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WILLOW #2 Review

Sometimes it takes a little time to settle into character. It seemed like Willow was coming off a tad too much action hero in the opener but, in this issue, we get a kinder and gentler Willow. We get our Willow! But, of course, we never lost her. We just needed more time to get a better look at where she’s been and where’s she’s going. Brian Ching’s artwork is spectacular. His style gives you the most energetic Willow we’ve seen so far. At first, that seemed too energetic but it appears that we’re seeing some softening of the edges from the first issue. Look for yourself and you’ll see. I mean, I was right to see a Laura Croft thing going gone. Ching has drawn “Tomb Raider” comics for Image so there you go. Anyway, you can see it as a refreshing change of pace and, for the rest of the issue’s look, hands down, Ching delivers on the “Wonderland” theme.

We start off this issue of Jeff Parker’s script with a larger-than-life, larger-than-football-stadium, creature, all teeth and multi-colored, ready to chomp down on Willow and her demon sidekick, Marrak. Since Willow is now in this new magical realm, her magic mojo is running smoothly. The girl can let fly with casting one spell after another. There’s always the danger that things could still go terribly wrong, but Willow manages to do what she needs to do in confronting this Hyberrax creature.

Willow seems to be on quite a lucky streak in this issue as she coasts through the magical, and quite beautiful, new realm she’s in. This issue is a showcase for Brian Ching’s pencils, Jason Gorder’s inks, as well as Dark Horse mainstay colorist, Michelle Madsen.

Jeff Parker’s script builds its way to something significant in this issue. It has to do with our problem about no magic back on planet Earth. As for the plot, it feels like a few pieces on the ole chessboard have been moved so we’ll have to wait and see how much further along we can get in forthcoming issues. The character development is coming along nicely. Willow feels like she’s rolling right along as she should, given her mighty quest for magic and all the pitfalls that lie ahead.

Willow #2 is out December 5. Visit our friends at Dark Horse Comics.

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“Angel and Faith #16” starts the new four-part arc, “Death and Consequences.” There’s a scene early on that bodes well, in its lightheartedness, for this new story by Christos Gage: Angel has just lobbed a bomb at a big ugly demon when he yells out, “Fire in the whole!” Faith just looks at him, the two are at a safe distance and can afford a quick little quip between them. “I always thought that sounded dirty,” she says, “Seriously, if I worked demolitions, I’d be giggling like a twelve-year-old every time I said it.” Angel doesn’t miss a beat and replies, “If you worked demolitions, I’d be running for my life.” And, with that, Angel, like Indiana Jones, has managed to run off with another relic by the skin of his teeth, and Faith’s, by the way! Ah, one step closer to having all the mad ingredients needed to bring back to life a much beloved mentor, one Rupert Giles.

No one seems to bothering to ask if it’s worth it anymore. That was Faith’s job. All that appears to remain is one last part of the Giles soul to start some serious conjuring. But could it really be all that simple? No, no, not by a long shot. Hey, Faith finds herself imagining a whole conversation with Giles which leaves her less than motivated. Of course, there’s always drawbacks along the way and this story provides a whopper of a problem. And then there’s Faith’s nemesis, Nadira, and her Slayer posse, who don’t know when to stop holding Faith accountable for everything that has gone wrong in their lives. What animosity! Rebekah Issacs seems to enjoy drawing Nadira’s rage and her crew’s put-upon expressions. Poor Faith. But here’s the kicker: Nadira’s plans collide directly with Angel’s plans! Angel is not the only one with a beloved soul to resurrect.

Angel and Faith may be back in London and appear closer than ever to achieving Angel’s dream of bringing back Giles but there is hardly any guarantee that things will go Angel’s way. Nadira, in all her beautiful rage, makes a case that Angel is delusional but then can’t see how even more futile her dream is of bringing back to life a mere mortal. The anguish and determination coming from Nadira is quite palpable. It brings Faith a few notches back to her skepticism. But that’s not all. The twist at the end will surprise even the most jaded reader. It is a most satisfying twist and, just like the wry remarks between Angel and Faith at the start, bodes very well for us readers.

“Angel and Faith #16” releases November 28. Visit our friends at Dark Horse Comics.

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SPIKE #4 Review

Part 4 (of 5) to “A Dark Place” cinches it for readers: this is, no doubt, a very well-constructed story. It inspired a bit of fan art on my part above. And what you see above is the heart of the matter: Morgan is determined to charm Spike and looks like she’s succeeding while Sebastian and Frisky scramble to do something about it! For all Buffy loyalists who wondered if Victor Gischler’s script made any sense, well, this script knows where it’s headed and makes a lot of sense. Whatever happens next, Morgan has earned her place as a Buffy character.

