Monday, December 28, 2009

Is Willow Redeemable?

What Is It?: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Eight: Willow- Goddesses and Monsters

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.

Rating: 9/10

Friday, December 25, 2009

Lynch & Mooney's Last Angel. Get it? Because the book is CALLED "Last Angel," but it's also the LAST Angel book they're doing. See what I did there?

What Is It?: Angel Annual #1: Last Angel in Hell. Written by Brian Lynch, art by Stephen Mooney.

Timing: The story in this book, which is essentially a bad action movie based on what happened when LA was sent to Hell, never actually happens in the Buffyverse. However, the film was shot, and it exists as a fictional film in Angel's world. A preview of the film premiered at the Sci-Fi Convention in Angel #26.

REVIEW: So this is it. The last Brian Lynch penned ANGEL comic we're probably ever going to see. Thing is, though, it's not really even an Angel comic. While it uses a shitty screenwriter's version of the characters and slightly uses the situation of "After the Fall," it's way more a parody of bad action films than a parody of "After the Fall." There are definitely the kind of jokes this needed to have to make the book work ("What, like a reboot? That's kind of a cop-out, no?"), but the action of the film was so wildly misinterpreted by the fictional screenwriter that it doesn't comment that much on "After the Fall" itself.

And that is probably the one thing I would change. As awesome as it is that this is 100% friendly to newcomers, I do wish there had been a bit more in-jokes. There is the instant hilarity of seeing how they turned Spike into a lady, Gunn into Hurley-from-Lost with a gun obsession, Fred into a black chick in a suit of body armor called I.L.L.Y.R.I.A. that gives her Gwen-like powers, Spike into a lady, Betta George into a dog, and Angel into Nic Cage. Angel's loner-ness is made fun of, the idea of snow in Hell-A is played with, and there are even some specific situations and lines that are winks to fans, but in a project as meta as this, there should just be more meta. It should be the meta-est. Other meta things should look at this with envy and desire to hold a meta-stick to the meta of this issue.

Now, for the great.

The book is funny as hell. PUN! Pretty much every page has a great line (well, usually a line so purposely bad that it's hilarious), and that kicks ass because the thing is 48 pages long. If this comic went to a school of other comics, it'd spend most of its time kicking the shit out of punier comics. Probably stealing their lunch money, too. Oh, and definitely the occasional swirlie.

I never thought plot inconsistencies would be a positive thing about a comic, but Brian Lynch totally skewers action films perfectly here by hinging the entire story on a plot twist that doesn't make sense. (Lady) Spike (whose name is Sara, she's only called Spike because of an offhand reference Detective Angel Cartwright made to her teeth looking like spikes) essentially causes Hell to come to Earth by spilling a lot of blood at her and Angel's wedding (yup), but it turns out that she was on Angel's side all along and only pretended to be bad to kill the devil. Yup, sounds just like a Michael Bay film, right? Right. There are all the cheesy, big moments where the heroes conquer the one, random thing that always held them back that was awkwardly introduced for easy pay-off at the climax. There are all the expected, clunky action flick lines (at Doublemeat Palace, where the sign outside says "Over five billion serves," Angel Cartwright says to an employee "You just gotta do one thing... change the sign outside. Because three more are about to get served" before he kicks the ass of some vampiredemonperpscum. Also, there's the awesomely bad product placement, and not just the ads. The whole Doublemeat Palace thing is totally milked for all its worth in this. The existence of this book and the funniness of those scene almost justifies the existence of that Buffy episode for me now, which I'd thought was an impossible feat.

There are a lot of awesome lines, and it's pretty much page-for-page entertaining. I dig it, I'll come back to it over and over, and it's a good way for Lynch to end his stint on Angel. I hope to hell there's a sequel ("Next Last Angel in Hell"), and, I can't help it, I hope the dude comes back to the main title someday. Since Spike: Asylum #1, Brian Lynch has been my favorite comic writer, and he's made the recent years kick ass for Angel fans. I can't wait to see what he does with the SPIKE on-going, but until then, we've got all his Angel issues, all his Spike issues, and now this bad-boy to enjoy.

Art: And Stephen Mooney. This is also probably Mooney's last issue, and I'm pretty torn up about that as well. Not only has he been one of my favorite Angel artists, he's just an all around great guy. He puts his best work forward here, for sure. The art is cinematic, appropriately cheesy, and the characters just look great. If he has to finish up his run on Angel, this is the way to do it. Bravo, sir.

Covers: Two of Mooney's best. The main cover is probably the most epic ANGEL cover ever, which is kind of ironic, seeing as this isn't exactly an ANGEL book. It's an iconic image, and if there is ever one book that collects all of "After the Fall," this should be the cover. It's that bad-ass. Then, the B cover features the same characters, except as played by their "Last Angel in Hell" actors. Freakin' awesome.

