For those of you not in the know, some time after the legendary television run of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off series, Angel, came to a close, creator Joss Whedon made the decision to continue the characters’ stories in the pages of Dark Horse comics. With Buffy sporting one of the most enthusiastic and enduring fandoms in all of television, the reaction was joyous.
When the time came, Buffy: Season Eight hit the stands and the reaction was about what you’d expect. Whedon is best known for making euphorically geeky television (and now for making a massive blockbuster action film, The Avengers), but his forays into comics are legendary, particularly his work on Astonishing X-Men. The first arc of the continuation of Buffy Summers’ adventures in vampire hunting and demon slaying was everything we’d been hoping for.
The snarky humor and endearing dialogue was there with all of the requisite badassness one would expect, the characters were all in top form, and the covers by Jo Chen were absolutely BEAUTIFUL. The only big difference was the scope. No longer beholden to the budgetary limitations of a fledgling television network, Whedon was allowed to have massive monsters, epic setpieces, and all of the cool things he’d had to work away from in the television format.
Subsequent story arcs were delegated to other talented writers like Brian K. Vaugh -who created the fan favorite Runaways series that Marvel so foolishly squandered and did an excellent Season 8 story focusing on Faith and Giles- and to former writers from the television show like Drew Goddard and Jane Espenson. This is how this sort of thing is supposed to be done. Yet I have come here to (maybe) bury Buffy, not to praise her. So what the hell happened over the course of 40 issues to change my opinion and, more importantly, why have I stayed on through the entirety of an utterly lackluster Season 9?
I did mention something about gorgeous cover art, right?
Well, here’s the thing. While bypassing the limitations of a live-action television budget are one thing, at some point you need to rein the unbridled creativity in and remember what made people love the show and characters in the first place. Season 8 got wilder and wilder as it went. Buffy experimenting with her sexuality with one of her fellow slayers, while controversial and some say an exploitative play for attention, was well-written enough to be pulled off comfortably and naturally. It just worked.
So did the time travel crossover with future slayer, Fray (a previous and rightfully acclaimed Whedon comic creation), and even having Dawn grow to massive proportions to battle a Mecha-Dawn in a Tokyo kaiju smackdown before changing forms several more times could be ridiculous fun, but at some point a line needed to be drawn and the story needed to ground itself again.
When the slayers all lost their powers and Buffy and her slayer army travelled to Tibet and geared up with machine guns to battle giant cartoonish Asian deities, it was the official beginning of the end. Did anybody ever want to see Buffy leading a literal army?
I’m picturing it’s a giant shark under them that they are jumping over.
You have no idea how much I wish the above cover was intentionally ironic rather than literally symbolic of a massive dip in quality. But no; that pretty much represents the premise of that arc. They can’t all be winners. And it doesn’t even show how silly the things they are fighting are. But I stayed on and kept reading, damn it. One misstep was well worth enduring considering the previous quality of the series, and I had to find out who the big bad was!
The big bad? Named Twilight. Seriously. Not some clever satirical reference to the sparkly vampire franchise, either. I won’t spoil its identity, but I can tell you that it didn’t sit well with…well, anyone that I know of.
Long story short, Buffy ends up gaining Superman powers (Xander actually has her race a bullet) and shit just gets more insane and goofy from there. It was ridiculous. I mean, I was just done with the whole thing. The first half of Season 8 was everything any fan could want from a Buffy comic, but the second half absolutely destroyed any integrity they had held over from that fantastic run.
But then a funny thing happened. Whedon wrote the last issue of the season and it was good. Really good. Great, even. In fact, it pretty much acknowledged that the last few arcs had been whack and promised that Season 9 was going to be back to Buffy as we knew it. And just like that, I was back on board. I even wrote a fan email for the first time to tell them how pleased and relieved I was by that last issue and while schizophrenically alternating between gushing praise for the first half of the season and savage criticism of the second half that probably came off like Gollum’s split personalities arguing with each other. To my surprise (and horror) it even got published in a Season 9 issue. And speaking of Season 9…
What part of “be sure to wear flowers in your hair” do you not get, Summers?
So, with the advert taglines all reading “back to basics” and assuring us that Buffy would be back to the way we love her, I gave the new season a try. My bad. The first issue was written by Whedon again, so it was excellent and full of great character moments. But it wasn’t long at all before the series derailed itself and fans began declaring that Dark Horse’s pants were on fire.
