Friday, June 17, 2011

Crash! Bang! Pop?

(Right image - Mary Poppins - a childhood favorite of mine.)

Jonathan V. Last's post at The Weekly Standard, "The Crash of 1993" works for me since it ties together two of my current favorite subject matters: bubble economics and comic books. The subheading is also quite informative, as it tells us that "As the great comic-book bubble showed, sometimes there's no recovery from a speculative boom".

I highly recommend that you read the article if you're interested, but here's my version of what happened. Back in Olden Times, comic books were considered inconsequential, and mothers threw out comic book collections by the box-load during their annual rites of spring cleaning. However, as baby-boomers started growing up, some of them started to fondly remember their old comic books and started paying some real money for some of the more desirable older editions. During the 1980's, the interests of nostalgic baby boomers, entrepreneurial pre-teens and greedy speculators converged to the point where the resale costs of both old and new comic books spiraled upwards to dizzying heights, all until the Great Crash of 1993 brought the industry back to earth. (One example from the article, aside from collectibles selling for upwards of $80,000 at auctions, "A comic that sold initially for 60 cents could often fetch a 1,000 percent return on the investment just a few months later.")

Of course, there's a bit more to the story than what I wrote up above. I'm vastly oversimplifying things here, but according to Last, distributors had traditionally decided who and who could not sell comics, to the point that there were significant barriers to entry into the retail side of business. But in the early 1980's, according to Last, two distributors (Diamond and Capital City), as part of their expansion plans, ".....were happy to sign distribution agreements with just about anyone". I'll let Last take over from here:
With all of these comics shops sprouting across suburban America, the two remaining distributors took in record numbers of orders every month. Seeing these orders, the publishers thought they were presiding over a massive boom. So they upped their prices and began publishing more titles, adjusting the supply to meet what they thought was demand. In 1985 Marvel published 40 titles a month, and each book cost 60 cents. By 1988 they were putting out 50 titles for $1 apiece. By 1993, they were offering 140 books a month, selling for $1.25 and up.

All the while, the distributors kept standing up new retailers, who kept putting in orders, enticing the publishers to produce ever more books. It was an unsustainable loop, but what made the situation particularly perilous was that in the comic-book business, orders are placed months in advance and unsold inventory cannot be returned. Retailers eat unsold books as overstock. (Rozanski estimates that at the bubble’s peak, 30 percent of all comics being published wound up as overstock.) In other words, the loop was structured so the publishers would get negative feedback only after the industry had gone over the cliff and the retailers started going belly up.

Which is precisely what happened in 1993. By expanding their output to hundreds of titles, the publishers had diluted the quality of their product to embarrassing levels. That, combined with the higher retail prices, drove away customers.

(Besides comic books, I can remember similar boom/bust cycles with baseball cards, Beanie Babies, and practically every thing else that a person would normally throw away after it's been stored in the attic for 20 years. Imagine the shrieks of horror I heard when I took the tags off of Beanie Babies so my kids could play with them without getting scratched! It was actually kind of a relief to me when the whole craze seemed to end by about the year 2000 or so, since my kids had been bombarded with Happy Meal-type toys by relatives who warned them, "Now don't throw this away - it could be valuable some day!" I'm sure I've thrown out a lot of good money in the trash over the years, but I'm hoping I can assign some sort of intrinsic dollar value to being able to maintain a clear path inside my house to the front door.)

I've kind of left out how the traditional comic retail model seemed to favor newsstands and other general merchandise outlets. I can certainly remember that I used to be able to buy (or rather, talk my parents into buying) comic books just about everywhere back in the 1960's, from grocery stores, drug stores, discount stores like K-Mart, etc. I certainly wasn't a stereotypical kid who went through comic books like candy. However, I did savor comic books as though they were special treats, and I managed to amass a small collection which I kept until roughly the same time that I stopped sleeping with teddy bears. Probably because I'm a girl, I did not purchase Superman, Spider-Man, Captain Marvel or Batman comics. However, back during my childhood, a lot of the comics were tied to children's TV shows and movies, and I can specifically remember some Disney-themed comics, as well as old favorites like Peanuts, Dennis the Menace and (my dad's favorite) Beetle Bailey.

Fast forward roughly a dozen years. I entered a comic book store near my college campus, and walked out roughly five minutes later when I found out that all they had were a bunch of comics that were geared towards young male adults who'd forever be dateless on Saturday nights.

Fast forward roughly another 15 years. As a mother with three young boys, I was astonished to find out that it was next to impossible to find comics books for kids in traditional retail outlets. My entire family enjoyed Archie comics, but I was naturally on the lookout for more variety. I was therefore quite interested in a newspaper article that was written in either the late 1990's or early 2000's about a local comic book/collectibles store owner who had apparently been able to buck the trend and keep his business going. I was most interested in how the owner explained how the comic book industry had become more segmented and targeted narrower audiences, The owner also went on to state that it would do his business a world of good if some publishers went back to mass-marketing titles geared to children. Sadly, I never took the time to visit this particular comic book/collectibles store since I didn't think I'd find anything suitable for small children, and the shop went out of business about a year later.

