Review: Fallen Angel Volume 1 trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, May 29, 2008

[This review comes from Bob Hodges of the To the Black Rose blog]

Peter David's and David Lopez's Fallen Angel is one of the best superhero comics not set in the DC or Marvel universe (though given its connections to David's run on Supergirl, that assertion is unproven) to come down the pike in a long time. The main character, Lee, is a strong female character, sexual without being overly sexualized and posses a wonderful dry sense of humor along with a strong dose of moral ambiguity. Lee conforms in some ways to the Bogart/Mitchum archetype of laconic with a heart of gold, except for she's female, barefoot, and super-powered. Her other major divergence from the Bogartian norm is that she often winds up harming the people who seek her help, if she deems them deserving of their bad situation.

The other characters are well drawn and memorable, though David does show an unfortunate tendency for almost Dickensian-style naming. Lee's main adversary and the urbane and scheming magistrate of the city of Bete Noire is named Doctor Juris, but despite his name shares an intriguing relationship with Lee. The city's chief examiner (i.e. police detective) is the North African Slate, who appears very much inspired by Peter Lorre and Claude Rains. Then there is the sleazy heroin-dealer, Asia Minor, who resides in a mausoleum and lusts for Lee. Of the supporting cast, these three are the most interesting because if their shifting relationships with Lee, they may be lovers/allies in one issue, attempting to kill each other the next as circumstances alter.

Peter David grafts into the story an excellent sense of mystery, even while throwing some pretty obvious clues in as to the nature of his heroine and Dolf the bartender. Fallen Angel collects the first six issues of the series, the first two stories being one-shots, while the last four tell of Lee's battle against a city-destroying monster powered by sex and death.

Lopez' art is beautiful and he admirably draws not just the fight scenes, but the homes of each character where David has him throw in little easter eggs of insight, like the Wings of Desire poster in Lee's room. Lopez's sketchbook at the end, though only two pages, is cool with early versions of Lee looking at bit like Robin's ex-girlfriend Spoiler. I think this is Lopez's first major artistic job, and I will be checking out his run on Catwoman with Will Pfeifer.

Famous science-fiction writer Harlan Ellison provides the introduction which, although self-indulgent, does provide great insight into the story (something missing from most trade paperback introductions). Ellison points out where David has incorporated Judaic elements into his heroine and lists several little mysteries in the story. For instance why is Lee is always barefoot?

David's writing expertly blends superhero action, noirish and ambiguous characters, Vertigo-style mythology, and supernatural horror. Because of this series I will probably read some of his other work on Spider-Man and Sachs and Violens (who apparently appear later in Fallen Angel).

There are a few problems besides the annoying names. The covers are in the back of the book with the sketchbook instead of incorporated with the story (though it is easy to tell where an issue begins and ends). The avoidance of the word "fuck" can sometimes be annoying in the book. It is a mature readers title, there's no need for a squeamishness that draws more attention to itself than the actual word would. I also can't figure out why Fallen Angel is not a Vertigo title; the book probably could have found an audience capable of sustaining itself at that imprint.

Finally, the city of Bete Noire is supposed to be one of the major draws of the series. It is designed as a fictional town along the lines of DC's Gotham, Opal, or St. Roch with supernatural overtones. And I was underwhelmed. I see nothing cool, new or different about the actual appearance or cityscape. I see no evidence of why it needs to be situated close to New Orleans. The major questions about the city that are interesting is why is it so different after dark, where is the police force, is Doctor Juris the only form of government for it, does the city actually affect world events, and at night is it some sort of land of the dead and/or damned. These are very plot-specific questions, and unlike Opal or Gotham I don't feel like the city breathes on its own apart from the necessities of plot. But, there are several trades to go, and I should reserve judgment until I see how David plays out the mysteries of the city.

Rating: 4 out of 5 t'fillins (Jewish prayer vestments for males worn by Lee)
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7 comments:

  1. I have all 20 issues of Fallen Angel before it switched over to IDW. One of my all-time favourites (and yes, the stories get stronger after this arc). It's a shame Vertigo refused to pick it up. The sales it had weren't good by DC standards, but it could have been a solid Vertigo performer.

    Peter David saves "fuck" for one of the final issues during a key moment; I thought avoiding the usage till then was pretty effective. And is Bete Noire near New Orleans? I don't remember that. I don't think the city ever had a fixed location.

    I don't believe DC's collected the series beyond volume 2, and it doesn't look like they'll collect anymore down the line. Which is a shame; the series was at its strongest towards the end. IDW is currently publishing Fallen Angel (but it doesn't have the rights to the DC run), and while I've enjoyed it, I think it lost a little something in the transition.

    (Incidentally, the Supergirl bit is answered in the IDW run. Kinda.)

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  2. I've read the first two volumes - the DC collections - and they are really strong. It's been killing me that I haven't been able to read - via trade - the IDW issues.

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  3. phs -- You're in luck; IDW does publish trades of their Fallen Angel series, including a swanky premiere edition I've been salivating over for a while.

    jeffrey -- I've been curious about the differences between the DC and IDW Fallen Angel. What did it lose in the transition, as you said?

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  4. I think some of it has to do with the focus on Lee's son; he's not a very interesting character in spite of David's best efforts, especially when you put him right next to Lee herself.

    But a lot of it has to do with the art. J.K. Woodward's first arc is gorgeous, but doesn't lend very well to action sequences; the characters are so stiff. It made me realise how good David Lopez really was. I assume that Woodward's original style was too time-consuming, because he changed his approach in the subsequent books, but now they're not as pretty and still stiff.

    I considered dropping the book after volume 4 (the Shi crossover). Not that it was bad. But as entertaining as it was, I felt that the series was treading water, and my comics expenses are pretty limited to begin with. However, I understand volume 5 is a major turning point in the series, so I'll stick around for that.

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  5. jeffrey -- Interesting notes on Woodward's art (I sometimes feel the same about Alex Ross and other painted-comics, much as I might like them). If you ever want to write a review of the IDW Fallen Angel trades (or something else), just let me know.

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  6. Thanks for the offer, but I doubt I'll submit anything anytime soon. I just don't have the vocabulary for it.

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  7. Regarding the language, FA didn't start out as a Mature Readers book. IIRC DC balked at something implied around issue #3 or 4, slapped a MR label on the front, and from that point on, they figured if it was going to be an MR book, they might as well take advantage of the tools available.

    And I seem to recall there was some sort of inter-company squabble where Vertigo refused to take it for some reason.

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