Sunday, November 20, 2011

The End Of The Interesting Angel Twist, Angel: After The Fall 4 Concludes L.A. In Hell!

The Good: Generally well-written, Decent characterizations, Nice "bonus features."
The Bad: Stands alone poorly, Erratic artwork, Predictable/confused resolution
The Basics: More a "necessary evil" to resolve the conflicts that began in After The Fall, Angel: After The Fall Volume 4 concludes the arc of Los Angeles in hell with mediocrity.

I get tired of gimmicks, especially when they reduce things I enjoy to something less-than what they ought to be. I was far too young for the obsession with Dallas that culminated in the infamous "Patrick Duffy Shower Scene." For those unfamiliar with this, after a point, Dallas went off in such a direction that was so wildly unpopular with viewers - they lost a huge percentage of their viewers - that they had to do something to restore the show to greatness. This takes the form of a character walking into her bathroom and seeing her dead husband showering and the revelation that the entire season or so had simply been a bad dream of hers. The series rebooted and went on capitalizing again on the popular format that had made "Dallas" a phenomenon to begin with. With the de facto sixth season of Angel being presented in graphic novels, the feeling that it is moving toward a similar "easy answer" solution became obvious near the climax of the previous "episode."

And for those too dense to realize that a gimmick like a Patrick Duffy Shower Scene is coming before they sit down to Angel: After The Fall Volume 4, they get there pretty quick given that Spike is killed within the first ten pages of the book. And before my readers complain that I am giving far too much away, while Spike is killed early in this volume, he reappears within ten pages and the gimmick becomes pretty apparent.

For those not familiar with the Angel: After The Fall plotline, don't bother; this volume is the conclusion to an entire arch that has a brief recap at the beginning, then plunges the reader into the final chapters. Set after the conclusion of the fifth season of Angel (reviewed here!), After The Fall teleports Los Angeles into Hell (literally) following the battle in the alley that began in the final moments of the fifth season finale. All of the major characters - and several of the recurring minor ones - have had arcs which have brought them each to this concluding volume. This is intended to be a wrap-up to that entire plotline, not a standalone, so the character dynamics and events are not recapped sufficiently for those looking to this volume for a single Angel experience. That said, given how deep Joss Whedon and Brian Lynch had dug the heroic Angel and his friends into this plotline, "Volume 4" is pretty much the only way the writers could go.

As the mortal Angel nears death and meets with Cordelia, he watches as Wolfram & Hart sends an onslaught of evil creatures into Los Angeles in order to try to keep Angel alive. Angel, realizing that he - and not his alter-ego Angelus - is fated to tip the balance of good and evil toward an ultimate victory for evil, resigns himself to death. Gwen sacrifices herself to save Connor, but her sacrifice is soon in vain as Angel witnesses Gunn slay Connor. This brings Angel back into the fray and Angel soon realizes that the key to restoring everything to its rightful place is by him dying in the Hell dimension, which would cause Wolfram & Hart - who has exhausted its resources - to transport Los Angeles and Angel back out of Hell to the last moment Angel was intact . . . back in the alleyway.

While Angel wrestles with his own mortality, Spike rescues the Slayers, who promptly kill him in Gunn's basement. There, Spike discovers a five minute time loop and Gunn hunts Illyria, transforms her back into Fred and promptly kills her. With Angel resurrecting, Gunn takes Illyria to an altar he has made where Illyria resurrects in her natural form and Angel's team suits up to use Illyria's time shifting nature to restore everything to the way it ought to have been.

Using Illyria, Angel succeeds in his Patrick Duffy Shower Moment and the reader is brought back to the alleyway where Angel has a chance to change time and existence. Unfortunately, the resolution is both confused and unsatisfying. Unable to save Wesley - he died well before the battle in the alley - Angel manages to prevent Gunn from being vamped and with the aid of his friends, he apparently prevents the overthrow of Los Angeles by hellspawn.

