Whedon’s “Dollhouse” Continues in Print
Out of all the comics by Joss Whedon that I remember reading, my all-time favorite scene is the wordless four panels from "Astonishing X-Men 4" that depicts Colossus' return. It was a beautifully quiet scene, awash in artist John Cassaday's hues of dull red and black; he only needed body language to convey Kitty's shock as Colossus took a rain of bullets for her.
The strongest parts of "Dollhouse Epitaphs Issue #4" (Dark Horse) are similar to this scene in two ways, albeit with obvious differences. First off, this is not a comic written by Joss Whedon, though it is based on his short-lived science fiction television series "Dollhouse." In short, it's about a company that hires out human beings, or "dolls," imprinted with computer-enhanced personalities and skills to wealthy clients for various kinds of engagements.
The "Dollhouse Epitaphs" comics are set in the future, in a ruined Los Angeles. The Dollhouse technology has gone viral, erasing the minds of everyone it touches, turning them into mindless killers. Echo, the most popular and self-aware Active doll, played by Eliza Dushku on the television series, is the one hope to destroy the technology and save mankind but she is, of course, missing.
And this is where we return to those sublime wordless four panels in “Astonishing X-Men 4.” The art in “Dollhouse Epitaphs Issue #4,” while not quite that of Cassaday’s, is well done. Penciller Cliff Richards’ illustrations are simple but realistic, conveying human sentiments on human faces, like regret or a defensive side-eye. The muted color scheme, almost pastel, rendered by Michelle Madsen, works particularly well in panels that simply show the destruction of Los Angeles. The clichéd choice of throwing in a couple of mangled city landmarks is refreshingly eschewed here in favor of a mountain of rubble; the damage is starker in its anonymity.
Not as much praise can be given for the dialogue. “Dollhouse Epitaphs Issue #4” is at its strongest when it chooses to show, not tell. It is evident that some dialogue is solely meant to provide exposition and move the plot along, or to convey vital information that readers new to the franchise need to have. Sassy dialogue, while charmingly Whedonesque, seems just a tad out of place in a comic that's otherwise almost eerily quiet in its post-apocalyptic setting and would probably work better on television. It would be interesting to read this issue without any dialogue in it at all; I have a feeling the story might shine through the art alone.
For "Dollhouse" fans mourning the show's premature demise, the "Dollhouse Epitaphs" comics are a means of enjoying the story's universe further. Occasionally clunky or overwrought dialogue aside, writers Andrew Chambliss, Jed Whedon, and Maurissa Tancharoen are definitely familiar with their characters, having written for the television show. The latter two have built up good karma in my books for their work on "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog" alone.
However, for comic-book fans looking for a new read, I would highly recommend giving the television show a try first, or at least scanning through the relevant Wikipedia pages.