(Review) BtVS Season 9: Willow: Wonderland part I
11th November 2012 (10:41)
While I'm continuing to review the 'Buffy' comics themselves, you've all probably noticed I've not being keeping up with the various spin-offs. Multiple factors are to blame: while I still enjoy them, and am still buying them, I'm not as enthused by them as I was back in the Season 8 days. The fact that hardly anybody else seems to be talking about them either doesn't really inspire me to write.
In fact, nobody is writing much about 'Buffy' at all. Has 'Buffy' fandom died, or did you all move to somewhere like Tumblr or Dreamwidth and didn't tell me?
However, 'Willow:Wonderland' is a standalone arc about my favourite character on the show; and its plot is Willow going on a mystical journey - something I've often used as an idea in my own fanfic. How could I not review this?
Willow:Wonderland is the sequel to the Angel and Faith story arc 'Family Reunion', in which Willow enlisted the help of Angel and Connor to reach the hell dimension Quor'toth. Connor' blood could still be used to get there even though the breaking of the Seed mean that most magic doesn't work any more on Earth. Magic still exists in Quor'toth, however, so Willow's powers returned and she was able to open a portal to continue her journey alone. This stand-alone arc picks up at that point.
We start with a page of background exposition, explaining what the world without magic is like. According to Willow, it sucks. The colour has faded out of the rainbow - quite literally. Suicides are up, people can't sing in tune, Coke tastes wrong. People lack inspiration.
The comic does leave us to wonder exactly how much of this is genuine and how much is Willow projecting her own loss onto the wider world. To be fair to her, she seems to have doubts herself. We start with Buffy being sceptical that it's any more than Willow's own issues, and Willow's reaction to that seems very defensive - she protests (in her private thoughts, not to Buffy) that "I'm not the only one" and again, "This isn't just me". The pattern we see on this page is one of Willow gradually convincing herself that there really is a problem - one that needs to be fixed.
And fixing problems - especially other people's problems - is Willow's favourite thing. Hence her decision that we saw way back in the second 'Buffy' arc, to take the broken Scythe and leave home, to travel the world searching for a way to bring magic back.
I'm reminded that the Seed of Wonder was described in Season 8 as "the source of all the magic in the world": but it was more than that: Twilight itself described it as the soul of the world. Willow called it "Soul and life, and it's amazing. It's tied to the heart of the Earth". It stands to reason that an Earth that's lost its soul will suffer more bad effects than just the loss of magic spells.
Anyway, Willow arrives in a weird hell dimension full of volcanoes and flying rocks, with an orange sky. It's typical of her style that her first regret is not having a camera phone. She also doesn't have anything in the way of camping equipment - no backpack, tent, sleeping bag, stove or the like - so either she's expecting this to be a really short trip, or she's relying on magic to supply all those needs.
She also discovers that magic works differently in this world, since she manages to fly for about a minute before crashing down to earth again. Ever since she acquired the power - first seen in Season 6, but perfected between Seasons 7 and 8 - Willow seems to prefer flying to walking. Can you blame her? But since that spell didn't work, she turns back to an older divination ritual that Giles once taught her. That's twice on two pages he's been mentioned: not bad for a dead guy.
The ritual needs to be completed by an offering of blood - and as she lifts the Scythe to cut herself, Willow's eyes start to go black. The artist has actually drawn this process midway through, with her pupils still distinct but the whole eye shaded over in black. However, Willow stops herself, with a warning to "Take it slow". The implication is that dark magic - like the Dark Side of the Force - is "quicker, easier, more seductive", but Willow understands that now. Using dark magic is a risk - it can be a calculated risk that she's willing to take in an emergency, but she's now aware of the possible consequences. This is thus a continuation of Willow's growth and character development we saw in Season 8 as well.
