Monday, January 31, 2011

Buffy Season 8 Concludes

Last month, the eighth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer reached its stunning conclusion, nearly four years after it began and six and a half hears after the shows series finale. Such is the power of comic books.

The result was a massive 40-issue season bringing in, not only Joss Whedon, but other Buffy writers as well as comic book writers like Brian K. Vaughan into the mix. It included virtually every living character from the show and a few dead ones (I won't spoil them). And also Fray.

I will admit that when I first heard that Joss Whedon was planning on releasing an epic comic book eighth season of Buffy my first reaction was "Why" followed by "aren't you doing Buffy Season 8 and not Angel Season 6?" But, after a rough start, Buffy Season 8 won me over.

Making it a comic book had its own strengths and weaknesses. On the strong side, it meant no studio interference. The comic book format means you can tell multi-issue arcs that act as the equivalent to an episode of the TV show, or you can tell standalone short-story-type issues, and Season 8 did both. Recurring characters can appear even if the actor has a hectic schedule. This resulted in a really good Faith-and-Giles-centered arc by Brian K. Vaughan that barely featured Buffy at all. Also, you don't have to spend a whole lot of money on fancy special effects, so you can pretty much do whatever you want.

On the downside, you don't have to spend a whole lot of money on fancy special effects, so you can pretty much do whatever you want. The first arc in the series fell in love with this, resulting in a lot of high-tech stuff that didn't really fit in. Also, there was a broadening of the Buffyverse bestiary to include things like fairies, centaurs and unicorns. However, in strict adherence to continuity, there were no leprechauns.

Also, there was the introduction of "comic book time", where characters age slowly. As such, we have characters who have aged at most a two years from the end of the series talking about the Arctic Monkeys, Mad Men and the infamous "fat Lee Adama" arc on Battlestar Galactica. This wasn't really that intrusive, but it can be really annoying in long-running series. However it's the primary cause for the incomprehensible continuity (or lack thereof) in mainstream superhero comics. There's always a nagging feeling that they will end up having to confine the characters we know to an "Earth 1" parallel universe because their pop culture references are too out of date. Fortunately that has yet to occur.

The biggest problem in the early going came down to the "Why" question I asked earlier. But once they found out an answer, it became the series' biggest asset. Of all of Joss Whedon's shows, Buffy is the only one that ended because it made sense storywise rather than because the studio didn't find it profitable enough. As such, those other shows were the ones most in need of continuation. Fortunately we got an Angel comic shortly after the Buffy comic started. We also got a Dollhouse comic as it ended. And the Serenity comics have continued their asymptotic approach toward relevance.

But with Buffy, we had the characters all moving on, leaving the hole in the ground formerly known as Sunnydale and going their separate ways. When the series started, they all got back together, one at a time, as a high-tech slayer army of sorts. It was a decent enough story, but it didn't give any reason why it should exist. That took until the fourth arc.

In a note at the end of the last issue, Whedon explains what his motivations were, and gets at what ultimately made the series work.
Every season of Buffy had a different intent, and a different set of challenges, from which to build. The biggest challenge in Season 8 was that many years ago I wrote a Slayer comic and set it in the far future so that it could never affect Buffy's life. I was so young. But the challenge of reconciling the optimistic, empowering message of the final episode with the dystopian, Slayerless vision of Fray's future gave Season 8 a genuine weight.
For those unfamiliar, the comic book he's talking about is Fray. It was an eight-issue series written from 2001-2003, set in the Buffyverse, but in the future. The premise was that all magic had been banished from our world, so there were no more slayers and no more demons. So everything is all Bladerunner-esque until magic starts creeping back in, resulting in the first slayer in forever being called, as well as a bunch of demons and vampires showing up.

Meanwhile, at the end of the TV series, we had Willow casting a spell that made all of the potential slayers become full slayers in a very empowering and symbolic finale. So in Season 8, we have to deal with the events leading to the suppression of all magic, which is being lead by a mysterious big bad named "Twilight".

And in case you're wondering, Joss Whedon was unaware of the Twilight books when he came up with that name, but when he found out, he made sure to have Buffy make a jab against them. A handy companion to the fan-made jabs.

