After two big story arcs starting off Buffy Season 8, it’s really here at the third that the Slayer Army really gets “down to business”. Joss Whedon and his collaborators have set up the situation, reminded us readers of the connection between this season and the last, re-introduced us to the characters and accounted for just about everyone (except Angel and Spike). Now, as the kids say, “it’s on”.
When we left off last time, Buffy was realizing just how lonely it can be at “the top”, having recently fallen out with Giles and feeling the pressure of being in charge of the Slayer army. Perhaps Buffy thought that creating many other Slayers would somehow ease her burden, but instead it just increased her responsibility, and her isolation. As Whedon often said in interviews during the run of the original TV series, “Sad Buffy = good.” Good for storytelling, anyhow.
In the first of the two bridging issues between the previous story arc and this, “Anywhere But Here” (Issue #10), we get a glimpse into Buffy’s personal pressure valve, once again in the form of her sexual frustrations. Written by Joss Whedon and illustrated by Cliff Richards (with Georges Jeanty only handling the major story arcs), this issue demonstrates a different kind of narrative freedom, possible only in the comics medium. For example, when Buffy dreams of a better place, it’s lying on the beach and having Daniel Craig lather her up with suntan lotion in a speedo. (Can’t knock her for that choice.) Later, Willow admits that her fantasy involves being trapped in a ski lodge with Tina Fey. Not only could a TV series not have “gone there” thematically but they could probably have never attracted those stars. (Later, Buffy fantasizes about sleeping with two different versions of Christian Bale. Again, not knocking her tastes.)
Buffy and Willow, by the way, are in the process of flying to France meet a powerful demon with information about Twilight. Like many Whedon-penned “episodes”, this one seems superficially light (a subplot involves Xander “gianting” some of Dawn’s clothes so she can throw a party with the slayers) but it actually conveys some crucial plot information. It’s here that Buffy finally gets and answer to the most pressing of questions, “What is Twilight? What does it mean?” The answer, setting up a major theme for not only Season 8 but also Season 9, is, “The death of magic”.
In the “Buffyverse”, magic is not simply an excuse, used to justify impossible things. It’s a dangerous, powerful force that is made no less mysterious by its reality. We all remember in Season 6, when Willow’s increasing interest in magic almost brought about the end of the world. Slayers, Vampires, Demons: they’re all some kind of magic. Even Giles’ flirtation with magic during his younger years, as “Ripper”, led him to dark and dangerous places. When the demon foretells “the death of magic”, it isn’t absolutely good or bad news for our characters. It’s really a bit of both, but as we shall see as Season 8’s climax approaches, magic is something worth fighting for, perhaps even worth dying for. Willow’s moody look in the panel continuing the demon’s prophecy conveys a great deal about her decidedly mixed feelings about the concept.
The demon also reveals truth, not unlike the “Once More With Feeling” demon from Season 6, and as in that groundbreaking episode, the truth is something that often is painful to hear. In this case, it’s revealed that Willow has indeed been continuing her relationship with Kennedy, but hiding from Buffy. Her reasoning goes back to Willow’s great love, Tara, who became collateral damage in Season 6, getting killed by a bullet meant for Buffy. Willow ruminates that she feels a tremendous lingering guilt over staying around Buffy during that time, when she and Tara could easily have moved on. She chose Buffy over her lover, and she can never do that again. For Buffy’s part, she has been leading the slayer army through a series of “victimless” robberies to steal money and jewels to fund their effort. Willow is incensed at this, as Buffy is profoundly hurt by Willow’s deception about her personal life. There’s a distance between these two characters for the first time in a while, and Richards draws them in silhouette, very effectively conveying the hurt and confusion.
And, as usual, there’s resonance in this with many of our real lives. Who hasn’t had a close friend grow apart from them? It’s sad, tragic and it feels inevitable, but it’s something that we mourn. One of Whedon’s major strengths as a storyteller is to bring emotional truth and honesty into the most fantastic of situations, and in this issue he touches his greatest work.
Georges Jeanty returns for Issue #11, “A Beautiful Sunset”, also written by Whedon. Buffy and Xander share some tea in the control room of the Slayer army, depressingly watching video feeds of bands of rogue Slayers committing various crimes all around the world, this time stealing guns. Buffy is bothered by the guns, but more bothered by the notion that, “The good folk who think we’re not human… are gonna love it when we start acting exactly like we are.” Later, as the rest of the Slayer army parties in the castle, Buffy and Satsu (her fellow slayer and sometimes romantic interest), go patrolling on the moors, meeting the usual assortment of Vampires and Werewolves but surprisingly coming face to face with Twilight himself.