The problem here is not that everyone - including the characters who died in the After The Fall arc - are alive and can remember all that they went through in Hell or even that Angel is promoted to celebrity as a result of people recalling the hell experience, but rather the disappearance of Wolfram & Hart in Los Angeles. Outside Angel and his circle, no one remembers Wolfram & Hart having a building in Los Angeles. It appears to have never existed. But if Wolfram & Hart did not exist in Los Angeles, how much of Angel (the television series) is nullified? Connor could not exist - which he does in the final moments of this book -, Cordelia might not have ascended and frankly most of the conflicts in Angel would not exist (and Fred would still be alive!). The inclusion of this concept muddies the entire rest of the book and the final chapter - there are five in this hardcover anthology - is deeply unsatisfying for fans of Angel.

On the character front, Lynch and Whedon make good use of the characters from the comic embodiment of Angel as Illyria becomes something that would have been a cost-prohibitive special effect when Betta George begins to thrust Spike and Wesley's memories into her (it?s) head. Betta George is a telekinetic fish Lynch developed who has become more and more an influence in the continuing comic book sagas in the Angel and "Spike" stories. The idea that Spike and Betta George team up as part of the resolution works (with the reboot of the timeline, this also makes it possible that Spike: Shadow Puppets - reviewed here! - occurs sometime in the "sixth season" of Angel) and if they spin off away from Angel, that might be for the best.

Indeed, despite my love of Angel - I preferred it to Buffy The Vampire Slayer - this seems like an appropriate point to bury the series. Angel is left on his own, though Gunn is restored and deeply wounded at the climax of this volume. But what is Angel without Wesley, Cordelia and Fred? With Spike and Betta George on its own, is there truly enough to sustain a series with Angel, Gunn, and Lorne - and Illyria if she pops back up? This is a tough sell, even for a fan.

Within Angel: After The Fall Volume 4 there are similar bits that are tough for readers and fans to reconcile. First is the radical shifts in artwork. Stephen Mooney pencils for the first two chapters and presents such ridiculous visual notions as jet fighter dragons. Yes, Volume 4 finds Angel and his team besieged by beings that have the head and wings of a dragon and the hindquarters of a jet fighter. If this sounds ridiculous, well, you've guessed how it looks. Unfortunately, Mooney's artwork is tremendously variable and Franco Urru's return for the last half of the volume is a certainly welcome thing.

Also unfathomable is how Groo gets the best line of the book - something about a word-a-day calendar that is very much the voice of the Whedonverse. Outside the single line from one of the least popular recurring characters in Angel, the book lacks much of the "sound" of the series and the dialogue is plot-heavy exposition rather than the characters truly struggling.

Even so, there are a few moments of real emotion in the book. The oft-tormented Angel is compelled to watch his son die and his reaction is wonderfully realistic. But given how bloody the book is, it is disappointing for many readers how much is actually glossed over as far as the emotions of the circumstance. Still, Whedon and Lynch overemphasize the emotions of Spike for Fred and this is troubling as it seems to be much more in the books than it ever was in the television series. More problematic is that if Angel reboots to the end of the series - this volume ends a month after that - we have to ask "what is the point?"

Does Angel keeping Los Angeles from falling into Hell and becoming a celebrity truly point him away from tipping the balance toward evil in the future? It's hard to care because at the end of the series and now here at the climax of four (or five) books, Angel and Angel have ended up right back where they began.

On the plus side, this volume does have neat "bonus features." To make the hardcover anthology of the five comic books more palatable to fans, Whedon and Urru and IDW Publishing include the original cover art for the five chapters, as well as the original outline for the first "After The Fall" storyline. These are nice and push this otherwise mediocre adventure up into "recommend" territory, but it is closer than I (as an Angel fan) would have liked.

For other Angel graphic novels leading up to and including the After The Fall series, please visit my reviews of:
Smile Time
Not Fade Away
After The Fall Volume 1
After The Fall Volume 2 First Night
Spike: After The Fall
After The Fall Volume 3


For other book reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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