And Frisky and Sebastian have definitely earned their keep as they battle amongst themselves on the best way to protect their master. I will never tire of these giant insects! A sampling of a priceless exchange between the two of them: Sebastian is getting anxious and says, “Spike has become fond of the demon woman. If he discovers we plot against her, he will surely see it as mutiny.” Frisky tries to reason, “We do not plot. But we do prepare.” Call it what you will, but Frisky has been hard at work on a contingency plan and is ready to spring it into action sooner than later.

And so the story develops in this way: We have Sebastian and Frisky, one couple at each other throats; and we have Spike and Morgan, also at quite close proximity. Thanks to the art team of Paul Lee (pencils) and Andy Owens (inks) both couples get the special attention that they require as we go back and forth. And, speaking of back and forth, this issue gives us an even deeper conversation between Spike and Morgan. They are heading down a path and they’re reaching a fork in the road. We know what Morgan would like to see happen. She is virtually drawing Spike a map.

It’s getting dangerously close to putting two and two together. Frisky seems to be on the right track but Sebastian simply won’t listen, won’t go beyond having a contingency plan in place. Frisky tries again: “And we are simply to aid this woman in gaining access to a hellmouth? Can that be good?” Just as Sebastian rebukes that statement, in a flash, we see Spike and Morgan appear from a hatch door and interrupt them. Spike wants to know what all the commotion is about. Oh, nothing, just us insects.

Moment by moment, the plot thickens as Frisky becomes more and more convinced to take action while feelings get hotter and hotter between Spike and Morgan. Well, something must come to a head! And, when it does, everyone needs to take action, some kind of action, leading us to quite a conclusion in our next issue.

“Spike #4” is on sale November 21. Visit our friends at Dark Horse Comics.

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The second and final chapter to “Billy The Vampire Slayer” rounds out for us a portrait of a new slayer. Drew Z. Greenberg’s script picks up where Jane Espenson left off last month. Both are seasoned Buffy television writers so they can be counted upon to know when a character is ready to cry, or laugh, or go into mortal combat. These are all things our hero, Billy, is called upon to do in this issue so he’s in good hands.

With great experience also comes greater ease in storytelling. Greenberg gives herself the time to allow Billy to express his doubts, his impatience and his euphoria when the time comes. One thing readers are always looking for are the quiet moments that tell us about the characters and their motivations. In the case of Billy, he seeks justice and he seeks intimacy. What if he could have both?

Well, it’s no secret that this intro to Billy is as much a love story as a coming-of-age story. That said, it’s hard not to have a coming-of-age story also be a love story. Billy’s love is Devon, a fellow classmate who is the coolest kid in high school. He’s also Billy’s watcher in charge of training him. That leads to a question. If Billy is the first male slayer, then what does that make Devon? I guess it’s a matter of protocol, right? Billy is the first to fall within the ranks of actual slayers, who are traditionally female, I guess. Anyhow, Devon and Billy get to spend a lot of time together and they like each other but Billy doesn’t know if it’s just “like” or if it’s “like like,” that sort of thing. It doesn’t matter that Devon, at every turn, helps him out and is loyal to him. Billy just doesn’t quite get it.

And then the zompires come through and, if they get anything right, it will be to finally get Billy and Devon together! Sometimes you need a zompie apocalypse meltdown to stoke the fires of love. And then, and this should not be spolier, amid the mayhem and destruction, Devon and Billy kiss. They are together and they can get their zompire fight on!

How compelling Billy will be as an ongoing character is still unclear but this was a good story and a good start. I sense we’d need some conflict to give Billy a bigger role to play. For now, welcome Billy, we’re happy to have you around.

“Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season 9 #15” is out November 14. Be sure to visit our friends at Dark Horse Comics.

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Looking back on this last stand-alone issue, it gets even better with more readings. While we’ve read quite a lot about “a world without magic,” number 15 of “Angel and Faith” does a great job of elaborating on the subject without being redundant. In fact, I have to say, this issue goes to show how Dark Horse goes that extra mile. I got to thinking about all the people I see in a day, walking down the sidewalk, on the bus, in elevators and in escalators, up and down, and all the ones out there who read comics and particularly Dark Horse comics. That’s a special group of people and they expect something special from Dark Horse. Now, let’s go over what’s working so well in this two-parter, all-in-one issue, “A Hero of His Own Story.”

