REVIEW: Angel – After The Fall # 1 – 4

angel00.jpgPLOT: JOSS WHEDON & BRIAN LYNCH

WRITER: BRIAN LYNCH

PENCILS: FRANK URRU

PUBLISHER: IDW

Those of you who read my previous Buffy review won’t be at all surprised to learn that it is my favourite-ever TV show. Right up alongside it, however, was its spin-off series, Angel. It has different strengths, though still clearly of the same genre and with a variety of overlapping characters – both were superbly written and brilliantly acted, but where Buffy was innovative, constantly trying to push the boundaries, Angel was… well, Angel was high action and adventure all the way, albeit often as dark and broody as the central character himself, the vampire with a soul.

angel200b.jpgOn a personal note, one other key difference was my reaction to the ending of these series in one medium, and their eventual continuation in comic book form: I always felt that the ending to ‘Buffy’, while appropriate, opened the doors to many new stories, and so I was delighted when Joss and Dark Horse brought us Season 8; I did think, however, that the final episodes of ‘Angel’ were so absolutely perfect, so true to everything that had come before, such a natural evolution of the characters… that, well, I almost didn’t want it to continue. It really did seem like the end – most of the team were dead or mortally wounded, and Angel was ready to take the final stand, fully accepting this as his fate for all the decisions –rightly or wrongly – that he has made in his very long life. Because of this, I decided against buying the new Angel series from IDW.

a0300a.jpgHowever, being the solid (though sadly unpaid) professional that I am, when I was asked to review the first 4 issues of Angel Season 6, I thought I’d have a look and see what I could have won…

So, where does Angel Investigations (aka Wolfram & Hart’s worst lawyers) go from that apocalyptic final scene of Season 5, battered and beaten, facing down the demon hordes of hell? Uh, well… the apocalypse, that’s where. So W&H’s punishment for disobedience has been to send LA to hell (obviously no one told them the writers strike has now ended!) But somehow, Angel is still fighting. And he has tamed a dragon.

a0300b.jpg#1 starts pretty much as you’d expect it to – Angel is saving humans from a demon attack. It is only when he returns to the Wolfram offices that twists start to turn. Now, it was pretty darn obvious that most of Angel’s supporting cast was going to put in an appearance one way or another, despite their near-death status; the real questions of interest for the first few chapters was always going to be how. The first reveal is great – Wesley (one of Whedon’s best developed characters) is back, but he’s still dead, and apparently working-almost-in-the-service-of the devil’s law firm. This poses all sorts of questions and potential future issues. But wait, we’re not done there. By the time we reach the end of #4… well, of course Connor is still there in the mix, and he’s continuing to fight the good fight with Season 4 and 5 alums Nina and Gwen; Spike was too popular not to be at least close to sharing centre-stage with Angel, though his team-up with Illyria poses yet more questions. But perhaps the most interesting survivor of all was Charles Gunn, who appeared to be out for the count in the alleyway facing off against the demons of Wolfram &Hart. Gunn’s character seemed to fare the worst under Angel’s tutelage, making all the wrong choices despite having the heart of a hero. Now, it appears that he is back to his demon-hunting-gang roots, but with an unexpected edge of aggression and simmering discontent. All is clearly not as it seems… and by the end of #3, we know why.

angel04.jpgBut Gunn and Wesley aren’t the only members of Team Angel to undergo changes; Angel wouldn’t be Angel without having to face the hordes of hell without at least one more handicap. And this one’s a doozy.

