I had been thinking about what I might want to write about Buffy Season Eight even before reading issue number forty and Joss Whedon’s letter at the end of the “episode”, as well his EW interview, which I had stored away in my “read later” section on Pinboard.
And what I had been thinking about runs parallel to Whedon’s remarks on the end of this first comics season for Buffy. In particular, I think that these comments from the EW interview, and also represented in the letter, identify what made Season Eight both exciting and frustrating:
I got very excited when I had a comic book with the idea that I could do absolutely anything. We hit a lot of beautiful notes and I’ve got a lot of great writers working [on the comics], and I’m very proud of it. But at the same time, it’s like, yeah, “You can do anything” is not really the Buffy mission statement. The Buffy mission statement is, “What does this feel like?”
With the comic, we just sort of said, “Wheee!” Ultimately, “Wheee!” caught up with us in a cavalcade of mythology. It became clear, as it did with the show, that people really liked when Buffy’s adventures reflect what she’s going through in her life [and] what we’re going through in our lives at that age. That was the thing in season 8 that we didn’t tap into as much as I think we ultimately should have.
As I remarked in this column on PopMatters, the scale and scope of the storytelling in Season Eight is much greater than it ever was, or could be, on television. While this undoubtedly took advantage of the new medium, sometimes bigger is just bigger, not better. That the creative team recognizes this is not only apparent in paratexts like the letter and the interview, but also in the text of issue number forty.
One of the strengths of Buffy on TV is how consistently the series deals with the consequences of big events and character choices. And that’s what the final issue of Season Eight is about – the aftermath of what Buffy did to conclude “Last Gleaming” (#36-#39). While destroying the seed of magic creates a break in the storyworld it also constitutes a beginning, one where the effects of Buffy’s action have to be dealt with, both on a personal level for the characters and also in terms of how the universe works. This is strong storytelling, and looks to be the jumping off point for Season Nine, for which Whedon seems to be promising less grand theatrics and more character-driven narratives.
For me, I think the apex of the “wheee” thinking is in the Brad Meltzer written “Twilight” issues (#32-#35), where Buffy and Angel have explicit, epic, universe creating sex. For one constraint or another – censors, budgets – this storyline would have been impossible to work into the TV series, and likely so even if it had not been on a broadcast network.
And I’m still not sure what I think about this particular piece of the Season Eight story, or what it added to the mythology of the Buffyverse, or to our understanding of Buffy’s relationship with Angel. It still feels to me as if it was done more because it could be done, and not as much because it was an entirely good or compelling idea.
A more minor “we did it because we could” moment in Season Eight is the reappearance of Warren. In terms of technique, aesthetics, and budgets, a drawn character who has no skin is a much better proposition than a live action version, but the narrative reasons for bringing Warren back, really skin or no, still elude me. There is also the question of what his appearance in the comics implies for season seven and how the First Evil works. I’ve done some research, and know that a rationale has been given (wanked) for how Warren could both be used by the First Evil and come back in uncovered flesh and blood for Season Eight, but I don’t find the explanation compelling in light of the limited pay off for needing to rationalize the choice at all.
To be honest, I’m not sure Amy needed to be brought into the new comics either, but with her there might be future uses that could still result in something interesting. More importantly, her introduction into Season Eight did not create meta-narrative level problems requiring readers to either forget what they had been told previously and/or some kind of patch for the mythology to remain consistent at a pretty fundamental level.
On the other hand, I agree with Whedon that Giant Dawn is maybe the best example of how the writers and artists took advantage of the medium in Season Eight. All of Dawn’s transmogrifications worked for both humor and character development, giving Dawn adversity to overcome, and helping her to mature as her feelings of being different take on literal form.
“Wolves at the Gate” (#12-#15) stands as one of my favorite mini-arcs of the season. Giant Dawn, of course, plays a major role in that story, but I also like how Drew Goddard writes Dracula as both a powerful and a vulnerable character, and the shift of the action to Tokyo is another good example of using comics to good effect (I did not particularly care for the killing off of Renee, but was not surprised by it either).
