries to make each page look a bit more cinematic. Not so here. When a character looks at something important, there should be a "cutaway shot" to what they're looking at. But there often isn't, leaving the reader to guess what happens. It's not hard to do so, but the simple jolt of having to do that shows how little control Ross has over the artistic, panel to panel flow of the story. I won't speak much about likenesses, because that was covered last time; nothing improves except Kate's hair, and the depiction of Angel seems to be getting more bulky and more Asian by the panel. Another thing about Ross's art; it lacks a sense of place. In all of the Angel comics thus far, even the pre-After the Fall installments, there was no problem with setting. Each location was laid out so that the reader felt like they knew the rooms. Not so much here. After three issues, I have no idea what the inside of the church Angel is staying in looks like, other than bare wood walls and floors. Think how much of a jolt it is when Angel looks up and, out of nowhere, he's staring at a stained glass window. Had the previous panels put him in a room that physically could have had stained glass windows, all would be fine. But the way this is laid out, we're to assume that Angel traveled to an entirely different room in the church in order to look up at this window. Why not just put the entire scene in the sanctuary or chapel of the church?

Artist George Freeman filled in during the flashback scenes, but it was hard to tell the difference between the art. They did a good job at keeping it consistent... though I wonder if that was the intention. Why hire an entirely different artist for a flashback sequence if you didn't want it to look different? It was written in a way that, after a read-through, you can definitely tell that you're reading a flashback, but I think perhaps the coloring should have been altered a bit to give it a sort of grainy feel. Definitely no points deducted for that, but I thought it was a point of interest.

Covers: Nick Runge's cover is cool. We see Dez, locked away in a shadowy prison, her eyes glowing with malice. It's a dark and really moody cover, and I've seen some fans say that it's their favorite of his "painted style" collection. I'd pick both #18 and #21 over this, but it is certainly a haunting image. Gabriel Rodriguez's cover for this issue, however, is my favorite of all the Aftermath covers. I've always been a Rodriguez fan because his work is just so dynamic and sharp. The cover is a simple image of Kate kicking a demon in the face, and to tell the truth it has no bearing at all on the story... but it's just so kickass. Fantastic cover, and great likeness as well. He manages to maintain the feel of Kate's character while putting her in battle-ready clothes; this is how the Kate of Aftermath should always look.

Characters We Know: Angel, Gwen, Kate, Connor.

Rating: 6/10

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

"There's gonna be some stuff you're gonna see... that's gonna make it hard to smile in the future."

What Is It?: Angel- Smile Time adaptation #3. Original story by Joss Whedon and Ben Edlund, original teleplay by Ben Edlund. Adapted to comic script by Scott Tipton.

Timing: Directly after Angel- Smile Time #2. Two-thirds into the episode.

Note: Adaptations are now ranked on this scale: EPIC FAIL, FAIL, BAD, OKAY, GOOD, VERY GOOD, GREAT, OUTSTANDING.

REVIEW: That was an enjoyable little issue.

The one thing I noticed right off the bat is that, unlike the first two in the series, there are no new scenes added. I'm fine with that, because it must have been extremely difficult to squeeze all that episode into a three issue miniseries, and the climatic fight and romantic resolution in this issue really did deserve the page time it got. One thing I'm slightly unsure about, though, is Spike. The two additional scenes with him in the first two issues set up the expectation for an appearance in this issue, if only for a one-liner to sort of wrap up the sub-subplot he had going on in this issue. As much as I would have liked that, the series feels complete enough that the lack of such a scene doesn't bother me.

As far as the translation of the episode to the page, this issue does a better job than the last one did. There are no awkward scenes at all, with the majority of them flowing exceptionally well. Could certain scenes have been improved? Sure. On page one, when Lorne is walking down the hall, there definitely should have been a shot of Angel before Lorne said "My little prince!" There were also a few panels, particularly the discussions between Fred and Wesley, that I thought more attention should have been given to the other person's face. There seems to be a lot of attention to reaction shots, and while that is fine, I think it's nice to ground the conversation with a shot of the person whose talking instead of doing two reaction shots in a row.

