‘Angel’ flashback: ‘Only Human’ and ‘Fallen Angel: Reborn’ (2009) (Comic book reviews)

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DW was champing at the bit to continue Illyria’s story upon acquiring the “Angel” license, both because her character arc was left hanging and because she cuts a fine figure as a badass comic-book heroine (or villain, or anti-heroine, or whatever). She appears on the cover art of a lot of the early issues, even if she is just on hand to make a jab or two about the pathetic weakness of humans.

But after the canonical Joss Whedon-plotted “After the Fall” (Issues 1-17 of the main “Angel” title) came out, IDW could finally jump into the character full-bore with the Gunn-Illyria road-tripper “Only Human” and “Fallen Angel: Reborn,” where Illyria guest stars with Peter David’s titular creation.

“Only Human” (August-December 2009)

Writer Scott Lobdell, the “X-Men” veteran who wrote the excellent “Buffy” arc “Note from the Underground,” and artist David Messina, who worked on the earliest IDW “Angel” issues, team up to essentially buy back Gunn and Illyria on the reset timeline. Both seeking to get in touch with their humanity (a renewal for Gunn and a new experience for Illyria), they road trip to the funeral of Fred’s uncle in Texas.

The first two issues of the five-issue “Only Human” lean toward fish-out-of-water dark comedy, with Gunn constantly being scared that Illyria will make a horrible social faux pas. The most extreme moment is when she greets Fred’s parents while looking like Illyria. But her folks don’t bat an eye. “Blue? Goth? We’re just glad to have our little girl back home,” Fred’s father explains to Gunn, who sees it as an example of unconditional love.

The first two issues of the five-issue “Only Human” lean toward fish-out-of-water dark comedy, with Gunn constantly being scared that Illyria will make a horrible social faux pas.

I find the instance slightly disturbing, though. Aren’t parents supposed to notice when their child has been body-snatched? Shouldn’t Fred’s parents see through the guise even if Illyria is perfectly mimicking Fred’s appearance and mannerisms? I wonder if on some level they know Fred is dead, and they are in denial, but my gut feeling is that Lobdell isn’t playing it that way.

The final three issues are a showcase for Messina’s poster-worthy art as Illyria takes on a mile-long serpent demon named Baticus who was among her easily dispatched rivals in the ole home-sweet-hell-dimension – so much so that Illyria sees him as a pet. But in “Time Bomb” (5.19), Angel and company use a Mutari generator to siphon off the extra power Illyria can’t hold in her human shell. Thanks to the Scourge, returning from “Hero” (1.9), Baticus now possesses Illyria’s bonus powers. Illyria defeats Baticus, but it takes three issues and lots of Messina splash pages.

Lobdell delivers wry comedy in “Only Human” that comes naturally from characters who used to be dead (Gunn) or in a different physical state (Illyria). Sometimes the two leads slip into an “Oh, the hell with it” attitude. This tone comes to the forefront in the final beat, where Lobdell goes a step further than “The Ring” (1.16).

That episode ends with Angel and company realizing they have freed a bunch of demons as a consequence of defeating a worse evil, and the same thing happens here. Gunn defeats the Scourge, thus freeing a bunch of demons who consume humans for sustenance; indeed, Gunn finds corpses in the barn. Rather than concluding on that unpleasant note, Gunn destroys those demons, too, while sparing a young one who he thinks can be reformed (perhaps at Mosaic, from the “Spike” comics?).

“Only Human” is more straightforward than Lobdell’s “Buffy” work for Dark Horse, but it’s satisfying to see Gunn and Illyria find an (at least temporary) anchor in the world, and Messina’s pencils and the colors by a team of four are consistently gorgeous.

“Fallen Angel: Reborn” (crossover with Illyria) (July-October 2009)

As noted, Illyria’s bonus powers end up going to Baticus in “Only Human.” In the Season 5-set “Fallen Angel: Reborn,” though, those powers are stored in weapons and armor that were used by Illyria back in her days as the ruler of a hell dimension. An old client of Wolfram & Hart takes Illyria down the famous elevator from “Reprise” (2.15) and lets her off in a dimension called Bete Noire, where the first of those artifacts can be found.

The four-issue “Fallen Angel: Reborn” stands today as a trivia answer: It’s the only example of Buffyverse characters crossing over with another fictional universe. Why Whedon signed off on a crossover this one time, I don’t know, but I admit Illyria fits tidily with Peter David’s “Fallen Angel” universe. The titular “Fallen Angel” is Liandra, who is likewise a godling, but in contrast to Illyria, she sees herself as a protector of the people of Bete Noire rather than someone destined to rule others.

This is more than a mere guest turn for Illyria, as she is the main character of “Reborn.” David, who also wrote “Spotlight: Illyria,” the first great Illyria yarn of the IDW run, knows how to write her. Illyria is shown that if she returns to her goddess form, all life will be destroyed and she’ll have nothing to rule over. Judging by her behavior later on the timeline, a reader can presume Illyria is not totally convinced of this, but it’s interesting to think that this adventure weighs on her.

As Illyria and Liandra seek the three artifacts that will restore Illyria to full power and demon form, artist J.K. Woodward takes us to rain-soaked Bete Noire, a place whose events have a ripple effect on Earth, as well as trips to Arctic ice caverns and a wasteland future. David leans toward dark-comedic banter, and I notice that “Fallen Angel” characters swear a lot more than “Angel” characters. Still, this world – which strikes me as one giant metaphor for centerpiece religious issues such as free will — fits nicely with the interdimensional aspect of the “Angel” mythos.

While not a crucial Illyria yarn and not one that inspires me to pick up more “Fallen Angel” titles, “Reborn” is far more than a trivial guest appearance by Illyria. Fans who track down this series will not only round out their “Angel” collection but also get a complete, and fairly satisfying, Illyria tale.

Click here for an index of all of John’s “Buffy” and “Angel” reviews.