Steve Morris wants to know “What’s so funny about funny books?” So each week in Killing Jokes he’ll be examining humor in comics, from titles that are meant to be funny to jokes inserted in otherwise completely serious books.
When the TV show Buffy The Vampire Slayer was cancelled after network executives grew tired of hearing Sarah Michelle Gellar deliver inspiring speeches to a group of delinquent teenage girls for a whole overworked seventh season, Whedon pitched the idea of continuing it as a comic book series. He’d write the first arc, and oversee proceedings as a number of his colleagues jumped on for subsequent arcs. The pitch was greenlighted, the series was created, and Whedon was free to have fun with his favourite characters again. The first of several guest-star writers was then announced for the series: Whedon’s friend and co-Runaways writer Brian K. Vaughan would be handling the second arc, focusing on the characters Faith, Giles and Buffy. BKV had never written the characters before, but would be jumping on after successful runs with Y: The Last Man and Pride Of Baghdad. He was friendly with Whedon and liked the show –- but did that mean he could replicate it? He was, after all, following an arc written by the man who ran the TV show, created the characters, and knew them better than anybody else. How could Vaughan hope to match that?
Well, let’s focus on the main character, then. Buffy Summers, the Vampire Slayer herself. The symbol of girl-power in the new millennium, kicker of asses, banger of vampires and fond of making her words all elongated-y. Whedon writes the first arc introducing her to comics and continuing on from the show, before Vaughan comes on for the second arc. And he immediately establishes her as horny and lonely. Delocated to Scotland and living in a castle with a small army of fellow slayers, Buffy spends much of the first arc making long-winded dialogue bubbles and pining for some sex. We never got much insight into her internal monologue over the course of the TV show, so this is a fairly offbeat way to introduce her. Sex is the ultimate icebreaker, after all. Much of the humour from the character comes from her tendency to wander round her speech, so it seems like she’s making everything up as it goes along, and simultaneously judging herself on each word choice. Whedon is completely aware of how much nonsense his heroine spouts, though, giving her an actual internal monologue which goes on an incredible tangent about sex and leads her into the great line; “Outstanding. I can’t even feel sorry for myself in a linear fashion.” She is made into the central focus through her unique use of language and silly attempts at grammar. The supporting cast have to deal with the ramblings of what well could be an insane person -– but an exponentially strong, dangerous insane person who is also their leader. Whedon milks that premise for as many jokes as he can.
The premise means that Buffy is constantly interacting with a string of different people, all of whom have varying levels of experience dealing with her. Close friends can handle her and keep her down, but when she speaks to the various female cannon-fodder she can get away with dismissing their training skills in the most bewildering single sentence ever put into a comic.
“Three perfectly valid avenues of attack, good form – on three seasoned, well-trained corpses, one of whom, sidebar: has her best hair ever; Satsu, you’re making me think I need a new look, see me after”.
Don’t even hope to understand all that on first reading, you guys. It’s barely coherent. But hidden right in the middle is a great little silly joke about a character called Satsu, which gives the rest of the dialogue a kick that renders it *not* complete gibberish. That little tag at the end is what differentiates bad writing from intentionally illogical writing. Whedon intends you to be a little thrown.
Vaughan takes this idea on board during his arc, which is seen through the eyes of a different character – Buffy’s fellow slayer and enemy/friend/enemy/friend, Faith. Faith is a little damaged, a little darker (she has dark hair and Buffy is blonde –- always look out for these little signs, guys) and hard to predict. Thusly, her reaction to Buffy is the chief way for Vaughan to define her as her own person. Strangely, it’s by making Faith ‘the other Slayer’ that he can build on her and take her in a new direction. And that means he has to get a handle on Buffy, to make her something worth reacting against. Does that make sense to you? Not many internet writers take the time to pause and make sure the readership are able to keep up with their prattle. That’s what makes me so special. Vaughan takes the vague idea that Buffy is a little confused, but twists it into a tight knot that gives the character a completely different perspective and attitude. She still drifts her language a little, but this time she’s being silly not because she IS silly, but because she wants everybody else to THINK she is.
The character only appears in a few brief scenes to begin with, recovering from the events of the first arc. It’s only as the segments focused on Faith start to come to a head that Buffy is brought into direct contact with the story, and we get a thorough opportunity to enjoy Vaughan’s take on the character. She’s more dominating that Whedon’s version, and more powerful. While Whedon has her constantly checking her speech and going back on her sentences to clarify what she means, Vaughan’s version is more immediately witty, and able to banter back and forth without resorting to Buffy-isms. She first appears while her friend Xander is shirtlessly working out some issues on a punchbag, and takes advantage of his nervousness to impose herself and make several jokes at his expense. This is Buffy as a friendly, gently-mocking leader, carefully using her words to keep a distance from any intruding questions. Her quick scategories-referencing deflection when Willow asks how she can afford to run, y’know, a giant castle, shows her as a lot sharper and more self-aware than Whedon’s internal dialogue ever suggests she can be.
While Whedon draws a lot of entertainment from a crazy, jumbled, nonsense-spouting Buffy who occasionally stumbles right into the heart of a lovely metaphor, Vaughan sees her as a more immediately-aware, dangerous protagonist. A lot of this comes from the different style of stories that they’re writing – Vaughan’s tone is darker simply because it features Fai
th – but putting the two depictions together does somehow manage to create a whole. The Buffy who continued into this ‘season’ was Whedon’s version, but Vaughan managed to leave something very interesting deep at the heart of Buffy Summers. Again, humour reveals a lot more about characters and writers than you’d first think.