ADVANCE REVIEW! Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 9 Vol. 1: Freefall will go on sale Wednesday, July 4, 2012.
Buffy was massively important for a lot of us, wasn’t it? Much more than the title suggested (although, essentially, exactly what the title suggested), Joss Whedon’s mid-season replacement managed to somehow sneak up on us all and become one of the best television programs ever made. It slipped towards the end, but whether it turned that slip into graceful ice-skating moves or lost footing and crashed… is up to your own interpretation. And if you managed to step into a certain age-range (you’re probably heading towards, or just moving past, your thirties right now) then it was essential viewing.
That’s why it was so exciting when Whedon announced his plans to continue the story through a series of “canon” comic-books, starting with something he called Season 8. Following on from the end of the final TV season, Whedon himself started off this new comic series for Dark Horse, and placed himself as a showrunner for the story. He brought in friends like Brian K. Vaughan and Brad Meltzer to write arcs, while some of his fellow Buffy writers like Jane Espenson also popped in for quick stories and longer ideas. It was a clever idea, and one which Robert Kirkman has now decided to emulate for his series Thief of Thieves. But it was also a mess, in terms of story and character. Buffy did strange things and the story quickly escalated out of control, as Whedon realised he had no limits, no budget, and no studio executives to say no. Eventually the story wound up into a bizarre, irrelevant place and closed itself off. Although it was a relative success for Dark Horse, and picked up readers who usually wouldn’t ever stray into a comic story, it was critically hated. And the critics were right to hate it!
I was very hesitant about reading Season 9, which began a short while ago. This time Whedon decided to take a smaller-scale approach to the character, most likely under the advisement of writer Andrew Chambliss, who was taken on as scripter for the book. Whedon laid down some basic structure, and then left it to Chambliss to run things however he saw fit. I hold Buffy the TV series in an incredibly high regard, and Season 8 dissolved a lot of the respect I had for Whedon as a writer (along with Astonishing X-Men — he just doesn’t seem to work on long-form comics). Then I looked into what people were saying about the book. Far from crying openly, critics and fans were actually upbeat and optimistic about Chambliss’ revamp of the series! What the devil, I cried, in high Claremontian fashion?
The first trade covers issues 1-5 of Season 9, along with a short Spike story written Jane Espenson. Returning for Season 9 is the main artist of the Season 8, Georges Jeanty, with Karl Moline handling the fifth standalone issue of the trade. The central story is “Freefall,” which sees Buffy return to a relatively normal lifestyle in San Francisco, after a hectic year of awful stories and character progression. Chambliss firmly plants the character back in reality, in a small flat, where any twentysomething American girl would likely find herself. No more high genre camp or fantasy — this is simple, and straightforward, and the horror/monsters worm their way into it. Instead of the genre coming before the characters, Chambliss once more returns us to a world where Buffy can go stake a group of vampires without paying attention, worry about her clothes, and then try to pay off her student loans.
Now this is all in good fun and spirit, and Chambliss very quickly stumbles into Buffy’s obtuse speaking style. He also managed to catch several other characters like Willow and Spike, as they wander in and out of the main story. However, he does struggle elsewhere. Xander, in particular. But what’s most interesting here is that — and this may well just be my perspective on the characters and series — is that the style of the series has actually started to age. It seems strange to have grown up with these TV characters several years older than me, and to now see them doing things I did several years ago. The gap in time has made me older than Buffy for the first time, and her dialogue — and heck, the whole tone of the story and writing — actually feels somewhat dated.
Buffy the TV series started almost FIFTEEN years ago now! And the Buffy we saw in season 1 has dated extremely poorly now. As the show goes on, this ceases to be as big an issue, but Chambliss and Whedon now have to keep Buffy in-character when she was last seen on the screen in 2003. Since 2003 a lot of things have changed, and Buffy simply isn’t revolutionary anymore, in terms of dialogue. One of the major influences Buffy brought to TV was a sense of absurdist realism, in which the characters would interrupt each other, break off jokes, say things and then correct themselves, and so on. But we’re now in a World with HBO and internet TV and IFC. Strange, absurdist speaking styles in and of themselves don’t work anymore, and so reading this comic gives the reader a blank space where a main character should be.
I’d hope most readers would agree that Buffy was never the star attraction of her own series, and that is made rather startlingly clear here. She is, despite herself, fairly generic to read about, with a simple story which Chambliss tells well. But it proves increasingly difficult for readers to see Buffy as a complex character anymore, when she’s been surpassed by more modern characters in comics. She’s iconic, but has she got anything else other than that? Chambliss tries to find an answer, but doesn’t concrete her in the mind of the reader. Other characters, most strikingly Willow, are still as complex and smart as ever. And Chambliss is actually able to play with that rather a lot, interweaving Buffy’s life with great characters who say and do interesting things.
That’s the great strength of this trade, which I have to say I did enjoy. Grounding the story has made it clear that Buffy lacks a centre in and of herself, but it also means that a variety of more interesting characters can interact with her frequently. Even Riley, her ex-boyfriend from Season 4 of the tv series, shows up and feels interesting (for the first time ever, yes). Spike has been rounded out, Dawn is less shrewish and stereotypical and has started to pick up her own quirks as a person. And the new characters all seem interesting and a fitting part of Buffy’s world. After a massive, incredible disappointment during Season 8, all it took were five issues for Chambliss to feel like he’s right at home here, and can tell stories with Buffy which make her feel relevant, important, and wo
rthy once more. She’s note quite a character yet, but the atmosphere is back.
Jeanty’s art has maintained a signature style of it’s own, and the pacing in this story has become lived-in and familiar — which is great, because the new setting means Jeanty gets to actually explore his surroundings and work on his characters. I still struggle sometimes to tell who is an established character and who is a new one (Andrew in particular is impossible to pick out), but for the most part Jeanty’s renditions of these characters have become the memorable, iconic ones. His storytelling remains exceptional, and his style informs the book just as much as the TV show or Chambliss’ scripting. I’d highly recommend Buffy’s first trade of the Season, and note that Christos Gage recently started a co-series with Angel and Faith as the leads, whilst Jeff Parker and Victor Gischer are both coming to the franchise later this year for Willow and Spike books, respectively. That seems very exciting indeed, if you ask me. After a spectacular crash, Buffy has somehow come out of it unharmed, and stronger than she’s been in a very long time.
It’s a very exciting thing.
Steve Morris is the head and indeed only writer for Comics Vanguard, the internet’s 139th most-favorite comic-book website. You can find him on Twitter at @stevewmorris, which is mostly nonsensical gibberish you may enjoy or despise. His favorite Marvel character is Darkstar, while his favorite DC character is, also, Darkstar. He’s on Team X-Men, you guys.