The first part is dedicated to Angel’s old mentor, Whistler. I love the retro/urban feel going on in this story set in a London diner: a fedora, a checkered floor and a pizza and pint of beer anchor the compositions. It is all nicely delineated right down to when Whistler, in a fit of rage, karate chops his dining table in half. “My bad,” he tells the owners, “I got carried away.” The art honors go to Lee Garbett on pencils and Derek Fridolfs on inks. The script for both of these stories is by Christos Gage. What we have here is a significant conversation between Angel and Whistler, not only a mentor to Angel but an entity powerful enough to hold the key to Earth’s future. Whistler doesn’t like how he’s been unappreciated by Angel. Of course, Angel points out, that’s complicated. This interlude provides a fascinating backstory on Whistler, who is literally half good and half evil. He’d just like to bestow his charms on Earth, give it a real kick in the pants and exact a true balance.

And consider how readable this comic is, a true Dark Horse hallmark. The art is crisp and makes sense. The writing is well-paced and rings true. The whole back and forth between Whistler and Angel is like a fine one-act play. Seriously, I think too many comics, high and low tier, think they can phone it in because readers can be taken for granted on some level. What remains remarkable about Dark Horse is their attention to quality. Christos Gage is one hell of a writer too. I mean, I just know I want to read more about Whistler, especially after he warned Angel to never see him again!

The second part is dedicated to Pearl and Nash and this one is a keeper too. We begin with an appropriately disturbing image: it’s the worst day of the Dust Bowl, 1935, and in an old shack, the walls smeared with demonic rants, a naked emaciated young woman, covered in demonic tattoos, has summoned a demon. It doesn’t get much more spooky than this. The demon is pretty horrific, his saving grace is that he’s really open to helping out this misbegotten soul. Gold, might that do the trick? How about a cure for cancer? No, this creepy little woman wants to mate with the demon. Well, then, hold all calls. This, brace yourselves, is how Pearl and Nash were conceived. All this time, and I didn’t take them for coming from such dire straits. This little ditty is drawn by none other than David Lapham, who knows a thing or two about dire straits. Suffice it to say, you’ve got yourself a diabolically good story. Both parts are excellent and will fit beautifully into a collection or as a single. Issue 15 is currently out and a must-read, especially to get some thoughtful insights on what has come before and what lays ahead.

And talking about must-reads, we jump right back into the fray with “Angel and Faith #16” as Angel is ever closer to bringing Giles back to life in the new arc, “Death and Consequences.”

“Angel and Faith #16” will be out on November 28 and we’ll have a review for you before that date. For now, here is cover art by Steve Morris. Visit our friends at Dark Horse Comics.

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WILLOW #1 Review

The much anticipated debut of “Willow” gives us an aggressive and dynamic Willow. At her core, she is supposed to be an ethereal, and vulnerable, character. Just consider the cover art above. This is not someone cut out to be an action hero. That wasn’t what Willow was about on the Buffy TV show. However, dire times can bring out people’s inner strength, right? In her recent team-up with Angel and Faith, we did see a feisty Willow. And, in the first issue of this new arc, “Wonderland,” there is no hint left of the soft and sweet Willow we’ve relied upon in the past. Is this deliberate or have we lost something?

I come back to that cover art of a spooky and gentle Willow! Well, I have to strike that up to the classic disconnect that can be found between the cover of a comic and the content within. So, how does Jeff Parker begin his script? He keeps to a standard set-up: recaps what has come before, allows the main character to stretch her limbs a bit, has her meet an unlikely, yet valuable, ally, and sets up a conflict at the end to deal with next time. All in all, it’s not a bad way to go when considering new readers. And you won’t be disappointed. There are a number of entertaining moments and colorful scenes. Willow is, after all, traveling through a new dimension full of strange and dangerous creatures. As the story’s title implies, there is a feeling of Lewis Carroll, albeit from hell.

The urgency biting at Willow’s heels, as we’ve heard over and over again at Dark Horse, is “a world without magic.” Willow is determined to change that and that’s why any trace of irony on her face has been wiped away. My point is that you can take that too far. Brian Ching’s art is stunning but, as any Willow fan will quickly call out, Willow does not look like Willow. She looks here too much like a Laura Croft action hero with generic features, a figure cut out for action and not contemplation. Willow looks here the way she might in an intermission issue, not a full story arc, especially a title opener. That could be a problem but we’ll have to wait and see how this plays out. If you read ahead to the synopsis for each of the forthcoming “Willow” issues on the Dark Horse site, there appear to be things tugging at our girl’s heart and soul.

“Willow” is out today for all of you to review. Visit our friends at Dark Horse Comics.