So this is where I'm coming from when I talk about how I'm just now starting to overcome my prejudices against comic books. It's ironic that while I'm just starting to dip my toes into Angel comics, I have not set foot in a comic book shop since the last century. I've bought/been gifted After the Fall books from Amazon, but I'm still afraid to walk into a comic book store. Will people stop talking and stare at me? Do red lights and sirens go off when a middle-aged female customer walks through the door? Will I do something ignorant like inappropriately mix up the terms "comic books" and "graphic novels?" Will a sales clerk more than half my age scoff at me when I ask for a Spike or Illyria-themed title and sneer, "We don't carry those here!" I guess there's only one way to find out.

Closing Thought. Just as I was putting the finishing touches on this post, I discovered a short follow up post from Jonathan Last, "The Crash of 1993, cont." As you can tell from his listing of previous entries, Last seems to have written a lot of comic-themed posts.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

All Hail Smile Time


Amy Acker as Fred, admiring Angel's new look (image courtesy of Screencap Paradise)

Hearing someone state that "Smile Time" from Season 5 of Angel is a favorite episode is kind of like watching someone curtsy in front of the Queen. After a while it has the potential to become an empty, obligatory ritual of obeisance that is almost totally devoid of meaning. Having said that, I was happily surprised that "Smile Time" is another one of those episodes that can arguably get better after each viewing.

Pointing out all of those "oh, that's so cute" moments would be an overwhelming task. If I limited myself to just a few favorites I'd feel like I was disrespecting the rest of the show. (However, I do have to point out that Spike's "wee little puppet man" is probably my most-viewed scene of the entire series.) Instead I'll just focus on some of my pet themes and a few other minor aspects.

(If you're interested in some of my early thoughts on "Smile Time", see here and here.)

Childhood Innocence. I"ll start off by going straight towards the two-ton elephant in the room. It's unfortunate that the opening scene in the episode prevents me from showing "Smile Time" to people who've never seen Angel before. Otherwise, "Smile Time" could act as its very own goodwill ambassador for the series, sort of how "Hush" assumed that role for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I can understand how the creators wanted to balance out the cutesy lightheartedness of the rest of the show with the darker undercurrents of the loss of childhood innocence. However, no matter how open-minded I try to be, I just can't accept a segment where, in the words of Nikki Stafford in her book Once Bitten: An Unofficial Guide to the World of Angel, (page 325 in Google Books), "...if you listen to the opening without actually watching it, it sounds completely perverse, like the puppets are pedophiles. A child is watching TV, and you hear a voice talking to him saying, 'Get over here and touch it.". The voice then makes loud, sexual groaning noises. Yikes!"

Actually, even if you are watching the action it looks a lot like a puppet pedophile at work. In my worst moments I suspect that Mutant Enemy was once more sanctimoniously trying to shake white bread, middle-class, Middle America viewers out of their complacency. About all I can say is that I lived through the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the civil rights movement, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the 1960's drug counterculture movement, the 1967 Detroit race riots, an era when motorcycle gangs roamed the streets and countryside like we were in a Mad Max movie, an era of multiple airplane hijackings, the Tate-LaBianca murders (courtesy of Charles Manson & Co.), the Weatherman/Weather Underground bombings, the Michigan co-ed murders, Watergate, and the Oakland County child murders, all by the time I was fourteen years old. I don't have much more complacency left to shake.

Fred. If pressed to list all of my favorite moments in the episode, I'd honestly have to include every single scene Amy Acker appeared in. I can't help but mention this scene (and particularly the look on Amy's face) where Fred was trying to hit on an impossibly clueless Wesley, and this scene (as shown in the image above) where Fred gushed to Puppet Angel ".....oh....you're CUTE!" . Similar to Amber Benson's portrayal of Tara just before her character's death in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Amy Acker was positively luminous as Fred during her character's waning days.

Fred and Wesley. I've said in a previous post (which I couldn't find in the few seconds I spent looking for it) that Fred and Wesley were much more interesting as a couple when Fred was chasing a clueless Wesley rather than vice versa. I've also been going on at length lately how it was patently obvious that Fred and Wesley's romance had to be forced in at the last minute so that her death would be that much more tragic.

Stringing an audience along on the matter of "will they or won't they" seems to be as much of an art as it is a science. This is worth another blog post in its own right, but Mutant Enemy seemed to achieve mixed results. I thought they handled Buffy and Angel's burgeoning romance quite nicely, but it seemed like I had to wait forever for Buffy and Spike to get together, to the point where the otherwise fine Season 5 of Buffy was almost a complete waste for me. I seem to be in a distinct minority, but I always thought Mutant Enemy handled the Fred/Wesley relationship in somewhat of a slipshod manner throughout most of Angel's run until Season 5. By that time it was just too late to make that much of a difference for me.

It's no secret that Fred was not a favorite character of mine, though I've been tolerating her more lately, to the point where I'm actually finding some things that I like about her. It's therefore a bit of a disappointment that I'm not liking their famous kiss at the end of "Smile Time" that much more than the first time I saw it. The best I can come up with is, if they're happy, than I'm happy.