By the end of #4, yet more of the supporting cast are thrown into the mix. Lorne is apparently now Lord of Silver Lake, which appears to be some kind of fantastical haven for all sorts of creatures. And he has a secret weapon for Angel – yet another of the returning team, whose rather surprising appearance is summed up so nicely by Wesley: “Must admit. Didn’t see this coming.”

a0310.jpgSo, the stage is set – we know the basics of why and how the central characters are still in play, but there is plenty of mystery there that leaves much to be explained – not only in terms of back-story, but also with regards to the way in which this new dynamic will play out, when the inevitable time comes for the team to re-unite – or fight to the death. Angel is, true to form, fed up with the current situation, and decides now is the time to end this, one way or another – by challenging all the ‘Lords’ of hell to a fight to the death for the future of Los Angeles.

angel14.jpgI really don’t want to spend this review comparing this book to either a) the TV series, or b) the Buffy book currently published over at Dark Horse, as it really does deserve to be treated as a creative piece in its own right. However, I may as well get one out of the way right here. This is not written by Joss Whedon, though he does have an ‘executive producer’ tag as well as a co-plot credit – and it is no surprise that he won’t let his babies out to play without at least some sort of watching brief over their activities. The main writing duties go to Brian Lynch. One of his hardest decisions when taking this on must have been whether to try to replicate the Joss style and follow the template that most fans would expect, or to stamp his own style an agenda onto proceedings. As it stands, he does quite an impressive job of balancing both; clearly a fan, Lynch has an excellent handle over the ‘Whedon-isms’ that inhabit this Los Angeles, but the tone he establishes for these characters rings too true to be the work of a pure imitator. There are the expected great lines of dialogue, which as usual can’t be done justice here simply by quotation; situation and circumstance are everything.

angel-after-the-fall-02-of-12-020.jpgLynch has Angel’s ‘voice’ down perfectly; he is brooding, stoic, secretive, but witty and punchy at the same time, The wordplay between speech and thought is particularly effective in portraying the torn, guilt-ridden but tenacious soul that he always will be. While all the heroes are assembled, Lynch is careful to display the weaknesses as well as the great strengths that each possesses, and none more so than Gunn and Spike – the latter always wanting to be a hero, yet not quite knowing the right way to accomplish it.

While this feels like an Angel story – the set-up is there for the essential character studies as the usual suspects are revealed, each having their own ‘demons’ to deal with, and many of the loose ends are brought together, if not tightly tied – the pacing is a little off; Issues 1 & 2 get the ball rolling nicely, but since that point things have moved too quickly, creating the feeling that the book is simply rounding up the troops rather than forging ahead to deal with this new and rather extreme situation. In just these first four issues, so many of the supporting cast have put in an appearance, and I just can’t help but feel some of these re-introductions could have been saved for later issues; the main area of interest is, as it should be, how the changes these characters have undergone will play out, but for now there is just a sense that Lynch has tried to do too much, too soon.

angel-after-the-fall-02-of-12-012.jpgThe artistic brief is handled by Frank Urru – a new name to me, though I know that he has worked in the Angel franchise for IDW before. Prior to reading this series to date, I had heard a lot of negative comments about his depictions of the Angel cast, as well as the occasional lack of detail. For me, these comments are for the most part unfair. For one, art should not be about creating perfect portraits of characters, whether they have previously appeared on television or not; it should be about impression and interpretation. Urru captures the essence of all our heroes so far, impressively conveying their state of mind, if not providing picture-perfect portraits. He also succeeds (in conjunction with colourist Jason Jensen) in creating a lush but apocalyptic backdrop in which the action is played out. Yes, this is far from a photo-realistic style, utilising more of a wash effect than a fine pencil. The action isn’t always as crisp and clear as it could be, and over the course of these few issues the quality dips a little every now and again, but there is a distinctive style at work here, and I’d far rather see this in a comic book than any trace-by-numbers affair. The landscape has a powerful demonic aura to it too, without forcing the point home too strongly.

a15.jpgIn fact, Lynch and Urru dovetail impressively to create their version of LA as hell. This is of course a concept played on many times before, but in their hands it doesn’t look old. Urru captures the humidity and oppression nicely, while Lynch adds some nice little touches – like the moon ad the sun being out together, playing havoc with the habits of werewolves and vampires – that just keep you on your toes.

Overall, this is a pleasant surprise. There is still a significant part of me that wishes Season 5 had remained the definitive end point for Angel Investigations; but if the mythology is to continue (especially without Whedon directly at the helm) then this is a strong start. I just hope the best is yet to come.

RATING: 7/10

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