The next five issues of Buffy Season 8 (#20-25), seem to represent a determined and conscientious effort on the part of the Whedon crew to experiment. They revisit some old ideas, and old characters, and explore the possibilities presented to them by the medium of the comic book. Not simply in terms of making the story “big”, as was the case in the previous few issues, but in delving into the structural distinctiveness of the medium and exploring themes perhaps too edgy for conventional TV. While the issues do connect to the main story points of Season 8, they are all “one-off” episodes in the parlance of television. The next major story arc, “Retreat”, starts in issue #26.
(In the interests of keeping these articles to an easily readable length, we’ll tackle issues 20-21 this time and finish things off next week.)
Issue #20, “After These Messages – We’ll Be Right Back” is quite possibly one of the most “meta” comics so far from the Buffy crew. Though it has a framing story illustrated by Georges Jeanty, which basically consists of Buffy falling asleep after a long mission, most of the issue is drawn by the creators of the ill-fated Buffy: The Animated Series.
Commissioned, recorded and written but never completely animated or aired, the Animated Series was the brainchild of Eric Wight, Ethen Beavers and Adam Van Wyk, along with writer Jeph Loeb, who penned this issue. Though it was to be produced in 2002, the series was set around the time of Buffy Season 1, when the scoobies were still in high school and still rather callow. They still would have had Cordelia in the main cast, as well as Angel, and the always-hilarious Principal Snyder, but interestingly they would have also included Dawn as a pre-teen, though we never actually got to see her at that age. Other than Sarah Michelle Gellar, most of the regular main cast was due to return. Ultimately the series never made it air, but this issue serves as a glimpse into what it could have been.
When Buffy falls asleep, she starts to dream and there’s our portal into the very differently-illustrated and written Animated Series segment. Strongly influenced by Manga, the artwork emphasizes exaggerated and simplified emotions through characters with angular bodies and downright huge eyes. This style works very well for early Buffy seasons, which got a good bit of their effectiveness from blending cartoonish high school hijinks with heavy, dark themes. The juxtaposition is readily on display, for example, when high school Buffy prances towards the graveyard in a micro mini-skirt, twirling a stake like a baton, and meeting the early, stern-faced version of Giles. Giles intones, “The very fate of the world is at risk over what happens tonight.” And Buffy is shown in the next panel with a sneer and a literal thundercloud over her head, lightning striking her as she pouts.
Buffy’s first reaction upon waking in the “animated” world is joy at seeing her mother. This confuses Joyce (who, as readers, we’re happy to see again as well) and earns the teasing of a pigtailed, impish Dawn.
Buffy is quite emotional throughout about her mother, even throwing herself into her arms in a later scene, taking Joyce aback, who explains that even though she will someday move on in her life, she “can always come home.” Buffy, though teenaged in body, is still a wise adult in mind and simply sighs at the notion.
Giles’ mission for the young Scooby gang is typical of an early Buffy episode. They have to slay the “Disciples of Morgala”, who are attempting to animate a powerful dragon. But the teenagers would rather go to Cordelia’s big party that’s happening on the same night. Buffy fairly revels in her relative lack of responsibility in this dream setting but her illusions are shattered when Giles places her in charge of the dangerous mission. Buffy, resentfully (again in keeping with her early characterization) goes off to slay the “Followers of Morgan Freeman”, as her mind remembers it.
Following a suitably epic battle, Buffy calls out Giles, turning on him with an unusual amount of hostility and resentment, saying that the future holds such things as a whole army of Slayers and everyone calls her “ma’am”. She storms off to change for the party, on the way to which she runs into Angel. Brooding and sensitive but distant, Angel’s character is caught perfectly in the art and the characterization.
Buffy doesn’t have a great deal of time for him, but he congratulates her on killing the “Five Disciples of Morgala”. Buffy stomps off, still intent on getting to the party, but she remembers that she only saw three followers. And grumbling, she turns back to deal with the other two. She’s too late: a dragon rises that Buffy literally rides to the party, finally defeating it by dislodging a magical gem. Before too long she wakes up, covered in filth from her “present day” mission, and expresses her sad resolution that “we have to save the world.”
