The first issue of Angel:After the Fall gets off to a good start. It's tightly written, with just the right balance of action, horror, philosophising about the meaning of existence, and dry humour that you'd expect from an episode of Angel. I'm more ambivalent on the artwork, which seemed rather patchy to me. In some scenes it flows really well, giving a sense of movement and action and managing to capture the characters' likenesses without over-elaborating the details. In others, though, things just seem muddy and confused, and some of the likenesses are, let's say, not so recognisable.
Still, it's definitely a very enjoyable story so far. It's even inspired me to write a full review. :-) Do I need to say that there will be comprehensive and thorough spoilers below the cut? Thought not.
"It all started with a girl"
We begin with Angel's internal monologue, just like in 'City Of' - and, indeed, echoing his own words from back then :
"Los Angeles. You see it at night and it shines. Like a beacon. People are drawn to it. People and other things. They come for all sorts of reasons. My reason? No surprise there. It started with a girl." - Angel, 'City Of'
For a while, I was thinking through all the different girls it started with - Darla, of course; and the unnamed gypsy girl in 1898; and Buffy, who triggered Angel's determination to become a champion. And Lilah, who convinced him to come and work for Wolfram and Hart. But from context, it seems clear that the girl in question this time is Fred. It was her death that convinced Angel, in his words, to take a stand:
"When Fred died, I wasn't gonna let that be another random horrible event in another random horrible world. So I decided to use it, to make her death matter." - Angel, 'Power Play'
Now, Angel's actions in 'Not Fade Away' have sparked a fair bit of controversy. It's presented on the show as a heroic act: refusing to accept evil, but fighting against it even at the cost of his own life. Many fans, though, have described Angel's actions as a sign of despair and self-destructive madness. 'After The Fall' makes that even more pointed by showing us that Angel is not only suffering the consequences himself: Wolfram and Hart have chosen to inflict the tortures of Hell upon millions of innocent humans simply to teach him a lesson. Was he wrong, then? Was the destruction of the Black Thorn worth the price paid by the inhabitants of Los Angeles?
This story, so far, doesn't say either way. Angel is clearly deeply troubled by the consequences of his actions - "Ever since then I've been trying to make up for it" - and is trying to make amends by returning to the tried and tested method he's so familiar with: helping the helpless, one soul at a time. One can speculate that he's now a little gun-shy about grand gestures. Even so, he doesn't openly come out and say he now thinks he was wrong... feeling bad about the harmful side-effects of something you do isn't necessarily the same as wishing you'd never done them. Still, I'm sure this is something we'll hear more about as the season goes on.
Back to the review: and the introduction of the dragon, although revealed earlier in the published preview, is still a classic Angelverse surprise twist. Angel fought the dragon, but he didn't slay it: he made friends with it. (And we also now know that the dragon is male. Let's not speculate on how Angel found that out. :-) ) It seems that the dragon understands English, because we see Angel talking to him and giving him instructions; but so far, we don't know if he can talk back.
The woman Angel rescues gets a fair amount of screentime and dialogue, so it's possible she'll become a recurring character. The irony of her comment "I'm a good person! I'm a lawyer!" in the light of Angel's experience of lawyers has already been commented on when the previews came out... but I'll add that the idea of a lawyer wearing a headband and carrying a battleaxe appeals to my sense of whimsy. And she also gets a really good line on meeting Nina, but I'll come to that shortly... (Plus she appears to be channelling Willow in her attitude to stealing - reference 'Triangle'. Not necessarily what you'd expect from a lawyer.)
Incidentally, there's another classic Angel moment in this scene: the cool Masked Avenger way he flies off into the sunset without giving his name - "Who should we say sent us?" "You shouldn't" - which will, of course, later be completely undercut by the ease with which Connor guesses anyway.
