I’m kind of confused by the Buffyverse right now. There are four Buffy related titles right now- the two ongoing series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel & Faith plus the two mini-series Spike: A Dark Place and Willow: Wonderland. None of them are bad but they aren't what I expected. They are lot more… fantastical than what I had been told to anticipate.
Spike is still running around in a spaceship piloted by a bug-like alien race. And now Willow is wandering around another dimension with giant monsters and magical properties. The spin-offs are practically sci-fi and fantasy titles at this point. That’s not necessarily a problem. I happen to like fantasy and science fiction. But it’s not what Joss Whedon had promised at the end of Buffy Season Eight.
I should probably back up a bit. Buffy the Vampire Season Eight was a milestone moment in comic books. Comics have been adapting popular properties from other media since their inception. Whether it was with Roy Rogers in the ‘50s or Star Trek in the ‘60s, comics have always been ready to latch onto an idea with a built-in fan-base. But Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight was the first time that a comic book series would be an official continuation of a television series, and with the show’s creator shepherding the efforts.
Joss Whedon and his writers jumped into the new Buffy comic with abandon. As television writers, they had long been frustrated by budget constraints. They were tired of being told that they couldn't build a monster or an elaborate set because the show couldn't afford it. But there are no such constraints in comics. The only limit is your imagination. The artist can draw any creature you want- like the flying telepathic fish in IDW’s Angel series. The artist can draw any setting you want- such as the futuristic world of Joss Whedon’s Fray. The television writers embraced the freedom of the comic book page. They set out to make Buffy Season Eight the biggest, most spectacular season yet.
It was big. It was spectacular. Buffy’s sister Dawn transformed into a centaur, then a giant, then a porcelain doll. Xander supervised a legion of Slayers from a Scottish castle. The new Slayer army fought a battalion of gods in the Himalayas. And Buffy learned how to fly.
I loved it. I loved the spectacle. I loved the big screen feel to it. It was beyond memorable: it imprinted itself on your mind. I remember my gleeful joy when giant Dawn fought a giant Mecha-Dawn in the streets of Tokyo. I remember my sense of awe and wonder when I saw Buffy fly for the first time. For nearly four years, Buffy Season Eight was far and away one of my favorite comics.
But not everybody felt the same. Some detractors thought that the comic book had gone too far. It had “gotten away from its roots.” Surprisingly, one of those detractors turned out to be Joss Whedon. In an editorial at the end of Season Eight in which he detailed his plans for Season Nine, Whedon said that they had gotten caught up so in much asking the question “What Can We Do?” that they forgot to concentrate on asking “What Does This Feel Like?” For Whedon, the latter question was more important—and what Buffy the Vampire Slayer has always been about. Whedon promised a Season Nine that was more character-focused and intentionally less fantastical. Perhaps the budget restraints had forced them to be more creative after all.
Far be it from me to disagree with the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer—I do own a “Joss Whedon Is My Master Now” T-shirt—but I think that the criticism of Season Eight is entirely off base.
For one thing, fantasy isn't exactly new territory for Buffy. Nor is science fiction for that matter. Joss and his writers had never been afraid to cross over into other genres. Buffy had science fiction elements in its earliest seasons with “I Robot… You Jane” (season one) and “Ted” (season two spoiler: he’s an android). And the Buffy spin-off Angel went full-on fantasy by the end of season two with their adventure in the dimension of Pylea. They even paid tribute to their fantasy influences with titles like “Over the Rainbow” and “Through the Looking Glass.” It seemed like a natural outgrowth of Buffy’s world to introduce giant Mecha-robots and huge Himalayan gods. Furthermore, it seemed like a perfect time to step over into superheroes a little. It was a natural fit for a show that had always had a bit of a comic book influence.
For another thing, I don’t agree that Season Eight wasn't about the characters or their feelings. Dawn’s dilemma was visually entertaining but it was also emotionally riveting. One of the show’s great strengths was the way it used horror or fantasy elements as metaphors for real life problems. What does it feel like when you finally have sex with the nice guy and he turns out to be a jerk? Buffy dealt with that metaphorically through Angel’s transformation into Angelus and then again more literally with a college one-night stand. That’s what Dawn’s story was about as well. The guy she had sex with had lied to her. In the real world, a young girl might wind up pregnant or with an STD. In the Buffyverse, Dawn was transformed into a centaur. But she felt the same kind of shame and confided in Willow. Dawn’s transformations may have arisen out of “What Can We Do?” yet the writers still dealt with it on the level of “How Does This Feel?”
The same was true for Buffy’s transformation into a superhero. The initial answer to “How Does This Feel?” is “Pretty Cool.” Buffy was excited to have new, fantastic powers. Yet Whedon and his crew used the transformation to shine a light on the potential strains of friendship whenever one friend is more successful than the others. Xander may have been excited at first but he soon felt disregarded and ignored by Buffy as she experimented with her new powers. Meanwhile, Buffy the character maybe got a little too big-headed as it doesn't take long for “cool” to turn into “arrogant.”
From my perspective, Buffy the comic felt the same as Buffy the show. Only bigger. But I get it: Joss disagreed. It’s his character. It’s his right. Plus, I wasn’t opposed to the idea of a more character-focused comic. I think it’s sensible to acknowledge when you’ve taken a concept as far as you can go in one direction and strike out in another.
The new Buffy has been pretty good. Season Nine has been focused more on Buffy and her feelings. At the same time, Joss and company have tried to rebuild a supporting cast for her as a lot of characters have either moved on or passed away. They introduced some friendly roommates, a new police ally and even a rookie Slayer who happens to be a boy. There have still been plenty of surprises- Buffy is pregnant, no wait, she’s a robot! And there’s still a fair amount of sci-fi (did I mention she was a robot?). But it doesn’t have the same spectacle of Season Eight. Maybe some fans like it better that way. It’s not at all bad. But I liked Season Eight better.
Yet the thing that has me scratching my head is that some of the most exotic aspects of Season Eight have carried over into Season Nine. Like Spike’s bug-infested spaceship. I would have guessed that would be the first thing to go in this new less-fantastical Buffyverse. Plus, while Buffy’s world is suddenly magic-free, Willow has found a way into another magic-filled dimension where she’s having adventures that would surprise Lewis Carroll. Don’t get me wrong. I’m enjoying the solo adventures of Willow and Spike. Yet every time I finish a comic, I’m left with an odd cognitive disconnect. Wasn’t the new Buffyverse supposed to focus on character, not on fantasy?
Oh well. I should probably forget what Joss wrote and simply enjoy the ride. After all, he’s giving me what I wanted- a Buffy world where the world is your imagination- even if it’s not what he had promised.