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Committed: Buffy, the Comic Book Slayer

Today the final arc of season 8 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer kicks off, and with Joss Whedon back at the helm this is definitely a must-read. In tandem with a recent marathon of the old TV series, I’ve been reminded how much more has been packed into just a couple of years of the comic book continuation. World travel, confrontations with all manner and scale of monsters and armies, sexual misadventures, lovers found and lost, entire epic battles…

A couple of years ago I bought that bigass boxed set of the entire run of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, all seven seasons of the TV show. It’s ridiculous really, because now you can download them, stream them, or watch the repeats on some weird channel 15 times a week, basically it’s ubiquitous. But back when it started, I was the only lunatic I knew who wanted to watch a teenage girl beat up monsters. In fact, all of my friends wondered if I had some kind of problem. They accused me of everything from creepy lesbionic-pedo-tendencies to some kind of anti-feminist desire to see women getting hurt (which is ironic, since most of the time she was the one beating the mean guys up, which I actually did enjoy.) Somehow, after what seemed like an eternity, people came around to my way of thinking, and soon I was having large groups of friends over to watch the TV show as it aired, cheering on the valiant fight against evil and such.

When the series ended, I think we were all ready for it. Clearly the cast were outgrowing their roles, both physically and emotionally, and a hell of a lot of the stories didn’t seem to have anywhere to go at this point. It felt over, a good kind of finished. We were sad, but it felt right. I never imagined that I’d want more, and certainly didn’t expect to look forward to it.

Then season eight of Buffy came out, and this time it was a comic book. I’ll come clean here, and admit that I never read the comic before then. It just didn’t appeal to me conceptually, but when Whedon said that he was going to continue the series in the comic book, I had to give it a go. It did not disappoint. Exactly the same characters, speaking with the same voices, looking just as they ought to, and the stories… things had progressed. Suddenly there was more to do, more to find out. Outside of the constraints of a TV series, Buffy could go to all kinds of different countries to meet her various armies of slayers, zipping around the world at light speed (literally at times.) And this time when I say an army of slayers, I mean it. Unlike the TV show, an army wasn’t just 12 girls in her back garden, it was an entire bloody, world-wide army. Speaking of armies, when they went up against the real US army, they didn’t mess around there either. This army had weapons, and not just the odd rocket launcher, but nuclear bombs, jet planes, and entire, overwhelming battalions. So who did the army fight? They fought skyscraper-sized gods, multi-armed things, straight out of folklore. Speaking of giant monsters, what about the giant (epic, even) robot, or the disturbing Hello Kitty vampire things in Japan? Those terrifying little bastards with the bloody fangs which combined to make one massive monster, that worked for me too.

The list of physically impossible things goes on and on. These are things which no TV series would have the budget or time to create. At best we’d get some nasty, low-budget Sliders type nonsense, which would have been so bad that it would have pulled us right out of the experience. No, the TV show was right to stick to what it could handle. Whenever it stepped outside of that even on a very small scale, it became jarring, for example; the Initiative. Apparently we are expected to believe that the army operate out of a tinfoil-lined, empty swimming pool in the basement of Buffy’s college. There were a lot of silly things in the show (that was sort of the point), but that was too silly, and personally, I think it might be one of the reasons that the Riley episodes get such a bad rap. Maybe the only thing wrong was the damn tinfoil swimming pool. We’ll never know now.

What I do know is that Buffy the comic is working in ways that Buffy the TV show just couldn’t, and it’s not just about budget this time, it’s about content too.

It is possible that the TV show might have shown Buffy dreaming of dressing up as a nurse and having a threesome with her two vampire ex boyfriends, but somehow I suspect that it would have been frowned upon. TV shows aimed at young women tend to shy away from cosplay and group sex, unless they end in misery and danger. In a comic book though, especially one for a publisher like Dark Horse, those limits are pretty lax. Yes, there was that episode where Buffy and Riley shagged till they nearly died, but there again was the punishment. It basically a moralistic story about limiting contact so that you don’t accidentally cast a spell and kill everyone. In the comic book, there’s seems to be more space for the odd incident of pure, healthy hedonism on Buffy’s part, and I’m up for that. She’s got a crappy job, might as well have some fun.

Then there is the continuity. With the TV series, people got older, they got too thin or too fat. Sarah Michelle Gellar got so svelte that there were times I wondered how she could walk, let alone kick people, and when her stunt double came out, with all her muscles she was twice the size. Talking of twice the size, poor Nicholas Brendon was clearly just bored on set and eating for two, and considering he was meant to be an ageless, unchanging vampire Angel grew dramatically older and bigger over the course of the series. Naturally these people are only human, they’re bound to grow and change, but it did make it that tiny bit less realistic, and it is a problem that reading the comic book never presents. In the comic book Xander is aerodynamic again, Buffy has muscles again, and Angel and Spike haven’t changed a bit.