The large picture of Los Angeles in Hell makes me wonder - what was left behind on Earth? I can think of several possibilities: a huge crater, similar to the smaller one a few miles north in Sunnydale; some sort of mystical energy field; an empty desert, similar to what existed there before the city was founded... or perhaps an identical copy of LA still exists on Earth, and nobody there knows anything has changed. Or perhaps Angel is being lied to, and the LA he's living in now is the copy. I hope we'll find out, although possibly it won't be until the last issue of the season, assuming that's when Angel finally manages to escape. (Assuming he ever does escape...) Unless we cut away to somebody who wasn't in LA at the time of the apocalypse - such as Lorne? - and who was therefore not sent to Hell along with the others. Or maybe we'll even get told about this during Buffy Season 8, although I'm not holding my breath for that. :-)
The scene with Burge and his son kicks the plot into high gear with the revelation that LA is now controlled by rival demon overlords ruling the humans as slaves - and that Angel has been forced to submit to their power, at least on the surface. His sardonic humour and apparent unconcern about being threatened ('Always a pleasure, Burge') is another classic Angel moment. And now we get our first surprise of the issue. Wesley! Alive!...no, wait. Dead! And apparently he signed the same contract as Lilah and Holland Manners. Silly of him, though perhaps he didn't get a choice. I wonder what the situation is regarding Angel himself, Gunn, Lorne and Fred, since presumably they signed the same contract? (Though whether the contract Fred signed can be enforced upon Illyria is the kind of legal problem that would take an interdimensional firm of evil lawyers to settle... oh, wait.)
And so Wesley is now the acting CEO of the LA branch of W&H, or something along those lines? The demons at least seem to respect him as such, although it's not clear how much of his words is an act. (As we soon see, it's not entirely clear to Angel either - he doesn't know how much he can trust Wesley now.)
And now out to Santa Monica, and our lawyer with a battleaxe and her two friends... and our introduction to three more familiar faces from the TV series. Well, when I say 'familiar faces' - the image of the three of them was another preview, and while most people correctly identified Connor and Gwen, the majority thought the picture of Nina was actually Harmony. Including me, especially when she started talking about the humans' heartbeat and smell of fear, and when she licked the lawyer's neck in the finest approved Vampire Willow style. But then we're told that this blonde is a werewolf, not a vampire, so we can work out it 's Nina. And then we get possibly the funniest line of the issue, and definitely the most knowing shout-out to the fanbase:
"Do you have any idea what that does to a werewolf?"
"Makes you hungry?"
"Makes you bi-curious?!"
Nina, you'll notice, strongly rejected the first suggestion, but we didn't hear her reaction to the second. :-) Incidentally, when last we saw her Angel was giving her plane tickets to Mexico. Looks like she either didn't go, or was still on her way to the airport when Hell happened. As for Connor, he obviously didn't make it far enough away either. Nice to see he still cares about family - but what happened to his own? Also, some trivia: the car the survivors drove to Santa Monica has the number plate 1-666. I wonder if that's coincidence, or if all cars in Los Angeles now have '666' as part of their registrations?
Back to the W&H building, and Angel has taken his shirt off... nice to see we're sticking closely to tradition. Wesley's line about "literally giving anything" to be able to move on sounds rather ominous, knowing what he's capable of. Note that Illyria really did lie to him in his final scene: he's not been reunited with Fred even after his death. And we get a bit more backstory. Seems like Angel has been ordered by W&H not to try to leave Los Angeles on pain of some unspecified but presumably horrible punishment; and Wesley thinks he needs to be doing rather more than just saving "small groups of civilians". But since Wesley is in the pay of W&H, is his advice trustworthy? That's a question Angel has to ask himself, and it's pointed up by the later scene of Wesley walking into the White Room, presumably to talk to the Senior Partners.
The golden glowing orb that the demon lord Kr'ph is wearing is presumably important, given that Angel has a diagram of it on his wall. It could be just his personal symbol of rulership... although given the references to "the lords" (plural) I'm going to speculate that all the important demon rulers of LA have one of these orbs, and that they're somehow connected to the magic that's keeping the inhabitants imprisoned in Hell. So the plot of the season might involve a scavenger hunt to collect the complete set of these orbs.
Kr'ph is amusing, if somewhat silly. He's clearly been reading too many human-written swords and sorcery stories about demonic overlords, because he's got the full outfit, complete with half-naked slavegirls (and a chained telepathic fish) and gladiator warriors. You actually feel kind of sorry for him by the time he dies, because he's so pathetic.
