Joss Whedon once claimed that he would continue to engage with the characters of his doomed Firefly series in any possible medium, including “etchings”. As intriguing as a woodcut series sounds, either for Firefly or involving his characters from the Buffy/Angel universe, his serialized dreams have in fact found their second best expression in comics. Comics were a natural match for the Whedon style, particularly genre/superhero comics which are familiar with the literate, witty dialogue of Whedon’s TV work and with its expansive, ultra-serialized storytelling. Comics also allowed for a freedom of movement and setting that sometimes made the Buffy series seem a bit claustrophobic. Perhaps it was already in Whedon’s mind before the fateful events of 2001 forced his hand to make the transition from TV into comics with his creations. But we can be thankful, now that the Buffy and Angel (and now Serenity and even Dollhouse) comics have been successful in virtually every way, that Whedon’s engagement with his characters and situations have continued to exist after the vagaries of television production ended their run in their most popular medium.
The Buffy comics, published by Dark Horse since 2001, represent a fairly rare phenomenon in that they are fully part of the established canon of characters and situations, receiving ample attention from both the main writer and creator (Joss Whedon, who “produces” all series and writes many key issues himself) and the writing team from TV, most notably Jane Espenson, Stephen S. DeKnight and Drew Goddard. Rather than noble but ultimately repetitive exercises such comic adaptations of series tend to be (see the original Marvel Star Wars comics), this new series was considered literally “Buffy Season 8”, and the story it told had as much relevance to the characters within the fan community that they would have had, if they had been presented as a TV season, TV movie or feature film.
Over the next 15-16 articles, I’ll explore the Buffy comics, from their inception through to the beginning of Season 9 and the reclaiming by Dark Horse of the entire lineup of characters that populate Joss Whedon’s most well-known Universe.
For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the show, or those who wouldn’t mind a recap, Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered on the WB Network in 1997 as a mid-season replacement. After an uneven first season, the show found its feet for a successful run on the WB through the end of season 5 in 2001, at which time the network announced it was dropping the show. Buffy featured the story of Buffy Summers (played throughout by Sarah Michelle Gellar), southern California girl who was in fact this generation’s “Vampire Slayer”, a mystical being created eons ago who appears in the form of a young girl once every generation in order to “save humanity” from the “vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness”. Slayers are trained and cared for throughout history by their “Watcher”, a parallel order of British mystics. Buffy’s “Watcher” is high school librarian Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) and he and Buffy are joined in their fight against evil by some of Buffy’s friends, including Willow (Allyson Hannigan), Xander (Nicholas Brendon), Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) and later, Buffy’s younger sister Dawn (Michelle Trachenberg), a crew collectively known as the “Scooby Gang”. Introduced as a mysterious friendly stranger in season one, Angel (David Boreanaz) is Buffy’s primarily love interest and character counterpoint, a vampire cursed with a soul so he can feel torment for the suffering he had inflicted over decades. Angel loses his soul if he experiences a “moment of pure happiness”, which only Buffy can provide, driving a classic romantic impediment between the characters. The last major character is Spike (James Marsters), a vampire who was once allied with Angel, who now roams the world with his lover/mother Drusilla (Juliet Landau), a vampire who was in fact “created” by Angel himself. Spike, as the story progresses, has his ability to harm humans taken away by an electronic brain implant, and thus neutered, he slowly becomes part of the Scooby Gang, and in fact Buffy’s lover. After Buffy’s third season, in 1999, Angel, Cordelia and another Buffy character, the Watcher Wesley Windham-Pryce (Alexis Denisof), left the show to star in their own series, Angel, which had a successful five-season run, with occasional cross-over events tied into the continuing run of Buffy.
In 2001, Angel was entering its third successful season, but Buffy was in trouble. Dropped by the WB, the CW Network made a bid for the show which was finally successful and Buffy would be returning to TV starting that fall, with the CW featuring Buffy Season 6. There were some significant story issues, however, most notably that Buffy herself had died, unequivocally, at the end of season 5 in a high symbolic act of sacrifice. The writers were tasked with some way to bring her back from the dead that would allow the show to retain its artistic integrity. Also, Anthony Stewart Head had announced that he did not want to be a regular cast member in order to spend more time in his native England. His status was reduced to “special guest star” for the remainder of the show’s run, and the Giles character was gradually written out of the series as season 6 progressed. (The ingenious solution was simply to tell the truth: Giles was moving back to England.) Season 6 went on to be one of the more controversial season of Buffy among the fans, some of whom disapproved of the dark and twisted turns of fate that awaited Buffy and the rest of their beloved characters. But it set the stage for season 7, the final climactic adventures of Buffy on the small screen.
Whedon himself would have less to do with Buffy starting in season 6, his attention being divided between Buffy, Angel and a new series he was developing at the time, the ill-fated Firefly. Somewhere in the mix of projects, a comic book series was born that would serve as a test-bed for the Buffy comic, and take Slaying into places it could never go on television. That was the sci-fi comic book Fray, which we will discuss in detail next time. But these troubled beginnings for Buffy’s jump to the pages of a comic book provide some important context for our continuing discussion. Between 2001 and 2004, when Angel finally ended and there began a period with no Whedon shows on the air, there were a great number of possible projects in development for continuing the story, including the infamous “Spike Movie”, but ultimately the project that came to pass was the comic project, and its roots lie in the confusion of 2001.
Next time we will have a good look at the first Buffy-related comic, Fray, which introduced Whedon to the notion of rendering the characters for comics, and opened up the narrative space for the Whedon universe that would set the stage for Buffy Season 8.