Thursday, 14 June 2007

Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 issues 1-4: “The Long Way Home”

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 issue 1 “The Long Way Home” part 1 by Joss Whedon (script), Georges Jeanty (pencils), Andy Owens (inks), Dave Stewart (colours), Richard Starkings & Comicraft’s Jimmy (letters) and Scott Allie (editor), cover by Jo Chen, 24 pages of strip, Dark Horse Comics, March 2007

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 issue 2 “The Long Way Home” part 2 by Joss Whedon (script), Georges Jeanty (pencils), Andy Owens (inks), Dave Stewart (colours), Richard Starkings & Comicraft’s Jimmy (letters) and Scott Allie (editor), cover by Jo Chen, 24 pages of strip, Dark Horse Comics, April 2007

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 issue 3 “The Long Way Home” part 3 by Joss Whedon (script), Georges Jeanty (pencils), Andy Owens (inks), Dave Stewart (colours), Richard Starkings & Comicraft’s Jimmy (letters) and Scott Allie (editor), cover by Jo Chen, 22 pages of strip, Dark Horse Comics, May 2007

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 issue 4 “The Long Way Home” part 4 by Joss Whedon (script), Georges Jeanty (pencils), Andy Owens (inks), Dave Stewart (colours), Richard Starkings & Comicraft’s Jimmy (letters) and Scott Allie (editor), cover by Jo Chen, 22 pages of strip, Dark Horse Comics, June 2007

Spoiler-free summary review

Perhaps a year on from the end of the TV series, Buffy and her friends are training and leading five hundred slayers in the war against the demons. But a US general, branding the slayers as terrorists, sets some old enemies against Buffy.

In translating his TV show into comics, Joss Whedon has dropped Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s overarching metaphor. This is no longer a story about growing up, seen through a supernatural lens. The comic is too continuity heavy, and seems to give notice that Whedon wants to turn it into the X-Men. But the story has strong forward momentum, entertaining incident and amusing dialogue, and, above all appealing character relationships.

Georges Jeanty’s art is crisp and fluid, and, with one exception, the characters look like the actors who portrayed them without seeming lightboxed.


In the run-up to the launch of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 Joss Whedon said that he would not be attempting to replicate the feel of the TV series, but would be aiming to make something that was unashamedly a comic book. And that is what he has done.

The most obvious sign of this is the sense of scale. “The Long Way Home” opens with a team of slayers jumping from a helicopter, and takes us through a zombie assault on a Scottish castle, a visually wild dream sequence and an attack on a US army base. On TV, Buffy might sometimes attempt something like this, but usually only once a season, and not always convincingly. Even so, Whedon’s TV-honed money-saving instincts do seem to cut in unnecessarily on occasion. For example, we don’t actually see the zombies dancing after Willow sabotages the spell that animates them, it is just reported. That’s a shame, as Jeanty, Owens and Stewart offer ample evidence throughout these four issues that they can handle anything Whedon throws at them with aplomb.

One effect that could not have been handled convincingly on a TV special effects budget is giant Dawn, grown to about 20 or 30 feet high. And this marks another departure from the TV show, because Xander’s suggestion that Dawn deliberately got herself enlarged as a call for attention is about the only trace left of the original blueprint for the series: the fantastical as a metaphor for growing up. Although this was sometimes treated heavy-handedly, it was something that gave the series an extra dimension over and above the shenanigans of other telefantasy shows, and it was one of the reasons that I preferred Buffy to Angel - though the latter notably perked up when in its final series it adopted the similar tactic of using the fantastical as a metaphor for dealing with the world of work. So it is a pity to lose that anchor to reality.

The absence of the practical constraints on television production also leads Whedon to adopt some comic book bad habits. For starters, there are far too many recurring characters. Each of the three opening issues ends with a surprise reveal of a someone supposedly unexpected. The TV show might have brought back Amy and Ethan Raine and Warren, but probably not all in the same episode. Worse, we are expected to remember elements of their backstory. It is a reasonable assumption that anyone picking up this comic will be a Buffy fan, but there are fans and fans – not all of them memorise the trivia. So the reason why Amy is so disturbed by the image of her mother – crucial to her defeat – may be lost on many readers who don’t recall the plot of the first season episode “The Witch”.

