Dollhouse the TV show may have had a rough time of it over the course of its troubled two season run, but if the upcoming trade collection Dollhouse Volume 1: Epitaphs is any indication, the comics should have no trouble winning new fans over to the franchise.
For those of you not familiar with Dollhouse, the show was created by Geek Legend Joss Whedon, and even by his standards of quirk was a tough sell: Dolls are mind-wiped human beings, programmed to serve any need or desire, and rented out to the wealthy for their enjoyment. One of those Dolls was named Echo (played by Eliza Dushku), and she was different... Over time, it became clear she wasn’t being wiped as cleanly as the others, and the series became about how - and why - that was happening.
And that was all fine and good, until the first season finale, titled “Epitaph” hit... Or rather, it was nearly permanently delayed, and when it was released, kind of blew fans minds: this otherwise straight-forward, case of the week series had set the season finale years in the future, featured nearly no regular cast members, and posited that the Dollhouses had maybe destroyed the world. Minds? Kaboomed.
The second season briefly returned to the case of the week format, before the threat of cancellation forced the creator’s hands, and they rapidly moved into the endgame, linking the second half of the second season with the end of the first. That back-half of season two is a marvel, where the show finally became everything viewers and fans wanted it to be... And then it was done.
Except it wasn’t quite done. There’s a significant chunk of time missing in season two, a time jump between the end of “Dollhouse” and the start of “Epitaph,” and the endgame of the TV series. That’s where the comic book series neatly slots in, and the trade bridges the gap between those two periods... Though it leaves plenty of room for more stories to be told in the Dollhouse Universe.
Even more shockingly? For the first two thirds or so of the trade (I’ve read the series before, but re-read the whole thing in one sitting for this review), this is an incredibly new reader friendly book. The writers, who were some of the main forces behind the TV series make sure they average person picking up the book gets an exciting, different end of the world scenario than they’re used to, well layering in exciting character dynamics, an enough tension that you can cut it with a knife. This is horror/apocalypse comics done right, and unlike most of them, its done in the sunny outdoors on Los Angeles. That alone makes this a unique story, and like I said, for most of its running time it proudly marks its own path.
In fact, despite using riffs on characters we already know from the TV series, I plain forgot this was a prequel while reading it through. It’s just that good... This has its own plot, its own missions, and its own path. Then we get to the last third, and that’s where things get tricky. With the last bit of the trade, we start filling in gaps more precisely, plotting the road from Epitaphs to Epitaph; and it may be that I know where that’s going, having already seen it on TV, but I can’t help be a little disappointed, given the striking originality and clarity of the first few bits, that it starts to link up so precisely, leaving plot points open so we can see them closed in Season 2 of the TV series.
Particularly, the cliffhanger at the end of the book, though rather brilliantly drawn, and an exciting new idea for what I hope is a second series of Dollhouse comics from Dark Horse... Also doesn’t really offer the pay-off you’d want from Dollhouse: Epitaphs. I’m not sure this particularly criticism makes sense without me spoiling what happens, so I won’t. Suffice to say, a plot element we haven’t seen all book crops its head up, and I can’t imagine new fans having a clue what’s going on, or why it should be important or exciting.
That said: for most of the run time, this is a licensed property done better than right, with creative verve and vigor, and a great start to what is hopefully a long run of Dollhouse comics for Dark Horse. With luck, new fans will pick this up, because there’s way more of the Dollhouse Universe left to explore.
Last little note: there’s some fascinating additional pages in the book that talk about - and show - the process of getting likeness characters produced in a comic book, in this case of Eliza Dushku and others. It’s an interesting peek behind the curtain, and continues Dark Horse’s superb use of bonus pages for more than cover reprints and pin-ups.
Dollhouse Volume 1: Epitaphs hits stores on April 11, 2012 from Dark Horse Comics.