There are so many ways in which the comic book as a medium is showing itself to be vastly superior to the TV show, that I find myself wondering why so many excellent comic books are bothering to move the other way; from comic book into TV and film. Yes, there is a larger audience, I’ll give it that, but what joy is that audience missing out on? If you only ever experience Batman (for example) in The Dark Knight, no matter how good the movie is (and it is good), you’re missing about 90% of what makes that mythos incredible. This entire experience has shown me that comic books are a much richer, more versatile, more durable medium than any other entertainment medium. In all instances, there will always be good and bad stories, but at least in comic books, the limits are off. It is a visual medium where anything can happen, and if we’re lucky, it will.

23 Comments

“but at least in comic books, the limits are off”

ever heard of proper books?

“Proper books”?

Because comics are improper?

I mean, I love me some “proper books”…but there are some things that work much better with a visual element to them (and some things that work much better with a moving visual element to them).

“but there are some things that work much better with a visual element to them”

ever heard of the brain?

No, I have not. Does it plug into my TV?

I have heard of the Brain. He hangs out with Monsieur Mallah.

I disagree that the anything-goes, “unlimited visual budget” stylings of the comic book make the Buffy comic better than the show; I think the series needs the limitations of television to work, to feel like Buffy. In the comic, characters and plotlines will disappear for months at a time, and deft character work or snappier, coherent storylines are sacrificed for boring spectacle. The big, overall storyline has gone too far over-the-top, into meaningless, nonsensical territory. That Miracleman all-cosmic-sex issue? Ugh.

I love Buffy the show. Buffy the comic has nothing in common with the show.

That said, the recent Riley one-shot– Riley, for God’s sake!– was the best issue they’ve done in quite a while.

Of course, the freedom that the comic allows is a double-edged sword if the writers don’t use it with forethought and subtlety. My problems with Season 8 stem from the fact that the uses of the infinite budget/lack of editorial seem too self-indulgent to really add value to the story– Dawn’s transformations didn’t really do anything except offer visual humor, Buffy’s fling with Satsu seemed like more of Whedon’s fetishization of bi/homosexuality ( shoehorning the trait onto a character who hadn’t shown any evidence prior of finding women sexually desirable, again ), Warren’s resurrection didn’t serve much of any purpose beyond a disturbing visual, the Buffy: Animated issue wasn’t even entertaining filler with all the continuity-porn winking, etc.

The book has improved since ” Retreat “, but it spent its first 25 issues avoiding the larger story and character threads to indulge in 90’s X-Men style plotting ( re: ” This looks cool, let’s run with it ” ). As a TV Show, Buffy was exceptional. As a comic book, Buffy is an above-average superhero series, because there are plenty of other superhero books that have the same level of craft and a hell of a lot more focus.

The Ugly American

September 1, 2010 at 12:43 pm

I stopped reading this right before the Hindu (?) gods arc thing. I don’t think I’ve missed anything.

“That Miracleman all-cosmic-sex issue? Ugh.”
You mean someone else lacks total common sense and did another one of those?

Surely it couldn’t be as ludicrous and painful as Moore’s Übermensch airborne doggy style while smilin’ like a retard stunt?

I agree with Neil Kapit. What i thought was part of the original series charm was the “what can we do with what we have” aspect. I think a lot of good TV shows become good by having to find creative ways around their budget and logistic limitations. Can’t get the actor you wanted to return for a single episode to reprise a specific villain? then you’re forced to create another villain to carry the narrative forward. With the comic I feel that Whedon now has COMPLETE creative control (or at least as near as complete without drawing it himself) and the negative traits in his writing that would have been smoothed over by a larger creative team, directors, actors and lord in heaven, even the suits above him are now laid bare. I sorry but the whole Twilight thing has been an incomprehensible mess.
Even Spielberg admits that if he had gotten everything to go the way he wanted while filming “Jaws” we would have gotten a different and ultimately inferior movie.

I think there are some good points regarding limits are off. For example with respect to the aging of characters and the fact that you can create some things more realistically (the Initiative would have been better in a comic book where they could embellish the building).
I agree that some limits are good. The constraints can bring in very creative solutions that enhance the story.

With respect to Satsu and Buffy, I don’t think we should blame Whedon. From what I’ve read, it seems that it was Goddard’s idea. I think he pitched that story to Joss and Joss was fine with it.

