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Buffy...Season Eight TPBs

All Buffy GNs/TPB published by Dark Horse Comics

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Season Eight, vol. 6): Retreat 2009 (HC & SC TPB) 136 pgs.

coverWritten by Jane Espenson. Pencils by Georges Jeanty. Inks by Andy Owens.
Colour: Michelle Madsen. Letters: Richard Starkings. Editor: Scott Allie.

Reprinting: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Eight #26-30 (2009)

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 3

Reviewed: March 27, 2010

I've been following the whole Buffy: Season Eight saga -- the somewhat audacious idea of marketing a comic book spin-off from another medium, not as an apocryphal romp, but as literally the canonical -- what if...? -- next season of the cancelled TV series, with series creator Joss Whedon as overseer, and frequent writer. Actually more and more Hollywood types are being lured to the four colour medium -- with its limitless "budget" and relatively low overhead -- to "continue" properties they first did for the small (or large) screen.

Anyhoo... I've been following the comic book series and, I'll admit, my enthusiasm keeps waxing and waning, sort of liking it...sort of feeling it's not quite working. And though a huge fan of the original TV series, I'll admit even with it I found the final season started to feel a bit wobbly.

"Retreat" follows on the heels of the previous TPB (Predators and Prey, with Buffy and her followers and fellow Slayers feeling besieged from all sides -- physically and ideologically. Throughout season eight, The Slayers had been at odds with the mysterious villain, Twilight, teamed with a military global conglomerate, but in the previous collection things went more public -- and public opinion has made them pariahs. So when the going gets tough...the tough decide to skedaddle out of Dodge. Deciding the magical aura Buffy and her crew give off makes it easy for Twilight to track them, they go to the one guy Buffy figures "makes a living being less magic" -- former TV series regular, Oz, who has learned to control and suppress his werewolfism. They find him living an idyllic life in a Tibetan retreat, and he agrees to help them divest themselves of all their magics and powers.

Unfortunately, when Twilight and his army find them anyway, the now-powerless Slayer crew have a fight on their hands.

Joss Whedon has managed to recruit some of his old TV series writers for the comic, further cementing the notion that this is more than just Buffy-in-name. Here it's Jane Espenson. And though I find myself rather mixed on this arc...I'm not really laying the blame for that at Espenson's feet. Indeed, there's some nice writing, some cute quips, some good character moments -- even subtle stuff that you can re-read with hindsight and go, "ah, I see it now." This was billed as the longest Buffy arc to date -- though that just means five issues as opposed to the more common four -- and it's stylistically ambitious. Espenson tackles it more like an arc, as opposed to a single linear story serialized over five chapters. Though the time frame isn't stated, we can infer it covers a few weeks (at least) and chapter 3 (issue #28), in particular, acts as a nice little story within the larger story.

Yet it took me a while to finish this (the fifth issue actually sitting on my shelf, unread, for weeks) and equally long to get around to re-reading it (I find myself re-reading many of the Buffy comics before reviewing -- ironically, less as a mark of how good they are, and more because a first reading can leave me ambivalent). Part of that may be because this is among the least exciting of the multi-issue stories -- the focus is more on the characters, the theme of the Slayers retreating to this monastery, as opposed to action and adventure. And when the action does kick in -- it's just a long battlefield sequence.

Part of it is just a feeling that the themes and big ideas are kind of pushing the series away from a firm, believable grounding (again, an objection I had to season seven of the TV series). I mean, the idea of the Slayers on the run, and besieged, makes for a nice, dramatic story. But it also raises problematic questions. Just as in the previous TPB, the idea of suddenly making it be that vampires are public knowledge seemed a bit of a "too much, too soon" change. Here, one can say, sure, I understand the need to flee, given the circumstances. But by giving up their powers -- essentially becoming normal teen age girls -- they go from people "fighting the forces of darkness" to...what? What are they trying to accomplish? Sure, I can understand intellectually one might say, they're just trying to survive, and they'll worry about step two later. But it just seems as though their relevance to the cosmic scheme of things is rapidly becoming...nil.

