Looking critically at comic book adaptations of franchise series requires the reader to consider the work on two basic levels. First is an obvious one: does the comic capture all the elements of the TV series or movie that made the source an audience hit in the first place? The second level is more general: is the comic effective as a piece of graphic fiction?
Often, a series may work on one level without quite hitting the second. The figures in the panels may, for instance, resemble the actors who originally assayed the series' characters, but at no point in the work do they move like convincing comic book creations. Or they may look like believable comic art approximations of the characters we know and love – but behave or speak in ways that are thoroughly discordant with our fannish understanding of ‘em.
It's a tricky balancing act, one that I started thinking about after I recently received a pack of four IDW graphic novels – and the start of a fifth – devoted to Joss Whedon's Angel. I was a devoted viewer of the Buffy spin-off when it first ran on the WB, but I hadn't caught any of its reruns once the show's fifth season ended in 2004. So I've admittedly only retained a general memory of the series' open-ended finale (Los Angeles had gone to Hell; Angel and friends were about to do battle with a big dragon). Would I be able to pick up any of the Angel GNs, I wondered, without having to back-track to some Internet-hosted series summary?
With the first four trade collections, it turns out, no such research proved necessary. All four sets are outside the original series' storyline: the big exception is the fan-pleasing current series, Angel: After the Fall, which is plotted by series mastermind Whedon to take place after the show's final season concluded. Like his current run on Dark Horse Comics' Buffy, the Vampire Slayer comic, Fall is being hyped as a follow-up "season" to the original teleseries, which ups the ante on its connection to the source considerably.
Scripter Jeff Mariotte and artist David Messina don't have that level of pressure on their first IDW Angel tale, however. A solo adventure, it sets the vampire-with-a-soul in modern Romania, where our hero is looking to find and aid the tribe of gypsies responsible for the curse that has bedeviled him ever since the early seasons of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. To accomplish this, our hero must fight a Romanian warlord named Corneliu Brasov, who loathes "the rom" and rules over them with the support of a vicious vampire army.
The bulk of The Curse, then, is devoted to our hero's gathering a group of largely indistinguishable gypsy allies (one of whom will betray the cause, of course) and fighting Brasov's vampire soldiers, though writer Mariotte does provide two good-sized flashbacks to remind us from whence Angel came. The first features our hero in his unrepentant vampire days, and, if nothing else, artist Messina provides us with a long-haired version of Angelus that isn't hampered by an unconvincing wig – so the scene has that going for it. The second pulls in many of the figures from the teleseries, but it doesn't really do much to the tale except give our protagonist a quick moment of regret for the lives he couldn't save. In perhaps the biggest stretch back to the teevee series, our hero improbably happens upon a poster featuring Buffy/Angel regular Cordy Chase from a commercial that was unaired in America but purportedly shown throughout Europe. The moment takes Angel aback – and it does the reader, too, since we never quite believe it.
Despite these overreaches, The Curse does a decent job capturing its narrating lead's self-flagellating personality. As a story, it'd probably fit snugly into the teleseries' first season, when Angel and company were still working to differentiate themselves from BtVS. Messina's art is strong during the action sequences, though occasionally with some of the more dialog-heavy moments, you can see the artist struggling to keep things fluid and interesting. In more than one talking panel, his foreground figures come off too expressionless, like something out of a low-budget horror flick. You can just see him crouching at the drawing table, itching to get back to the serious vampire dusting.
Marriote & Messina also collaborate on the second Angel graphic novel, Old Friends. Set in Los Angeles at some undefined moment after the teleseries' unresolved finale, Friends (as per its title) brings back many of the surviving supporting good guys – plus a few dead ones, too – along with a minor villain from the evil law firm of Wolfram & Hart. The story opens with our hero in seclusion up in the mountains, presumably licking his wounds after the events in The Curse. He's lured back into the city by the urban monster slayer Gunn; who tells him that a familiar bleached blond vampire has been seen attacking women in the streets of L.A. Once Angel returns to his old stomping grounds, however, he quickly learns that the rampaging vamp is not his old friend and nemesis Spike – but rather the first of a series of evil doppelgangers that have seemingly been sent out into the city to attract and then kill the vampire and his former colleagues. As Lorne, the media-savvy demon, notes: "Ah, the old evil twin scenario. A classic."
The scenario may be familiar, but, then, you could also say that about most of the original Buffy/Angel TV scripts, too. What made both series fly at their best were the contemporary character twists that the writers and actors gave to the old horror standards. With Friends, however, the primary intent is to recall the characters without doing anything too freaky that'll get the fans screaming. At one level, the expectation for an adaptation like this can seriously curtail the writer.
Despite this limitation, Mariotte has fun doing his own version of the bantering pissing contests between the series' alpha vamps, Angel and Spike – and makes good dialog use of the flamboyant Lorne, too. But in the end, his story proves too slight and under-realized to have any staying power. When a doppelganger Angel makes a surprising sacrifice near the story's finish, the moment has been so insufficiently supported that the reader can't help wondering if the trade edition isn't missing a page from the original comic. Friends could clearly benefit from tighter editing: when a Cordelia doppelganger appears to dispatch a disposable crew of city drug dealers, we see her seemingly send the gang floating into the sky; later, Gunn tells us that he thought she "melted em," and no one bothers to correct his misimpression. Perhaps an earlier draft of script had these baddies doing a Wicked Witch of the West?
Messina's art is less inconsistent this time out: not forced to imagine a movie lot Romania, he appears less inclined toward stagy compositions. His versions of the Old Friends cast recall each figure quite effectively (something couldn't be said, for instance, of his Cordelia Chase poster in the first GN). If the story isn't up to all the figures who've been invited to it, the results will prove entertaining enough to most devotees of the series, though those who've already advanced to the Whedon-plotted "sixth season" may wonder if there's a teeny continuity issue re: Mssr. Charles Gunn.
But before we get to that, there are two more interim Angel collections to consider: Spotlight and Auld Lang Syne…