Preview page; Willow flashes back and thinks about her mission, followed by a page summarizing her role in the last A&F arc and bringing us to the present, where she's floating with the Scythe in her mystic world, a volcano erupting in front of her.
Abruptly she falls to the ground and cautions herself to be careful. She decides to try "an old trick Giles taught me for divining arcanic concentration", which involves drawing in the dirt with the Scythe: a five-pointed star within an eight-pointed star within a circle. The next step is an offering of blood, but her eyes go dark, so she decides to play it safe and tries spitting instead. At first, nothing seems to be happening, but then an inferno rises from the circle, complete with the shapes of skulls in it, and it blazes a path for her to follow.
Some flying skull creatures attack her. She runs from them, right into the path of a giant worm thing. She falls and crawls backward away from it, trying to threaten it. In the background, a small silhouette says, "That can't be...her!" There's an explosion in the sky, and the flying creatures come raining down. The worm gobbles them up as they fall.
As she's reacting, the silhouette comes up to her, revealing himself to be a great big beast-man with horns and medieval clothing, holding a staff in one hand and the Scythe (which she dropped) in the other. He explains that she attracted the flying skulls with her fire, which in turn attracted the worm, and introduces himself as Marrak, a "fellow conjurer". He says he's from her world, but dark magic made him look the way he does. He's been visiting this dimension for years, but now finds himself trapped here. As they walk together, Willow fills him in on the end of magic, and her goal of restoring it.
He immediately starts talking about power and vengeance, telling her that she doesn't know what he's been through. He also implies that it's in her best interest to be the only witch left in the world, but she shoots him down - she's doing this for the whole world, not just herself. Naturally, he says he wants to help her with her quest, and she accepts, as he knows this world better than her. She explains that she's looking for a big source of magic, and he suggests using herself, which she says sounds dangerous.
They're attacked by another monster, this one green with lots of eyes and tusks. Marrak tries to kill it; Willow bends her efforts to binding and neutralizing it without harming it, and eventually succeeds, using the rocks on the ground to make a hex. She says it'll hold for about six hours as they get away from there, but Marrak grabs the Scythe and kills it in spite of her protests. They cook it over a fire for dinner and sleep on the ground, though Willow is looking restless and unhappy.
The next day they keep following the trail, but it gets dimmer as they enter a forest, and then ends at a pool which has Marrak really excited. He says it's more radiant and pure than any he's seen since he's been here, and maybe it's the magic source they're looking for. Willow tests it with a druidic pendant and declares it safe to drink, and they both do. Soon they're both bombarded by memories - key points in her character development from the show and Season 8 for Willow, ending with her choosing Aluwyn as her spirit guide. Marrak just says he got kicked in the face by all of his failures, and asks her again about the water.
The explanation, that the pool is a spring of memories, comes from off-panel, and then the speaker is revealed as a giant anthropomorphic caterpillar smoking a hookah pipe. Willow calls him out on his blatant similarities to Lewis Carroll's caterpillar character, and of course his defense is that Carroll got a peek at this world after too much absinthe and based the character on him. According to him, the pool isn't a source of magic, so Willow asks where they can find one, and he wants to hear her reasons.
As she's explaining, Marrak tells her that the power to change this is in dark magic, and she says she needs to say pure. The caterpillar starts talking about how light and dark can't easily be disentangled like that, but Willow is distracted by a crunching sound. The caterpillar asks if they happened to kill anything on their way there. On the next and final page, the green thing with eyes and tusks that Willow and Marrak had for dinner is back, but it's much much bigger and fiercer-looking. The caterpillar says, "You did, didn't you?"
I feel much the same way as I did after reading the first couple Spike issues, but less jolly with laughter. Willow's on her own in this series, just like Darkplace in his, but her new companions and background critters are a little less zany and loveable, and her character a little more self-contained. Basically, she's got to carry this whole thing herself, which could be awesome - but if it is, it's got to be because Willow herself is awesome.
What do we know and love about Willow? She's magical, but come on, isn't everyone? We can't get a whole story just by placing her in an environment that amplifies her witchiness. We've already had a lot of out there, anything-goes settings in the comics, and most of them guarantee a varied landscape and a bunch of ugly, smooshy, creepy-crawler monsters. I really would have liked to see her find a more traditional fairyland - the type with fauns and unicorns - or a well-developed sci-fi ecosystem inhabited by alien but plausible races.
But Willow's the Buffyverse representation of magic, so the setting is too. Alright. Could we maybe see another side of her too? How about her brilliant analytical mind? Why couldn't the setting or secondary characters let her show that off? Maybe with a fast-talking battle of wits, or a puzzle in the lay of the land that Willow has to solve before she can choose her path. There just isn't anything yet to differentiate this series from any of the other three, and that seems like a majorly missed opportunity.
Of course, part of it is that she doesn't look like Willow. I actually really like the art - I'll get back to that - but I don't think anyone who wasn't looking for it would see the Willow character there. She sounds like Willow, but given that she's alone for half the issue, she's filling it up with talking to herself and thinking a lot, and that kind of thing never really sounds like anyone to my ears. She could really use a standing reference to the show, something more than direct quotes and illustrations, as nice as those always are to see.
I don't think either of the miniseries will prove to be unimportant to the season arc. However, I feel more and more like the content that really matters, for both, will fit into a page or two, and the rest of it is just about getting to the part where they can bring out that page with a flourish. Essentially that means there's a Wonderland-style journey (boy, let's not be too obvious) to make it look like the characters are working hard to come to their conclusions, which is great, but it's pretty much the definition of filler. Willow gets attacked by a demon, defeats demon, meets a fellow traveler, loses her way, meets a fantastic creature...none of it matters at the end, so its only worth is for the sake of the story itself. You know what story did a great job with the Wonderland formula? Alice in Wonderland. How great would it be if Lewis Carroll suddenly came back to life and yanked his stuff out of the public domain?
About the art - we've still got those gorgeous covers and nobody can take that away from us. And, like I said, I still like the style of the interior art. It's expressive and vibrant and I have no problem living with it for a few more issues. I could wish that there's a little more in the way of spontaneous design, though - intriguing background details or monsters that look like nothing we've seen before. Isaacs is great with that, or I'd probably forget to look for it. A comic artist's job is many-layered, and does account for a large part of the storytelling itself.
I'm hoping hard that things will pick up in the next issue, which I will certainly keep reading, but the base level that they've set down so far isn't promising. I'm realizing now that I haven't really said anything about what we've learned about Willow and her quest, and while I probably could, it just doesn't interest me that much. It does seem like her heart is in the right place, and that she's probably going to do something incredibly naive. And that Marrak is going to either betray her, or become interesting.
Just as long as nobody starts playing croquet with flamingos.