Charles Gunn and the Senior Partners. It's pretty obvious that Gunn had fallen pretty far when he opted to get a more permanent brain upgrade behind Team Angel's backs rather than admit that he was losing all of his legal knowledge. (With all of that knowledge in his brain, Gunn finally felt like he was operating on the same intellectual level as everyone else.) In his defense, Charles had no idea that his agreement to cut through the red tape which would allow the mad doctor to bring his "curio" through customs would lead directly to Fred's death. On a Sunday School morality level, Gunn should have known that cutting a deal with Evil would result in terrible consequences. However, he and Team Angel had been cutting deals with some pretty questionable characters all along, and had always been able to deal with the consequences. Why would this case be different?

What I really wonder about is, how involved were the Senior Partners in all of these events? It would be easy to assume that the Partners initially gave Charles a temporary brain boost, knowing full well that he'd come crawling back for more when he started losing his knowledge. However, Hamilton, Eve's successor liaison, mentioned on a few occasions that the Senior Partners weren't necessarily behind everything bad that happened. I could have sworn that either Hamilton or someone else clearly stated that the mad doctor and Knox had brought in Illyria's sarcophagus behind the Senior Partners' backs, but I'm unable to find it in the dialogue anywhere. (The best I can do is link to this piece where Hamilton claimed, in regards to the Senior Partners' feelings about Illyria, "They don't want her here. They don't want her anywhere...at all.")

I've been working under the assumption that the Senior Partners didn't necessarily micromanage all of the details in their attempts to bring about Angel's ruin. However, they did manage to work certain events to their advantage, and perhaps even fostered an atmosphere that allowed bad things to happen to Team Angel without the Partners' direct involvement. I just wish there was more in-your-face evidence to prove this point.

Spike. Although Spike had a memorable role in this episode, it's even more telling that he didn't join Wesley, Gunn, Fred and Puppet Angel when they went on the warpath with the evil puppets. It seemed crucial that the Old Gang fight one last battle on their own (sans both Lorne and Spike) before Fred passed away. It also seemed important that Spike be integrated into the group on Mutant Enemy's terms rather than allowing him to sidle in on his own. I noticed the same process with his attempts to join the Scoobies in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where it appeared that every time Spike seemed to organically merge into the group, Mutant Enemy would come around and pull him away again. The producers had their story line in mind in how Spike would become a true ally of Angel, and he just had to wait his turn.

Nina Ash. To paraphrase something Lorne said in Season 2 of Angel, the most remarkable thing about Nina's burgeoning relationship with Angel was how un-remarkable it really was. I won't go into too much detail, but I've discussed before that it was sweet to see how the whole boy-meets-girl thing unfolded between the two of them. I don't know if I'm really up to discussing why Angel's relationship with Nina worked out so much better than his relationships with other women, but in my heart I think that the whole low-key aspect was, for lack of a better phrase, the key to their success. Angel's affairs with Darla and Buffy (and, to a lesser extent with Cordelia), were epic dramas of their own, whereas the beginning of his relationship with Nina was more down-to-earth.

The real turning point occurred when Puppet Angel came up with the courage to show himself to Nina, which allowed her to see him in the worst possible light. Instead of laughing at Angel, Nina gave words of encouragement, since she could identify with him in yet one more way as one freak to another. It helped Nina to be able to see Angel at his most vulnerable, since what he did (showing himself to Nina) took about as much bravery as facing some of the worst monsters in the world. For his part, Angel was probably secretly glad to be involved with someone who was a little more peaceful than the other uppity uber-femmes he'd been involved with. Sometimes a guy just needs someone who will mix his favorite drinks and murmur sympathetic noises.

Idle Thoughts. Almost every episode of Season 5 of Angel seemed to drearily bring home the point that you need to bend your morals to the breaking point in order to achieve success. I'm almost cynical enough to believe that myself. The fact that this idea was personified in the guise of Wolfram & Hart was one of the most absolutely brilliant aspects of the series.

I've always been surprised that Fred and Wesley still seemed to enjoy the Smile Time children's TV show on its own terms even though they knew evil forces were involved. Talk about separating art from the artist!

The fact that Wesley came in #2 on the list behind Knox didn't really say much for Fred's taste in men.

I'm not quite sure why I always laugh whenever I hear Lorne say "Oh, that's Gregor Framkin. Yeah, real rags to riches. Started out in a garage with a couple of used couches and a glue gun. He turned it into a puppet gold mine." It must be have been something in actor Andy Hallett's delivery. While I'm at it I might as well mention how much I adore his "Bad person!" and "Is there a Geppetto in the house?" lines.

I read an abbreviated version of Flowers of Algernon when I was in high school. The story was referenced in this scene with Charles Gunn and the evil doctor. Although I really liked the book, I didn't care for the movie version, "Charly", with Cliff Robertson and Claire Bloom, mostly because it featured a lot of 1960's experimental film-type schlock that aged quite badly over the years.

I always enjoyed hearing bad guys acknowledge that ticking off Angel was a bad mistake.

