‘Angel & Faith’ flashback: Season 10, Issues 11-20 (2015) (Comic book reviews)

A

t the end of Issue 15, Fred asks Angel: “Can we call ourselves Angel Investigations?” But, nostalgia aside, writer Victor Gischler’s “Angel & Faith” Season 10 isn’t about the re-forming of the detective agency, but rather about a disparate group of people coming together to defend their home neighborhood of Magic Town in London. For being loners at heart, the title characters sure do attract allies, and the rich cast of characters is starting to make this title a page-turner; the drama is often low-key, but intensely based on the journeys of these individuals. This batch begins with the best “Angel & Faith” arc so far:

“United” (Issues 11-14, February-May 2015)

Both Fred’s return (seen at the end of Issue 10) and the long-gestating mystery (dating back to “Buffy” Season 9) of who killed Koh’s family get excellent treatment in this four-parter. As many readers might’ve suspected, Illyria killed Koh’s family back when she was an evil god. But I like how Fred fights Illyria within her body — similar to Angel versus Angelus in “Orpheus” (4.15) — in the ever-popular “white room” that represents a spiritual plane. And it’s neat how Koh recognizes the difference between Fred and Illyria. He may be obsessed with vengeance, but he’s smart and decent.

Despite the absence of regular artist Will Conrad, Issue 13 is particularly strong, as Illyria is reborn in the Zane Pharmaceuticals lab while Reese Zane and other scientists are studying Fred’s brainwaves. It nicely mirrors “A Hole in the World” (5.15), where Illyria takes over Fred’s body in the lab setting of Wolfram & Hart. And although there’s some slight hand-waving here, I buy that the new Seed has functioned as a reset button on Fred/Illyria, even though Fred died in “Angel” Season 5 and Illyria died in “Buffy” Season 9.

For being loners at heart, Angel and Faith sure do attract allies, and the rich cast of characters is starting to make Season 10 a page-turner.

Issue 13 also stands as an example of the importance of a good colorist. Fill-in artist Cliff Richard’s work is rougher around the edges than Conrad’s crisp likenesses and backgrounds, but Michelle Madsen makes the switch less jarring with her consistent coloring.

Cleverly, Gischler writes about Illyria in a way that honors her arc from IDW’s “Angel” comics, although it also works if one only considers the canonical “After the Fall.” As Angel says to Illyria in Issue 14: “We saved mankind together – me, you, Gunn, Lorne, all of us. Maybe some trace of humanity made you kinder, but you still chose to help us. You can choose now too.” Illyria responds: “When I felt myself being diminished and ordinary like every other human, I told myself it was better. … When I became a part of humanity, I became a part of the lie.”

“United” is an all-around top-shelf piece of comic-book storytelling, as a variety of players (Angel, Faith, Fred/Illyria, Koh, Nadira, Reese and – for some comic relief — Giles’ aunts) reunite (or in some cases meet for the first time) for a strong resolution to Koh’s long-simmering revenge quest. It’s cool how there are several cases of mirrored arcs: Nadira can speak to Koh about vengeance, and of course Angel can sympathize with Fred’s literal inner demon. Fred’s victory over Illyria is likely only temporary, but I like that it (literally) shows her inner strength.

“Fight or Flight” (Issue 15, June 2015)

Kel McDonald (“Buffy: The High School Years”) takes the baton from Gischler for one issue and writes an evocative story that reminds me of standalones from the early days of “Buffy.” The big threat of Illyria still looms within Fred, and Illyria even briefly emerges here, but there’s a “calm before the storm” feeling to the proceedings — in a good way.

Fred and a reluctant Angel visit Angel’s hometown of Galway, Ireland, and find that an innkeeper who looks like a nice old lady aims to rule the world by capturing people’s fear using an amulet and the blood of a Gachnar demon, the miniscule creature from “Fear, Itself” (“Buffy” 4.4). It’s a quick but engaging mystery with some good Angel-Illyria interaction.

The mystery of Angel’s faux-nightmares is also resolved here: Archaeus is messing with Angel’s mind, just as he is with Spike’s in “Buffy” Season 10. The big showdown with the ancient beast is found over in the pages of “Buffy,” so it’s anticlimactic within the pages of “Angel & Faith” when reading the series separately. That said, the payoff in “Old Demons” (“Buffy” 10.16-18) is good, even if it focuses on Spike more than Angel. Plus, Archaeus will return to these pages later.

Also, we now have a new No. 1 for best phone-call crossover, surpassing Angel’s silent call to Buffy in “The Freshman” (“Buffy” 4.1) and “City of” (“Angel” 1.1):

Spike: “Hello, wanker.”

Angel: “You’d think I would’ve blocked your number by now.”

“Those Who Can’t Teach, Teach Gym” (Issues 16-18, July-September 2015)

Gischler returns, but the title retains a pleasing throwback vibe with Faith (as a gym teacher) and Fred (as a lunch lady) investigating a vampire incursion at a London prep school. The crossover with the action in “Buffy” continues as Angel updates Faith on Archaeus entering the psyches of himself, Spike … and Drusilla. The latter has one of the less effective final-panel pop-ups in Issue 17, just because Richards isn’t as good at likenesses as other artists (although he does draw a decent Faith), and I wasn’t positive I was looking at Dru.

The mystery centers on a meek student named Mary, who is being hounded by three mean-girl types who promise they can help her with her boy troubles and social-outcast status. Gischler and Richards do some clever work with mirrors in this arc, with Fred using a small makeup mirror to confirm the girls are vamps. At another point, we see Fred struggling with a vamp as Faith moves in to stake it, but the view is via a big bathroom mirror, so the vamp can’t be seen.

By story’s end, we learn Mary’s dad is a museum curator studying a statue, and that is no doubt why Archaeus, via Drusilla, via the student-vampires, wanted to recruit Mary to their ranks. The statue reminds me of Acathla at the end of “Buffy” Season 2.

This three-parter doesn’t lean into the humor or British-isms a reader might hope for with Faith and Fred inserted into the prep-school setting, and Gischler isn’t as sharp at writing Drusilla’s crazy speech rhythms as some other authors are. Still, I like how Faith and Fred are naturals at working together, and how Faith and Inspector Brandt are striking up a collegial friendship.

“A Little More Than Kin” (Issues 19-20, October-November 2015)

Angel Investigations doesn’t exist anymore, but it’s cool how Gischler has created a group of allies without a formula or structure that a TV show would require. Angel, Faith, Fred, Koh, Inspector Brandt and Giles’ aunts make an entertaining impromptu team as they gear up for a final showdown against Archaeus, who has followed Angel over from a midseason “Buffy” battle but functions as a Big Bad here because his sidekick is Drusilla, who is oddly reliable in this case because she doesn’t have a pesky soul that makes her resist him.

But the most interesting character in this two-parter is Nadira, largely thanks to Conrad, who draws her with a calm expression – almost a smirk – even as she’s being kidnapped by Archaeus’ vampire thugs. She warns the ancient creature that the young magic of Magic Town will resist him if he tries to take over. When Archaeus of course refuses to leave town, we’re reminded that Nadira – for all her new-agey in-touch-with-the-Earth vibe – is also a Slayer, and she kicks some henchman butt in a delicious sequence.

“A Little More Than Kin,” like the issues preceding it, is still in set-up mode. As wise as she seems, I doubt the upcoming season finale will play out exactly as Nadira has predicted. A lot of good cards are on the table – the unpredictable Fred/Illyria dichotomy among them – and I’m excited to see how Season 10 plays out.

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