Incidentally, while people who've read 'Spike:Asylum' and 'Shadow Puppets' will immediately recognise Betta George, he's not actually been named in this issue yet. And who knows - this might actually turn out to be his evil twin Betta Ringo, and George will show up next issue... Kr'ph generously gives the fish a boost to his telepathic power (notice how both their eyes glow briefly yellow, just like the mystic orb), giving him the ability to send mental commands. I wonder if this is temporary, or if he'll keep the ability for the rest of the series?
And now we get our next surprise. Gunn! He's alive too! (Well, er... actually... see the last page.) He seems pretty much in character too, apart from the rather cheesy line about erotic dreams which is perhaps our first indication that all is not well here. And he takes the shiny orb, emphasising its importance to the plot. Also, remember how this scene began - with a link from Wesley telling Angel "if you don't start trying to take control, the wrong person is going to." The natural assumption was that Kr'ph was the 'wrong person'... but by the end of this issue it seems like it's his old friend that Angel will really need to worry about.
And in his last scene of this issue, Angel makes a grand dramatic gesture and damns the consequences - just like the one that got him into this mess in the first place. He kills Burge's son (after a way cool gesture with the metal desk Burge admired) in order to save six humans - and thus triggers open war. His closing monologue is again typical Angel. Slightly obscure, but what I think he's getting at is that W&H think they've got him on a leash due to his guilt over what he did to LA, and so he's unwilling to break their rules again and confront them openly - but they're wrong. Anyway, that's my interpretation.
Then we close on the most shocking revelation of all. Looks like Gunn didn't survive the battle in the alley after all - and given his actions in going after Kr'ph's orb, we might well be looking at this season's Big Bad. Which will be a gut-punch for Angel when he finds out... I assume that the women Gunn is killing here are Kr'ph's ex-slavegirls, who weren't being rescued after all... and by extension, I assume the heap of bodies earlier in the scene are the ex-gladiators, whom Gunn left to his minions to kill. Are they vampires too, or other demons? From the looks of it, they're writing mystical symbols on the wall with the blood of their slain victims, while Gunn is simply having a snack.
So, of the main cast characters in Season 5, that leaves Spike (who's confirmed for the next issue), Illyria, Lorne and Harmony who've not appeared, at least so far.
Finally, some musing about the season's title. On a mundane level, we can take 'After the Fall' as a reference to the downfall of Los Angeles and the disaster that has claimed our heroes. But the term 'Fall' does have certain mythic connotations, especially in a series called 'Angel'...
Remember how it all began - the apple and the Fall of Man,
The price we paid, so the people say?
- 'Thick as Thieves', Natalie Merchant
At the start of Season 5, Eve gave Angel an apple, and he bit into it. Of course the parallel to the Biblical story isn't exact. The fruit of the tree of knowledge opened Adam's eyes to good and evil; the apple Angel ate blinded him to the difference. And in the Bible, God was afraid that Adam and Eve would go on to eat from the tree of eternal life and so set themselves on a level equal to his own (Genesis 3.22), whereas Angel already has eternal life, after a fashion. In the end, Angel's act of rebellion resulted in him too being expelled from Paradise - but he wasn't cast out, he left willingly and pulled it down behind him.
"Looks like we're getting kicked out of the garden, Eve." - Angel, 'Not Fade Away'
In fact, in his defiance of the powers that rule this Earth, and his willingness to take up arms against an unconquerable foe just to prove to them that he would never be their slave, we can see a parallel to another, earlier version of the Fall - in fact, to the original Fallen Angel, who...
...with ambitious aim,
Against the Throne and Monarchy of God
Rais'd impious War in Heav'n and Battel proud.
-John Milton, 'Paradise Lost'
Like Lucifer, Angel finds himself punished for his arrogant rebellion against the established order by being cast down into Hell... but again like Milton's version of Satan, he is unwilling to admit defeat, however impossible the odds against him.
We may with more successful hope resolve
To wage by force or guile eternal Warr
Irreconcileable, to our grand Foe,
Who now triumphs, and in th' excess of joy
Sole reigning holds the Tyranny of Heav'n.
Angel has now taken up once more his eternal war... but whether either force or guile will be enough to defeat the Senior Partners is still in question. And so too is an even bigger question:
Is this a war he should be fighting at all?