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Buffy The Vampire Slayer: A Stake to the Heart 2004 (SC TPB) 96 pages

Writer: Fabian Nicieza. Pencils: Cliff Richards, with Brian Horton. Inks: Will Conrad.
Colours: Michelle Madsen. Letters: Clem Robins. Editor: Scott Allie, Matt Dryer.

Reprinting: Buffy the Vampire Slayer #60-63

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: 2004

Now that the TV series, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", has ended, the comic has likewise wrapped up (this referring, of course, to the original comic book series...not the revival a few years later). A lot of media tie-in comics tend not to out-live their source program by long (if they last that long) -- though Dark Horse has claimed there might be one-shots and mini-series down the road. I'm only sporadically familiar with the comic, but I believe over its run it has tried to reflect the various season by season changes of the TV series. No small feat given that the series involved elaborate story arcs into which it would be hard to sandwich comic book stories. Which might explain why the last few issues of the comic got away from continuity problems altogether by presenting stories that take place prior to the series itself.

Which brings us to "A Stake to the Heart", the final story arc of the monthly comic portraying Buffy's dealing with her parents' separation, and bringing the saga full circle by ending with Buffy and her family moving to Sunnydale, just in time for the events that began the TV adventures.

Perhaps because it's the final story arc, there's a sense that writer Fabian Nicieza wanted to go out with something of a bang. Not by tackling yet another apocalyptic show down, but by presenting an intimate, emotionally driven story. Buffy may be the scourge of the nightlife, but she's still just a teenager, helpless to keep her family from falling apart. A breakup like that brings with it various troubling emotions of guilt and anger. The good guy vampire, Angel, has been shadowing Buffy (unbeknownst to her) and wants to alleviate her grief by casting a spell. But the spell goes awry and instead creates physical, often invisible, manifestations of emotions like Deceit, and Guilt, which then set out to destroy the Slayer and her family by exacerbating these latent emotions.

Because of all that, this isn't exactly the wittiest Buffy story around, preferring instead to be a melancholy exploration of angst -- though there are some quips and "Buffyisms" as things progress.

Knowing the story would be bereft of many of the usual supporting cast, one might wonder whether it will wholly seem like a Buffy story -- but it does, quite nicely. It's effectively moody and the structure interesting, in that each chapter has Buffy dealing with, and triumphing over, a different Malignancy Demon, meaning it's like separate stories that form a greater whole. Nicieza gets points for a certain unflinching depiction of the reality of a domestic break up, a feeling he really is trying to say something about human frailty, adding to a feel of this being a serious, grown up saga. There's a certain nightmarish aspect to the demons, like they just stepped out of a surrealist exhibition, that is perhaps more unsettling than the series ever managed. The story doesn't quite qualify as "mature readers", but be warned nonetheless (cover artist Brian Horton, whose covers are collected inside, also likes to depict Buffy actress Sarah Michelle Gellar somewhat underclad).

At the same time, the structure can lend itself to a certain repetition, without a bigger, overall story. The demons may represent separate ideas, but they all stem from the same emotional source. And how Buffy triumphs, emotionally, over some of them remains a little vague at times.

The art by Cliff Richards is largely effective, capturing the essence of the actors well enough that you can largely tell who's least, once the characters have been identified (though not necessarily before). He does particularly well with series' star Sarah Michelle Gellar in some panels. There's a nice use of shadow to lend the thing a dark, brooding, spooky feel. I'll admit I wasn't a big fan of some of the art I'd seen in early Buffy comics, with artists like Joe Bennett employing a somewhat cartoony style I didn't favour. Richards is a more realist artist, but has a trace of that Bennett flavour, with a lot of open line work, where faces and figures are often rendered with a minimum of detail -- few creases in the faces, for instance. An interesting trick to the art has Brian Horton painting Richards' pencils for occasional pages depicting certain aspects of the story. It might have been nice to have done the whole story that way -- after all, if it's the last story arc, why not go out with the bang of a prestigious, painted look?

Richard's sense of telling a story through the panels is a bit uneven at times. In one sequence Buffy is walking down a street, then shown standing in a crowd looking at the sky, then shown walking down a hall -- it took me a few moments to realize the crowd was supposed to be in an elevator! It doesn't help that writer Nicieza tends to eschew captions such as "Later..." or "Meanwhile, back at the Summers' home...", meaning cuts between scenes can be a bit confusing. It's only occasionally confusing, but perhaps I'm sensitive to this because a non-comic reader picked up the book, flipped through it...and remarked to me how hard it was to understand what was happening in spots.

