Dark Horse and Joss Whedon first explored the “vampire slayer” world in the 2001-2003 8-issue miniseries Fray, widely available now in TPB. With an original script by Joss Whedon, conceived and written during the troubled period between Buffy seasons 5 and 6, Fray served several purposes for Whedon and the development of the comics legacy of Buffy and all the other famous Whedon characters, including the introduction of the Slayer’s Scythe, which would feature prominently in Buffy, Season 7, and the theme of a world without magic, which formed the crux of Buffy Season 8. It also presented a slayer story without our familiar characters, allowing Whedon to grow and enrich his mythology, and explore a visual world beyond what was possible on television.
Fray is the story of Melaka Fray, a spunky young girl living in the futuristic city of Haddyn (a future version of New York). The art, by Karl Moline and Andy Owens, presents this city very much in terms of The Fifth Element: flying cars, urban decay and a certain “cyberpunk” caste to the speech patterns of the characters. The city is populated by a variety of “monstrous” types, including mutants (or “Radies”) such as Gunther, her aquatic business associate (whose character design owes a great deal to Abe Sapien). Fray begins the story as a small-time criminal, who makes use of her considerable physical skills to steal items for Gunther’s organization and bring the spoils home to her slum district. After one such mission she returns home to find a classically monstrous demon, Urkonn, complete with cloven feet and horns, waiting for her with a message. Fray doesn’t trust Urkonn at first, but he begins telling her stories of a “Slayer” and a world of magic where one girl is chosen to fight the forces of darkness.
Urkonn introduces a crucial historical point: this is a world from which all (or most) magic has been drained. There may be scientifically-based mutants and monsters, but no magic. Except for “lurks”, strange creatures that are never seen in the daylight and drink the blood of the living. Urkonn explains that these “lurks” are actually vampires, and as the Slayer, it is Fray’s mission to combat them. But Fray herself has no interest in that particular mission, as she isn’t the chosen one as such, but the chosen one’s twin. She was born with a fraternal twin, named Harth, who had none of Fray’s physical gifts but a certain mental and emotional acuity. When Harth and Melaka were youths, Harth was taken by lurks and “turned” into a vampire himself. He is indeed the Lord of the vampires and the story’s chief antagonist, trying to re-open the portal to a magical world where he can rule over armies of vampires and demons. Fray’s mission becomes to defeat her own brother, who she had long ago given up for dead.
In terms of the Whedon universe, there are some fascinating echoes here. The notion that the Slayer could be effectively “split” into two individuals in terms of skills and then manipulated by the forces of darkness is a novel notion for a mythology that has previous postulated a single slayer born unto each generation. Harth himself as a “male slayer” is also an intriguing character, especially given that he is turned into vampire. Since the very beginning of the Buffy series, the question of turning a slayer was lingered on the periphery of the mythology without ever quite being addressed. In Fray we get to see something of the possibilities presented by that scenario. The trajectory of a young girl receiving, and resisting, the call to be a slayer is of course very familiar to Buffy fans, and here it is given some superficial spin (Urkonn is not strictly speaking a Watcher, and Fray is not strictly speaking a complete Slayer). And when Urkonn introduces Fray to the Slayer’s scythe, a weapon specifically designed for killing vampires with an axe on one end for decapitation and a sharpened wooden stake on the other for driving through hearts, an important piece of the Whedon universe clicks into place.
As a comic book, Fray delivers on the genre expectations with some characteristically great Whedon dialogue. For example, when Fray shoots Urkonn in an early scene, he reminds her, “Bullets cannot harm me,” to which she responds by pulling the trigger on her laser/energy weapon and saying, “What’s a bullet?” Fight scenes are played out with excruciating detail and this may indeed be the weak spot of Fray: too much energy spent on making the fight scenes seem elaborate and “large scale” and not enough on subtle interactions between characters. Fray’s facial expressions, for example, sometimes lean a bit too much towards Manga for my taste, and the severe thinness of her and many of the other characters contrast with the variety of body types found in the Buffy TV series. Occasionally the fight scenes get a bit on the “big” side, focusing on each and every aspect of each thrust and parry to the point where story and clarity are somewhat lost in the shuffle. The relationship between Fray and her older sister, Erin, a law-enforcement officer, reaches for territory beyond cliché but never quite gets there. And Fray’s final decision regarding Urkonn, her watcher, seems misguided, given the amount of mentorship and information she will need to complete her (presumably) many future missions.
But Fray is an important piece of the Buffy puzzle. In blending the Buffy-style magical universe with the science-fiction Firefly universe, Whedon attempts an ambitious marriage of all of his mythical worlds. Fray and her universe will be seen again in Buffy Season 8, as well as an explanation of how her magic-less world came to be. Perhaps significantly, future appearances of Fray will be illustrated by artists other than Moline and Owens, perhaps responding to their slightly incompatible style, although they deserve a great deal of credit for realizing Whedon’s first all-original comic book vision.
For Buffy fans, particularly those who wish to explore the comic book incarnations of their favourite characters, Fray is an important piece of the mythic puzzle. For others, it might seem simply puzzling, but it would work as a standalone piece of derring-do set in the future with a strong female hero. Perhaps that alone is enough to recommend it.
Next time, we’ll take a look at Tales of the Vampires and Tales of the Slayers, anthology comic pieces that truly established the comic world that Buffy and her friends were about to inhabit.
A tough punk chick who fights vampires IN THE FUTURE! Yisss. Yet I agree with your closing comments: this isn’t one of Whedon’s strongest stories (although it’s not one of his weakest, either). As a stand-alone, it’s cool, stylized, a proper interpolation between mythology and sci-fi, and yet it lacks emotional oomph.
Maybe it’s the lack of warmth. Buffy is about family and solidarity. Her friends back her up — they’re a beautiful family. Even Buffy’s mentor is a charming professor who’d destroy you if you ever screwed with his people. But Melaka Fray’s existence is so… fraught. Boy is it fraught. Everyone is out to betray her in some way — her mentor, her boss, her sister, her brother. Reading her story was an isolated and stressful experience for me. Seeing that you too have entered the fray (I think my winking eye just popped a muscle) made me feel a little less lonesome.