And that may be because these Buffy-in-comics stories are starting to borrow the more tired ideas from comics which is the idea of heroes who spend most of their time fighting villains who spend most of their time attacking the heroes. Few of the Buffy comics have really involved Buffy and the gang just going out and stopping some evil from hurting innocents. It makes for a kind of limited, and rather self-enclosed, storytelling formula. The further result is comics that are more just action-adventures, with a heavy helping of character interaction, rather than plots where you go, oh, now wasn't that a clever story? An example of the latter would be No Future for You, with its undercover agent/Eliza Doolittle themes -- even if it too came across as a slight execution of a potentially much more interesting idea.

Heck, this isn't even the first time in the Buffy comics we've had an army of Slayers battling an army of foes (who just want to kill Slayers) while giant monsters rampage overhead (Wolves at the Gate anyone?)

Re-reading the whole series again, I realize that, in a way, Whedon and company are maybe trying to deliberately do a comic book opposed to simply doing another TV season in comic book form. So the ideas are bigger, the special effects more outrageous, the fantasy element more overt -- heck, the recurring villain, Twilight, wears a mask like a super villain. And part of that is altering the reality from a world like ours, where demons and Slayers are under most people's radar (even if the TV series played it increasingly loose as to how much the wider world knew, or suspected) to a comic book/sci-fi reality where vampires appear on talk shows. Whedon clearly wanted to incorporate the whole X-Men theme of heroes feared and hated by the world they are trying to protect. But in my reviews of the earlier TPBs, I commented the comic had already kind of removed the characters from the real world setting of the TV series (where the characters lived among normal people, had jobs, school, etc.). But as such...we aren't given much chance to see -- or believe -- in this New World Order and how it came about. We watch the characters watch TV specials pilloring Slayers, as opposed to seeing how it affects them personally. So that when it does affect them personally, it still seems a bit out-of-left field. I mean, when we suddenly cut to Faith & Giles (who have been teamed up in the season eight mythos) hiding out you're left thinking, um, why? Even assuming the hysteria had reached that would someone know Faith was a Slayer to look at her?

This vague reality relates to Twilight and his army allies throughout the season -- I mean, how official is it? Are governments involved, or just rogue militaries? In this story arc, when Twilight and his army attack the Slayers in he acting with the knowledge of the Chinese government? For that matter, no where in this idyllic depiction of Tibet is it mentioned Tibet is occupied by China! Again...the "real" just doesn't seem at play here.

Season eight can be a bit choppy, as if we're missing bits -- segues that would connect one story with another. In the opening blurb to this arc in the original comics, it's mentioned that Buffy's gang was driven from their Scottish castle -- which I remember from Time of Your Life -- and a "musty cabin in the woods"...which I don't! Maybe there were some ancillary comics and specials that weren't part of the official season eight numbering scheme that nonetheless were to be read as part of the season. I do know there was a Tales of the Vampires mini-series (not to be confused with an earlier Tales of the Vampires graphic novel) that was marketed as part of season eight, and maybe it did a better job of laying the ground work for this new direction. Heck, the Buffy TV series had a bit of that with occasional crossovers with its companion TV series, Angel. But some of it also just feels like choppy and abrupt storytelling -- maybe a problem when different writers are being brought in to write different stories. The Buffy TV series was extraordinarily good at maintaining its own inner logic, developing stories and characters, but it had its lapses -- and this was particularly true in the seventh season, where you sometimes felt as though different writers were trying to take the characters and themes in different directions (a couple of episodes having Buffy give dramatic, supposedly inspiring speeches...and then another episode lampooning Buffy's speeches! or the whole storyline where the group breaks from Buffy, then simply reunites). So Buffy and Giles have a bitter parting wa-ay back in issue #9 -- then reunite in this story arc with a hug and a simple "Glad your back."