I can't help but mention that the premise that the puppets were going to wipe out the life essences of all of the children in Los Angeles in one fell swoop is a lot like how all of the children's heads were going to explode when they watched a TV show while they were wearing specific Halloween masks in Halloween III.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Patrick Shand's Suggested Reading Order of IDW Angel Comics

Patrick Shand became my Insta Hero when he posted "IDW's Angel - Reading Order" over at his Writerly Writings blog. Shand pointed out that "IDW has put out such a wealth of Angel comics in the past five years that some fans have mentioned not knowing where to start." To help us novices, he came up with ".... a suggested reading order of everything published since Joss Whedon and Brian Lynch started telling the official, post-television series Angel story." As an extra bonus, Shand also provided us a with a listing of IDW Angel comics that were published before Brian Lynch and Joss Whedon started collaborating on their After the Fall Series.

Shand, of course, is eminently qualified to give us Angel fans a suggested reading list. He's perhaps best known for his Buffyverse Comic Reviews site, and one of his own dreams came true when he was chosen to contribute a short story to the newly-released Angel: Yearbook, which is IDW's final installment in their Angel comic continuation series. (Dark Horse is taking over publishing duties as Angel gets merged into the Buffy franchise).

He fully admitted his bias in recommending that people start off with reading Angel: Yearbook, (not to mention that there's a Wesley-themed story in the mix!), but Shand does have a valid point. When we are just starting off with or trying to catch up with a series, we're naturally interested in what the newest publications have to offer. Angel:Yearbook is a collection of stories that we can apparently enjoy without having read the entire IDW Angel product line ahead of time. An added bonus is that I can read Yearbook as an exercise in enjoying Angel comics for their own sake without getting all hung about whether the stories are "canon" or not."

In a way it's kind of good that the Angel series came to an end at IDW, since at least I see a light at the end of the tunnel in catching up with my reading. I'm not sure I'll switch over to Dark Horse any time soon, but never say never I guess.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Angel - Why The Ho-Hum?




I've often wondered why I'm not all that interested in the title character of Angel. I always thought it was a natural consequence of Angel having the thankless task of keeping the narrative together, not to mention how he had to be the straight guy to an endless stream of "funny guys". David Boreanaz was perfectly cast as Angel and consistently put in solid performances week in and week out. By a wild coincidence, on the same day that I started my previous post, I stumbled across this short YouTube video that I've embedded above (via Sci-Fi Australia; h/t Whedonesque) where Joss Whedon seemed to give me the definitive answer to my question. According to Joss: (I made a few minor edits for readability),
"Angel was a different beast from Buffy from the start, and one that I had sort of difficulty getting my head around. He was going to be somebody who was mean and dark and alone and [would] help people, very much in the noir. And the noir aspect was always the sort of thing I could define Angel in a way that Buffy never would be. Buffy was a musical, Angel was a film noir.

Angel was hard for me because he's a hero.......He's clearly....he's got a long coat and great hair and he's a man and he's tall, he lives forever, and he's tortured, ..... and I didn't know how to write him. I had a little bit of trouble with that because those are the guys....they would beat me up. We spent a lot of time sort of taking apart the idea of that hero. But luckily that really helped the show because it made it exciting and it made it different every year. Every year we reinvented the show trying to discover...what it was we doing with it. And at the same time, David.....he's great at self parody. He's great at...kicking himself to the curb, and yet then getting back up and being extraordinarily compelling. And so he never had a problem with the fact that we would just....break the show apart every chance we could because I wanted to tear this hero down because only then did I understand, when he got back up again, why he was a hero."
Joss has said in the past (probably several times) that struggles in the writers' room will often show up on-screen. His classic example was how his team of (I believe) all-white writers had a difficult time figuring out how to deal with the African-American character of Charles Gunn (played by actor J. August Richards). Mutant Enemy handled things by having his character wander somewhat aimlessly around throughout most of the series, trying to find a niche for himself. It never occurred to me that Joss et al had similar problems with the character of Angel. Why create a separate show for a character that you simply can't figure out?

Noir versus Musical Comedy. In a recent post I touched on how writer Jennifer Stoy, in her essay "And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine' : Wesley/Lilah and the Complicated (?) Role of the Female Agent on Angel", discussed the unresolved tension in the Angelverse between noir and the superhero ethos. Joss touched on this in the YouTube video, but perhaps couched this conflict in slightly different terms, with noir on one side, and "musical comedy" on the other. Clearly it seemed as though Joss was pairing up the noir and superhero elements into one tidy package.

I've always been acutely aware of how I've never wanted to spend much time thinking about Angel's gypsy curse and his search for redemption, (which can make reading collections of essays about him in Angel-themed books somewhat of an excruciating experience for me). I'm so uninterested in the subject matter, I've never felt motivated to write about this aspect even though I feel like I'm leaving a gaping hole in this blog. Paradoxically, I've always been fascinated by the broody, heroic, avenging creature-of-the night aspect of his character, which I'm well aware couldn't have come up from out of nowhere.

I guess I'm stumbling around and trying to say that Whedon and Boreanaz were brilliant at, first, establishing the fact that Angel was a mythically heroic character, then spending most of the rest of the series assuring us that he was actually surprisingly a lot like an Average Joe, who had his own faults and foibles just like the rest of us. Probably the best example of this building up and breaking down of his character occurred very early in Season 1 in when Spike delivered his wickedly funny dialogue in "In the Dark" about Angel, "the big fluffy puppy......prancing away like a magnificent poof" after rescuing the damsel in distress. I also admit that the unlikely "Couplet" out of Season 3 is my favorite episode of the series precisely because I love David Boreanaz' portrayal of the guy who was having a hard time measuring himself up against the even more impossibly heroic Groosalugg.