Part of what makes this work is that it takes on one of the big issues in escapist stories about superpowered individual, namely the reactionary dictatorial undertones of putting out lives in a Nietzschean Übermensch. This has been dealt with before, for instance in Watchmen (the book, not the movie) and Kick-Ass (the book, not the movie). But it's not something that gets a whole lot of attention.

In the case of Buffy, the Season 7 finale was pose as "sharing the power". But due to the dictates of the fantasy-babble, this meant only sharing it with a small minority of the population, which dampens the message if you think about it too hard. In the Season 8 comic, this oversight is turned into a serious think piece, albeit one with misogynistic Japanese vampire cat toys that crawl down people's throats, possessing them while slowly sucking them dry and who can merge into a super-vampire-kitty that can only be defeated by an epic submarine battle.

In addition to Twilight and the vampire cat toys, there is also a group of newly empowered slayers who decide that they're above mere mortals and start treating the world as their plaything. So as Twilight is trying to bring about the end of magic, there are all these rogue slayers out pretty much justifying Twilight's decision. Also Japanese vampire cats.

By the way, credit where credit's due. The vampire cat toy submarine stuff came, not from the mind of Joss Whedon, but Steven S. DeKnight, the former Buffy and Angel writer currently showrunning Spartacus: Blood and Sand.

So anyway, because of this extra moral ambiguity, it's never clear until the last issue how things will turn out and, even then it's not clear whether that's how it should have gone down.

It also let's Willow's character come back to the spotlight. Her relationship with magic was somewhat marred in the series by a clumsy drug metaphor. But this time it's placed within the framework of Twilights plan to bring about the end of magic and it makes the whole thing work. Once again, there's some questioning of whether the magic is really good for her or not, but no more drug metaphors (yay!). Instead we get something very unexpected in the Fray crossover arc which I won't spoil.

It takes until Issue 16 before the writers figured out what they were doing, but along the way, there are also some good stories in their own right. The second arc in the series, written by Brian K. Vaughan (Runaways, Y: the Last Man and Ex Machina), centers on Faith and Giles dealing with a villain tangentially related to the master plot.

When Buffy the TV series ended, it pretty much wrapped everything up as far as Buffy/her friends/Sunnydale was concerned, which is why the comic didn't seem to have much reason to exist. But the Buffyverse still had a lot to explore, some of which took place in Angel Season 5. Around that time there were proposals for a Faith TV series, as well as a Giles-centric prequel show on the BBC called Ripper, but neither of those happened.

Brian K. Vaughan's arc ended up being the closes we've gotten to either of those shows, and it suggests that either of those shows would still work well as their own comic book series.

The epic scope ended up covering pretty much the entirety of the Buffyverse. In addition to Fray and the Faith and Giles stuff, things eventually tied back to what was going on with the Angel and Spike comics. There was even an issue by Jeph Loeb (Batman: The Long Halloween) that managed to tie things in with the unaired promo for a not-picked-up Buffy Saturday Morning Cartoon.

When I started with issue 1 I was wondering why we needed a season 8, but by the time I got to issue 40 I was wondering when they would get around to season 9.

To buy the books:
Vol. 1: The Long Way Home, by Joss Whedon
Vol. 2: No Future for You, by Brian K. Vaughan and Joss Whedon
Vol. 3: Wolves at the Gate, by Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon
Vol. 4: Time of Your Life, by Jeph Loeb and Joss Whedon
Vol. 5: Predators and Prey, by Steven S. DeKnight, Jane Espenson, Drew Greenberg, Jim Krueger and Doug Petrie
Vol. 6: Retreat, by Jane Espenson
Vol. 7: Twilight, by Brad Meltzer and Joss Whedon
Vol. 8: Last Gleaming, by Scott Allie and Joss Whedon

Note 1: There was a controversial event in the third arc I didn't mention. I will still not mention it to avoid spoilers. But I will say it was somewhat out-of-character and a bit of a publicity stunt, but ultimately much ado about nothing. And the over-the-top reaction was far more disturbing than the actual event.

Note 2: You may be aware that Kaz Kuzui, the guy who executive produced the Buffy movie that nobody liked and got his name put on all the credits has announced that he's planning on "re-imagining" Buffy the Vampire Slayer, JJ Trek-style. Nothing good can come of this.

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