Experiments in Slayage

Tales of the Slayers and Tales of the Vampires are two anthology comics published in trade paperback in 2001 and 2004, respectively. Both offer numerous diversions away from the established Buffy/Angel storylines and glimpses into how the mythology can be adapted to stories set in different time periods and genres. The diversity of these works is part of what make them compelling, as well as frustrating at times. Like most anthologies, some of the short stories featured here are absolutely compelling and powerful, and others less so. Together, they form a test bed of sorts; a “dry run” of the Buffy mythology in the comic medium, leading up to the debut of Buffy Season 8.

Tales of the Slayers was first published in November 2001, during the run of the original series. It does contain a short piece featuring Fray, and that piece is drawn my Owens and Moline, the same team who delivered the full-length Fray, featured last time in this series. But the other seven stories in this anthology are original, diverse and uniformly interesting takes on the Buffy mythology. The writers are either Joss Whedon himself (who penned the Fray story as well as a Prologue featuring the First Slayer and “Righteous”, set during the Spanish Inquisition) or longtime writers for the TV series, including Jane Espenson, David Fury, Doug Petrie and Rebecca Rand Kirshner. This writers’ lineup also set the precedent of involving the original TV creators in the comic series, something that would allow Season 8 to gain considerable legitimacy in the fan community. One of the best stories in Tales of the Slayers, “The Innocent”, set during the French Revolution, was written by Amber Benson, the actress best known to Whedon fans for playing Tara in the original series. This tradition of involving cast members and others from the Buffy extended family would also be continued.

Tales of the Slayers presents its eight stories in chronological order, from the earliest times of human culture (the Prologue, featuring the First Slayer in Africa) to the far future, where Fray discovers the lost Watcher library and realizes her place among the history of Slayers. The theme is clear from the start, and one of the main questions asked by the TV series: what does it mean to be a Slayer? A Slayer is a woman called to a very specific and difficult mission in life. She must engage in difficult, dangerous violence on a daily basis and still suffer all the indignities, challenges and tragedies of normal life. That combination of old-fashioned mythic heroism and real-world drama is one of the most powerful elements of the Buffy universe, and the spirit of the show is alive and well in these moody, intelligent explorations of the theme. In the Prologue, the First Slayer is literally cast out of her village, with the awkward thanks of its people. This sets up the attitude on the part of the public towards Slayers that would resonate throughout the comic series and the TV series: “Thanks very much, we appreciate being saved, but you kind of scare us and we wish you would just keep out of sight in case you decide to go bad. Thanks again.” So, Slayers have to come to terms with either hiding their identity (as in Espenson’s Jane Austen-style story, set in 1813, in which the Slayer poses as a man) or finally revealing one’s powers to the wider world. Another perennial Slayer challenge is walking the line between one who kills Vampires and Demons and one who simply kills. This was explored in the TV series, where Faith the Vampire Slayer commits a murder of a human, and in Benson’s French Revolution story, “The Innocent”, also explores this theme, as the Slayer is misled by her Watcher to murder aristocrats in revolutionary fervor.

My personal favourite story of Tales of the Slayers is “The Glittering World”, written by David Fury and drawn by Steve Lieber in beautiful muted colours and dynamic frames, mixed with open landscapes. That artistic style is appropriate to this Western story featuring a young Native American Slayer in a wild west town, taking out a whole Saloon full of vampires. When she encounters her mother, now turned into a vampire herself, the ensuing battle is ugly and heartbreaking, ending with a wonderful landscape shot of the dying Slayer riding off on her horse, which gives way to a curious epilogue. This is another tradition in these anthology stories: filling in interesting little bits of backstory for characters in the TV series. In this case, the dying Slayer gives way to a young businessman negotiating to buy all of the land on which this dusty town was built with notion of revitalizing it and turning into a nice, sunny community. The man’s name is Richard Wilkens, and the name he chooses is “Happydale… or Sunny acres..”

