Thursday, November 17, 2011

Not As Much Fun As I'd Hoped, Spike: Shadow Puppets Falls Flatter Than Expected.

The Good: Funny, Interesting story, Moments of character, Bonus feature.
The Bad: Nebulous time frame, Moments where Spike does not sound right, Expensive for what it is.
The Basics: Fun, but hardly consequential or as deep on character as most fans might like, Spike: Shadow Puppets is a decent Spike and Lorne story.

In today's jargon, "graphic novel" seems to be a catch-all term for "trade paperback anthology." There are very few graphic novels that I have found; comics that are released at a novel-length telling a single story and released in only that form because it was the intended medium all along. Far more frequently, "graphic novels" are anthologies of previously released comic books that make for nicer bookshelf storage and presentation. Personally, I think that "graphic novel" is used as a way to disguise the basic fact that what one is reading are comic books.

That said, I have been reading a lot of trade paperback anthologies lately, largely because the "graphic novel" medium is quickly becoming the preferred method of finding fodder for upcoming films. And there are some real benefits to the trade paperback anthology medium. They have allowed, for example, companies like IDW to make movie tie-ins that are easy to find, read and appreciate, like the Star Trek: Countdown (reviewed here!) and Terminator Salvation Prequel books. In the Whedonverse, trade paperback anthologies have allowed for the continuation of cancelled television series, like the Angel: After The Fall and Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Season Eight books. At least as important, these IDW trade paperback anthologies allow for viable comic book series' based on characters in the franchise who might be vastly popular, but have never been able to hold their own television series, like Spike. A few days ago, I read Spike: Lost & Found and was unimpressed. I am following that experience up with Spike: Shadow Puppets, which is very much a series intended for fans of Spike and Angel. A sequel to arguably one of the most controversial - as in fans either loved it or hated it with little in between - Shadow Puppets allows readers to explore a sequel to "Smile Time," from the fifth season of Angel (reviewed here!).

Happy on his own after years of fighting alongside other champions, Spike is doing freelance work as his own investigator in Los Angeles. As a demon begins hunting him down for an unspecified debt, Spike is brought a case by Lorne. It appears that Smile Time has rebooted in Japan and Marco and his team of demon puppets have begun to raise an army to enslave and brain drain children worldwide from their Japanese headquarters. So, armed with weapons and assistance from Beck, Tok, and Betta George, Spike and Lorne begin to negotiate Japan to find out how and what Smile Time is up to there.

As Tok and Spike verbally spar and raid the Smile Time studios, Marco and the Smile Time villains have a different plan. They need Spike out of the way and when their puppet ninja army fails, they do to Spike, Lorne and Betta George what they did to Angel . . . and the three heroes find themselves as wee little puppets who are all that stand between peace and harmony and a slew of dead children!

Spike: Shadow Puppets is a good little adventure, but it is very much intended for fans of Angel and Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Spike, but not anyone who does not know who Spike is or did not see the original Angel episode, "Smile Time." In other words, this is hardly accessible to those who are not already fans and as a result, it is little more than canonized fanfic. The purpose of Spike: Shadow Puppets is not to get new readers or say something that is a big, amazing statement on the human condition. Instead, the whole point of this is to entertain those biased towards it. It does that well.

Ironically, though, for something intended for the fans, Spike: Shadow Puppets is remarkably accessible. Occurring four months after Spike: Asylum, Shadow Puppets tells a story that is very easy for those who have not read Asylum to get into, as far as characterizations and such. In other words, enough is explained about Beck and Tok to justify their places in the story and not leave readers confused. However, fans who are sticklers for details will find the nebulous time frame of Shadow Puppets to be annoying. Shadow Puppets happens after "Smile Time" by an undefined time factor. Here, though, it is irritating to try to reason the book; Angel: After The Fall is essentially Angel Season Six. Spike is in that, as is Betta George. But given that Spike has been working on his own for a while at this point, it implies that it comes from a time after Angel: After The Fall, which Spike has not (yet) departed from. And despite published comments by writer Brian Lynch, having an idea of where in the timeline a story fits in is part of writing the best possible Spike story.

It is that nebulous timeframe that weakens the story because, amidst being a fun and slightly ridiculous sequel, Shadow Puppets is intended to be a character study and a journey of the Spike character to a place where he actually learns something. Herein Spike has some serious problems in Shadow Puppets. Spike is portrayed as a badass who resists any opportunity to appear more human or humane. So, for example, on page 64, Spike counsels Lorne and the dialogue does not read like Spike at all. At least, it does not read like Spike from Angel or late-series Buffy The Vampire Slayer. The result is a comic that has more comic book properties than it does genuine character pathos that mature readers actually want.

Still, Shadow Puppets is fun and in the final act, the appearance of several puppetized characters from Spike's life are both amusing and relevant. Herein the artwork has the only problems of the entire book; the Puppet Drusilla looks far too much like Tok and pages like 78 and 79 are visually confusing. By that point, as well, the book has mostly degenerated into a series of in-jokes as opposed to substance and the ultimate plan of Marco and the Smile Time puppets is realized.

The opportunity to write a sequel to “Smile Time" for Spike seems like fun and Shadow Puppets does a good job, at least with the materials Brian Lynch was handed. Lynch smartly made sure that this is not simply a rehash of "Smile Time" with Spike as the protagonist. Instead, the premise is set up with Spike mercilessly mocking Angel for the adventure where he was transformed into a puppet . . . only to be turned into one himself. This works perfectly fine as far as the plausibility goes because it is unlikely Spike and Angel had had much of a conversation about the "how" of the transformation following that episode.

But Lynch's real insight for making an interesting story comes in the transformation of Lorne into a puppet as well and the issues Lorne wrestles with there. Betta George's transformation has little impact on the story, but Lorne's gives Lorne and Spike a chance to bond, something they did not have a chance to do on the Angel television series. And Lynch hits both characters well, packing a scene with a real sense of Lorne's character . . . before too brusquely blowing it off with Spike's dialogue.

In general, Franco Urru's illustrations are well-done and enough to clearly differentiate the characters. Very few of the panels are simplified and cartoonish - though the book does have panels like that on 36 and 41. For half the book, the challenge is to make a plausible Lorne and Spike puppet image and still maintain a sense of realistic physics and form to them. Urru does that adequately throughout the book and Shadow Puppets is a brightly colored, exciting book that most fans will enjoy.

Those same fans are likely to appreciate the "commentary track" at the end of the book, a series of page by page notes on various in-jokes, allusions and references to other Buffyverse works. The comments are useful to those who might not have seen "Smile Time" or read Spike: Asylum, and they genuinely do enhance the sense of the book as a serious work.

For the most part, though, Spike: Shadow Puppets is not serious. It is fun and it has some decent moments to excite "Spike" readers, but it adds little to the overall mythos of Spike . . . except when it does. Spike: Shadow Puppets has a decent theme, but attentive viewers of the series that Spike was on are likely to feel he had already reached the conclusion that this book is supposed to get him to. Still, it is a fun story and the sheer number of allusions and ideas are likely to make fans of the deceased Buffyverse series' return for one more felty outing. On that level, it is just fun enough to recommend, even with the $17.99 price tag.

For other Joss Whedon graphic novels, please visit my reviews of:
Angel: Not Fade Away
Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Twilight
Serenity: Better Days And Other Stories


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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