One thing that this series, particularly this issue, has done very well is setting up the tragedy to come two episodes later. I was originally unsure about including the Gunn subplot due to the time constraints of squeezing forty-two minutes of screen time (plus some extra fun scenes) into three comic issues, but I think it really paid off in the end. The dichotomy between seeing Gunn unknowingly sign Fred's death warrant and seeing Wesley and Fred's relationship finally move to the next level thrives on the tension of what we know is coming in A Hole in the World. The ending of this seemingly cheery episode is probably the biggest eucatasrophe in the Buffyverse; the tortured hero gets the girl after years of pining over her. The reversal of this happy ending is what gives those scenes a second, more powerful meaning, and this comic explores that nicely. Tipton was really right to include both of those subplots, because when paired together, they make this a more dark, more foreboding tale. And in an Angel episode about puppets, you kinda need that.

And that's a wrap for Angel- Smile Time. I was skeptical about episode adaptations, and in some ways I still am, but this issue served its purpose. As I said in the review for #2, it revitalized the source material, added some cool new stuff, and convinced me to like an episode that I never really gave a chance to. Job well done, Mr. Tipton.

Art: The art is a bit shabbier than I expected. Angel/Star Trek artist David Messina was the main artist advertised for the series, but it seems that the artist who was credited alongside of him, Elena Casagrande, had an increasingly important role as the series continued. The title was already released every two months, instead of the normal monthly status of Angel miniseries, to accommodate Messina's busy schedule. However, there are only a handful of pages where I can really feel Messina's presence. He does seem to come back for all the important or close-up shots, but the conversation pieces, especially the Wesley/Fred scene, seem to be a bit off. The art is definitely passable as a whole, and often awesome in the important shots... but I was looking forward to Messina's ever-improving likenesses, which I didn't quite get. Overall, though, still a pretty neat job. Just not quite at the level I expected.

Covers: These are my favorite covers from the entire Smile Time series. Messina's covers have been consistently awesome (we really need him back on the main Angel title in any capacity), but this takes it to another level. He paid homage to the famous Hulk cover with #1 and to Fight Club with #2... so it makes sense that, for the conclusion, he takes it home and pays homage to Angel. In tribute to the Angel: Season Five promo poster, Messina draws our two favorite vampires as puppets, with a reel of the other characters below them. It's one of the best Angel covers I've ever seen, no exaggeration. I believe this is getting collected into a hardcover with Spike: Shadow Puppets and the Angel/Nina story in Angel: Masks, but if there is ever just a Smile Time trade paperback, I think this should absolutely be the cover. The other ones were great, but they can't really measure up to this. The variant, a photo cover of Angel hugging Fred, adds just the right amount of cute to compliment the badassery of the regular cover. Plus, any cover with Amy Acker is a good cover in my mind.

Characters We Know: Lorne, Angel, Doctor Sparrow, Gunn, Fred, Wesley, Knox, Smile Time puppets, Nina.

Rating as an adaptation: Very good.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sorry for the delay... ANGEL: BLOOD & TRENCHES #2!

What Is It?: Angel: Blood & Trenches #2 (written and illustrated by John Byrne).

Timing: Directly after Angel: Blood & Trenches #1.

REVIEW: Really sorry for the delay. I've been crazy busy, and if you want to see why, check out my other blog about my writing life. It's grind time at college as well, but I've managed to squeeze review time between waking up and the Lambda Iota Tau induction ceremony this evening. I promise I'll be back to regular Wednesday reviews this week with the release of Angel #20, and I'll try to squeeze in a review of Angel: Smile Time #3 between now and then.

But as for now, onto Blood & Trenches #2!