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Vampirella, created by Forrest J. Ackerman and Trina Robbins, back in 1969 for Warren Publishing,  has a nice place in pop culture history as a vampire pin-up in an amazing sling nearly-naked suit. It is definitely iconic and definitely sexy fun. What I’ve always maintained is that, while you can have all the sexy fun you want in comics, don’t try to pretend it is anything more than exploitation if your actual story hangs by a thread and you are, in fact, only selling T&A. If you want to sell T&A, then have the balls to be honest about it.

In the case of Vampirella, this puts Dynamite Entertainment in an interesting position, since they’ve taken over the rights to the character in 2010. Dynamite’s reboot began with a story by Eric Trautmann, an Xbox games writer. Vampi is covered up in some rugged, very unrevealing gear, helps out a homeless guy, and is very earnest and boring. I say this sort of tongue-in-cheek. I appreciate that Dynamite continues to explore possibilities for the sexy vampire. And that brings us to this one-shot story written by Mark Rahner, known for mixing political commentary with zombies in his series, “Rotten,” and illustrated by Cezar Razek, a Dynamite favorite (“Hack/Slash,” “Red Sonja”).

So, what do you get when you mix a terribly self-conscious sex symbol with a writer who revels in exposing the right wing agenda? Well, interestingly enough, you get Vampi right back into that bombshell bikini, no apologies. That is fine and Cezar Razek can draw the hell out of that assignment. I would just remind Mr. Rahner that the right wing, while repressed, enjoys cheesecake just as much, if not more so than liberals (since the right is supposed to be so repressed. Ha ha.) But that fact is not lost on this writer. As is his want, he takes things as far as he can go: the great menace in this issue is a bunch of demonic Pilgrims out to subdue lust by bludgeoning any fornicators in its sights, particularly teenaged fornicators! Down with the teenaged fornicators!

Hey, that could be the title to a forthcoming one-shot: “Vampirella and the Teenaged Fornicators!” I could write that one for you, Dynamite. Seriously, I can see Vampirella taking on more satire and just chucking away a lot, if not all, of the earnest crime fighter crap that just doesn’t go anywhere. Well, I’m sorry, but there is a lot of truth to what I’m saying. Yes, writing, good writing, matters. In Mr. Rahner’s case, he does something different, and interesting, here.

As far as this being a biting satire on Buffy The Vampier Slayer, I could take it or leave it. Overall, it comes across a bit too heavy-handed for my taste. If you really want to take on Joss Whedon, then you have to go about it more like a friendly rival and not just mock like poking fun at his use of pop culture references. These are references made by his characters within a larger context. If you really want to poke fun, it would involve more of the look and feel of the characters as in their tendency to be emo. Anyway, I don’t have much more to say on this other than this one-shot offers something different and it is worth considering as new paths are charted for the scantily-clad vampire.

This was a special Halloween release so you can already find it on the shelves or seek it out online. Visit Dynamite Entertainment.

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Alright, it’s time to get our Buffy on with a whole new story and I want to get down to this right away. We have no time to lose. This one is a two-parter by two Buffyverse experts, “Buffy” TV series writers Jane Espenson and Drew Z. Greenberg. And, as you may know, the big deal this time around is that we have a new gay male character, Billy, who adds a new dimension to our adventures. There was recently a feature about it in Out magazine and that got picked up by Comic Book Resources.

With that in mind, this is the story of Billy, the first ever male Slayer. We begin with Billy and a gal pal parked outside the fence of the local airport so that 747’s fly right above them. It makes for some great visuals as the two lament over the fact they’re still only teens and not rock stars or whatever. The phrase, “It will get better,” comes up but, after that obvious insert, we reach a good pace.

Coincidentally, the jumbo jet that just flew above them has a coffin in it and it won’t remain shut. There’s a zompire in there and there’s more on the way. Some more memorable artwork shows how one zompire leads to another and then another until, before too long, you’re flooded with them.

The style to the art is a little more cartoony than we’ve seen for awhile but it’s fun and it fits well with the energy of the characters. We have Karl Moline leading the way with pencils and Andy Owens on inks and just the right dramatic coloring by Michelle Madsen. Billy, hands down, is a very engaging character, vulnerable but ready for a fight. Well, getting ready. That’s part of the deal here. He’s getting ready for the rest of his life but he just doesn’t know it yet. Maybe with a little help from a particular friend will get him where he needs to go.

The big question is does the writing give us an authentic picture of our lead character. The answer is, yes, we have a living and breathing Billy. He’s gay and it’s not one of those, oh, he’s a great character who happens to be gay. No, being gay is a very big deal, especially in a small isolated area where being a young gentle and feminine man can get your skull crushed in. We deal with that subject in this story and most effectively.