The best I can say is that while Mutant Enemy was somewhat neglecting and/or otherwise making fun of Angel's superhero ethos, it really killed my motivation to spend much time thinking through the implications of the most basic aspect of his character, where he's the cursed Vampire With A Soul. The first time I viewed the series I hardly thought of Angel at all. It took subsequent viewings for me to really appreciate David Boreanaz' performances and what Mutant Enemy was able to brilliantly bring to the table.

Idle Thoughts. For someone who's not all that interested in the Vampire With a Soul, I still seem to write an awful lot about souls in general. Although I had noticed some contradictory aspects of Angel's soul, I probably wouldn't have spent so much time on the subject if I hadn't have been so obsessed with what happened to Fred's soul when Illyria took over her "shell". By exploring the possibilities concerning Fred's soul, it opened up a whole new can of worms for me about everyone's souls in the Angelverse.

I could never find any other way to write about this, so I'll force it in here. Last summer, one of my sons was horribly sick with bronchitis, and he was running out of things to watch on TV. He's the only one of my three sons who's shown any interest at all in Angel, so I decided to show him "Dad" from Season 3. My criteria for showing him that episode was that I wouldn't have to spend a lot of time bringing him up to speed on the plot, and I thought that the mindless action sequences would help him take his mind off his misery. Naturally, my son was terribly bored throughout most of the episode, but he noticeably perked up for this scene when Linwood Murrow, Lilah Morgan and Gavin Park made their appearance. I can't remember his exact words, but my son said he really liked the lawyers in their office setting, and he implied that the scene provided a good contrast to the action sequences. His reaction also validated my initial thoughts that Linwood, Lilah and Gavin really were fun to watch; their characters only suffered in comparison to Season 1 and 2's Holland Manners, Lilah Morgan and Lindsey McDonald.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

What Makes a Hero?


Angel as Jackie Robinson? That might be a bit of a stretch.


"Why We Fight" from Season 5 of Angel seems to get better with each viewing. I admit that I didn't quite know what to think the first time I saw it. I felt that the WWII submarine setting was a jarring change from the rest of the season, which is saying a lot since I'm notoriously tolerant of stand-alone episodes. However, I acknowledged that it was well-written, well-acted, and expertly directed. I also thought it must have been a lot of fun for all of the males involved to produce this episode, since these guys probably all grew up watching war movies on TV.

Fortunately it didn't take me too long to realize that, in both the present-day settings and the WWII flashbacks, Angel was being reminded of how personal motivations need to be examined when making the decision to "fight". People also need to size up their chances for success, while carefully thinking through the consequences of failure.

Reviewing Season 5 has been problematic for me, mostly because it was revealed in After the Fall that the Senior Partners had manipulated Angel into taking the fight to Wolfram & Hart in order to bring on the Apocalypse. This kind of takes the luster off of the season-long story arc. Although Angel clearly knew from the very end of Season 4 that the Senior Partners were up to no good, I'm surprised to find out that "Why We Fight" seems to be kind of a breakthrough episode for me as far as giving me clues about not only Angel's motivations during his final countdown against the Senior Partners, but also about his basic personality as well.

Angel the True Champion? Before Blogger changed my plans, I was well on my way to doing a post about all of the little glimpses that we saw of Angel's ensouled character from roughly 1898, when he ran afoul of a pesky Romanian gypsy tribe, through 1997, when he met Buffy in Sunnydale. Luckily for me, "Why We Fight" featured a lot of those character traits that I was originally planning on writing about anyway. What struck me the most was Angel's dichotomy, in which he was usually aloof and separated from the world, but was also ready to spring into action almost unthinkingly in order to save victims-in-distress. We could almost call Angel a reluctant hero: it seemed as though he truly didn't care for anyone else on the planet, but managed to make momentary exceptions for just about everyone he ever met. (Season 2's "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been" provided an excellent case in point.)

Both "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been" and "Why We Fight" portrayed mid-20th century Angel as someone who tended to quickly retreat back into his broody, cynical shell after he achieved his few minutes of heroic glory. It also became apparent that his reasons for springing into action did not necessarily include self-sacrificing love for his fellow man. David Fury provided a clue in his DVD commentary for Season 4's "The House Always Wins" when he said (to quote what I wrote from an earlier post of mine) ".... Angel was a true champion, and he started fighting on pure instinct alone when he saw his friends being attacked."

Saying that Angel was a "true champion" is obviously way-too-simplistic, but the phrase still conveys a reasonably accurate image of his true character. I tend to call Angel an "alpha male" quite a bit, but alpha males can just as easily jump over to the side of Evil. In the glimpses we saw of Angel when he was the 18th-century wastrel Liam, we didn't see anything particularly heroic about his character. In retrospect we could possibly trace some of his 20th century exploits back to his human days when he would regularly assert his manhood by getting into drunken brawls, but there still seems to be something quite elemental missing from that explanation. Of course his "I'm cursed with a soul so I'm constantly seeking redemption" would provide an easy explanation for why he consistently jumped in on the side of Good, but that also seems a little too pat. If Angel really felt that way he would have been helping out at Salvation Army soup kitchens a little more often.