But those who have swallowed the big pill of geek knowledge will be disturbed by the unconvincing retrospective changes to continuity. A casual throwaway is the disclosure that “The Girl in Question” from Angel’s fifth season wasn’t Buffy at all, but another slayer doubling for her because Buffy is a target. Whedon will be tackling this in depth in issue 5, but for the time being I have an image in my mind of Andrew telling some girl, “You’re the right height and build. Off you go and expose yourself to all Buffy’s enemies. And while you’re at it, please boink this ‘Immortal’ guy so that I can screw with my friends’ heads.” Not very appetising, is it? Or heroic, for that matter.

More seriously, Whedon rewrites the end of season 6: Warren was not burnt to a crisp, but whisked away by Amy’s magic. This is a serious change. It means that Willow is no longer a killer. It is also highly implausible – Warren’s whole deal was that he was a misogynist who couldn’t get a girl without hypnosis, and that’s wholly undermined if he was already involved with Amy.

Those seem to me errors of judgement. The conclusion of the story involves a different sin of comic book writing: I know that Silver Age Superman is all the rage these days, but it is lazy to resolve the story by having the heroes demonstrate never-before-hinted-at super-powers. In this case, Willow is able to project her magics through Buffy. There is some precedent from the composite super-Buffy from the end of season four, but that was presented as a big deal requiring lots of preparation, not something the characters can do whenever it is convenient (and it was also part of the metaphor, a dramatised instance of the importance of friendship).

And finally, Whedon signals that he doesn’t just want this to be a comic, he wants it to be a particular comic.

Honestly, Mr Whedon, I’m sure that, if you asked Joe Quesada, he’d be quite happy to commission some more issues of X-Men from you. You don’t have to turn Buffy into a clone.

So it sounds like I hated this story, right?

Are you kidding? Did you miss the bits about dancing zombies, and giant Dawn, and jumping from helicopters? Or the dream sequence from the man who writes the best dream sequences since Sigmund Freud? Or the obvious signs that I am a seriously unbalanced Buffy fan?

The pacing is spot on, building tension, and throwing in action sequences, but also allowing space for the story and the characters to breathe. The interaction between his lead characters has always been one of the strengths of Whedon’s writing. On Buffy, the later, grimmer series always gained a lift when Whedon wrote an episode himself, because he infused his scripts not just with wacky dialogue, but with a palpable affection between the leads. And so it is here.

In the reviews I wrote of issue 1 and issue 2, I praised Georges Jeanty and the art team for their versatility, storytelling skills and ability to capture likenesses of the actors without looking like they were copying photographs. There are only two points where they falter throughout the opening story – in failing to capture a good likeness of Andrew, and in a slightly confusing presentation of events when Buffy is wakened from her magically-imposed sleep by the Kiss of True Love. Otherwise, this is a fine performance.

“The Long Way Home” is a highly entertaining, thrilling and funny story despite its faults. It also lays the seeds for the rest of the pseudo-Season. There is clearly much to come from the mysterious “Twilight” organisation that opposes the slayers, and maybe we will learn at some point whose feet are hovering over the demon stronghold in issue 1. And maybe my next review will neither hark back to the TV series so much, nor find so much need to revisit the clichés of comicdom. Here’s hoping.

1 comment:

Matt said...

My understanding of the Warren retcon was that the two weren't actually "together" until after she rescued Warren, and that perhaps that act was the beginning of their "relationship" (although, it has been a while since I've read the issues in question).

it was not a simple case of Amy whisking Warren away before he could be killed, as Season 7 seems to indicate that Warren was indeed dead. I've seen it speculated that perhaps the story that Warren gave - and, in turn, the one Amy gave him - is not entirely true, that perhaps there was some deeper resurrection magic involved.

Of course, that IS very fan-wanky, as a reading of the books themselves seems to indicate otherwise.