Does Billy need those Slayer powers? Well, a lot of people would like to have them. And, of all those people who could or should have them, Billy is looking mighty worthy. You root of Billy in this story. He’s a good guy. You want to see him win. This first part leaves us in a very good place and is so well done that it could stand alone. It will be a pleasure to see how we close on this arc.

“Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season 9 #14” is out October 10. Visit our friends at Dark Horse Comics.

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“Angel and Faith #14” is the fourth and final chapter to “Family Reunion” and a lesson learned for Willow for insisting on trying to tap into magic from a hell dimension. Not a good idea — but not an entirely bad idea either. If there really is any good to be found from this fine mess, Willow and Angel will need to act fast. As you may assume, they do manage to figure something out and that will take them in new directions.

This is issue is all about finding some resolution, of course, and Christos Gage’s script does a good job of that. The most riveting development is Willow getting too close to the dark side. This is something Rebekah Isaacs brings out with her art. We do get to see a good bit of the Dark Willow and that may or may not play into Willow’s new path in her own series starting up November 7. This story, among other things, is a great set up for her new adventures.

“Family Reunion” ends up being a good opportunity for characters to connect a little more with each other and themselves: Angel with his son, Connor; Angel with Willow; Angel with Faith; Willow with Willow; and Faith with Faith. Yeah, and Angel with Angel. I think Connor turned out to be the most adjusted and didn’t really need to do too much soul-searching. Willow and Faith and Connor were pretty much already cool with each other. You get your priorities straightened out fairly quickly when you’re trapped in Quor’toth, the most putrid and disgusting dimension of hell.

“Angel and Faith #14” comes out September 26, 2012. Visit our friends at Dark Horse Comics.

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SPIKE #2 Review

Spike is such a good bloke. The loyal boyfriend. A guy who just wants to chill out and do the right thing. Spike is the James Dean of comics. But he’s got his blind spot, doesn’t he? Can we all say what it is together? Buffy! Yes, that’s right. Maybe if Spike hadn’t been such a mopey mope, the lost man on the dark side of the moon, he would have been more on his game when he and his loyal band of bugs were overtaken by a mob of fish-like demon thugs.

What is remarkable, two issues into “A Dark Place,” is how well Spike commands the comics page of an excellent unfolding story. The art here (Paul Lee, pencils; Andy Owens, inks), panel per panel, is vivid and memorable stuff. And the writing by Victor Gischler is true to the character of Spike and very energetic. The issue runs smooth with excellent timing due to the stellar art team and to Mr. Gischler, who has mad skills in crime fiction like his novel, “Gun Monkeys,” and comics skills, like his work on X-Men. This is prime comics. We’ve got Spike’s spot on swagger, the bug crew plotting his rescue, these wicked bad guys, and that’s just the build up. I’m so impressed with the attention to detail. You can really feel like you’re inside that blimp, navigating down all its narrow hallways. You can really feel for Spike as he’s restrained by a giant frog with its enormous tongue wrapped around him and, all the while, he doesn’t lose his cool.

Once Spike gets a whiff of what his captors have in mind, to take back as many shards as they can find of The Seed, well, it’s time for a game of matching wits. Spike, the one with all the wit, claims to be a valuable asset to his captors and will lead them back to Sunnydale where they are sure to find all the remains to The Seed that they can carry.

Once they get there, all shards have been spoken for. As any self-respecting fan is already aware of, what they do find is something that Spike will find the most interesting. If this feels like a spoiler for some of you, then stop reading now. All that I will say is that there’s a bodacious rival for Spike’s affections that appears to emerge in this issue. Her name is Morgan. She only has the first name, like Cher. She makes a pretty hot entrance. She has instant appeal, like a revamped Betty Page. However, as Victor Gischler explains on his blog: “Just remember, it’s a 5-issue story arc. Lots can happen!” The art below comes from his blog:

Here’s the thing: Why not have Morgan be the game changer? Let her take over Buffy’s place for an indefinite amount of time. Maybe even have her turn directly against Buffy. In time, they might even become allies. Lots of possibilities. But we’re getting way ahead of ourselves, aren’t we? No Spike and Buffy fan wants to see that Spike has moved on, is at least testing things out, or do they? That sort of thinking could lead to some pretty awesome comics! Why build something interesting up, take it to the very edge, and then abruptly retreat? Oh, but it’s just comics, right? Well, no, we’re dealing here with comics that are a cut above just comics. So, we shall see.

Oh, and something big does happen on the last page. Isn’t that always the way? So, who knows if Spike and Morgan will even have much time to really get acquainted, at least in this story.

“Spike #2” is out September 19. Visit Dark Horse Comics.


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