Monday, July 05, 2004

Review - Fallen Angel

Fallen Angel
By Peter David, David Lopez, and Fernando Blanco
Published by DC Comics; $12.95 USD

The trade collecting the first six issues of Peter David’s creator-owned endeavor, Fallen Angel, introduces us to the dark city of Bete Noire and its dark heroine, Lee (or Fallen Angel, as the city’s more notable figures know her). By day, Lee coaches girl’s soccer, and at night she dons a crimson shroud, taking up her regular table at her regular bar, waiting for those in need of her supernatural gifts to call upon her. Sometimes charming, sometimes sexy, and sometimes dark and just plain ugly, Lee’s motives are as steeped in mystery as her origins, and her sense of responsibility towards the people she helps goes only so far as she feels they deserve.

Lee is the most enigmatic hero David’s scribed so far, and the questions of her beginnings, her motives, and her strange abilities fuel the story’s suspense. Not only is it refreshing to see a female-lead comic whose heroine is both strong and sexy without close-ups of titanic bosoms every few panels, but Lee is one of the more likeable protagonists of recent memory. She’s a good deal more fallible than the superhero hosts of Marvel and DC, and her childlike antics during grisly battle sequences are wonderful, like her pension for squeaking out "‘Kay" before tearing apart rooms full of bad guys.

Fallen Angel’s potential is immeasurable, and its most engaging aspect is the mystery behind its morally ambiguous characters. From Lee’s sometimes-nemesis/sometimes-lover Doctor Juris, to the spikey-haired drug dealer Asia Minor who furnishes a bachelor pad out of a mausoleum, each of Bete Noir’s eccentric figures deserve as much speculation as any comic book message board could offer.

David Lopez’s pencils play a big role in realizing David’s vision of Bete Noire as a place where the boundaries between good and evil are blurred; every character is both angel and devil. There are delightfully subtle bits you might miss, like the chain-smoking Slate exhaling a smoke-ring halo over Lee’s head, or how he can always be found with a cigarette dangling from his lips, yet you never see him light it.

One of the more interesting and disturbing features of his work are the eyes of his subjects. The eyes are distinct to each character; the slightly drunk euphoria of Slate; the fierce, determined blue of Graymalkin; the muted sorrow of Doctor Juris. Flip through the book and you’ll see Lopez occasionally puts one eye just a bit off-center, as if every character in Bete Noire suffers from irregular lazy eye, and no one can really be sure if they’re seeing what they think they see.

Perhaps my only complaint with the pencils has more to do with the script than Lopez’s skills. Lee doesn’t feel like a superhero. She doesn’t talk like one or act like one, but it’s tough to see her as anything but a costumed crimefighter when she shows up perched on balconies in Spider-Man crouches, or traverses Bete Noire’s streets by leaping onto windowsills and rooftops.

It isn’t Lee’s acrobatics that weigh this title down, though; it’s the dialogue. Unfortunately, the situation is so dire that it threatens to drag all of Fallen Angel’s potential down with it.

David’s often been criticized for wasting time with one-liners, puns, and other assorted wittiness, and that criticism has never been more justified than when considering Fallen Angel. David sets up cardboard cut-outs like the worried mother who seeks Lee out in the first chapter, the vengeful thug Shadow Boxer, and the terrorist Azmil for the more three-dimensional characters like Lee and Doctor Juris to easily knock over with their disingenuously spontaneous wit.

More frustrating, however, is David’s insistence on deconstructing his own work at every turn. From Lee and Juris spelling out the symbolism of their strange relationship in the beginning of the second chapter, to the villainous demon’s diatribe during the climactic battle of the collection, every golden egg is plucked and held under the reader’s nose to brag about how shiny it is.

Likewise, each "subtle" mystery is shoved down the reader’s throat. For example, one of Fallen Angel’s more peripheral characters is Dolf, an elderly German who owns a bar named "Furors." And hardly an issue goes by without being reminded that his name is Adolf Dolf, and he’s an elderly German, and he owns a bar named Fuhrer’s "Furors," or the reader gets more improbable hints, like the drug dealer Graymalkin calmly recognizing Dolf’s pistol as one favored by the Wehrmacht, or Dolf nonchalantly, and without any apparent reason, mentioning he had an abusive father as terrorists are threatening to kill him.

What should be telegraphed in fine print is broadcast in neon signs. It kills the suspense, the mystery, the metaphor; everything that makes this story unique and engaging. Fallen Angel could be Peter David’s best work in comics to date, but it isn’t. Not yet.

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