Okay, picture Buffy getting herself knocked up and deciding to have an abortion. Controversial, right? Controversial, but equivalent to the kind of real life dilemmas that Buffy has always faced and perfectly in step with the series’ mission statement. The show was never afraid to take on tough topics. But how about it turns out that the Buffy we’ve been following the last arc or so isn’t really Buffy at all, but a Buffybot? A pregnant Buffybot. Or not pregnant? WTF? Groan harder. Yeah, so they created the controversy and then didn’t even have the goddamn balls to follow through on it, which is something I absolutely HATE.
So then they decided that the existing Buffyverse vampires aren’t cool enough so they create zombie/vampire hybrids to replace them. And they call them zompires. And not just once; like, all the time. That’s the actual term. Then they decided that people don’t really buy Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics to read about this Buffy chick slaying vampires so they created a new slayer. A boy slayer. Better yet, a GAY boy slayer!
Character development 101: randomly reference your sexual preference.
Billy the Vampire Slayer wasn’t a terrible story at all and it came from a good place, but it was an audaciously unnecessary and politically transparent distraction from an already weak storyline. The 90’s are past and the LGBT community is a part of mainstream culture now. I think readers should expect more sophisticated stories about tolerance than condescending “they’re just like real people!” messages. And worse than talking down to the readership, the story seemed like an indication that the writers could care less about this Buffy person everybody used to like so much. They should have at least made Billy a spin-off mini-series or something rather than bring the main plot to a screeching halt for what amounted to an after school special.
Speaking of spin-offs, in addition to the main title, there have been numerous spin-off titles for characters like Angel (which was actually on IDW and not Dark Horse), Willow, Spike, and even Drusilla. Some were good, some were great, and some were a waste of time. Was anybody itching to see Spike commanding a spaceship crewed by anthropomorphized insects? Me neither. But the question at hand is: why the hell am I still reading Buffy comics when they’ve almost continually disappointed me for years?
Well, launching with the latest season of Buffy came Angel and Faith. And good God, it is fantastic. The look, the writing, and the tone are exactly what I’ve been looking for and Rebekah Isaacs’ art is far superior to Georges Jeanty’s often subpar work in the main book. A lot of the ideas for the proposed television spin-offs series’ for Giles and Faith went into the storyline and it’s clear that the spirit of the original Buffyverse is there.
Also, I want this cover blown up and framed in my home.
So if Dark Horse can recreate the original Buffyverse magic with a spin-off series, what the hell is going on with Buffy the Vampire Slayer? I don’t know that there’s a good answer for that, but what is clear is that the main series needs a serious overhaul. I’ve only stayed subscribed to it only because some part of me still believes it can return to glory.
I tend to place the blame at Joss Whedon’s feet for signing off on crap storylines as “executive producer” when he should be writing them himself (yes, I know he’s a very busy man). But the truth is he did write the disastrous final arc of Season 8 -his first failure in the medium, in my opinion- so even when he’s been fully onboard quality has not always followed.
Aside from the first couple issues, he’s barely touched the current season, and while the previous season featured a revolving cast of writers, the latest has primarily been handled by Andrew Chambliss and the result has been uniformly bland at best. But still, here I am every month, debating about whether or not I should continue to support this book.
Will the real Buffy Summers please come forward?
I definitely believe that if I hadn’t checked out Angel and Faith on a whim, I would not be writing this article because I would simply have canceled Buffy and written it off as a lost cause. As a long time Buffy fanatic it’s very difficult to let go of a franchise that’s meant so much to me over the years, particularly when there’s persistent evidence that it can be just as good as a sequential art narrative as it was on television.
So the million dollar question (okay, more like $2.99 a month) is: will I be subscribing to Buffy: Season 10? I just don’t know for sure. Given my unusually stubborn reluctance to abandon this property, the easy answer would be yes, but the fact of the matter is that I’m tired of having this argument with myself and I feel like it’s going to be really easy this time around to simply not add it to my pull list.
There are plenty of independent comics out there that aren’t coasting on fan loyalty and are consistently delivering the goods to earn their readership. I feel like my money would be better spent there. But still, it’s Buffy. BUUUUUFFFFFYYYY!!! Who am I to resist the possibility of a return to form? Well, even if I don’t subscribe right off the bat, I’ll still be keeping an eye out for another surprise like Angel and Faith. Even if the main team can’t get it together, I’ve got to believe there’s life in the Buffyverse yet.
Even after this happened.