Serve Your Country, Or Else. I'm always fascinated with how a person will react when coerced into performing tasks that he normally wouldn't perform on his own. An extreme example is Alec Guinness' character of Col. Nicholson, and his complicated reasons for collaborating with the Japanese in order to build the strategic Bridge on the River Kwai. People who are caught up in these unfortunate situations seem to be faced with the choice of either performing tasks to the best of their ability in order to preserve some sort of transcendent integrity, performing the tasks half-heartedly and otherwise doing the bare minimum in order to just get by, or by doing everything they can to sabotage the process.

It's a common strategy for the alpha male to strike first and immediately assert his dominant top dog status. If the target male is smart, he'll back down right away, appear to acquiesce, and buy time by playing along until he can plan his next move. Angel sized up the situation quickly and accurately back in 1943 when the G-Men broke down the door to his New York apartment. Fans caught a glimpse of the very first days of the U.S. government's "Initiative", which was the military group that played such a prominent role in Season 4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Resistance was futile, and Angel gave in easily enough, particularly after he had been, if my memory serves me, beaten up, electrocuted and strapped into a chair. Although there was clearly no love lost between Angel and the Initiative, it still appeared to me that Angel grudgingly respected his opponents, since he probably knew he would have acted the same if he was in their shoes.

The Initiative is another one of those lovely morally ambiguous organizations conjured up by Mutant Enemy. I won't go into too much detail, but they were an outfit that often operated on a "time is of the essence" schedule and didn't have a lot of time for group hugs and consensus. Although we were often reminded that the Initiative itself was ostensibly working for the greater good, the fact that the organization needed to rely on murderous thugs and morally deficient technicians to carry out its operations kind of negated their claim to a higher moral ground.

Regardless, we found out from the above-referenced scene that the Initiative had only been in operation for a short period of time. This brings up a whole lot of wonderful conspiracy theories on how it was even possible to get the organization up and running so quickly, but there are parallels to real historical events. I've read that the U.S. Office of Secret Services (OSS), which was the precursor to the modern-day CIA, was supposedly quickly dubbed "Oh So Special" (or "Oh So Social") shortly after it was formed in 1942. The U.S. did not have a lot of time to recruit and train intelligence officers, so OSS director "Wild Bill" Donovan and his other Ivy League colleagues recruited heavily from their own upper-class social circles. These people were well-educated, well-connected and probably well-to-do, and more importantly, had spent considerable time touring pre-war Europe and visiting other exotic destinations. They knew foreign languages, were familiar with local customs and terrains, and had experience with improvising and making quick decisions on the fly during the normal course of their travel adventures. Although the foot soldiers of the Initiative might not have been Ivy Leaguers, an organization like that could only have been formed quickly if the upper echelons of power were involved. There was a lot of circumstantial evidence throughout the Buffyverse and Angelverse that the highest levels of government was always well-aware of the supernatural world.

So, against this backdrop, Angel had his own Bridge on the River Kwai moment when he decided to reluctantly join forces with the U.S. military.

Run Silent, Run Deep
. There was a wonderful contrast between the worldly Angel, the other vampires and the German officer on one side, and the young idealistic U.S. navy crew members on the other. At times I half-expected to find a stereotypical microcosm of WWII-era U.S.A. on the submarine, including Kelly from Chicago, Goldberg from Brooklyn, Kowalski from Pittsburgh, Robinson from Alabama, etc. Fortunately, the producers handled the kids' general "gee whiz" attitudes with a fairly light touch, in contrast with what I considered to be a somewhat over-the-top noirish post-war Los Angeles that was portrayed in "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been".

Although Angel clearly did not consider himself to be a citizen who felt obligated to defend his country, he still appeared to have an affinity for Americans. Angel quickly took the crew under his wing and and appeared to quite enthusiastically take charge of the mission. He obviously chose to take the "best of my ability" approach to his assignment as he kept everyone focused and on task even under the most horrendous of circumstances. I also get the feeling that Angel's concern for the well-being of the crew was just as big a motivation for turning Sam Lawson into a vampire (so Lawson could continue repairing the submarine engines) as it was to carry out the rest of the mission on behalf of the Initiative.

The Other Side. There were so many good performances from the "bad guys" in this episode, I almost don't know where to start. Actors Bart McCarthy and Camden Toy were so convincing as the legendary vampires Nostroyev and the Prince of Lies, I immediately recognized these characters as well-established cultural icons. The only problem was that they were new creations who had been developed specifically for this episode. The Prince of Lies was the one who really threw me off, since he was obviously patterned after Max Schreck's Count Orlok character in the 1922 silent vampire film masterpiece Nosferatu. Since I've never actually seen the movie before, for all I knew "Prince of Lies" could have been one of Orlok's aka's, similar to how Satan is also known as being the Prince of Lies. Regardless, I was very disappointed that Nostroyev was dusted so quickly, since I was really looking forward to hearing the exploits of a homosexual vampire (the ".......Butcher of Alexander Palace") who possibly went at least as far back as the days of Catherine the Great.