Striking artwork is also to be found in Kirshner’s World War II story, “Sonnenblume”, in which a young German girl, good member of the Hitler Youth but also a Slayer, struggles with her conscience and eventually becomes a freedom fighter for her Jewish neighbors and friends. The art, by Mira Friedmann, is deliberately in the style of a children’s simplistic cartoon, with block colours and expressionist lines that complement and counterpoint the story being told. When a Jewish Ghetto is shown being “cleared out”, the mixture of children’s-style art and the story being presented is fairly devastating.

Also effective in Tales of the Slayers is a callback to 1970s Slayer Nikki Wood, who would feature in the TV series, titled “Nikki Goes Down”. Ostensibly a “Blaxploitation” pastiche, the textured pencil style of Gene Colan and Dave Stewart are the ideal fit for the dark story told by Doug Petrie. Nikki’s lover (presumably the father of Robin Wood, one of the heroes of Buffy Season 7) is a police detective who meets his match in a nest of vampires that are quickly taken down by Nikki. When she literally rides a giant bat into the New York subway tunnels, we can almost sense the glee in the eyes of the writers who can finally visualize some of their notions that would never be possible on TV.

Tales of the Vampires was published in the fall of 2004, and the three years between it and Tales of the Slayers is quite significant. By 2004, the Buffy TV series was over, Angel was winding down and the creators were obviously thinking about next steps with these characters. This was the era when people spoke of a “Spike Movie” or a spinoff series featuring Giles, called “Ripper”. Many outlets were clearly in the mix at this point, but comics pointed the way forward and Tales of the Vampires was the first truly post-Buffy product that rode on the skill and enthusiasm the creators had built up over the years.

Vampires is a much larger anthology than Slayers, featuring twelve stories, a cover by Mike Mignola and a quote from the infamous Montague Summers, who wrote about vampires in the 1920s as if he had first-hand knowledge. Joss Whedon contributes a “framing narrative” around the short stories set in the early 20th century at the Watcher training centre in England. In his framing story, a group of children, supposedly potential Watchers, are brought with great ceremony to meet an old vampire, who shares with them stories from his past and from the past legends of other vampires, with the educational imperative being that the children get one-on-one experience with a vampire. We return to this story periodically throughout the book, and get to know Edna, a feisty, opinionated little Watcher in training, who senses something odd about the whole exercise. It is not surprising that, at the end, “Edna” is revealed to be the ancestor (perhaps mother) of Rupert Giles, famous to us as Buffy’s Watcher.

The individual stories are as diverse as in the Slayers anthology, although not all of them are unqualified successes. “Numb”, a story featuring Angel and penciled handsomely by Brett Matthews, doesn’t really cover any ground with the character that the TV series didn’t explore. Matthews also wrote “Dames”, a noir story that is striking visually but ultimately feels like padding. But many of the other stories reach the dizzying heights of emotionalism and genre satisfaction that we remember from the TV series.

Jane Espenson’s “Father” is told from the perspective of a very old man whose father was turned into a vampire in 1922. Rather than the parent/child vampire/human scenario playing out as we have already seen from the series (think Spike and his mother), here the relationship is tender and loving between vampire father and son. When a Slayer (part of the Slayers Buffy called forth in the Season 7 finale) bursts in at the end and “dusts” the vampire, it is a moment of bittersweet triumph. Those sorts of twists and ambiguity are exactly what make the Vampires in the Buffy universe fascinating.

Because, while the central question of the Slayers anthology is “What does it mean to be a hero?”, the central question of Tales of the Vampires is “What does it mean to be a vampire?” Which, due to vampires lacking souls in the Whedon version of their mythology, really becomes a meditation on the nature of the soul. Call me the product of a slightly Catholic education (and you would be correct in that), but the exploration of what it means to have a soul was, and is, the most intriguing aspect of the Buffy universe, for me. Can vampires love? Can they feel anything? What is the meaning of their existence? These questions are addressed in Tales of the Vampires directly, as they were in certain key episodes of the Buffy and Angel series. That’s probably why, despite the periodically uneven storytelling, I prefer Tales of the Vampires to the earlier collection.

