Joss Whedon, et al, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon’s Season 8 (Dark Horse, 2007- ), monthly, $2.99.
By Tyler Curtain
Yes, in fact, this will be another review that sings the pleasures of Joss Whedon’s unkillable, undead franchise. There is a lot of pleasure in the revivification of Buffy in graphic novel form. I recognize, too, that there is some skepticism about Buffy as Queen of All Media. The move from movie to TV show, and then from TV show to graphic novel, isn’t “synergy,” however. The “Eighth Season” of Buffy is something different than the media saturation technique where a story reaches every eye or ear by blanket bombing books, radio, TV, and the internets, all in service of a film’s release. Buffy’s bleeding over into comics is, rather, a type of wandering. Forced off the large screen, the story and its characters found that they thrived on the small. The tone and tempo of the hour-long format provided just the right beat, just the right rhythm to tell the tale. Cancelled on one network, it forged onto another. Slashed from that line-up, the ashes were barely cold before it picked itself up, dusted another vamp, and started all over again.
So consider its pleasures sung. I won’t attempt to recapitulate the major and minor plots, though all of the rudimentary elements of the characters and their arcs currently in Season Eight’s pages were present in the final moments when Sunnydale, California, finally imploded at the end of TV’s Season Seven. (I like to think that Sunnydale was driven under by the sheer, dark weight of the arch and droll banter of its drama-comedy stylings.) A slew of new slayers join Dawn, Willow, Xander, and Buffy, with pop-up appearances by various characters, major-ish and minor. Some are love interests, and there is a lot of free-style lesbianism in these pages. There is something mathematical about a Whedon product. He knows the cultural calculus to figure out just what a long-time fan will look for and just what might hook a new reader. The dialogue/writing is pithy, punchy, snarky, and, well, perfectly placed. By that I mean Whedon and scriptor Drew Goddard can hear the rhythm of their dialogue. It’s calculated. They understand just when to punctuate an interchange with a quip or an arch word, and just how much sentiment to to use to leaven a scene. The plot is well paced, though I will say more about its pacing in a bit. The visual pleasure is in a style that is both comic and realistic—comic realism? However outlandish the visual—the only truly irritating development so far is a gargantuan Dawn, making a too-easy allegorical point, feels awkward, uncomfortable, and outlandish—George Jeanty’s pencils and Andy Owens’s inks link what we know about the characters through the actors who played them to the two dimensional figures on the page. The colors are equally thick and interesting. Michelle Madsen’s colors are wonderful—a waxy, melted crayon feel to the richness of the page. Lines, colors, forms, layout, dialogue. A thick, heavy line gives Buffy a heft that as much as the TV show lends itself to three-dimensional storytelling. Pages are calico rather than single-tone or sepia. This kind of quilting technique for images and dialogue is skillfully deployed. Whedon and his collaborators take advantage of nesting scopes: though, unfortunately, the box is rarely interrupted to spill out over onto the page. It is, however, never difficult to follow the story.
This is all to say that the pleasures of the graphic narrative are the pleasures of the TV show—they are built-in. The amusement, joy, excitement, and interest are often triggers of previous associations. This isn’t so much a criticism, though it sounds like one. How else would one expect to tell an on-going story in another form? The show itself had transmogrified over the course of its run. If Buffy started out as a modern morality play with all the allegorical machinery that made that machine run, it ended up as a soap opera. The show morphed into melodrama with its language of formalized gestures, actor portraits in 3/4 head shots, Significant Looks, half-toned and chiaroscuro emotional cues. (Not to mention very-late last season ‘Passion of the Spike’ histrionics: exaggerated, theatrical, and calculated actions for emotional effects.) Which is to say, it started taking on the elements of graphic narrative long before it appeared in print. Season 8 on the page isn’t so much inspired as it is inevitable.
There are problems, however, but they are problems that Whedon is, in fact, a genius at solving. (Witness his experiment in how a story warps, cracks, breaks, and re-makes a genre in his now on-going Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.) For instance, what type of bodies do his characters have? In many ways, the graphic novel portrays the idealized bodies that the series could only hint at and that aging actors could not portray well beyond their high school and college days. The artists of Season Eight use the tricks of a street portraitist to bridge the gap between the actors and their fictive counter-parts. It’s not that Sarah Michelle Gellar can never escape type-casting as Buffy. In fact, I contend, she will age away from the character and slip out of the bond. Buffy, though, can never escape Sarah Michelle Gellar. Allyson Hannigan’s visage is seared onto Willow’s face. Season 8 has made sure that behind Xander’s eyepatch is Nicholas Brendon’s brown eye.
What difference does the sameness make? That’s hard to say. I do believe that Whedon can overcome the strictures. The graphic novel may at some point untether itself from the actors’ outlines. I suspect that when it does it will also return to its allegorical beginnings. The engine that powered the original series was a simple and striking literalization: high school is hell. The metaphor shattered with the destruction of Sunnydale High. Like the post-graduate plot of the TV series, the graphic novel has no simple allegory. The mythos took over a long time ago. This is, in part, what makes the Angel off-shoot so exasperating. All mythos, little allegory. Mythos is fine for the initiated. Allegory opens up the tale to the world.
But pleasure? Yes, in fact, the comics are a pleasure. The highest praise that I can offer for the Whedon/Goddard/Jeanty achievement is that it is deeply pleasurable to think about. The worth of a good graphic novel like any serialized form is in the wanting more. I love reading these books, thinking about them, and I can’t wait for next month’s installment. I want more.