And there are also ethical problems. In the TV series they made a big distinction between killing demons (good) and killing humans (bad -- no matter what the human had done). Granted, as the series progressed it became increasingly hypocritical as the demon community was shown to be pluralistic, with plenty of demons that weren't especially evil. Yet here, Buffy and her crew have few qualms about (potentially) killing humans. Plus there's the whole Willow thing. The comics want to play around with the ambiguous theme of Willow still having a dark edge, but just because they acknowledge it, doesn't change the fact that they are essentially condoning it. So in one scene Willow gets info from a demon by (off the page) torturing and killing him, making a quip about a "skinless demon" -- a line particularly significant because that's how she killed Warren in season six. So Buffy momentarily wrings her hands about the ethics of it...and then we move on as if, well, it's not really that important. (Adding further to the awkwardness is that Buffy and Giles both had done some pretty dark things themselves, so it's not clear where they think the lines are, anyway -- heck, back in No Future for You, Giles was trying to arrange a cold blooded assassination). Here -- and sometimes in the TV series, too -- the characters will address interesting ethical or philosophical issues for a scene...and then just forget about it.

And having just re-watched the TV series after a few years, I realize that in season seven, Willow had considerably scaled back her magics (compared to season six) making her whole portrayal in season eight a bit inconsistent!

What further makes this arc problematic is that it ends rather inconclusively. So far, most of the arcs have succeeded in telling a read-it-for-itself story, while still being part of the great narrative. Here the arc ends, after five issues, with a few things dangling and a big "huh?" scene. Ironically, that "huh?" scene -- deliberately meant to intrigue us for what's to come -- bothered me less than the way the principal plot ends. And it's muddled somewhat unintentionally. That is, it ends seeming as though Buffy and her group has been defeated by Twilight and his group...yet the next issue (uncollected in this volume) suggests the opposite...and that Buffy and her group have repelled Twilight. The confusion comes in the way the final scenes are depicted. Because at the end of Retreat we see a few of Buffy's friends being the next issue, we learn that's all that happened. A few were captured -- unbeknownst to Buffy -- but the main body of Buffy's forces are sill intact. It makes for an odd ending.

This TPB collection really should've included issue #31 (written by Whedon) because not only does it explain that more clearly, but it resolves another rampaging -- literally -- plot point.

This arc does include some rather significant character bits -- some just character "moments", others relevant to the on going development of the relationships. And, of course, the characters and the soap opera-y angst was a big appeal of the TV series. And those scenes generally work for me (Espenson having a good feel for them)...but sometimes sort of don't, at least not as well as I remember the TV series working. Part of it is I think the characters have, bit by bit, pushed me away, some of the choices Whedon and his crew having made (dating back even to the final season of the TV series) making them not as endearing as they were. Part of it maybe that the way you tell scenes in a TV show (with live actors) doesn't necessarily translate directly to comics. You can still do character scenes...but you have to do them different. Or maybe, horrors of horrors, it's just me -- maybe I'm getting old, my brain is slowing down, and I'm just not able to read -- and read -- comics the way I used to.

Another problem may be Georges Jeanty's art. Jeanty has been the principal artist on the comic book series (with a few breaks here and there) and like the series overall, I have mixed feelings on it. It's certainly good work, and he can evoke the actors (without seeming like simply photoreferenced publicity stills). Yet though sort of realistic, there is also an inherent aspect of cartooniness, or caricature, which though not inappropriate given the series' heavy use of humour, maybe helps undercut some of the more character intensive moments. And though Jeanty can evoke the actors well enough in spots, at other times, not so much, particularly with similar-type characters. There were more thana few times where I wasn't sure if a character was Faith, Dawn or Kennedy -- or some random, unnamed Slayerette -- since they all have long brown hair.

The art is bright, too. Jeanty (and inker Andy Owen) go for a lot of simple line work, and a lot of open, clear environments. But despite the humour and action, another aspect of Buffy is that it is, after all, a horror/supernatural series, and could maybe benefit from a darker, more mysterious mood, a use of shadows and such.

Given the gorgeous, painted covers supplied for most of the issues, one can't help but wonder what a Buffy comic would feel like if illustrated by Jo Chen (though, admittedly, the care and effectiveness an artist can put into a still cover painting often isn't the same as what they can deliver in a multi-panel narrative).