With typical ingenuity, she decides that other bodily fluids will work as well as blood, but be less dark and dangerous; a statement that had me a little worried until she revealed she was thinking of saliva! I didn't really understand her "This one's for Xander" comment, unless it's a reference to something on the show I've forgotten. Is she symbolically spitting on him because she hates him for reasons we've not seen yet on the page? Or - a much more pleasant idea - is she getting at the fact that she's choosing the safer but less effective ritual to avoid the danger of going dark - a fate from which he once saved her?
The spell works far more effectively than Willow expected - and she chides herself for her own self-doubt, then references the 'Wizard of Oz' as she sets out walking following the guidance spell. It all sounds very much in-character for her.
We also gather that her plan, such as it is, is to find a large, concentrated source of magic - a new Seed - and then find a way to bring it back to Earth with her. She's apparently attempted this already, but the portals she opens back to Earth close again too quickly for her to do anything. So she's looking for a bigger source of mojo.
Continuing the Oz theme (the book by L Frank Baum, not her ex-boyfriend) Willow is attacked by creatures she calls flying monkeys - though actually they're flying fire-breathing skulls, not very monkey-like. She defends herself with magic - "Thank Artemis the power's back on", she says, which is not a goddess I think she's referenced before. The virgin huntress? I guess Willow is currently celibate (due to dumping Kennedy and being separated from Aluwyn), and she is hunting for something. 'Escudo' means "shield" in Spanish and Portuguese, so even though the lightning-like effects of her magic look like an attack, it seems she's actually using it just to defend herself. Something that will matter later on.
Just as she's worried there are too many of them, a new monster turns up - a giant worm-thing with a mouth as big as her. I laughed at her threat to it - "Come any closer and I'll -- keep backing away in an intimidating fashion...!" But it turns out the worm isn't interested in her - it's attracted by the flying skull things, which are its natural prey. It chomps on them, and Willow is saved.
There's probably a metaphor, or maybe foreshadowing, there about how help can come in unlikely guises, and that reacting with violence against anything new and different can be counter-productive.
Meanwhile, Marrak the conjurer shows up. He's apparently going to be the main new character of this arc, and be Willow's companion/foil/new friend who will doubtless betray her in a couple of issues' time. Marrak is an ogre-like creature with goat's horns and an outthrust jaw with fangs, who wears a long purple cloak and carried a wooden staff. For some inexplicable reason, he reminds me of Tim the Enchanter from 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail'...
Anyway, Marrak tells us that he noticed Willow's spell-casting - "Your pyrotechnics" and came to see what was going on. However, his first comment - to himself - when he sees Willow is "That can't be... her!" So clearly he has an ulterior motive or prior knowledge. I see two possibilities: that he knows Willow from before, or at least knows of her by reputation or through a third party; or alternatively, that this world has an ancient mystical prophecy which she can fulfil.
Marrak tells us that he's originally from Earth, and used to visit this hell-dimension for "supplies I can get nowhere else", which is not at all ominous, oh no. He was also mutated from his original form because "dark magic made me look this way" - does that mean a spell that was cast on him, or that using dark magic himself made his physical form change into a demonic form? When the Seed was broken he was trapped in this dimension, as a parallel to all the demons trapped back on Earth. Despite all these ominous hints, he comes across as pleasant and friendly enough so far.
It's also an interesting coincidence that Buffy's first Watcher and mentor was called Merrick, and here is Marrak doing the same for Willow in this new world.
When Willow tells him that magic is gone from the Earth, he gets angry, and swears vengeance against "the bastards" who "neutered our world". Willow is against that idea, probably because she thinks vengeance is counter-productive but also because the bastard in question is her best friend Buffy.
Marrak looks very sinister, with glowing eyes and horns, when he suggests to Willow that if she could go back to Earth with her own powers restored but no other witches or warlocks left there, how many options would be open to her. There's a definite Devil as Seducer vibe going on here. But Willow - at least so far - is not doing this for selfish reasons, and is not tempted.
(My view of Willow's character is that she's genuinely altruistic - she likes to help people. Her biggest flaw is not selfishness, but blindness to other people's points of view. She thinks she knows better than you yourself do what would be in your own best interest.)