John Byrne's Angel/WWI epic continues with another great issue. Though the story definitely progresses, don't expect any major changes; if you liked the first issue, this satisfies in the same way. The art is done in the same style (just straight pencils, no inks, and the only color used is for SFX and blood), and it works wonderfully with Byrne's first person narration. I felt like I was reading a wonderful old war novel while I poured over these pages, but the spirit of Angel is still very much there. Though he's not yet the vampire we've come to know and love, that's kind of the point. This is Angel before he's gone through everything that shaped his personality, and he's still in a very dark and impressionable place... which is why I really don't get when people say his voice is off. This is Angel fresh out of being Angelus, robbed of every defining characteristic he had. And plus, this takes place a long time ago. It makes perfect sense that Angel doesn't speak like 2009 Angel does.

This issue pushes the story in an interesting new direction. While #1 did have a decent amount of supernatural elements, it was a lot more about Angel interacting with humans, both good and evil. This took things down an entirely different route, and explores the role that vampires played in the war at large. I'm still not sure why Angel was so invested in checking out what's going on that he actually stowed away on a boat to get where he is, but I'm perfectly fine with that. The mystery gets a lot more interesting when a new/old player is thrown into the mix. If you thought the Geoffrey Wyndam-Pryce reveal was crazy, wait until you see (SPOILER:) Kakistos bearing down on Angel.

Angel: Blood & Trenches was the best Buffyverse title of March, and so far it's true for April as well. I wasn't quite as blown away by this one as I was with the first issue, but I think that's sort of because the unique presentation of the story was really impressive and shocking when I first read the issue. This issue has less opportunity to play with format and time than the first issue did, but the way story itself continues is just great. I can't wait until this is published as a TPB or a hardcover, because I can just tell it would be fantastic to read this in one sitting.

Covers: I've seen all of the covers for this series online, and this is probably the least impressive. It's dynamic and all, with the bullets crossing behind Angel and the smoke rising off of his back, but I just found the colors sort of odd. I get that Angel is supposed to be burning in the sun, but it's not really how I would have pictured it. I wouldn't be as picky if the colors used on the covers of #1 and #3 weren't so exceptional. It's not a bad cover, but not especially good either. The variant cover is a black and white version of the normal cover.

Characters We Know: Angel and (SPOILER:) Kakistos.

Rating: 8/10

Friday, April 3, 2009

Soon soon soon

Nope, didn't forget Angel: Blood and Trenches #2. I read it Wednesday, and it is, as #1 was last month, one of the best comics so far this year. I'll obviously post a full length review very soon. I've just been insanely busy.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A Well Deserved Rating

What Is It?: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight, Issue #24: Sage (written by Jim Krueger).

Timing: BtVS, Season Eight. Short while after "Predators and Prey."

REVIEW: I admit being a bit easy on the last few Buffy issues. I've been trying to pull out the good and push the bad under the carpet for the sake of optimism. Do I honestly think #21 deserved a 7/10? In retrospect, no. I'm not sure it would crack 5/10. Do I think #22 and #23 are really 8/10 comics? They were highly problematic, but enjoyable enough... but I'm rating these against the comics that came before as well as actual Buffy episodes, and looking back, those were not 8/10s. I've been too kind to the series out of loyalty to Joss, and I promise to make it a point to keep my hopes for what the issue could have been out of my reviews and give an accurate rating on the actual content of the issue. I realized that I'd been too kind to the previous issues when I read this book, #24, and realized that it is a) way better than any of the recent Buffy comics and b) an obvious 8/10.

I admit I was skeptical. This arc is turning out to be really, really uneven, and the opening of the book--a girl inexplicably mistaking Faith for Buffy (did someone give her a really, really blurry picture?)--is terribly on the nose. But the rest of the book is filled with interesting character beats, and a plot that answers some of our lesser questions about the season, such as the state of the Watchers' Council. The plot is really monster-of-the-week, but instead of tricking the audience into thinking that there would be some forward movement of the main arc the way that #23 did with the encounter with Simone, this instead focuses itself on making a statement about what it means to be a slayer and, furthermore, a human. And that's, in my opinion, what this arc should have focused on. I can't say I'm pleased that the meat and potatoes are being served so late, but I'm glad they've arrived and I'm more than ready to indulge.