Some of my ambivalence toward this arc is less a reflection of it, than the season eight overall. Certainly, if you've been following the season, it's one of the more essential volumes, dealing directly with the overall conflict with Twilight, featuring some important character developments and, as noted, even introducing some unresolved plot threads. But as a story on its own, it just seems a bit uncertain. The idea of the gang retreating to the monastery and seeking to divest themselves of their powers is an interesting idea (even if it seems a bit as though it might be a shaggy dog plot -- though even that, it could be argued, is in its favour, as it emphasizes it as a self-contained arc). But there's just not really a strong, core story it's wrapped around, with the big battle with Twilight and his crew...just another big battle.

This is a review of the original comics.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $15.95 USA. 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Season Eight, vol. 7): Twilight 2010 (HC & SC TPB) 160 pgs.

coverWritten by Brad Meltzer, with Joss Whedon. Pencils by George Jeanty, with Karl Moline. Inks by And Owens.
Colours: Michelle Madsen. Letters: Richard Starkings. Editor; Scott Allie.

Reprinting: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Season Eight) #31-35, Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Willow one-shot (2010)

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Reviewed: November, 2010

Twilight is the seventh TPB collection in the Buffy: Season Eight saga. More significantly, this volume is intended as the penultimate arc in the proposed 40 issue epic (making it officially, the longest "season" in TV history, as it will have stretched out over close to four years...when most US TV seasons run -- what? -- eight months?).

As my reviews of these TPBs have indicated, my feelings have been bobbing up and down, my having begun rather keen on the idea (and a huge fan of the original TV series) but veering more and more toward ambivalence as it went along. The only reason I've stuck with it, frankly, is because it was marketed as a "season", promising to build to a definite final (though not necessarily a finale, as they presumably are hoping for a season 9, 10, etc. -- though some have suggested sales have slumped as the series progressed, so that may not be a certainty).

In addition to the season eight issues, this TPB also includes a Willow one-shot retroactively set before the whole season eight run, written by Whedon and illustrated by Karl Moline (the two last teaming on Time of Your Life). It feels like little more than a filler vignette -- nothing terrible, just not really essential. Willow goes on a mystical walkabout, but it doesn't really give us insight into much. Though it does show her first encounter with the snake-lady that has cropped up in a few earlier issues. It also features an appearance by Willow's dead lover Tara, something fans had been clamouring for for ages...but it's a pretty minor, inconsequential appearance.

Of the true, season eight issues, we begin with the single issue "Turbulence", also written by Whedon. Most of the story arcs have been relatively self-contained, albeit threaded with a sub-plot involving this season's big bad. But as we move toward the climax, the separation of the storylines is less clear. So "Turbulence", in a way, is an addendum to the previous arc, "Retreat" (and really should've been included in that TPB). Buffy and her Slayers had had a pitched battle with the forces of militarism and sorcery arrayed against them, and though the previous arc ended almost implying Buffy's side had lost, apparently that was just a storytelling SNAFU and instead, they beat them back -- to a draw, if not a victory. But something odd happened -- Buffy developed the ability to fly! So "Turbulence" deals with some of the fall out from that, character bits like Buffy coming to terms with the fact that Xander and Dawn have hooked up, and with Buffy's new Superman-like super powers, as well as a minor action distraction as Buffy must settle some rogue gods her side had invoked previously. It's a better-than-average issue, with some good character interaction.

Which then brings us to the four-part "Twilight", in which Whedon hands over the writing to Brad Meltzer for the story that promises to explain the last 30 issues and finally reveal the identity of the masked uber-villain, Twilight.

And I'm a bit mixed on how much to reveal -- given it is supposed to be the big surprise...yet Dark Horse Comics itself let the cat out of the bag even before the issues had hit the stands (in apparently a behind-the-scenes miscommunication between the editorial and marketing departments -- we're talking tearing-down-the-Berlin-wall sort of miscommunication). But I'll err on the side of caution and try to be oblique.

And like a lot of the Buffy season eight stories...I'm left mixed. Yeah, there are some cute quips, and yeah, the revelation is a doozer (if, y'know, Dark Horse hadn't ruined it). Although, like much of these Buffy comics, it's assuming a knowledge of the original TV series. And like most of the multi-issue arcs, it feels stretched. Indeed, this is probably the thinnest of the Buffy multi-issue stories. More concerned with its revelations/explanations, rather than acting as a meaty, stand alone read.