The ensuing fight between Buffy and Twilight is a great visual action feast, capped with Twlight brandishing and entire church steeple as a weapon. Buffy’s line, “Go ahead. Church me,” is classic Whedon. But Twilight, just before he flies away, pulls the Devil’s trick and plants the seeds of doubt, asking about the Slayer army, “Have your Slayers helped change anything in this world? Have they helped you?” Buffy’s expression of doubt says everything that needs to be said about her feelings on the subject. Twilight, bragging to his minions later, hits the issue on the head when he declaims, “The trick is to strip her of her greatest armour… her moral certainty.” In that, we can safely say, mission accomplished.
As usual, it’s left to Xander to point out the simple human truth of the situation and the coda to this particular issue finds Buffy and Xander watching the Slayer army work out in the castle yard. Buffy ruminates on why she can’t feel any connection with them and Xander points out, with his usual plain-spoken wisdom, “Maybe you don’t get to. Maybe the leader, the girl who brings it all together is the one that has to give that up.” Buffy’s sad response is “Yay me.”
The “Wolves at the Gate” storyline begins in the next issue, #12. This arc is written by Drew Goddard, probably best to known to us now as the co-writer and director of the astonishingly good 2012 horror film The Cabin in the Woods. Here, as in that later film, he makes effective use of the Gothic setting, having villains appear out of mist, but he also gets the opportunity to bring sexual humour and social awkwardness to bear. As well as a great role for Dracula, who we last saw way back in Tales of the Vampires. (Of all the Season 8 arc, this one is one of my personal favourites.)
Though it is a dark night with a full moon at the Slayer castle, “love is in the air”, as they say. Xander has a new love interest, the striking, short-haired and coffee-skinned Renee, and they have pulled guard duty together in the middle of the night. Keeping watch with binoculars as the moors mist away (and wolves close in on the castle), Xander tries his best to conjure a romantic atmosphere, saying, “Who wants to be alone on a night like this?” Certainly not Buffy, who we see having finished her first taste of sex with a woman, in this case the Slayer Satsu, alongside of whom she fought in the previous issue. “Wow,” is her post-orgasmic response. It seems like Buffy had similarly romantic instincts on the dark Scottish night.
Meanwhile, Willow is flying in with none other than Andrew (Tom Lenk’s character from the Buffy TV series), quoting lines from Superman: The Movie as fast as he can, much to Willow’s frustration. As they land, and Andrew waves goodbye, suitcase in hand, a strange Japanese woman appears out of the mists and grabs Willow from behind.
The mists continue to build around Xander and Renee as they continue to flirt, unaware of the dark forces gathering around the castle. Buffy and Satsu, lounging in bed, are no less oblivious to the rest of the world. Xander finally notices the wolves approaching the castle and makes his way casually into Buffy’s bedroom, only to discover her and Satsu, naked, in bed, leading to one of the funniest, laugh-out-loud moments in the entire history of Buffy (and that’s up against some rather vigorous competition), as one-by-one, more people crowd into Buffy’s room and see the situation, including a bleary Andrew, who pricelessly cheerfully says, “Hi Buffy! Hi nude Asian girl!”. And then, after a pause, he wonders, “How much dramamine did I take?”. Even Dawn’s giant face appears at the window, mortified, yelling “What are you doing!?”. Finally Willow crashes through the ceiling, and even though she’s surrounded by wreckage, manages to get out a quiet, confused, “Why are you naked in bed with Satsu?” It’s a peculiar strength of Whedon stories that they can switch from Gothic horror to Kung Fu movie to French Farce on a dime.
The wolves in question are now within the castle walls and it is revealed that they have the ability to shape-shift, from human (Japanese humans, as it happens), to mist to wolf, or sometimes panther. Their goral, revealed towards the end of issue #12, is the Armory, where they steal and run off with the Slayer Scythe, a top-hatted Japanese girl literally flying off with it into the moonlight.
As our heroes wonder what sort of Vampire can turn into a wolf or mist or a panther, it suddenly dawns on them that they have indeed met one vampire with that skill: Dracula. (Even though at the time, Spike dismissed this power as “showy Gypsy stuff”.) And Xander, being a former minion of Dracula, is pressed into service to pay the old Vampire a visit.