I liked the first four arcs of season 8 very much and I liked the beggining of the Twilight arc. There has been a lot of junk in the middle of the season (and at the end of the Twilight arc, such as the other wordly sex). Between the junk there were some cool things, such as a Faith issue in Eastern Europe and the Vampy Cat. But the TV series also had a lot of junk. Even the superb season 2 had at least 3 terrible episodes (“Inca” is one of them).

I’d say the comic was decent-to-good through the time-travel-y Fray arc, but went off the rails after that, by going in too many directions at once, and then never following up on any of the more interesting ideas, like the worldwide reveal of vampires.

Hey! I love “BTVS” I watched the episode “Passions” this morning, where Angels evil and narrates the episode and kills that cute Ms.Callender, what a shame, I really liked the series and someone told me the comic was good, so I read the first four trades. What great fun, it’s a great comic, so they jump through time it’s a comic, for Christ sake. later!

so they jump through time it’s a comic, for Christ sake.

That’s not the point anyone was making above.

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” With respect to Satsu and Buffy, I don’t think we should blame Whedon. From what I’ve read, it seems that it was Goddard’s idea. I think he pitched that story to Joss and Joss was fine with it. ”

Given how Buffy Season Eight takes on the approach of TV writing, with Whedon as ” director “, he has the final say on everything and ultimately takes the lion’s share of responsibility. If I were on his staff, suggested that he have Dawn transform into a talking Reese’s peanut butter cup, and he approved it, he’d be just as much as fault for the final product as me. ( And I tend think he would approve that suggestion ).

Also, it fits into the larger problem with the way Whedon handles gender and sexuality; he’s just as likely to fetishize certain minorities ( lesbians, in particular ) as he is to promote diversity. There wasn’t really any reason for Buffy and Satsu to sleep together, aside from a diversion for an arc and to prove that Buffy wasn’t 100% straight. Satsu wasn’t a defined character prior to that story, and even after that we didn’t know anything about her other than her crush on Buffy. All we got out of that plot was;

1.) Buffy is Bi, and can enjoy sex with women ( which is a fair point, but undermined fits into the larger pattern of Whedon cliches )
2.) Visual humor at everyone walking in on Buffy and Satsu ( which was amusing, I admit )
3.) More angst for Buffy

Also, I want to note that the homo-eroticism between Xander and Dracula was kept as jokes about how absurd their relationship is, and never got beyond the ( obvious ) subtext. Male homosexuality doesn’t appear anywhere near as much as female homosexuality in Whedon’s stories….is there a double standard at work?

I agree that Whedon is to blame, I just don’t agree with it being “Whedon’s fetishization of bi/homosexuality”. Since it didn’t come from him, it wasn’t an agenda he pushed. I agree that he had all the power to veto it.

I think the double standard is intentional. Buffy in many ways is about empowering women. There’s no subtlety in that, the show and the comic are about that. Given that this is the case, it is only natural to explore female homosexuality more than male homosexuality. In the comic book context it makes even more sense, as for a good chunk of the issues we have the Slayer Army, an army consisting solely of slayers. This also explains how Buffy could have had a one night homosexual experience. For 18 months she is surrounded only by females and a brother-type character (Xander). They also emphasize that she is not gay, in fact she broke Satsu’s heart by admitting this to her.

@BillR
I agree with the assessment of decent to good up to the time travel arc and not so good aftwerwards. Although, I think the Faith arc written by BKV was excellent. In fact this arc is what got me to try out more BKV comics and got me to start reading more comics. Without that arc I would probably still be only reading Spiderman and Buffy, instead of reading a lot more comic books (and a lot less books, which I hope will balance out to something in the middle in the next year).

It’s more of a matter of society. Women have more freedom to figure out where on the Kinsey Scale they sit. Men are expected to be gay, straight, or uber-sluts.

“Also, it fits into the larger problem with the way Whedon handles gender and sexuality; he’s just as likely to fetishize certain minorities”

I’m not sure that Whedon fetishises minorities, I think it’s more that he views himself as a completely new-age, sensitive, feminist-friendly, enlightened guy and is determined that this come out in his work even if it has to be forced in to the plotlines.

When you listen to his Buffy commentaries, he’s constantly talking about “this is the problem women face”, “this is how men respond to women”, “this is how masculine society stereotypes women” etc etc. It’s admirable, but it sometimes comes across as someone who’s read a textbook about feminism but doesn’t really know any women.

I’d say the “fetishisation” of lesbianism is just Whedon showing how he’s uber-supportive of strong women and sexual minorities in a slightly ham-fisted way.

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