There is some action, and obviously, after all this time, you want to milk the revelations...but it does feel a bit like the characters are just talking for the sake of talking, coyly doling out the information in a halting manner just to justify four issues (as characters demand explanations, and are met with evasiveness). Meltzer takes so long to explain some of it, I think it actually ends up more confusing, not less, than if he had just explained it succinctly in a couple of pages.

It ends up being a kind of airy explanation of cosmic manipulations as though the universe itself were a sentient thing. Even the revelation of Twilight's identity (remember, I'm being vague) at first makes you think he's gone bad, then kind of wants to suggest that, no, he's still a good guy, and his actions (however evil and murderous) were fuelled by good intentions -- then Meltzer just throws up his hands and has a character suggest it was cosmic forces manipulating him as if even Meltzer couldn't quite reconcile the character with the actions.

It can all seem less like an explanation...and more like narrative sleight-of-hand (and echoing the dubious logic of some of the plot twists in the final season of the TV series). It also doesn't help that, in a way, once Twilight explains his actions, the previous 30 issues (6 TPBs, 3 years!) seem like a bit of a shaggy dog story. It's a twist, but it doesn't really invite you to re-read the back issues looking for hidden clues and double meaning in the dialogue. In fact, even though in my mind I'm sure Whedon had intended this all along (at least the key points), viscerally it doesn't feel that way. Most of the revelations/explanations come out of nowhere, including suddenly suggesting Giles suspected some of what was happening all along -- and was even actively looking for something in his travels with Faith!

What's the point of dragging out a plot line for so many issues, if you realize there was next to no true foreshadowing or clues along the way?

Season Eight has been marred by a few lapses in narrative continuity -- perhaps a problem with recruiting different writers to write different arcs, who might not have the time, or patience, to do rewrites...with even Whedon dividing his attention between this and his TV and movie projects. As I say, at the end of "Retreat", it looked as though Twilight had captured some of Buffy's gang on the battlefield -- here references suggest he kidnapped them after-the-fact, under Buffy and Willow's noses. Amy, Warren, and a general show up at Buffy's doorstep, apparently having been kicked out by Twilight...but we never actually saw that scene! For that matter, Oz -- who played a big part in the previous arc -- is now completey absent from the story! And so on.

Meltzer is both a hot property comic book writer, and a "New York Times best selling" novelist -- but, I'll admit, I haven't been that impressed with (admittedly) what little I've read by him, in comics or novels. I say that because, after re-reading "Twilight", it's partly the execution of the tale, as much as the gist of it, that is the problem. It's kind of dull, and, as mentioned, it feels like he's stretching out the exposition just to justify the four issues. It's actually a big concept, one where Buffy is given an explanation, offered a chance at paradise...and ultimately rejects it. Thinking about the plot, it seems like it could've been a great, dramatic story...if told right. Instead, it feels like a bridge between the previous and the next arc, but it shouldn't -- it should feel like it's own story (within the greater epic)...but doesn't really.

Meltzer writes some okay approximations of Buffy/Whedon-esque quips...but then again, not quite, the characters seeming more superficial imitations of themselves. And he goes wa-ay overboard on the pop culture gags and references. Such jokes were always a part of Buffy's charm...but Meltzer just lathers them on, page after page, panel after panel, to the point where instead of rooting you in the narrative (making the characters seem more real by referring to things we, the reader, recognize) it kind of pushes you out of it -- even getting self-reflective, like a scene discussing X-Men heroine Kitty Pryde which is a joke on the fact that Whedon has claimed Kitty was an inspiration for his creating Buffy. Granted, that's part of the gimmick -- with Buffy demonstrating super-super powers, comic book fan Xander quips Buffy's transformation might be more important to him than his own birth! And as he puts Buffy through a series of tests of her newfound abilities, including racing a "speeding bullet" and muscling a locomotive, other characters remark: "Oh, Jeez, I just realized what they were doing." But Meltzer lets his own fan boy impulses over ride his writerly restraint. Heck, at one point a character remarks a device was modelled after a machine in the 1982 X-Men/Teen Titans crossover...and you know what? It was!

