Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Saga Continues After The Coda: Angel: After The Fall Volume 1 - A Rocky Reboot

The Good: Intriguing story elements, Decent pace of dialogue, Worthwhile "bonus" features
The Bad: Artwork is mediocre and erratic, Very much a setup story
The Basics: A good anthology of five comic books, Angel: After The Fall Volume 1 continues the story of Angel and his friends as they fight to survive in L.A.-turned-Hell.

I completely get where Brian Lynch, the co-writer (he's credited as the "scripter") of Angel: After The Fall is coming from with his aching to see episodes of Angel resolved over month long breaks between Joss Whedon Moments when the television series was on. I was a bit of a fan of Angel (reviewed here!) and recently I have been noticing how very many films are relying on graphic novels for source material. Figuring it is time to get on that bandwagon, I decided to start picking up a few graphic novels, just to see what the fuss was about. I started with Angel: After The Fall, Volume 1. Technically an omnibus of the first five comic books in the Angel: After The Fall series, "Volume 1" is half a collection of comic books establishing the new world order of the Angel half of the "Buffyverse."

For starters, it is worth noting that it is impossible to discuss After The Fall without mentioning how the final episode of Angel ended and as a result, those who have not seen the television show might not want to continue if they like the surprises that come from wonderful television. Angel: After The Fall is an incredibly insular work, designed to please long-standing fans of the television series Angel. As a result, it makes a number of very specific allusions to characters in that universe without any explanation. Casual fans, yeah, they're pretty much screwed, too, with characters who popped up for only a few episodes, like Gwen and Nina, being presented in the same straightforward "they've always been here" type way as new characters, like Spider and George (who apparently were in other comic books, featuring Spike). But for fans of Angel, this is a gift.

A few months after the Senior Partners descended upon Los Angeles as the result of his actions in "Not Fade Away," Los Angeles is literally in Hell. Demons and hellbeasts have taken over Los Angeles and divided it up amongst themselves like Chicago mobsters in the 1920s. Angel's crew has been divided and most of the humans who have not evacuated are enslaved to one of the local lords. Angel kills the son of one of the powerful lords, sparking a war between him and all of the demonic entities that now own Los Angeles.

Aided by the ghost of Wesley, Angel challenges the local demons to a battle for control of the city. Readying to fight a champion of each of the lords, Angel works to hide a secret of his own while marshaling allies. Through his quest to attempt to survive his impending battle, he encounters Spike and Illyria, Gwen and Nina, Lorne and his son, Connor. He also studiously avoids the one human he could not save: Gunn, who is now a vampire.

Half of the graphic novel is the collection of comic books, followed by several pages of original artwork - probably covers from the comics this story was taken from, there are credits for the illustrators but not the source! -, the original pitch for the first few issues of After The Fall and the original script for the first chapter (issue) with notes in the sidebar. Some of the changes that are made are smart ones (like not calling the humans "monkeys," especially in the Gunn-related subplots) and others are "take-it or leave-it" type things. Lynch, like everyone who provides a commentary track on any of the Buffy or Angel DVDs is entirely deferential to Joss Whedon. I'm not saying that Joss Whedon is not talented or even ridiculously smart, but he does seem to surround himself with people who want to play in his universe, but completely turn to jelly whenever he offers a suggestion. Lynch, like other writers and producers working with Whedon, writes about changes Whedon suggested and how they were all so much better than what he (Lynch) had originally conceived. I suppose it would be nice to read something either that Whedon bothered to do on his own (hey, if you want to run your universe, run your universe! Cut out the middle men!) or with people who had enough spine and vision to rival his works such that when they had an idea, they stuck by it long enough to say "Joss had this idea and it was good, but here's my better idea and I convinced Joss of it, so here it is." Instead, much of the commentary track in the sidebars for the script to the first issue reads as sycophantic drivel; yet another writer bowing at the Whedon altar (and before the flames: I own all of the Angel DVDs, Firefly and Serenity, so it's not like I don't appreciate Whedon's works).

The Whedon/Lynch vision of Angel: After The Fall is a decent one on a number of levels. The dialogue - especially the mumbled asides - continues the pace and banter of the television show, making it exceptionally easy to slip back into this corner of the "Buffyverse." Angel's trip around the shattered Los Angeles is more than simply a chance to reunite with his scattered comrades and friends; the journey itself tells a story. This might well be because much of it happens on the back of the dragon. Yes, the dragon that Angel was psyched to slay in the final moments of the series is now his mount and he flies around the hellish vision of Los Angeles on it to survey the damage and illustrate just how hellish this portion of the world has become.