Characters We Know: Hm... I never thought this would be a difficult section. Betta George actually appears as an extra in the movie, which was great. There are fictionalized versions of Angel, Spike, Gunn, Fred/Illyria/Gwen, Wesley, and Lorne.

Rating: 9/10

Brian Lynch, Stephen Mooney... thanks for this, thanks for the past few years of great work you've done, thanks for everything. I'll be following both of your post-Angel careers, so keep up the fantastic work.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Crown is Passed Down

What Is It?: Angel #28- The Crown Prince Syndrome, Part One. Written by Bill Willingham, art by Brian Denham. (Back-up story: Eddie Hope in A Devil Walks Into a Bar, Part One. Story by Bill Willingham and Bill Williams, script by Bill Williams, art by David Messina.)

Timing: Weeks, maybe months, after Angel #27.

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 hidden.

REVIEW: In many ways, this issue starts a new 'season' of Angel. Brian Lynch has written his final ANGEL issue and is moving over to the on-going SPIKE series. The characters are all back together (this happens after ANGEL: ONLY HUMAN), but they also haven't really had it out about any of the stuff that happened during the Fall. This new chapter of ANGEL starts out with a whole mess of potential, and it's up to new series writer Bill Willingman to turn that potential into a great run.

Now, I've read Willingham's stuff before, so I sort of knew what to expect going in. I read and enjoyed the first three arcs of his award winning FABLES series, and plan to read the rest when I get a chance, so I didn't have that "What's going to happen?" feeling that I had when Kelley Armstrong took over for the AFTERMATH arc. I look back on my review of her first issue, and I see that I was being so easy on the book, cutting her so much slack because it was her first try. But... I'm not going to do that this time. I'm going to review this as an ANGEL book, no strings attached, no "aw, but it's his first issue" stuff. The same way I reviewed Brian Lynch's first ANGEL issue, which just happened to be utterly fantastic.

So. Bill Willingham's ANGEL.

Actually, a good book. A legitimately good read. The thing that did annoy me was that it had the potential to be a great issue, but a few of Willingham's choices prevented that from happening. The book opens with Connor fighting a pack of horager demons for seven pages. Now, I love how this is a call back to the first issue of AFTER THE FALL, where Angel was fighting similarly green demons with a sword in an alley. Only thing is, that was a much quicker fight. Willingham spreads the fight out and uses the scene as a vehicle for exposition through Connor's internal monologue, which... why? Connor explains his whole "I have three fathers" thing again, explains how all of his lives were different and how only one of them are real, and--the only thing we needed to know--how horager demons actually come from Quor'toth, the hell dimension where Connor grew up. Connor's voice is pretty much spot on, and that is a huge relief since there is just so much of him, and Willingham is handling him very much in the same way that Brian Lynch did. Connor is cool. He's no longer the whiney kid from Season Four. He's the hero from AFTER THE FALL. And I dig that.

The focus remains on Connor for the vast majority of the issue, and things get all foreshadowy when a group of robotic(?)/metallic(?) demons(?) jump to Connor's rescue, just as he is about to be killed by a horager. The demons (spoilers:) claim that Connor is "The Promised One" and "The Honored One" and that they are his army. This is where the comic really picked up for me, and Willingham shows that he has a good sense of the trademark gothic juxtaposition that Whedon and Lynch utilized to such great effect. The mix of the high (an army of demons addressing Connor as their king, all proper-like) and the low (ending the scene with one of the demons giving Connor is card and saying "Call me later. We'll talk.") is hilarious. Unfortunately, Willingham ends the scene with the tired old joke "Funny. I thought he'd be taller" which, as small a moment as it is in the scope of the issue, annoyed me. It's been used so many times, so why not come up with something better? It's an easy line, and Willingham is better than that.

Now, here's the odd bit. Connor takes a cab ride back to the Hyperion, where Angel Investigations has moved to (thank God). All the exposition from the first seven pages is given to us again, just condense. And it reads so damn well. If the opening scene had just been the battle with no exposition except for the necessary horager stuff, and all the "I'm Connor, this is my life" had been left for the cab scene, it would be a much, much stronger book. The exposition in the cab scene works, because Connor is essentially comparing his oddness to the normalcy around him. To him, the cab driver is one of the lucky ones, one of the ones that Connor, is one of his lives, got a chance to be. And... well, to the cab driver, Connor is just a geek with a prop sword. Best scene in the book.

