She Has No Head! – Joss Whedon’s Fray
I’ve been having a fairly random rekindling of my love for Buffy The Vampire Slayer of late. As such it seemed like the perfect time to finally take a look at Joss Whedon’s Fray. Based in the Buffy universe, but propelled forward a few hundred years into the future, Whedon’s 8-issue mini-series from Dark Horse focuses on Melaka Fray, a new slayer called forth after many years of a world without a slayer.
Fray works as a great introductory character, because she knows as little about her destiny as any new reader might, which makes a natural fit for introducing those unfamiliar with Buffy lore to Whedon’s universe. And it’s done skillfully enough that readers already well familiar with the universe won’t be bored by the history lesson. In the series, Fray, a thief and “runner” for a fish man called Guther, is called as the first Slayer in a couple hundred years, to fight a war brewing and a hellmouth about to open up to let in all sorts of dimensional hell beasties. A guide of sorts, though not her watcher (that dude lights himself on fire in front of her, whee!), named Urkonn has been summoned to help train her for the coming war and the complexities he finds in her makes for some nice plot twists that are especially satisfying I suspect for readers already familiar with Whedon’s universe. Regardless, the plot twists, which I won’t spoil here, come just at the right moments to keep you off-balance in all the good ways that a smart engaging story does. Fray doesn’t have the rich cast of allies that Buffy developed over time on the television series and that continues in the books, but what Fray does have here, some real family and some adopted family, plus Urkonn, her fishy boss, and an arch-nemesis all works well and gives just enough of a tapestry to keep everything very interesting.
As always Whedon’s strengths as a writer are in his ability to create exceptional characters and his gift with dialogue, both the heroic and the humorous. Whedon became so known for his characters’ unique ways of speaking that it’s spawned an entire generation of “slayer slang”. I confess Buffy was such an influence on me as a young (sorta) lass that my way of speaking, and more importantly perhaps, writing, has absolutely been influenced by Whedon’s lexicon. One of the fantastic and supremely nuanced things he does in Fray, and probably my favorite aspect of the book overall, is how Whedon holds true to that unique “Whedon voice”, but manages to subtlety update it to reflect the passage of time. He manages to not only jaunt us into the future, but he manages to very thoroughly jaunt us into a Whedonverse future, and it’s great fun. Fray has the same plucky sense of humor and self-possession that so many of Whedon’s characters have, but she still feels uniquely her. Whedon wisely crafts Fray to be wildly different from the Buffy that fans know and love, drawing distinct differences between the two, but allowing them that wonderful “chosen one” undercurrent that ran throughout his show. All the same themes – both epic and mundane – because really, what’s the difference – from the television show are in full effect here, but with the necessary tweaks.
The art by Karl Moline, Andy Owens, Dave Stewart, and Michelle Madsen is kinetic and vital. The coloring especially is somehow both garish and bright, while also managing to find an appropriate gritty darkness that gels well with a future full of high rises and flying cars. Moline gives Fray a distinctive and substantial look that feels real for her world, no skirts or heels for this girl. She’s all about function rather than form, but still manages to look badass cool while being her functional self. She’s fit but realistically so, and for a comic book character she’s definitely on the non-voluptuous side, none of which stops her from being dead sexy. The art is smart and well considered throughout, never over shadowing the writing, but rather assisting it ably and bringing it nicely to life. The action is particularly strong here, which is good because there’s a lot of it, from graceful heists to gritty street fighting to epic battles. It all moves with an energy that’s practically contagious.
My sole complaint about this series, or rather this collected edition is the intro by Jeph Loeb, which I thought, considering Whedon’s well-known feminist leanings in his stories and creations, was actually borderline insulting. Considering that Whedon has resolutely said that the mission statement for Buffy from day one (and as such I would assume Fray as well) was “the joy of female power: having it, using it, sharing it”, I find it disappointing to read the essence of Buffy whittled down to “pretty girls and monsters” as Loeb does in his intro. Sure, pretty girls and monsters are awesome, and Buffy and Fray have those things in spades and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I expect more from an introduction to a book that lives within one of the most female positive fictional environments I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing in my lifetime. A positive and powerful female environment that has literally shaped me as a person, and certainly as an artist and creator. There’s a whole hell of a lot more to its “essence” than simply pretty girls and monsters. And I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to feel that and know it.
On the whole, I don’t suppose I enjoyed Fray as much as I enjoy Buffy the television show, or the Season Eight comic run, but both the show and the comic have the advantage of both years of development, and having such life breathed into them originally by a truly amazing cast of actors. However, as a comic, standing on its own, Fray is great fun and a wonderful addition to the ever increasing stable of great female positive comics. In light of Whedon’s own introduction to the series, that sounds like mission accomplished to me. Fray is smart and fast-paced, but with that perfect gooey emotional center that leaves a reader breathless and satisfied.
Fray is available in comic and book stores, as well as online as a TPB.
***FYI – She Has No Head! is actively accepting review copies of “female positive comics and graphic novels” for future columns. Please get in touch via email (using the CSBG “contact us” button above) to discuss.***