Sunday, September 21, 2008

Buffy Season 8

I came to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series somewhat late in the show's life, watching it mostly in reruns when I was unemployed, but, along with its spin-off Angel, it has since become one of my favorite shows of all time. Its effortless blend of humor, supernatural action, and genuine character-oriented drama was like nothing else before it, nor has it been equaled since in that regard. In the wrong hands, the premise of a valley girl who fights demons could have yielded one-note camp. Such was the case with the original 1992 film. Thanks in large part to the talent and finesse of creator and show runner Joss Whedon, however, the series was regarded as a groundbreaking classic. So, when I heard that Whedon would be continuing the story in comic book form, I was understandably excited. While I was content with the manner in which the series ended and did not exactly feel that more stories were necessary, it was also true that I still felt the show's absence every time I watched trash like Smallville or Heroes.

Unfortunately, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Eight comic has thus far failed to fill that void. Some difficulties are unavoidable in the transition from screen to illustrated page. Although the gorgeously painted covers feature stunning likenesses of the show's cast, the actual artwork within the books is fairly cartoony in nature. This is surely a stylistic choice and not really anybody's fault, but it's still very jarring, since, for me at least, the characters are so strongly identified with the actors who portrayed them. This style also tends to ramp up the melodramatic feel with its exaggerated expressions, but that's standard for comics.

The real problem lies, not with the art, but with the writing. Despite the fact that Whedon himself has written most of the issues, much of the series feels like stuff that an overzealous fan might dream up. The gratuitous reuse of several minor villains, including Dracula in a recent arc, almost reeks of creative bankruptcy. Especially groan-inducing is an ongoing conspiracy subplot involving the U.S. military, a needless repeat of one of the worst ideas from the show.

Additionally, while Whedon's stories need no longer be restricted by a television budget, I would argue that the comic takes things too far with this newfound freedom. Much of Buffy's appeal originally stemmed from the fact that, although Buffy dealt with literal monsters and was herself superhuman, she and the other characters felt very real. The fight was only one part of their lives, while, the rest of the time, they still experienced the regular joys and sorrows of real-world teenagers. The adolescent allegory largely went out the window already with the last season of the TV series, but the comic now feels entirely removed from reality, with Buffy serving as the full-time commander of an army of slayers engaged in a battle with no end.

The comic also feels excessively drawn out, despite the fact that it is mostly event-driven. Running on a monthly schedule, each issue covers less than an episode of the TV series, with the opening four-issue arc feeling roughly equivalent to a two-hour season premiere. This is again a problem with the format, and it might read better in collected editions.

One final complaint concerns the dialogue. With the TV series, I often felt that the dialogue, so brilliantly facetious and laden with pop-culture references, lent a lot of personality to the characters. With the comic, the characters still speak in the same way, yet I now find it annoying rather than charming. Looking back, I realize now that, as much as the dialogue contributed to the characters, the actors in turn contributed equally to the dialogue. Without the pitch-perfect delivery of the show's cast, it loses a lot of authenticity. Moreover, the characters now all sound largely indistinguishable from one another in their speech. In fact, as I read, I cannot help but perceive all of it as coming from Whedon's own mouth. I haven't even gotten into the most recent arc, which sees Buffy transported into the far future world of Fray, the titular slayer of Whedon's 2001 comic series set in the Buffy/Angel universe. If you're familiar with Whedon's notions about language in the future, as depicted in his sci-fi series Firefly, then you have a pretty good idea of what to expect, for better or worse.

Despite all of the problems, the comic is far from awful. There have, in fact, been many good issues. Issue 5, a mostly standalone story by Whedon, is an impressively moving piece about a high school girl just realizing her potential as a slayer--in other words, exactly the sort of story that made Buffy appealing in the first place, which sadly highlights how the comic has gone astray. Brian K. Vaughn's four-issue Faith storyline, meanwhile, is a well-paced and satisfying read in its own right, but it also really makes good on the promise of a "Season Eight" by providing a plausible and meaningful advancement in Faith's character arc. While these bits are not enough to make me recommend the comic as essential Buffy material, they do prove the potential for it to become a worthwhile addition to the canon. And, even with my complaints, I still remain a fan of Mr. Whedon and look forward to whatever he might do in the future. More stuff like the delightful Dr. Horrible, for example, would be most welcome.


Sam Kahn said...

Did you read Whedon's Astonishing X-Men? What'd you think?

Henry said...

I read the first hardcover. Overall, an enjoyable story in the classic superhero style. Not terribly ambitious, but a lot more comprehensible than other recent X-Men comics I've tried. I've been meaning to check out the rest, but haven't gotten around to it.

Sam Kahn said...

I enjoyed it too, but I thought it was inferior to Grant Morrison's work on X-Men, which I felt like he was trying to mimic just a little bit.