Roy Werner also did a good job portraying the worthy adversary and cool-as-ice Nazi officer Heinreich. However, James Marsters once again stole the show as the irreverent pre-ensouled Spike. Of all the evil characters encountered by the submarine crew, Spike probably seemed the most subversive to them. Nostroyev and the Prince of Lies were obviously classicists from the old school of vampires, but the brash and anachronistic Spike solidly represented the new breed. He certainly must have appeared light years of his time to the crew members, with his unabashed, joyous hedonism and his refusal to honor traditions or authority. I can't help but think that some of the crew members might have immediately thought of Spike the first time they started running across hippies and other campus radicals in the 1960's.

Angel's Personality Reduced to One Easy Word. Joss Whedon beautifully explained in this YouTube video how challenging it was to write about Angel, a heroic character that Whedon could not identify with or even begin to understand. Luckily, Spike came to our rescue when he gave us this definitive summary of Angel's character, "....You're still a dick". Angel confirmed Spike's observation when he proudly answered, "Yeah. I am".

So, there you have it, folks. Angel's a dick. There's no need to write any more long essays about his tortured past and his bloody curse. We can all accept the fact that Angel is a dick and move on with our lives.

Or can we? If Angel's a "dick", then Spike is an "asshole", which I've called Spike on more than one occasion. I've never given this much thought, but I'm wondering if I've ever used the words "dick" and "asshole" interchangeably, or if I've always applied two distinct meanings to these words.

According to Dictionary.com, the definition of "dick" that seems to fit Angel the best is "clever dick", which is "....a person who is obnoxiously opinionated or self-satisfied; know-all". I believe that is the definition that I usually ascribe to a "dick", as opposed to the alternative definition of "...stupid person, usually a male", which would seem to fit Spike better. In contrast, an "asshole" is "...a stupid, mean, or contemptible person". In the hierarchy of annoying males, a "[clever] dick" would seem to rate higher than an "asshole". To be more accurate, I would put Spike somewhere in the middle of being a "dick" and an "asshole".

If we really wanted to get technical, we could give Angel and Spike word assignations based on the roles that they may have played in past homosexual relationships. Also, we could trace the confusion between the colloquial definitions of these two words back to some popular misconceptions on what what actually constitutes sodomy, as delightfully illustrated in both the main article and the comment section of this early Naked Capitalism post regarding the predicament that ex-IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn has gotten himself into.

However, I digress. Regardless, it certainly makes sense that Angel clearly (and probably rightfully) thought of himself as being the ultimate alpha male in his universe. If he threw in his lot with the baddies, he would have been one of many. Although Angel might have found a way to claw his way to the top, (as we found with his Angelus persona), there would have been very little to distinguish him from other vampires and demons. How unimaginitive! As the defender of the faith of the righteous, Angel actually raised the stakes, so that his skirmishes against the forces of Evil automatically became battles of epic proportions. When Angelus became the ensouled Angel, with one fell swoop he was able to carve out a completely separate identity away from the rest of the demon world. The stakes were instantly raised from control of what was in essence a den of thieves to world domination!

Lindsey McDonald certainly said it best when he told Angel in the series finale "Not Fade Away" that "Everybody goes on about your soul. Vampire with a soul. Nobody ever mentions the fact that you're really a vampire with big brass testes. This is gonna be a circus. I mean, win or lose, you're about to pick the nastiest fight since mankind drop-kicked the last demon out of this dimension. And that you don't do without me. If you want me, I'm on your team." Lindsey's admiration for Angel's sheer chutzpah probably had more to his love/hate relationship with Angel than any latent homosexual feelings he might have been harboring.

So, to push the obvious in answering part of "Why We Fight", the fact that Angel is a "dick" probably went a long way towards explaining why Angel decided to fight against both the Axis powers in WWII and the Senior Partners in the early 21st century.

Sired By A Soul. In my first viewings of this episode I failed to attribute any importance to the fact that vampire Sam Lawson was sired by a Vampire With a Soul. However, according to this Wikipedia sub-entry for "Why We Fight", "It is first suggested in this episode that vampires sired by en-souled vampires receive a piece of the sirer's soul and end up living in a psychological limbo-state between their former selves and their intended vampire personalities - neither feeling guilty for their crimes, nor enjoying them."

Vampire Lawson started off by telling Angel:
LAWSON: We all need a reason to live, even if we're already dead. Mom, apple pie, the stars and stripes— That was good enough for me till I met you. Then I had this whole creature-of-the-night thing going for me—the joy of destruction and death—and I embraced it. I did all the terrible things a monster does—murdered women and children, tortured fathers and husbands just to hear 'em scream—and through it all... I felt nothing. 60 years of blood drying in my throat like ashes. So what do you think? Is it me, chief? Or does everyone you sired feel this way?

ANGEL: You're the only one I ever did this to...after I got a soul.

LAWSON: Do I have one, too?

ANGEL: I don't think it works that way, son.

LAWSON: Didn't think so.
In my first run-throughs of the series, I not only failed to link Lawson's feelings of emptiness to being sired by Angel, I went so far as to attribute these feelings to a substantial (although possibly not a majority) of the vampire population. Of course many other vampires, not the least Angelus and Spike themselves, thoroughly enjoyed hosting their demon entities. However, I've said in the past that vampires seemed to occupy the lowest caste in the hierarchy of demons within the Buffyverse precisely because their misery stemmed from the last vestiges of their human identities. Besides Sam Lawson, Vampire Charles Gunn fell firmly into this category of miserable vampires, which explains why Gunn was the most fascinating character in the After the Fall comic continuation series.