(Comics seem a bit more forgiving about in-joke copyright infringements than movies or TV would be, with even Captain America's shield cropping up).

I'll also take a moment to comment on Warren -- I had some ambivalence about the inclusion of Warren anyway because, in a weird way, he emerged as the TV series' creepiest villain...because he was so normal. Not a vampire or demon, just a petty little amoral misogynist. As well, his death had consequences for Willow and the others. So to glibly bring him back, as essentially a fantasy-like monster (skinless) just seemed cheap. And now in this arc, Meltzer even throws in a scene as if he's trying to humanize Warren, suggesting he has compassion. Buffy (and its sister series, Angel) was always big on the "redeemable villain" theme -- but Warren? Warren?!?


Of course, one can't review this story arc without commenting on the sex issue!

Yeah, that weren't a misprint. There's a whole issue devoted to, um, well, super sex -- of a kind not seen since the Superman-Wonder Woman roll in The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Okay, so maybe it's not the whole issue -- we do cut away to other characters talking, and explaining. But it's pretty graphic. Not in the sense of nudity (limbs and stuff obscuring the essential bits), but more explicit than anything they would've, or could've, done in the TV show itself. So even by the adult tone of these comics, it pushes the thing towards a "mature readers" caution -- and is that fair/wise/responsible? Thirty-some issues into a series to suddenly throw in a sequence that some may feel is inappropriately explicit for a general readership? It also feels like a stunt, and Meltzer taking what should be an emotionally dramatic connection...and just reducing it to a sophomoric bonking session written with the maturity of a snickering 12 year old.

Mind you, I kind of wonder about the ethics of that, given these are roles originated by real actors, and the drawings are meant to, vaguely, evoke the performers. Is this a plot justified depiction of fictional characters...or a lascivious exploitation of real actors? (Not that Buffy here looks that much like Sarah Michelle Gellar). This has been an issue cropping up throughout the comics, as almost all the lead female characters (and some of the male) have been depicted at one point or another in stages of undress they were never depicted in when real actresses played the roles.

Georges Jeanty continues as the series' chief artist, and continues the ambivalence I have toward his style. On one hand, it's decent work, sort of evoking the actors, and with enough realism to keep a toe in the reality of its live action TV origins, with enough of a cartoony/caricature leaning to play up the humorous aspects. On the other hand, it lacks much mood (as you might want for a horror property) and he doesn't fully evoke the actors consistently, often the female characters blurring into each other, and the cartoony, big-head-little-body aspect (that seemed to get more pronounced as the series has progressed, as though Jeanty's style has evolved over the run) may be part of why I find myself not getting as emotionally involved with the comics the way I did the TV series. Ironically, more than a few letter writers had complained about how Jeanty has depicted the women, accusing him almost of sexism. And, sure, in a roomful of Slayerettes they all have pretty similiar physiques (no fat girls, no skinny girls) but a lot of artists tend to just draw the same types of figures. But I'd hardly call his Buffy, Faith, etc. sexploitive. They don't have big breasts, or exaggerated curves. In fact, given the big-heads-little-bodies style, they're hardly sexpots at all. At least, when they keep their clothes on (and it's the writers', not Jeanty's choice, to depict them sans apparel).

As mentioned, this is the penultimate arc, so it doesn't really end, leading us instead directly to the next -- and concluding -- arc. Though barring some further revelations, we've basically got most of the answers we were waiting for. One can only hope the concluding arc won't just be a five issue fight.

And by this point, I'm not sure how to rate it. I didn't hate "Twilight"...even as it didn't entirely excite me being, like I've said, a bit thin and, frankly, dull. But obviously, if you were following the Season Eight saga, it is essential to the overall arc, and so can't very well be skipped over. I'll stick around for the concluding story, but I think my overall feeling about Season Eight is that the individual stories needed to be stronger -- and tighter (fewer four parters) -- and the connecting sub-plot/thread made more complex, and better developed, to justify the sheer length of it all.

This is a review of the original comics.

Cover price: $__ USA. 

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