‘Angel & Faith’ flashback: Season 9, Issues 1-10 (2011-12) (Comic book reviews)

A

s with “Buffy” Season 9, “Angel & Faith” Season 9 gets off to a great start from the pen of a rookie Buffyverse writer. Christos Gage, who will go on to be the most ubiquitous of the canonical Dark Horse comics scribes, has a good grasp of the relationship between Angel and Faith. He invents new enemies from the ashes of Season 8, rightly assuming that Twilight ticked off a lot of people – both good guys and bad guys.

Angel is still in obsessive mode, but in a different way: He wants to resurrect Giles. If memory serves, this arc will take up the whole 25-issue season, but there are enough Giles flashbacks to make the slow-burn plot worth it. Meanwhile, just as Georges Jeanty’s art raises the quality of the “Buffy” comics, newcomer Rebekah Isaacs’ gorgeously detailed work does the same on “Angel & Faith.” Here’s a look at the first 10 issues:

“Live Through This” (Issues 1-4, August-November 2011)

Angel and Faith bring their mutual-support “seeking redemption for past evils” club – as seen in “Angel” Seasons 1 and 4 – to comic pages for the first time. This also marks the first time since the TV show that “Angel” consistently looks like “Angel.” I like a lot of what IDW did with “Angel,” but this is a notch better right off the bat. The rich, lived-in London backgrounds by penciler/inker Isaacs and dark colors by Dan Jackson contrast nicely with the “Buffy” Season 9 that looks like the “Buffy” TV series – serious, but sunnier and quippier.

“Angel & Faith” is broodier – Faith notes that Angel had been mostly staring at a wall since recovering from his sort-of-possession/sort-of-team-up with Twilight in Season 8 – with grimmer, earthier storytelling and art, but also room for humor. Gage establishes that Faith is in the role of keeping an obsessive Angel in check this time around, a similar dynamic to “Angel” Season 4 but different because this time it’s Angel, not Angelus, coming off evil deeds. Angel does not pass the buck to possession by “Twilight,” or to manipulation by Whistler or others. He feels responsible.

I like a lot of what IDW did with “Angel,” but “Angel & Faith” is a notch better right off the bat. The rich, lived-in London backgrounds by Isaacs and dark colors by Jackson contrast nicely with the sunnier “Buffy” Season 9.

And in desiring to make up for his actions, Angel wants to resurrect Giles, something Faith isn’t gung-ho about. But she says she’ll help Angel up until the point where it looks like things will go bad, at which point she’ll stop him. This arc raises, but doesn’t answer, an interesting question: Did Buffy ever tell Angel the details of her experiences in Heaven, how she didn’t actually want to be brought back to life? I’d wager she did not, because Angel seems unaware that he’ll be pulling Giles from Heaven. Since we know Buffy did tell Spike – he’s the first and only person she tells voluntarily – it’s interesting to think she kept this from Angel.

Gage pulls his “Angel & Faith” Season 9 villains out of Season 8, although this is the first time we are privy to their existence. In flashbacks, we learn that Angel/Twilight had briefly worked with half-demon twins Pearl and Nash before deciding they are too crazy. Now the siblings seek some of the same power sources as Angel. And Whistler, who pushes Angel into becoming Twilight in the “Riley” one-shot, has shifted his guidance to Pearl and Nash. While working with Twilight, Pearl and Nash had killed dozens of Slayers, including friends of Nadira’s, so now Nadira wants to kill Angel. Faith is awkwardly caught in the middle, alternating missions with Nadira and Angel.

The author also pulls an element from the past that we actually were privy too: the Mohra demon blood from “I Will Remember You” (“Angel” 1.8) that turned Angel human for a day. The regenerating substance is a key ingredient for Angel’s plan to resurrect Giles.

While Gage’s story and characterizations are strong, Isaacs’ art is the star of “Live Through This.” Jeanty is my favorite Buffyverse artist; I love his cute but dynamic likenesses. But Isaacs is a close second: Her work is more reality-based, the background details (such as the bookshelves of Giles’ home, which he left to Faith) are luscious, and Faith’s expressions are so perfect that it’s like getting another Eliza Dushku performance. That’s important here because Faith is doing a lot of internal monologuing while being wary of Angel.

“In Perfect Harmony” (Issue 5, December 2011)

Every now and then the Buffyverse comics check in with Harmony for a light reprieve, and usually I like these stories, but this one-off – with Phil Noto stepping in on art duties – isn’t up to snuff. The premise doesn’t hold together: Harmony is being blackmailed by someone threatening to release a sex tape. Even though Harmony, Angel and Faith all agree that the tape wouldn’t harm her reputation – after all, she has commercially released a dozen sex tapes — they go on with the investigation.