Marrak also suggests that Willow could herself be the source of magic for the Earth, or at least the conduit through which it passed from another dimension into our own. Willow dismissed that without much thought - "sounds dangerous" is her only comment before she changes the subject.
However, I have to wonder if this is, in fact, exactly what Willow - or rather, Future Dark Willow - will end up doing 200 years from now. That would finally explain 'Time Of Your Life'! The way to bring back magic, apparently, is for Willow to let herself be killed by the original, unbroken Scythe that was powered by the Seed, and thus establish a conduit through her own body for magic to flow back into the world. Getting the unbroken Scythe required time travel, and apparently it took 200 years for her to set up that spell to pull Buffy into Fray's world.
Or maybe that was all an alternate-dimension Willow, and the one from the 'real' Buffyverse will find another solution.
At this point they're attacked again, by an apparent cousin of the giant worm demon - although this one has legs. Its mouth is still big enough to swallow a person whole, though. The fight scene was fascinating to read, because it's staged very differently to the usual Buffyverse combat. Willow is certainly not a cool, badass warrior like Buffy, or Spike and Angel: and she can't just leap into battle the way they do. When her attempt at zapping the monster with magic fails, and Marrak's spells are equally ineffective ("It's laughing at us!"), she has to use her ingenuity to come up with a plan. The result is a lot of flustered arguing and shouting at each other as Marrak tries to distract the creature until Willow is ready.
Her plan works perfectly, though - she move rocks around until they form a hex, lures the monster into the centre of it - and freezes it motionless. But then Marrak grabs the Scythe off her and buries it in the helpless creature's head, killing it. Willow is furious: Marrak is unrepentant - not to mention that he plans to cook the monster for dinner.
This exchange showcases Marrak's ruthlessness and his pragmatism, in contrast to Willow's mercy. Is she simply being squeamish and sentimental - the old Season 5 Willow who didn't want to hurt the horses in 'Spiral' - or is this a sign of her more enlightened and spiritual approach to magic post-Season 7? Back in 'Goddesses and Monsters', too, she refused to kill Gnog (the Black Knight who barred her path) and specifically explained to Aluwyn "I'm not a killer". For that matter even in 'The Long Way Home' her solution to a zombie apocalypse was not to destroy the zombies, but to convince them they were all at a formal ball.
I think Willow has now seen the darkness inside her and is taking conscious steps to avoid it taking control of her. Avoiding unnecessary killing, especially magical killing, is a part of that. (Not that she's always succeeded - her casual use of violence back in 'Retreat' was enough to worry Buffy severely).
They cook the monster's flesh around a campfire, then lie down in the open on the rocky ground. (Really should have brought a sleeping bag, Will.) Marrak speaks longingly of how great it'll be to be back on Earth with all his power and no rivals, and Willow looks distinctly concerned about her travelling companion, and what she's let herself in for.
Next morning, they follow Willow's path of fire into an enchanted forest, and find a magical spring. Willow, being not entirely stupid, is worried that drinking it will send them to sleep for a thousand years. While she may not have brought camping equipment, she does have a druidic purity pendant that will make the water safe to drink.
The water isn't poisoned, but it does make Willow experience all the most powerful memories of her life. These include:
The start of her friendship with Buffy and membership in the Scooby gang - though interestingly, Willow remembers it differently, or multiple memories are combining. Her line "You're the Slayer and we're like, the slayerettes" (from 'The Witch') was actually spoken when they were in the library researching, while here Buffy is in the middle of fighting vampires.
Using her computer skills to research the bad guys, with Xander beside her - the original, pre-magic way she helped out the team and fought evil and found a purpose in life. Also, she looks so young here with her Season 1 hairstyle! I'm not sure if this is genuine dialogue from the show - I couldn't find it on a search - or just a generic Willowy thing to say.