I won't pretend to guess how comprehensible this will be to someone unfamiliar with the Buffy universe. Though the focus is on Buffy before she even arrives in Sunnydale, there are brief cutaways to soon-to-be series' regulars like Xander and Willow -- cutaways that have little meaning in this story. And Nicieza tosses in characters like Whistler and the law firm Wolfram & Hart that might require even more expertise (given that Wolfram & Hart I think only appeared in the "Buffy" spin-off, "Angel").

Perhaps the strangest continuity point is the inclusion of Buffy's little sister, Dawn. If you're a fan (and you probably wouldn't be reading this if you weren't), you know Buffy was an only child, who then "acquired" a sister part way through the TV series when an entity was given human form, and Buffy, her friends, and the entity itself, were given false memories convincing everyone that Buffy had always had a little sister. It was one of the TV series' most audacious story turns. But Nicieza seems to have missed the point that reality was not changed, merely their memories of that reality. If "A Stake Through the Heart" was presented as Buffy's reminiscences, Dawn would be in them...but presented seeming as a depiction of what actually happened, she shouldn't. Still, one can understand the temptation to include her, both because the character became integral to the series, and because it gives Buffy someone to play off of.

This final story to the monthly comic isn't flawless, but it's moody and accomplishes the task of seeming high minded, and heartfelt. The comic itself obviously evolved admirably in content and ambition from the earliest issues which were, sometimes, excruciating. This closing saga manages to be an intelligent, thoughtful lead in to what many would argue was one of television's most intelligent, ambitious, efforts.

Cover price: $12.95 USA

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Uninvited Guests 1999 (SC TPB) 104 pages

Written by Andi Watson, with Dan Brereton. Pencils by Hector Gomez. Inks by Sandu Florea.
Colours: Guy Major. Letters: Janice Chiang. Editor: Scott Allie, Adam Gallardo, Ben Abernathy.

Reprinting: Buffy the Vampire Slayer #4-7

Rating: * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Additional notes: intro by Watson; covers

What is there to say about the second collection of Dark Horse Comics' monthly Buffy comic? I dunno. Ugh! comes to mind.

O.K., normally, even when being critical, I try to approach the material with a modicum of respect, recognizing the efforts and talents that went into a story, even if it didn't work out (in my opinion). But these four issues (comprising three stories) just struck me as thoroughly lame. Admittedly, I didn't much care for the first few issues of the monthly comic (collected in the TPB The Remaining Sunlight), but I still had a better reaction than to this. I don't know if that's because I was being overly kind to that earlier book, or whether I'm being too harsh now, or whether it is worse. I just don't.

In his introduction, writer Andi Watson gleefully admits that "horror has never been my thing" -- and it shows. Not because he doesn't populate his stories with vampires and other monsters, or indulge in lots of fight scenes -- but because that's about all he does with the supernatural stuff. He seems to have no interest, or aptitude, for actually developing interesting plots utilizing such themes. Case in point is the first story: Buffy gets a job at an ice cream parlour in the mall, Buffy's boss is secretly conjuring ice demons, Buffy and friends have a couple of knock down drag out fights with ice demons. The end. The second story, involving a werewolf, and a sub-plot involving a schism between Buffy and best friend Willow, likewise never really develops into an interesting plot. I had some hope for the final story, "New Kid on the Block", both because it was a two parter, and I figured maybe Watson was just having trouble developing plots in 22 pages, and because it was co-written by Dan Brereton, who wrote The Dust Waltz, which I moderately enjoyed. But my hopes were quickly dashed with another thinly developed, predictable, effort.

Watson claims that his real inspiration is teen comedies (and Molly Ringwald movies) but, honestly, that doesn't really come across much either. That is, if you were to ignore the vampires, are the scenes of the characters just hanging out fun and interesting on their own? Not really. Even here the plotting and ideas are rather thin, the badinage flat.

The art by Hector Gomez isn't exactly a plus, either. I found his work passable on The Dust Waltz, but I'm less forgiving here. There isn't a great impression that he puts much thought into his composition and his figures are rather stiff-looking and ungainly.

I went into this not expecting much...and even then I felt let down. There are better Buffy graphic novel and TPB collections out there.

Cover price: $16.95 CDN./ $10.95 USA 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Tales of the Slayers 2001 (SC GN) 88 pages

cover by Tim SaleWritten by Joss Whedon, Amber Benson, Jane Espenson, David Fury, Rebecca Rand Kirshner, Doug Petrie. Art by Leinil Francis Yu, Tim Sale, Ted Naifeh, P. Craig Russell, Steve Leiber, Mira Friedman, Gene Colan, Karl Moline.
Colours/letters: various

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

The mythos behind the TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is that Buffy is not the first, nor will she be the last, Chosen One -- that in every generation a girl is chosen to fight the forces of darkness. Therefore, it's a logical thing to explore the lives of Slayers through the centuries. So logical that there's also a short story (non comicbook) collection...also called Tales of the Slayers (how's that for confusing?).

