With the economy the way it is today, and the general status of the comic book marketplace, it’s getting difficult to find value in comics. $3.99 for 22 pages of story (or even 30 pages of story + back-up story) just isn’t very attractive for even the wealthiest of comic enthusiasts for even the best of stories. Gone are the days of picking up a handful different books on Wednesday, when five books would cost you 50 cents or five bucks. It seems that people are, or soon will be, willing to shell out for a collected edition or original graphic novel rather than a monthly periodical. On occasion, publishers are willing to dole out their wares in bulkier forms at bargain prices… Marvel’s “Essential” series, DC’s “Showcase” line, Dark Horse, Oni and here, with Peter David’s Fallen Angel series, IDW’s Omnibuses.
The Fallen Angel Omnibus collects the first 21 issues of the title’s second series, a gargantuan 500+ page softcover for $24.99. The first series, also 21 issues long, was published by DC, and as David explains in his introduction, was originally supposed to dovetail into the mythology of the Supergirl series. The axe fell before he could do that, which allowed David to wrangle the book as a creator-owned series instead of part of DCU architecture, thus transporting it to IDW and breathing new life into the title. The publishing past of Fallen Angel is only important in knowing that there are preceding chapters to this series (the first 12 issues were collected in two volumes from DC, oddly the second volume of which came out well after the first two trades of series two were already published by IDW) and that they are referenced marginally in the second series, but the second series picks up quite some time after the first, forging a fresh new path.
Bete Noir is known as “the city that shapes the world”, and it’s a rotting, stinking cesspool of crime, corruption and sin. It’s operated by the Magistrate, whom the city speaks to, whom it protects, but the Magistrate isn’t almighty, he still answers to the Hierarchy. A king, a demi-god of town, the Magistrate rules with delicate operation, everyone serves his will it seems, all but the Fallen Angel. Lee is indeed a fallen guardian angel, cast down from heaven to live amongst the humans for her failures under the boss. Where the Magistrate rules, Lee gets drunk, picks fights and takes requests.
Time seems to almost stand still in Bete Noir, out of step with the rest of the world, but still as people don’t necessarily look older, some can feel the years, and the current Magistrate is looking to pass along the title to his firstborn son, who happens to be the offspring he produced with Lee (both his greatest love and his greatest nemesis), the child whom he thought was aborted, the child who was given to a nun, raised in a church and is now a priest.
In this volumes, many secrets about Lee’s past, the nature of Bete Noir and its corrupting effect on not just its citizens but also the world’s are explored. It’s rich supporting cast is expanded, including Sachs and Violens (which David created with George Perez for Marvel Epic in the early 1990s), Lee’s predecessor, and, obviously Lee’s son. There’s also a multi-part tale featuring Billy Tucci’s Shi, which takes place in one of the two hidden sister cities to Bete Noir, Yellow Springs.
Fallen Angel is a book that believes in religion, but it’s using it more in a fantasy/superhero vein than as a tool for conversion. Without spoiling it, David’s crafted a rather amusing non-scientific rationale behind global warming. Religious idealists might find the book blasphemous, but David ably takes religious stories, superstitions and misconceptions and weaves them together into a highly enjoyable book that’s into being philosophical when it’s not about kicking ass.
There’s a roster of artists over the 21 issues, although the bulk of the chores are handled by J.K. Woodward. Woodward opens the initial story arc with fully (digitally?) painted work which is effective at delivering some of the more awe-inspiring moments of the story. Subsequent issues, which Woodward handles with more conventional illustration and coloring techniques show more prominently the flaws in his work. There’s often a lack of consistency to a character’s appearance with an occasional look of distortion. There’s also an obvious tendency to either photo reference or photo manipulate (or both) leaving many of the panels feeling stiff and unnatural. But overall, Woodward handles the storytelling aspects well, with good flow along the panels. As well, he’s not afraid to experiment with storytelling styles and techniques which allows him to really punch up some sequences and differentiate the stories through illustration style.
In some respects, I find the title character to be the book’s weakest link, but also its greatest strength. Her character, when put up against what we typically view stories involving spiritual beings, is way off type. The rather bitter, drunk, vindictive former angel with a sailor’s mouth is not what we’ve come to expect from fictional angels, way off type from Michael Landon and Della Reese, and even Christopher Walken and Peter Stormaire’s dark portrayals of angels would seem heavenly compared to Lee. I guess it’s because Lee doesn’t act as a stranger to humanity, she doesn’t act above human impulse, but also she acts so… crassly American that makes her unusual. But then again, it makes you think, about what she knows, and how she is, and why she is that way.
Lee does take a side-seat in the second half of the omnibus, however, with stories about her predecessor, her son’s role as Magistrate and Shi taking the spotlight in the crossover, by the end of this first massive volume you become aware that it’s not just about the Fallen Angel, but about the world she inhabits that David enjoys exploring. Like Bete Noir, the book is dark and flawed, but there’s certainly more than enough to enjoy to keep coming back. At less than 5 cents a page, it’s at the very least an affordable vacation from the norm.