Other notable stories are Espenson and Jeff Parker’s “Dust Bowl”, which sets the vampire myth during the great depression, where dust blotted out the sun and would allow vampires to roam free over the great plains. Brett Matthews contributes another strikingly illustrated piece (art by Vatche Mavlian), “Jack”, in which Jack the Ripper AND the police consultant tracking him are revealed to be vampires. Joss Whedon also writes a wonderful little piece illustrated by Cameron Stewart called “Stacy”, featuring a young girl obsessed with Lord of the Rings who is turned and enthusiastically embraces her new identity as an “Orc”. After all, she reasons, now she has magic in her.

Drew Goddard writes a Spike story, “The Problem With Vampires”, in which Spike rescues Drusilla from being tortured. Their expressions of love and devotion to each other challenge the stereotype of the vampire as “heartless killing machine” but that is true of many of these stories. But in this tale, Spike and Drusilla’s love is portrayed as absolutely authentic, despite the fact that they both lack souls.

Ben Edlund is also a welcome addition to the mix of stories this time, bringing his trademark wit and slightly “mad” sense of character to “Taking Care of Business”. In this dark modern-day vignette, a vampire trolls the aisles of a convenience store at night, buying candy, which as the narration tells us, vampires love because it’s “all sweetness and no substance.” The strange vampire encounters a priest who appeals to his traditional instincts towards religion to walk out into the desert and wait for the sun to rise. The priest turns out to be simply an insane person, which is a typical Edlund twist.

And finally Buffy Summers herself shows up in “Antique”, by Goddard and illustrated by Ben Stenbeck. Set after the events of Season 7, Dracula, another beloved character from the TV series, is featured here, having seduced a grieving Xander Harris to become his servant. Buffy and a couple of other Slayers turn up and demand that Xander be released, eventually achieving this through persuasion, backed up by a little violence. But Dracula lectures Buffy on how she’s now “antiquated and obsolete”, and will eventually become a “joke” to her new Slayer army. Both plot points, Xander and Dracula as well as the place of Buffy in the Slayer army, would form strong narrative lines in Buffy Season 8, which was obviously under development at the time of writing.

That last story, “Antique”, leads very logically into Buffy Season 8, which we’ll start exploring next time. But don’t skip over Tales of the Vampires and Tales of the Slayers in your comic shop, because they are well worth having for fans of the original series and may even serve as a creative gateway for those who have not yet experienced Buffy greatness.

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Independent scholar Ian Dawe has been writing for Sequart since November 2013. Before that, he had a mixed background, initially in science (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry), where he earned an MSc from Simon Fraser University and then an MA in Film from the University of Exeter in the UK. He spent a decade teaching at the college level, delivering courses in Genetics, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Biological Anthropology and Film History. His academic work includes peer-reviewed papers on the work of Alan Moore, Harvey Pekar for Studies in Comics and a dissertation on Terry Gilliam for the University of Exeter. He has presented papers at several major academic conferences including Slayage 2014, Magus: Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Work of Alan Moore in 2010 (in the wizard's hometown of Northampton), Comics Rock and the International Conference of the Humanities in 2012, and at the Southwest Popular Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2014 and 2015. He has contributed to several books, including a chapter about the TV show Archer in "James Bond and Popular Culture" and two chapters on Breaking Bad for "Breaking Bad and Masculinity", both now available from McFarland. At Sequart, he has authored a chapter for New Life and New Civiliations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, A Long Time Ago and two more upcoming books on Star Wars comics. He has also contributed to books on Alan Moore and 1970s Horror Comics. He is currently planning a full-length book on Better Call Saul. Ian currently lives in Vancouver, BC.

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Also by Ian Dawe:

The Cyberpunk Nexus: Exploring the Blade Runner Universe


A More Civilized Age: Exploring the Star Wars Expanded Universe


A Galaxy Far, Far Away: Exploring Star Wars Comics


A Long Time Ago: Exploring the Star Wars Cinematic Universe


New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics


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