“No Future for You” (#6-#9) and “Time of Your Life” (#16-#19) are my two other favorite series within the series. The latter, like “Wolves at the Gate”, takes Buffy into a high concept world that would have been impossible to render in an effective way on TV, but also gave fans a much anticipated crossover with Fray, drew out some very long term implications of the present-day story, and brought Karl Moline back to the Buffyverse. I think that Whedon’s rendering of an even thicker version of future slang for this mini is a good use of bringing Buffy into Fray’s New York, giving readers what they don’t have in Fray, which is someone in the story who has to navigate that time and place from an unfamiliar position.
The Drew Goddard written “No Future for You” knows its core characters well, and provides a superb reintroduction of Faith, but is also the first point in the series where Georges Jeanty and Andy Owens showed me a real weakness in their art. For the most part, the comics versions of the characters took on effective lives of their own, different from, but related to, their live action counterparts, but the early attempts at drawing Faith did not work well for me at all, making her seem, of all things, dumpy. By the end of the whole series, she starts looking sharper and more Faith-like, but initially, not a high point for the art in Season Eight.
Looking back on the single issue stories from Season Eight:
- In “The Chain” (#5), Joss Whedon writes a story that ably explores the tougher side of running a Slayer army.
- Also written by Whedon and appearing in succession are “Anywhere But Here” (#10) and “A Beautiful Sunset” (#11). The former is notable to me for Cliff Richards’s art, which, as always, provides effective comic book likenesses of the characters. The latter reveals Satsu’s love for Buffy and also brings the series around to questions of love and sexuality that it kind of punted with Willow by making her a fully committed Lesbian. Anne-Marie and I have always talked about how it would be more interesting if Willow simply loved who she loved, male or female, than it is for her to have not only discovered an attraction to women, but also that she is, in some sense, exclusive in her attractions. Buffy’s sexuality seems to have become more fluid with time, and that is interesting, and well worth the static this revelation earned the creators on the letters page.
- “After these Message … We’ll be Right Back!” (#20), by Jeph Loeb, “Harmonic Divergence” (#21), by Jane Espenson, and “Swell” (#22), by Steven S. DeKnight all provided fun diversions from the main story, playing with cultural trends and keeping the series grounded in everyday life.
- Whedon’s “Turbulence” (#31) is strong bridge between “Retreat” (#26-#30) and “Twilight”, and introduces one of the most interesting aspects of Season Eight for me: Buffy’s superpowers, a development made even more intriguing given their source. This story poses interesting issues about power and the costs of using it that are well within the scope of both the series itself and superhero comics in general. Granting Buffy new powers, even for a few moments, serves to ground her in that larger tradition, but in a way that seems very organic, and not forced.
In considering my review, clearly I have more doubts about the latter third of the series than the remainder, but there are, of course, moments I liked. Spike leading a pack of spacefaring bugs, for example, is crazy fun, and the character wears that kind of thing well. I also am impressed that, in issue forty, Whedon manages to make Kennedy interesting, albeit at Willow’s expense.
However, I do not know what to write about Giles’s death at the hands of Angel. On the one hand, this death is less cheap than Anya’s is in season seven. On the other hand, I am not sure what to make of the how it happened, or whether this is, in fact, the time to actually take Giles out of the storyworld (the previous time this happened did not work out so well, but everyone was younger then, too). I hope that this a thread that gets woven into Season Nine and/or the new Angel books from Dark Horse.
Mostly, I am interested to see if the new series does, in fact, follow the lines outlined by Whedon so far. If it does, that will be for the better, and will also, I think, keep giving Buffy (and Buffy) a meaningful life in comics. What I hope does not change is Jo Chen as the primary cover artist. Virually every cover she made for Season Eight is a frameable work of art. Still, I am open to change and surprise even here.