Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Illyria's True Form: A Retrospect on the Character and the Series

Illyria's True Form: A Retrospect on the Character and the Series
by Patrick Shand

I’m gonna come right out and say it. Illyria changed—er, well, maybe evolved is a better word—more than any other character while Angel was on television. Granted, Cordelia and Wesley are usually the examples folks bring up of long-term character development in the show, but I’d argue that Illyria’s development was even more dramatic… which is especially impressive, seeing as she was only appeared in eight episodes.

The same holds true for the comics; the only difference is, while her character growth was exponential, so was the number of books that she appeared in. Other than the big brand name characters like Angel and Spike, Illyria appeared in more IDW comics than any other character.

Prior to the fall of LA, she went on a couple of adventures that occurred during the final season of Angel. Most notably, Joss Whedon allowed writer Peter David to cross her over into his Fallen Angel universe, where she embarked on a quest to tap back into her original power. It’s a crossover that I can’t believe we were lucky enough to get; the dark dark dark (and snarky) world of Bete Noir clashing with the… well, dark dark dark (and snarky) world of Angel? Incredible. As it’s set during the TV show, there isn’t much development for Illyria, but we do get some wonderful flashbacks that serve to explain Illyria’s connection to plants. This was further paid off when Illyria got her own series, but we’ll get to that later.

Illyria big comic book development began with Brian Lynch's Spike: After the Fall. When Los Angeles was sent to hell, things got all crazy. With the sun and the moon out at the same time, vampires felt equal parts euphoria and oh-no-I’m-about-to-burst-into-flames; werewolves were able to get in touch with their beastly side while they were in human form; and, most extraordinarily, Spike got his own prequel. Illyria co-starred with him, and while the plot focused on Spike’s war against a hellishly cruel pixie named Non, the threat of Hell’s impact on Illyria bubbled under the surface. The demonic environment was tapping into her old power, forcing her to timeslip, overflow with emotion, and revert to her delicate Fred persona at the worst of times. What changed Illyria the most, however, was that Spike became her protector. She valued that and sought to keep his interests only on her; going as far as to kiss him to assert her ownership, embracing the sexuality of Fred to get what she wanted. The series also showed Illyria trying and failing to understand the position of a leader. Spike wanted to stop Non and defend the humans he was protecting. Illyria, trying to live up to the same standard, ended up killing Spike’s human friend Jeremy, thinking that “his absence will only strengthen (their) flock.” Illyria’s emotional imbalance boiled over during Angel: After the Fall, also penned by Brian Lynch, when she pulled a Dark Willow and sought to end all of existence to stop the suffering. It took a potent psychic dose of Wesley and Spike’s memories of Fred to bring Illyria down and stop her rampage.

Those memories served as a catalyst for the development that followed. She co-starred with Gunn in the road trip/action comic Angel: Only Human. Both of them, in order to deal with their own inner demons, fight literal demons. With Fred’s memories fresh in her head, Illyria is trying to find a balance between her demonic self and her undeniably human side. Wesley helped her on the way toward understanding that, and Spike took care of her when she needed it… but she took the biggest leap forward when she went out on her own.


Like Spike before her, Illyria’s story was just too big to be contained in the on-going Angel book. Long time Angel and Star Trek writer Scott Tipton teamed up with Mariah Huehner and Elena Casagrande (the former the writer/editor and the latter the artist of the on-going Angel book) to tell the best Illyria story ever told. While there are appearances from both Angel and Spike, Illyria is largely on her own in this four issue miniseries. After a conversation* and a bit of an adventure with Spike, Illyria discovers where she needs to go to get the answers to the questions that have been defining who she is since the Fall -- the Deeper Well.

(* That conversation, by the way, might be my favorite scene from all of the Angel comics. Illyria and Spike open up to each other in awkward, emotional, and brave ways that only those two characters can. Everything that was set up by Brian Lynch, Peter David, Scott Tipton, and Joss Whedon himself in these comics and the show is paid off and more by Tipton and Mariah in this scene. Speaking of her dreams, Illyria says:

ILLYRIA: There is one, it repeats. I can see them. Hear them. But from far away. Mundane things mattered so much to them And they shared a sense of… peace. Completion.

SPIKE: I know. You could feel it. I… I knew that feeling once. There’s nothing like it.

ILLYRIA: I… think it makes me jealous. Weak, just like every other human emotion.

SPIKE: You always get that wrong, blue. Love like that makes you stronger than anything. You can save the world with a love like that.


SPIKE: Never mind. We’re talking about you.

ILLYRIA: In my dream, they are… what they could have been. What they should have been. Without me. Their future spreads out before me, unfolding. So short and simple and yet… it is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.)

When Illyria arrives at the Deeper Well, she finds exactly what she didn’t know what she was looking for. After throwing a God-king sized tantrum at what she perceived to be the fruitlessness of the trip, a glowing blue gem catches her eye… and when she touches it, it transforms her. And that, to me, thematically echoes what Wesley said to her as he died in her arms. “It was good that you came.” It really isn't the where or the what of the transformation that matters. It's the why. It's the because. She's ready to find answers, to explore herself, to explore humanity; and the answer is there, waiting for her to reach out and grab it and become who she is supposed to be. And what she becomes… well, that’s sort of left up to the reader. I know what I think. I like what I think. But the text does somewhat leave it open to interpretation. Illyria says, “Such burning… I taste the other… Oh, it’s sweet, it’s… everything, always, forever… You and… him? I… we become. I have ended. I have begun.”

And with that, Illyria finds the one thing that she’s been trying to imitate since Wesley showed her what was acceptable and what was not. She has reason to fight; she feels the connection between humanity and herself. Between the Earth and herself. This new connection with the Earth—which is a brilliant bit of character development, as it seems to stem (HAR HAR HAR) both from her affinity for plants in the television series as well as the revelation of what plants mean to her in Fallen Angel: Reborn—helps her out quite a bit in the obligatory Big Bad battle that she faces in the final issue of the mini. She defeats this full powered Old One not with brute strength, but by embracing her connection with plants; with life.

At the end, after a brief and well-earned moment of connection with Spike, Illyria discovers that time and space has opened for her again. It ends with her and her new pet (a squidly beast named Pancakes) on a beach, about to do what she knows she needs to do. She says, “I am her ending. But she, and I, and him, and them… we matter. We lose, we love. And in doing so, we become.”

Powerful words, especially coming from Illyria. She has truly become a completely different character after the IDW comics, and looking at her entire arc is just phenomenal. What Brian did with her in After the Fall and the events of Illyria: Haunted particularly stand out. It was a great run, with an utterly outstanding ending.

The TPB of Scott Tipton, Mariah Huehner, and Elena Casagrande’s Illyria: Haunted comes out May 18th.

1 comment:

ryan said...

Actually alot of my fave scenes are with Illyria. Here are some highlights from me and definite must reads:

I agree completely that existential conversation with Spike in Illyria: Haunted #2 was definitely one of the best scenes of all Angel, if not Buffyverse comics.

Angel #30 "The Trouble with Felicia" where Illyria dislikes being compared to Fred and the others idealised her, but seeks Angel as a moral compass on the straight and narrow.

Illyria/Wesley Scene at the end of ATF #9 and the one in #14

Illyria/Gunn after Gunn wakes up after being KOed by her in "Become what you are" #23

The Illyria stuff in AFTER THE FALL #3

Illyria totally kicking ass and acting more "human" in AFTER THE FALL #16 after the reset.

An important moment in Spike #4 when the Sadecki Demon confirms there is nothing but Illyria in her shell and no Fred.