As usual, whenever I come across conundrums concerning the soul, I dust off my metaphorically well-thumbed copy of Scott McLaren's "The Evolution of Joss Whedon's Vampire Mythology and the Ontology of the Soul" for some insight. According to McLaren, (from section 25 of his essay):
Though it is clear that Lawson wishes to return to a simpler life constructed around the wholesome abstractions of family and patriotism, that door is irretrievably closed because as a vampire he no longer has a soul. He wishes so very much to have one that the viewer can’t help but wonder if he might not be wholly beyond the hope of redemption. But here the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of the ontological [note from Miriam - as opposed to some of Whedon's more existential concepts of the soul] to make sheer will an adequate remedy. ............ Angel is clear that the soul is no metaphor and that Lawson simply does not have one. Nor is there any way for him to obtain or recover one (notwithstanding Spike’s own saga in BtVS Season Six where the soul functioned in a fashion distinctly more existential).

snip

The implication is clear: without a soul Lawson is, in the ontological sense, nothing. Angel’s worst fears in “Soul Purpose” (A5010) become Lawson’s reality. He has no personality, or at least not the personality he would choose to have. Angel, seeing no hope for him, stakes Lawson as much to put him out of his misery as to free the world of a violent killer. Angel himself, in his own words of defense, acknowledges a very stark boundary between his soulless existence as Angelus and his ensouled life as Angel. He even implies that he may be less accountable for his actions as Angelus than he is for his actions as Angel. [14] All of this carries with it an important existential implication: the choices Angel makes with a soul, if not wholly different, at least spring from a different set of moral imperatives.
This part of the essay hints at the main reason why I failed to attach any importance to the fact that Lawson was sired by an ensouled vampire. Despite my attempts to expand my own definition of the soul to include existential and/or metaphorical aspects (e.g., the soul as a moral compass), I'm too firmly entrenched in the old Platonic/Christian concept of the soul as being a separate and immortal entity that guides the physical body.

I suppose it's possible that Angel transmitted a part of his soul to Lawson during the siring process. It's not as though there was a lot of established precedence that anyone could examine. And, besides, I've found out that when Mutant Enemy writers introduce a concept, they usually don't want the audience to dismiss it out of hand. It's just that Angel is a character that I usually trust implicitly. If Angel says it, I believe it. If I'm less-than-perfectly-correct about his motivations (think of how I defended Angel's descent into darkness in Season 2, his decision to take over Wolfram & Hart in extreme late Season 4, his decision to take on the Senior Partners in late Season 5, etc.). I usually need a lot of evidence to convince me otherwise.

However, I'm starting to give a little bit more thought to this passing-on-of-the-soul concept, particularly in light of how vampire Darla was influenced by her unborn child's soul in her Season 3 maternity arc. I can think of a lot of similarities and differences between Darla's and Lawson's situations, but the whole concept will probably stay firmly in my Posts That Will Never Be Written category.

Idle Thoughts. This whole race to establish demon armies touched on in "Why We Fight" is an obvious metaphor for the competing U.S. and German atomic bomb and rocket research programs in WWII.

As the mother of three boys who wrote elementary school essays about Jackie Robinson, the man who broke baseball's color barrier in the late 1940's. I'm well aware of the parallels between the discrimination encountered by Angel and by African-Americans. No matter how many good deeds Angel performed, he was still a vampire. Both Angel and Jackie Robinson (along with millions of other African-Americans) were obligated to conduct themselves on the highest of ethical levels as possible in order to avoid giving away ammunition that their opponents could use against them. It takes an incredible amount of courage and self-control to keep doing the right thing even though people are doing everything they can to make your life miserable.

As far as we know, Angel went off the Initiative's radar quite quickly after he completed his submarine mission. One would think that the Initiative would have done everything in their power to keep Angel around.

Spike's anachronistic irreverence is also a Hollywood trope, where modern-day sensibilities are introduced into movies that are set in the past. The best example I can think of is the 1970 WWII movie, Kelly's Heroes, which included Clint Eastwood as an anti-hero, Donald Sutherland as a hippy, etc.. This film was very much a product of its time.

My favorite line in "Why We Fight" is Spike's "I'll menace. You talk", which was a reference to how he and Lawson formed a tag team in order to take on the German officer.

Although the villains were delightful, I thought Eyal Podell was equally impressive as Sam Lawson, the wide-eyed all-American boy who received a bitter lesson on how the world really operated. Podell certainly made the most out of his single-episode appearance. Kudos also to Mutant Enemy for creating yet one more memorable minor character.

More kudos to writers Steven S. DeKnight and Drew Goddard for writing what turned out to be a pivotal episode that also tied up a lot of loose ends in the Buffyverse.

I wasn't sure whether to write "the Initiative" or "The Initiative". The latter makes more sense to me, but the few other sites I looked at while researching this post all seemed to use the former. I opted to not break ranks.

Angel as a "dick" turned out to be the missing link between Angel and Liam.