And now, the moment of truth... when we head back to the Hyperion to see the rest of the gang. The moment when we see how Willingham handles the rest of the characters, and the dialogue as a whole. So what's the verdict? Well... not bad at all. The majority of the scene is Spike trying to tell everyone what happened to him in Vegas while everyone else is wondering where Angel is. The dialogue doesn't have a really organic flow to it yet, but it is a damn crowded scene, so I don't really blame Willingham for that. Packs into the lobby of the Hyperion are Spike, Gunn, Betta George, Illyria, Kate, James, Dez, and Connor. Willingham isn't as spot on with the voices as Brian Lynch, but his Spike is hilarious and I can definitely hear Marsters in my head while reading Spike's dialogue. Gunn is also very well done. I didn't like Willingham's take on Illyria, who seems to be talking more like a logic machine than the Illyria that Whedon created and Lynch developed the hell out of. James actually gets a good chunk of dialogue, and he's... pretty funny. And you know what, I'm glad that Willingham kept Dez and James in the mix. As much as AFTERMATH outright sucked, the characters have been introduced, and the on-going story is canonical, so we can't just ignore a whole arc. I just hope that Willingham can make good characters out of them, or... well, kill them and make their deaths matter.

Now, the scene with all these characters isn't bad. It seems to say that, after the Fall, all of these characters really need each other, so they're grouping together... and that's interesting. But how much more interesting, and how much more organic, would it have been to actually see these characters come together? If Connor, Kate, Dez, and James (the AFTERMATH team) were the main crew, Willingham wouldn't have needed the awkward scene in which it's decided that, in Angel's absence (I'm getting to that), that Connor should be the leader. It would have been awesome to see Spike doing his own thing and finding his way back to the group, with George in tow. Also, I really needed to see the scene where Gunn and Illyria come back to the group. I mean, it's not as if Willingham is ignoring all the atrocities Gunn committed, because he makes sure to have Connor give Gunn a dirty look, and that subtlety for me is more interesting than an out-of-place and random argument (YOU KILLED ME?! HOW DARE YOU!?), but it would have certainly been great to see Gunn's apologetic re-entrance into the Hyperion, wondering if he's going to be accepted or denied. But, we've got what we've got.

And now, Angel. We only get two pages on him, because he's... well, he's (spoilers:) been kidnapped. His situation is really interesting and a bit sad and a bit funny, and I can't wait to see where Willingham takes it. From what we hear from Angel--a lot of internal monologue, because... well, he's not really in the position to speak right now--seems to be as spot on as his Connor dialogue.

It's a flawed but promising start to the new chapter in the on-going ANGEL saga. Now that all the exposition and "this is the new status quo" stuff is out of the way, I'm expecting Willingham to deliver a great ANGEL story.

Art: The art ranges from great to annoying. The likenesses are always spot on, and good enough to place new series artist Brian Denham among my favorite Angel artists. He's really got a handle on the characters faces, and the opening scene also shows that he's awesome at action. However... he can't seem to blend the two together to create the movement appropriate for the scene in the Hyperion. The scene has a lot of characters, so I can't imagine how hard that was, but a lot of it felt like still photographs with the characters posing. No one is ever really looking at each other, and way too often, the characters are facing the reader. Also, the characters are standing one place for one line of dialogue and then next to someone entirely different for the next line. It's not really well-staged at all, and if there are going to be a lot of Hyperion scenes, I really hope Denham works on that, because the rest of his work in the issue was stellar. He's great at expressions, faces, and action... now he just needs to work on his lengthy dialogue scenes. Oh, and I can't end this section without mentioning colorist Alfred Rockefeller, who does an utterly fantastic job. Holy crap.

Back-up Story: This was one of the highlights of the issue. We get a bad-ass, action packed, and morally ambiguous introduction to Eddie Hope... a devil who may either be a hero or a villain. He goes to a bar, seeking out folks who did terrible stuff when LA fell, in order to... well, kill the shit out of them. It's violent, gruesome, and really awesome. It's short, at just four pages, but it works. I also love that instead of making the main story of the issue feel short (it's 18 pages instead of 22), it just makes the book as a whole feel more complete. I can definitely see Eddie's story building a lot throughout the arc, and I'm already anticipating the moment when Bill Willingham decides to pull the character into the main story, because something tells me that Eddie Hope is going to want a piece of Gunn. And, er, not in the sexy way. The killy way.

Covers: A lot for this one. Unfortunately, I can't really afford buying all the retailer incentives anymore, because I'm producing a feature film which is woah a lot of money, but I'm still able to get the A and B covers, and give my take on the prettiness of the others, via internet pics. The main cover, by Jenny Frison, is decent. Angel looks pretty sick (well, he should, considering his situation), but he also looks a bit too bulky. It's not a bad cover, but there are a few details on it that make it pretty jarring. I do love the angels and demons that are crawling all over the cover, which really works well. The B-cover is by Messina, and it features Angel (who is looking a bit cat-like) and Eddie Hope. The style of the cover is pretty awesome, and the red city over the blue, demonic image looks cool. Brian Denham's retailer incentive cover is a badass black and white skull with a crown on it that has a crazy amount of detail, and Jenny Frison also offers a new years themed incentive, featuring Angel and Spike. All the covers range from decent to great.

Characters We Know: Connor, Spike, Illyria, Gunn, Betta George, Kate, James, Dez, Angel.

Rating: 7/10