Timing: After "Chosen" and before "The Long Way Home." Likely set during the fifth season of Angel.
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: I recently had a conversation with a professor of mine about Willow. He mentioned how much he loved her, and I shrugged. "I'm over Willow," I said. He simply replied, "I'm not." I made the argument that it's less the character's fault and more the writers, but I just couldn't forgive Willow for what happened at the end of Season Six. Killing Warren, I got. Chasing Jonathan and Andrew, I got. But the whole ending the world thing was too grand, too villainous, and too much to ask for the fans to swallow. Then, in Season Seven, with the whole Kennedy thing, and Willow acting how she was, it was just too much. Then, she came back in Season Eight with a whole bunch of unexplained powers, and I was just so, so over her.
And then, Joss did little things that sort of made me see glimmers of the old Willow in her. The one that I loved, the one that my professor isn't over.
And then, Joss wrote this one-shot. In the best Buffy installment since #16, he humanizes Willow without really making it obvious that he's setting out to do that. He manages to suggest how she got her powers without really showing it. He shows how Saga Vasuki, whose real name is Aluwyn and whose role seems to be titled Saga Vasuki, was introduced to Willow and kind of what role she plays, but he leaves the rest up to the imagination. A few folks commented on the forums (snort, geeky chuckle) said that this feels like the first issue of a miniseries, but I couldn't disagree more. Joss gives us what we need here. We see sort of who the elemental goddesses are, because we don't really need specifics unless the story dictates that. And I feel sort of like a douche saying this, because it's such a Scott Allie line, and he uses that so often to cop out of editorial and story screw-ups. Stuff that should be in the story is an elaboration of how the world is so convinced that vampires rock. But this issue has a great balance of what we need to know and what we just need the suggestion of.
So yeah, Joss is a master.
Also, the balance between the drama and the funny is at a place it hasn't been in way too long. I got to used to Buffy: Season Eight being mediocre with splashes of good and splashes of terrible, but Joss really brought the greatness here. Scene after scene, idea after idea, it's brilliant. The dialogue is at a place is hasn't been in way too long, and Willow is damn likable. I feel her pain, I feel her happiness, and I'm both scared and excited for her when she takes control of her own journey and makes an important choice about who is going to be her guide.
I'm thrilled that Joss is on again for the next issue, and I definitely have hope for Meltzer. Espenson's arc, which was uneven at best and shark jumpy at worst, left me feeling pretty sad for the state of the series, but this one-shot showed me that Joss, as sucky as recent issues have been, does have a plan. I'll trust him. I can't really forgive how bad some issues, particularly #29, were, but now I have faith that he can redeem the series and make sense of all the stuff that, from here, looks nonsensical. I'm pretty excited for what's to come, which hasn't happened for me in a long time, so... that says something about how excellent this issue was.
My favorite story (well, aside from ANGEL) is in your hands, Mr. Whedon. Don't go breaking my heart.
Art: Man, does Karl Moline how to draw Willow. The quality of his pencils here are insane. So much so that I'd probably put him as my second favorite Buffyverse artist, after Urru. It's really just insane how much better this art is than the art of Jeanty, who seems to be sort of rushing through the "Retreat" arc. If Dark Horse is going to start looking for a series artist for Season Nine, they should look no farther than Karl Moline.
Covers: Really good stuff. Jo Chen's cover is elegant and really beautiful, with amazing colors, but I will say that Willow looks a bit too voluptuous here. Faith, that's okay. But Willow... eh. Tone down the boobage for the betterment of the cover. Moline's cover is excellent, for the most part, except for the random design on the bottom. I mean, what? The image of WIllow is just great, so why not stick with that? Good covers, but there are little things that take away from them, preventing them from being truly great.
Characters We Know: Willow, Kennedy, Aluwyn AKA Saga Vasuki, and (SPOILERS:) Tara.