It is interesting to see Buffy’s past and present deliberately contrasted in that way. It reminds us of how far the characters have come, and presages today’s “Throwback Thursday” meme. It would all seem very original had it not been done more effectively on Angel back in Season 4, in the episode “Spin the Bottle”. Featuring spectacular acting from Alexis Denisof and Charisma Carpenter, who are effortlessly able to reach back into their earlier incarnations, that episode served the same story point.
But it’s probably not completely fair to judge this issue on that basis, since its true purpose is to recycle some of the ideas for the Animated Series and show us how it could have worked. Judging from this evidence, it very well could have. But for how long? The power of Buffy in whatever incarnation the narrative takes is in watching the characters grow and change and develop. To revisit an earlier incarnation for one episode is one thing, but a whole new early season? That seems to be a creative cul-de-sac.
Issue #21, “Harmonic Divergence”, features the return of Harmony Kendall, who was last seen as a regular character on Angel. Harmony, the air-headed blonde LA vampire, is such a rich source of parody, satire and comedy that she’s always a welcome guest on either show, at least to me. Writer Jane Espenson is also a welcome addition to the Buffy comics, and she would remain a quasi-regular contributor to the run right through until the present Season 10.
Harmony is such a grab bag of blonde LA cliches that we often forget that she’s a vampire, without a soul. She’d just as soon snap your neck as look at you. It’s the restrained menace that give any of her scenes a subtle but insistent layer of tension which makes her compelling to watch, or read, even as you’re laughing.
We begin issue #21 by seeing how Harmony muscled her way into having her own reality TV show, “Harmony Bites”. Even though it’s a show about a vampire, and everyone in the TV production crew knows this, their main complaint is that the show is “boring”.
The Slayer army sees things differently of course, noting that this is a grotesque bit of macabre entertainment because it’s only a matter of time before someone crosses Harmony the wrong way and it turns into a “snuff” show. The other main character is a newly emerging slayer, rising out of the Latino gangs in LA. Already a fierce fighter, she discovers her new powers, sees the TV commercial about the Slayer army and makes the phone call. Andrew shows up, with all his usual charm, but the young slayer isn’t tempted by Buffy’s boilerplate recruiting pitch about “honor” and “duty”.
Instead of joining the army, the new slayer gets her tattoo fixed up but winds up literally bumping into Harmony and her entourage at the tattoo parlour. (The entourage includes the demon Merle, whose loose skin and good humour we all remember from Buffy Seasons 6 and 7.) The slayer sees an opportunity to kill a vampire, so she gatecrashes Harmony’s party, replete with the usual suspects of LA pretentiousness, because the goings on are being taped for possible inclusion in the TV show. Grabbing a clapboard and breaking off the familiar zebra-coloured clapper, the slayer fashions this into a steak but though she valiantly fights Harmony, right in front of the cameras, Harmony sinks her fangs into her, draining her dry with a deep snarl.
Here the comic takes a very logical turn, but a horrifyingly insightful one. If, by some outrageous contrivance, a vampire’s horrible killing of a human were to be broadcast on television, what would the public think? What would the producers think? A aspiring realist such as me has to answer that the public would love it, and the producers would love it more. No one would be seriously concerned about the horrible murder. They would only think, “Wow, something is actually happening on TV!” and watch with rapt attention. And sure enough, that’s exactly what happens. The only audience that seems to be at all affected by the gruesome display is, predictably enough, the Slayer army. Not only have they lost one of their own, Harmony has now drunk the blood of a slayer (putting her in a very rare club for vampires that includes her sometimes boyfriend, Spike) and she now has the corporate backing of a major network, complete with handlers and resources. Buffy herself nails it by simply asking, “What the hell is wrong with people?”
While we can allow that the Harmony issue here may have been possible as a TV episode, the Animated Series issue is an interesting and creative use of the comic book medium. Even if it had been produced as part of the TV series, there would have been no way of presenting the animated portions except as animated portions. Therefore it stands as an authentically “comic book” specific sort of story, which is admirable for Season 8.
Next time we explore two other very distinctive one-off issues, one involving Satsu and a deadly army of Pikachu demons, and one in which Buffy and Andrew take a road trip.