Faith doesn’t know who Harmony is, which seems unlikely. Not only is Harmony a celebrity, but she is a catalyst for many vampires choosing to not kill humans. Angel won’t admit it, but Harmony objectively is a force of good.

The familiar humor of the main characters being exasperated by Harmony’s selfishness plays out, and the issue ends with Harmony’s assistant Clem – who is in love with Harmony — revealed as the blackmailer. Harmony immediately forgives Clem and moves on with her life. There might be something to take away from that, but mostly I’m happy to move on to the next issue.

“Daddy Issues” (Issues 6-9, January-April 2012)

Gage smoothly blends the theme of daddy issues into arcs for Giles, Faith and Drusilla, centering on a demon that resembles Bloodsucker from the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” arc “The River.” This Lorophage Demon sucks out negative feelings instead of blood. Drusilla, made sane by an emotion-lobotomy from the Lorophage, convinces the demon to do its thing but stop short of killing people – therefore actually helping them. In exchange, the people allow Dru to take blood from them; it’s a win-win-win.

This isn’t the first Buffyverse story to give the heroes the tempting opportunity to take a shortcut to happiness — see also “I Will Remember You,” “Normal Again” (“Buffy” 6.17) and “Willow: Wonderland.” In those stories, the hero eventually decides to face reality — because it’s real, after all – rather than take the shortcut.

But Faith’s temptation proves too strong. After a briefly happy reunion with her father Pat, we get the expected twist where he wants something from her. When Faith gravely injures a human mob boss to save her father, the old guilt comes pouring back and she goes to Drusilla to take it away.

(Pat, unfortunately, contradicts Faith’s father George from “Go Ask Malice: A Slayer’s Diary.” Both versions are bad fathers, but Faith hadn’t seen George since he was imprisoned when she was 4. Pat was more present in her childhood, at least up to the point where she’s wearing his Drew Bledsoe Patriots jersey, which makes her a teenager, or close to it.)

“Daddy Issues” wraps with a great final showdown in Dru’s church-turned-headquarters where Angel restores Faith’s pain and Drusilla’s insanity (to Dru’s delight) – and that of everyone else who had been drained by the Lorophage. It’s the latest example of Angel having Faith’s back, and ultimately she knows she’s better off with her pain. But overall, it seems Angel may have created more enemies.

The highlights of “Daddy Issues” are the bits relating to Giles in 1972. He feels his father had sent him and other Watcher trainees into the field unprepared, leading to his friends’ deaths at the proboscis of the Lorophage. Giles rejects his prescribed Watcher path and storms off. I hope we’ll see some of his Ripper years in upcoming flashbacks.

In a wrinkle that calls to mind “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” Angel has been collecting pieces of Giles’ soul within himself (the Lorophage provides the latest piece) as part of his multilayered plan to resurrect Giles. I love how Giles is front and center in “Angel & Faith” Season 9 via flashbacks, the fact that Angel and Faith are living in his house and reading his journals, and the fact that Angel is relating to Giles now that he’s housing pieces of the Watcher’s soul. If it took killing off Giles for us to get the full story about his past, then it was worth it.

“Women of a Certain Age” (Issue 10, May 2012)

This one-off issue, with Chris Samnee stepping in on art duties, introduces us to Giles’ ageless (thanks to magic) great-aunts Lavinia and Sophronia. Seemingly in the annoying comic-relief mode that Harmony also fills, these sisters are actually quite entertaining in their debut. Angel and Faith fight off a bunch of demons who have come to collect Lavonia’s soul upon the emergence of her first grey hair in this Seedless world; for example, she made one deal with a demon in exchange for magical cellulite cream. After he and Faith kill all the would-be soul-collectors, Angel asks the sisters to explain their relationship with Giles, which leads to the best part of the issue.

Young Giles had wanted to be a fighter pilot. He’s playing with a toy plane when Lavinia and Sophronia are attacked by the latest demon they’ve ticked off, and Giles shows Watcher potential in the encounter. Thus, his dad starts Rupert on the path to training, something that gains Rupert the sympathy of his great-aunts, who know about the “horror” of the Watcher academy from their sister, Edna (Giles’ grandmother). As such, Giles has love-hate relationship with them: He dislikes their shallowness, but likes that they were his allies during his school years. Plus, they are the surviving sisters of his beloved grandmother, so that perhaps mellowed his harsher feelings toward them.

“Women of a Certain Age” wraps with Willow showing up at Faith’s and Angel’s place. While an old friend (or enemy) doing a final-panel pop-in is nothing new in Buffyverse comics, I’m intrigued by this one. Willow resurrected Buffy, and later learned that Buffy didn’t want to be resurrected, and should therefore having something to say about Angel’s plan for bringing back Giles.

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