The problem, though, is that there are far too many aspects that are unclear, usually as a result of the artwork. First, and this might sound completely lame knowing that the Earth still (presumably) turns, but the point is made that both the sun and moon and moon are out, side by side 24/7. I can live with that - it leaves the werewolves trapped between forms and the vampires irritable because they are able to walk around, yet constantly feel like they'll ignite - but in the artwork, there are vastly different senses of lighting based on the location. So, for example, Downtown L.A., where Burge takes on Angel and Angel kills his son, is lit completely different than Lorne's sanctuary of Silver Lake and Spike's mansion of vigilantes. In fact, the only places that seem pretty much consistent at Burge's territory and Connor's.

The characters are drawn erratically, but in general the artwork in After The Fall is substandard save one or two panels per chapter. Sad to say, but there is a distinct lack of shading and detail and much of the book has the feel of being rushed to press as opposed to producing the best possible artwork. Angel is recognizable, as is Wesley, but Lorne is basically the green blob in a yellow suit in wide shots, Connor is almost indistinguishable and every background character looks like the comic school graduate equivalent of stick figures. Nina the werewolf (minor character from Season Five) reappears and she is saved by the fact that without checking out the source material, it's easy to forget what she looked like. Similarly, the electric Gwen looks almost identical to Cordelia in After The Fall, but to be fair the actress who played her in the series looked a lot like Charisma Carpenter, who played Cordelia. But most of the characters are given a decent panel of establishing before they are reduced to far less detailed depictions of the characters.

As far as the characters go, this book is very much a setup for what comes later. At $24.95 (hardcover), it's a tough sell (it is essentially a single episode) because this is more or less a big "where are they now" issue and one has to wonder what happens if the Buffy half of the "Buffyverse" continues into a "Season Nine" in the comic books. After all, are we truly to believe that after eight years of fighting evil in all forms, when hell comes to Los Angeles, the Slayers wouldn't get involved to come in and try to fix it?!

Angel is well-presented and the secret that he is maintaining is an interesting one that makes one want to see what comes next, there is no arguing with that. It's a clever idea and I shall not ruin it here. Sufficed to say it is better than Wesley being a ghost in the service of Wolfram And Hart and on par with Gunn being turned. Angel is consistent in his moodiness and his desire to do right, making After The Fall read very true in its presentation.

A bit more problematic is Gunn. I like the idea of Gunn as a vampire, don't get me wrong. But there is a savage quality to Gunn in these pages that does not jive with anything that comes organically from the fifth season Gunn. In other words, Gunn goes from being a brainy, powerful, intellectual lawyer to a vampire fighting - supposedly - for good based on willpower alone. But it seems he is driven far more by anger that fits his earliest characterization as opposed to anything he evolved into. Moreover, there is a distinct lack of explanation for how Angel let Gunn get to his current form. I get that in the Big Battle, Gunn entered wounded and would be easy pickin's for a vampire, but how Angel did not track Gunn down and try to save him after he healed . . . that doesn't ring true for either character. Moreover, if the fundamental question I always ask about Buffyverse vampires is not addressed in the next volume (two, tops) I'll consider it a loss: if vampires can be somewhat nullified by having their soul returned, why didn't Angel use the extensive resources of Wolfram and Hart to re-ensoul Gunn? I mean, Gunn an angry vampire is mildly entertaining, Gunn the headstrong, lawyerly, passionate about humanity yet-tortured-by-having-to-feed-off humans vampire would be real interesting.

Connor is, as noted in the notes, surprisingly well-adjusted, possibly because he grew up in Hell anyway. Spike's arc is interesting and when he comes into the story with Illyria, the book becomes much more intriguing. And it is leading to something . . .

. . . but it won't ruin the end to say that we don't get it in this book. It's the first few chapters of a new Angel story. It's not great literature, but it passes the time and it is something quite likely to satisfy fans of Angel, making it essential for Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel fans. But for general readers, there is far too much that is specific and unexplained in this book from the television series to be enjoyable, much less comprehensible. And yes, unlike what I've heard of the very best graphic novels, this book is very . . . comic book-y.

For other graphic novels with Angel, please visit my reviews of:
Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Twilight
Angel: Not Fade Away
Spike: Lost & Found


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

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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