Dracula, who appeared in the aptly-named Season 5 episode, “Buffy vs Dracula” is one of the more intriguing characters in the Buffy universe. He is not like any other vampire, with his “hypno eyes” and his old-world manners. Whedon and company instead decided to take Dracula at face value, that he really was that sort of Vampire, a special case with his Romanian accent and more interest in being treated with the dignity usually afforded to his class than simply wreaking havoc and drinking blood. In Tales of the Vampires, he was portrayed as a slightly tragic character, old and out of touch with the world by desperately wishing to connect with others. Xander was seduced as his manservant during the actual episode, and this relationship was continued into the comics.
All of this is explained, in a hilarious outdoor lecture given by Andrew to the Slayer army, complete with his chalkboard listing Dracula’s special powers as including, “Impervious to stakes” and “Romantic Undertones (technically not a power)”.
As Andrew briefs the Slayers, Buffy and Willow organize the hunt for the Scythe, tracking it to Tokyo in the hands of the Vampire Toru through the use of the Slayer’s Japanese agent, Aiko (who is honoured to be speaking with the famous Buffy). Meanwhile, Dracula boasts to Xander and Renee over tea until he finally breaks down and admits that his powers were stolen by “orientals”. He finally turns to raging over the insult to his dignity on the part of “those filthy yellow swine,” to which Xander points out that he doesn’t remember him “being this racist.” He agrees to assist the Slayer army in hunting down and destroying the Tokyo-based Vampires because “Nobody steals from Dracula”. Dracula here is a great example of something that came up later in the Angel TV series, that these Vampires are old. While they move in the modern world, their values and sometimes their speech is still informed by centuries of history. Once Xander and Renee figure out how to provoke Dracula’s old-fashioned dignity, “it’s on”.
A quiet moment ensues on the flight from Scotland to Tokyo in which Willow gives the young Satsu some advice about her sexuality, and her recent sexual experience with Buffy. She gently reminds a hurting Satsu that Buffy isn’t a “friend of sappho” and that she shouldn’t get her hopes up. Which Satsu reluctantly agrees is true. (Then, of course, Willow presses her for details, wondering if Buffy makes her patented “Shoe-sale noise” during sex.)
In Tokyo itself the battle begins with the Vampires taking out poor Aiko, but the army is on its way. They arrive in the next issue, #13, to the sight of Aiko spread out, crucified against the downtown skyline. They cut her down but when Dracula arrives, looking dapper in top hat and cane, he points to the body and asks, “Is somebody going to finish eating this?” Once again, the trademark Whedon/Goddard dark humour is always a pleasure.
Buffy draws out the Vampires through an intriguing stunt involving Willow creating a transparent prison and setting it on fire, with a Vampire inside. “This is war, “ Buffy says, resolute. As the battle begins in the streets of Tokyo, the Slayer army calls in its secret weapon (or at least, one of its secret weapons), Giant Dawn. The image of Dawn, hearing a green jacket over her “Herbie the Love Bug” T-shirt, stomping through the streets of Tokyo growling like Godzilla… Your pop cultural cup fairly runneth over. This gets even more wonderful in the next issue, #15, where we discover that the Japanese Vampires have created a “Mecha Dawn” to challenge her in the streets. And Mecha Dawn has a dinosaur tail, to boot.
In amongst all of this glorious, ice cream-like cultural referencing, Xander and Renee’s romance continues. Until, as it is with so many Whedon stories (not to mention George R. R. Martin), it ends with sudden and tragic death. Renee is pierced with a Samurai Sword by the Japanese Vampire leader and dies with terribly human sadness, gasping as she looks at Xander, saying, “I’m not ready”. This is quintessentially Whedon writing, almost effortless grounding even the most ridiculously fantastic scenario in true human emotion. Great comic writing (great fiction writing, full-stop) always seems to me to be only as good as its characters, and this moment is no exception.
Meanwhile, it’s left to Satsu to finally rescue the Scythe with a daring jump through the city, finally saved by flying Willow and Buffy. The head Japanese Vampire is captured and humiliated in the streets with the help of Dracula (and Giant Dawn, who rips the head off of Mecha Dawn). Dracula hands Xander his sword and allows him to cut off the Vampire’s head, slightly balancing the scales for the death of his latest love interest.
Xander, by the way, after this incident, breaks down crying in Buffy’s arms rather than swaggering about like a hero. (Shown in the background, so you may not catch it, but it’s probably the most important part of that particular scene.) This, again, is a distinct strength of Whedon’s focus on character, rather than situation.
Safely back in Scotland, Buffy and Satsu enjoy another night of sexual passion while Xander empties Renee’s ashes over the Dracula estate. Fade to black on this epic, moody, emotional and wonderfully Whedonesque story arc, possibly one of the strongest of Buffy Season 8.
Next time, artists Karl Moline and Andy Owens take the centre seat for the return of Fray.