Sunday, July 01, 2007

Buffy Season 8

Although I was a dedicated fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the very end, I am generally of the opinion that it would have done well to end after the fifth season, and that the final two seasons of the show, when it moved to UPN, were highly problematic despite numerous highlights. I'm not, however, one of the rabid fans who feel personally betrayed by character developments in those latter seasons and would probably burn Buffy creator Joss Whedon at the stake if given the opportunity. I try not to get that personally invested in any work of art.

So let's say I was cautiously optimistic about Whedon's new "official" eighth season of the show in comics form. I tend to stay away from licensed comics, because they are usually done without the input or involvement of the properties' original creators, and often handed to inexperienced writers and artists because companies assume (often correctly) that the name alone will sell books. The only Buffyverse comics I'd read in the past are the ones with Whedon's direct involvement (Tales of the Vampires, Tales of the Slayers) and some of IDW's Spike comics written by Peter David. This, to me, though, is how to do a licensed property in comics, and kudos to Dark Horse for making it happen and possibly setting an exciting new precedent, if the rumors about Rob Thomas overseeing a Veronica Mars comic at Wildstorm end up being true.

Written like a TV show, with Whedon serving as showrunner (comic-runner?), the new series has a clear direction and an authorial voice that was missing not only from other licensed comics but also in large part from later seasons of the show. Whedon sets the overall plot direction, then farms out individual arcs to other writers, going over their work himself before it sees print, just as he would do as the executive producer of a TV show. The recently concluded four-issue first arc was written by Whedon himself, as will the stand-alone fifth issue. After that is an arc by Brian K. Vaughan, and a number of former writers for the Buffy TV show are set to pen future installments. Artist Georges Jeanty is a veteran of mainstream comics with a dynamic style and a strong sense of storytelling. Clearly the talent is in place.

But if the narrative possibilities were already run dry before the series even began, then what's the point? I'm happy to say that, freed from the constraints of TV (effects budgets, the availability and demands of actors, notes from network execs), Whedon seems to have found a way to make the concept work again. It may bother some fans that the way he's done that, though, is to basically throw out the original concept entirely. Buffy the TV show was about the supernatural as a metaphor for real life (first high school, then college and adult responsibility). It was about balancing the mundane (homework, crushes, family problems) with the fantastic (vampires, demons, etc.). It was easy to identify with Buffy and her friends because they went through the same stuff normal people went through, except they also had to stake vampires along the way. But as the show went on and the demon-fighting side of the characters' lives inevitably overtook the everyday-life side (since the show had to keep raising the stakes to keep viewers' interest), the quotidian goings-on in Sunnydale seemed less and less vital and more and more forced. Who cares if Buffy passes her history test if the entire world is about to end? Clearly that's more important.

Whedon has solved this problem by making his characters into full-time evil-fighters. Sunnydale no longer exists - it was destroyed in the show's finale. As far as I can tell, none of the characters ever finished college, but that doesn't seem to bother them. Another consequence of the TV finale is that Buffy and Faith are no longer the only Slayers on the planet; there are now nearly 2,000. Buffy leads an army of them from a command center in Scotland; Xander is now a strategist with a Nick Fury-style eye-patch. Although these are fairly drastic changes, the core of the characters remains intact, and their interactions feel true to who they were on the TV show. Whedon indulges in plot elements that would have been far too expensive for TV (the far-flung locales, the large cast, Dawn recast as a giant) that give the story a greater scope that makes up for its lost emphasis on the everyday.

Even with all the differences, the first arc still sets things up the way a season premiere would on the TV show. We've learned the new status quo, found out what most of the characters have been up to in the time away, hinted at a few mysteries and introduced the Big Bad, in the form of two familiar characters from the show (Amy and Warren). But again the scope is bigger, since those immediate threats are backed up with a larger one, as a government operative tells Buffy that the increased power of the Slayers has put them at odds with all of humanity. It's a sufficiently grand premise to warrant the return of the series, and even though I'm not sure it was strictly necessary, I can't imagine it being executed any more effectively.

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