The start of her relationship with Oz, specifically the conversation from the final scene of 'Phases'. It's significant that it's the happy beginning, not the tragic end in 'Wild At Heart' or the awkward coda in 'Retreat', that's numbered among Willow's lasting and most powerful memories of her life.
Willow getting dark magic from Rack, with their dialogue from 'Wrecked'. This was when Willow did the mystical equivalent of selling her body to buy drugs, and it's kind of reassuring that her subconscious doesn't shy away from it or blank it out.
Tara's death. There's obviously no way a list of the most significant moments in Willow's life could ever leave that out.
The start of Willow's relationship with Aluwyn. Again, the memories here are combined; her words "And for truth, I choose the Trickster" come from 'Goddesses and Monsters', but when she said them she wasn't in a naked sexy clinch with Aluwyn, as she is in this memory.
I feel sad for Kennedy that she apparently doesn't feature in Willow's most important memories. Not entirely surprised - it was always the bittersweetness of that pairing that Kennedy's feelings for Willow were much deeper than Willow's for her. But still sad.
It was also notable that everyone who appeared in Willow's flashback is a person she's had some kind of sexual interaction with - metaphorical in Rack's case, making-out only with Xander, and subtextual with Buffy, but still there. I also think we can assume that the writer and artist chose scenes that would contrast with each other, from a Doylist perspective, and so for example Tara only appears once even though I suspect more than one of Willow's most important memories would involve her.
Willow is worried that Marrak also saw the same vision of her life, but it turns out he saw his own life flash before his eyes instead. He describes it as being "kicked in the face by every failure in my life", which is an interesting contrast. Either the magic worked differently on him - which I doubt - or his life has been one long string of failures. If so, that would be all he got to experience; while Willow's life has contained a mixture of friendship and love and helping other people, not just horrible mistakes and tragedies, so she experiences both.
While they're all dazed, a new player appears on the scene, straight out of 'Alice in Wonderland' or possibly a bad acid trip. Or both: a giant talking caterpillar. He's smoking a pipe, not a hookah, and he speaks in bad verse which neither Lewis Carroll's version nor Grace Slick's did; but he does claim to have known Carroll in person.
He explains to them what the spring does, and Willow asks him if he can help them in their quest. She's looking for "the light" to "heal the damage that's been done", while Marrak thinks dark magic would be more helpful. He also knows she's "tasted dark magic" - how does he know that, I wonder? She didn't tell him in any conversation we were shown, so that's another clue he knows of her from before. Willow doen't pick up on it, though - and she says she has to "remain pure" (like Artemis?) and not give way to the temptations of the Dark Side.
The Caterpillar, however, mocks that idea. As far as he's concerned, magic is no more "light" or "dark" than science is: it's a neutral force that can be used for good or evil, but the two are not easily disentangled.
Before they can continue with this philosophical discussion, the Caterpillar hears something big approaching, and asks them, in a fake-casual way, if they killed anything on the way here. "You did, didn't you?" he says as we end on a cliff hanger, and an enormous monster looking just like the one Marrak killed - but the size of a small office building - bursts into the clearing with a roar. Ooops. Should have listened to Willow, Marrak!
My assumption is that this is the original creature resurrected and grown larger through a magical law of consequences - the evil you do with magic returning to you threefold, or something like that. Alternatively, maybe it's the original monster's mother come for revenge.
In summary, I liked this story but felt it was a little empty compared to its closest equivalent, 'Goddesses and Monsters'. That had more emotional resonance and more analogies to real-world myths, both ancient and modern, than this. Still, 'Wonderland' is a multi-part series, so we can expect it to be paced more slowly than a one-off. The dialogue felt true: Jeff Parker has captured Willow's 'voice' very well. The art, while good in itself, is less recognisable - but partly that's because this is an older Willow with a new hairstyle (courtesy of Georges Jeanty, I understand) and it was a nice touch to include the flashbacks to earlier and more familiar versions of the character, to remind us of how she's changed over time.