For the second time in Buffy: Season Eight, we've got a noob to the 'verse. Brian K. Vaughan wrote the Faith/Giles team-up arc, "No Future for You," and now Jim Krueger, comic scribe, writes what can be considered a sequel to that arc. Much like Vaughan, this Buffy noob is fantastic at writing Whedoneseque dialogue and obviously knows the characters well, but the best thing he brought to the book was a willingness to play with the medium. Jane Espenson's "Harmonic Divergence" didn't work well because of format issues and the way she laid out dialogue and internal narration, and a lot of the other Buffy writers other than Goddard and Whedon have chosen to keep the format simple, but Kreuger plays with the relationship of the words and the images with many of the panels. He makes great use of "voice over" (balloons with no tails) to show the relationship between vampires, children, and the elderly folk of Hanselstadt, the town this takes place in.

I love when Buffy concentrates on the little moments. With the bloated scope of the season, it seems as if the little things are being kicked to the curb in favor of playing with big action scenes and weird demons, but Kreuger doesn't forget the details in his story. For example, (SPOILERS:) a demon explodes in a library, sending paper flying all over the place. The image evokes the death of the character Error from Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, which is a really cool reference.
And Kreuger's original character, Courtney, is great.

Not all of the issue was wonderful, though, hence my rating. I do have two concerns about Faith's mind state... I'm not convinced she would have remembered "The Third." Even if the vampire was one of the first monsters she fought, she's fought countless vampires, and some just get away. With all Faith has been through, it is way beyond the realm of possibility that she would have remembered this one vampire, much less been so emotionally affected by (SPOILERS:) an image of this vampire that the demon would be able to use it against her the same way it used an image Courtney's parents against Courtney. But anyway, if you're going to use a vampire from Faith's past (SPOILERS:) in this capacity... why not "go for the heart" and use Kakistos? And how Faith knew she was being led into a trap, I don't know, but the text was so void of hints that it doesn't seem like Faith is being savvy, it just pulls me out of the read. In Veronica Mars, for example, when the eponymous heroine makes a discovery that the audience didn't know, the seeds that show how she came to this discovery are all there when you watch again. Veronica, and Faith, are supposed to be smarter than us when doing what they do... but the hints just simply have to be there. There were some nice hints about the plot twist but nothing that would make Faith believe she's being lead into a trap, much less an, as she puts it, "really obvious trap." It felt like Kreuger was leading us through the narrative by the hand instead of doing the work, planting the seeds, and letting us find out along with Faith.

Other than those few things, the book was really solid. The difference between this and the rest of the arc is really obvious. I really liked it, and I think you will too.

Art: Cliff Richard's best yet, by far. He seems to be changing his style up here, going more for accurate likenesses than he usually does. His art is usually more his style than anything else, but he struck a balance here that felt really comfortable. After #23, which seemed a bit rushed on Jeanty's part, I was more than glad to have Richards pencilling this book. Him and Paul Lee are definite candidates for who I'd ideally like to provide art for Season Nine, for sure.

Covers: Jo Chen. It's getting really hard to talk about her, because her work is just so consistently good. There was some talk that Faith's breasts weren't proportionate, but I think that it's a perspective thing. They are considerably bigger than usual, but Faith is a really sexual character, so I don't really think the size is that much of an issue. Her Giles likeness is perfect, working so well with the subtleties of Anthony Head's face. So, so good. Jeanty's cover, on the other hand... I don't know. He's struggled with Faith in the past, but by the end of No Future for You he was drawing her very well... not so sure about here, though. Giles looks horrible on the cover, and though it's visually striking with the glass and whatnot, I really don't like the likenesses.

Characters We Know: Faith, Giles.

Rating: 8/10