Pop Culture Gadabout
Sunday, March 09, 2008
      ( 3/09/2008 01:16:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"WHY DOES THIS STUFF ALWAYS HAVE TO SOUND LIKE THERE SHOULD BE BLOODY HOBBITS SINGIN' IT?" After maintaining the same creative teams on their first two graphic novels, the editors at IDW decided to share the wealth with their third Angel series, Spotlight. A graphic anthology collecting five issues showcasing different secondary characters from the Mutant Enemy teleseries, each entry features a different writer and artist combo. The results are predictably variable.

The two strongest entries play off of what is arguably the original teleseries' most affectingly tragic storyline: the death of girl genius Winifred "Fred" Burkle, whose mind and soul gets devoured by a primordial demon named Illyria. Though reliant on the reader's knowledge of the original series for part of their ironic impact, both "Illyria" (written by Peter David & illustrated by Nicola Scott) and "Wesley" (Scott Tipton & Mike Norton) also work as their own little self-contained tales. "Illyria" opens the set up with a nice wallop: a scene where a brutal killer named Alex Rich shockingly disrupts a mother s courtroom speech. As written by David, this works as a variation on one of the Buffy/Angel staples - the moment where a character's high-flown monologue gets cut off mid-sentence - and quickly establishes just how reprehensible our story villain is. A neat bit.

The underlying plot of "Illyria" hearkens back to a subplot featured in the teleseries' final season: Illyria's curiosity about the humanity she's subsumed in Fred's body. Commissioned to deliver the killer to some Wolfram & Hart clients, the demon first quizzes him as to whether he felt any regrets for the acts he has committed. It's the capacity to feel remorse, Fred's ex-love Wesley asserts, which makes us human - but, if this is so, where does that place pure sociopaths like Rich?

Wesley Wyndham-Pryce gets to test the levels of his own humanity in his own one-shot, which is set before Winifred's destruction. Centered on Wes' attempts to save the life of Knox, the man we know will ultimately sacrifice Fred to the Lovecraftian Old Ones, the story ups our protagonist's moral quandaries by emphasizing Knox's role as Wes' romantic rival. To emphasize this point, the vampire Spike (at this point in the series continuity, an incorporeal apparition) serves as a nattering chorus, encouraging Wesley to not do anything. "We both know he's an annoying little wanker," Spike says, but we also know that Wes'll do the right thing - even though this will ultimately have dire consequences for the woman he loves.

More than any of Spotlight's other scripters, Mike Tipton does a slick job recalling the snaky legal world that part of the teleseries. It's a world where duplicitous shysters send their opponents a "blood subpoena," a spell designed to kill the lead opposing lawyer on a hopeless case so they can drag it out and get a continuance. "Why do you think there's never anyone manning the front reception desk?" vampire gal Friday Harmony notes, forcing this reader to try and recall whether he even saw a front reception desk on the old TV show.

The three remaining entries - "Gunn" (Dan Jolley & Mark Pennington), "Doyle" (Jeff Mariotte & David Messina), and "Connor" (Jay Faerber & Bob Gill) - prove less memorable, in part because the characters themselves give the writers less to work with. (For many Angel fans, myself included, the petulantly adolescent Connor is an irritation more than an engaging character.) Even Jolley, who's demonstrated an engaging ability to make second-stringers amusing in the Marvel Universe, seems at a loss with Gunn, the urban monster slayer, while Mariotte, who scripted the first two Angel GNs, does even less with a character who couldn't even make it to the end of the series' first season. If this collection was a "giant-sized" floppy comics anthology, all three of these pieces would be much shorter back-up features.

Spotlight's five artists are generally up to the task of efficiently delivering the storytelling goods, though Pennington comes dangerously close toward injecting his own visual personality into the proceedings. Perhaps the only minor character to not fare well in these tales is airhead vampiress Harmony, barely recognizable in her two small cameos. The most consistently expressive character renderings, to these eyes, come from Mike Norton's depiction of a tight-lipped Wesley.

The next volume in IDW's series of Angel trades, Auld Lang Syne, returns to the fuller graphic novel format and once more gives its title lead story prominence. The problem is the story - vampires Angel and Spike are visited and tormented by figures from their past - is one that we've already read in Old Friends. Why scripter Scott Tipton would choose to revisit this storyline so early in the comic series' history is a mystery. Perhaps the company already had his script on file?

We even get a replay of an Angel and Spike street fight, made mildly more interesting by shifting artists for the space of a chapter from the familiar Messina to a more calculatedly raw-lined artist named Elena Casagrande. The shift is smoothly managed, but it's the only surprising thing about this GN. If Auld Lang Syne had been published ahead of Old Friends (even the titles echo each other), things might've been different.

But for most fans, I suspect, IDW's fourth graphic novel has mainly served as a mildly diverting placeholder until the "sixth season" comic book mini-series commenced.
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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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