Another hook here is that most of the writers, instead of just being freelance scribblers, are actually associated with the TV series itself, from Buffy creator and driving force, Joss Whedon, to actress Amber Benson (Tara) -- who'd already co-written one or two Buffy spin-off comics.

The end result is an O.K. collection of eight stories (though the first and last are more prologue and epilogue than fully realized plots) in which none are awful, though few are stand outs, with the art styles mostly good to really good. The collection kicks off, appropriately enough, with the First Slayer, who appeared enigmatically in the TV series in a couple of dream sequences. Although written by Joss Whedon himself, it actually loses some of the flavour of that first Slayer who, in the TV show, had seemed almost eerily...primordial, without even the capacity for speech, as though at the very beginning of humanity. Here, though, the Slayer encounters a person from a village wearing embroidered clothes and with a wicker basket. Not exactly the Dawn of Man stuff, eh? Conversely, Whedon provides a credible explanation for why there is only one Slayer at a time. Since it's now been established that scores of girls are being trained at any given time, waiting for the call, why not have an army of Slayers to fight evil? Whedon puts it on the level that, in a sense, the Slayer -- a super powered killing machine -- is a kind of monster herself, and no one wants too many of them running around at any given time.

Additional note: This is all stuff later incorporated into the series itself in its seventh and final season.

That opening sequence is less a story than just a set up, leading us into the rest. Unfortunately, most of the stories are written to be short stories -- no, I mean short stories. Even though some are as long as 12 or 14 pages. The plots are often rudimentary, the characterization likewise. I won't detail them all, since part of the pleasure is turning the page, unsure what -- and when -- is next, but some of the stories are set during particular eras (Revolutionary France, Nazi Germany) which adds interest. The one set in Germany promises to be particularly effective, with an opening sequence of our heroine marching with other kids, while only belatedly do we realize it's a Nazi rally, and with Mira Friedmann's ugly, cartoony art -- perhaps mimicking medieval etchings -- lending an effectively disconcerting grotesqueness to it all. It's well-intentioned, but the basic point of the story -- Nazis are as bad as vampires -- seems a bit self-evident.

The best story by far in the collection is "Presumption", set in a kind of Jane Austen milieu. Elegantly rendered by artist P. Craig Russell, it boasts a clever twist, with Jane Espenson exploiting the ambiguity between words and pictures only comics can permit. "Nikki Goes Down" is drawn by old master, Gene Colan, and is probably the best illustrated of the bunch, effectively coloured by Dave Stewart. Featuring the black, New York Slayer circa the 1970s (briefly seen in a TV episode's flashback, though Colan drops the afro) it's the longest in the collection, and because of that boasts more scene changes, allowing more of a sense of a plot, and also has Nikki battling more than just a stock vampire. But the decision to tell it largely through narrative captions tends to prevent the story from blossoming into a fully realized story.

I'd like to say Amber Benson's contribution was also one of the best -- just 'cause I liked her in the show -- but it's just average. An interesting idea, but not developed much beyond the idea. Like a lot of the stories here, it seems a little too...pared to the bone. I'm not singling Benson out to be derisive -- as I noted, her story is average, not below average. I'm just focusing on it because, heck, if I was reading a review of this book, I'd want the reviewer to comment on Benson's story. Regular viewers of the TV series can't help but be curious.

Another Whedon effort, "Righteous", is longer than it needs to be, re-hashing the girl-becomes-Slayer shtick, and is told in rhyme -- which, though an interesting experiment, maybe doesn't add much. The rhyming pattern being a tad too simple. But it gets better toward the end, and boasts a subtle visual clue to a villainous priest's true motives (he's looking at something in the foreground).

Overall, I don't think the writers realized how much plot and characterization can be squeezed into 8 or 10 pages if you really make the effort. Instead there are a few too many wordless, page consuming fight scenes throughout.

What's also missing, largely, is the wit and humour of the series. And maybe that adds to the problem. Many of the writers were trying to write serious, brooding pieces, and maybe should've let their hair down a bit more. Also missing is a story featuring Buffy herself, which might have been nice to include (she appears only in a collage of Slayers).

The collection wraps up with a story of a future Slayer, though like the opening piece, it's not really a story per se (though there's a bit more of the series' wit here). That Slayer -- Fray -- already appears in her own Joss Whedon scripted collection.

If you're a Buffy fan, Tales of the Slayer is definitely an agreeable tome to have, with most of the stories certainly O.K. page turners, even if most aren't necessarily exceptional.

Cover price: $22.95 CDN./ $14.95 USA

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