simonf asked for 'neutral' essays about season 8, and since I define myself by my spot on the fence, I decided to use his request as an opportunity to reflect on where I am with the comics right now. The result is long (4300 words), and pretty much just a summary of opinions I've posted. But having gone through the labor to write the thing, I'll go ahead and post it anyway.
I am genuinely on the fence at the moment, giving even odds on the question of whether I’ll like the comics at the end of the day or not. Let’s start with the reasons I think there’s a chance the comics could end up being great.
1. It’s a continuation of BtVS, and BtVS is my all-time favorite show. The comics have much of what I loved about the show -- Buffy is still the protagonist, there’s still a lot of wit, and there’s still a lot of layers. The commentary I wrote on the opening scene of LWH runs very long, and subsequent revelations have added still more resonances to what I noticed when I wrote the commentary shortly after #20 came out.
Although Chosen didn’t demand a continuation, like all the season endings of the series, it left enough open-ended for interesting elaborations to follow. At the end of season 4, we had the primeval spell that caused Buffy to tap more deeply into the demonic source of her slayer power, and that set up a lot of the issues she dealt with over the next three years. At the end of season 7 she empowered an army of slayers, a signal change in the ‘verse capable of at least as interesting an elaboration as the one that followed season 4. In addition, at the end of Chosen, Buffy remains opaque, and therefore a character about whom we could learn still more. What would she chose to do when she was no longer the only one? Was she ready to open her heart to another or was she still struggling with the severe emotional scars she’d gathered up over seven seasons of BtVS? Had she really sorted her issues with the Scoobies or with Giles? Etc. etc. So season 8 gives us a continuation and that of itself is a promising place to start.
That promise showed through most clearly for me in NFFY, which is my favorite arc thus far. NFFY revisited the question of Buffy’s relationship with Faith, building on their relationship in a story that was deeply grounded in what had gone before. We get to see Graduation Day from Faith’s perspective, in an arc where Buffy and Faith have arguably reversed positions, with Faith the rock-solid slayer doing her duty one vampire (or vampire family at a time) in a life suffused with sacrifice and Buffy living a life in a castle financed by bank-robbing. The arc lured us in with the thought that Genevieve, the would-be rogue slayer, was a mirror for Faith, only to learn that she was at least as much a mirror for Buffy. Lots of emotional layer and complexity, with the story moving on. Excuse me while I bask in what remains for me the high point of the season.
2. It’s ambitious. The world has changed, and so has the medium. I think that’s a central issue of season 8. The slayer spell is the explicit matter. The new medium and the shift in metaphor is the implicit matter. BtVS always has had a layer of commentary on genres, and now it’s moved on to the comic book genre. Of course Buffy ends up with superpowers – how else could that self-awareness that’s a trademark of the story continue? More interesting to me is the signal shift in the metaphor. When Buffy is the one girl in all the world defeating apocalypses in the obscure town of Sunnydale, California, she’s in a story that has to be read as a girl struggling to grow up, slaying various inner demons on her way to being a hero. But once she’s a general of an army fighting evil on a global scale it’s no longer possible to read the metaphor so easily. Fighting one’s own inner demons is not the same thing as trying to fix the whole world. General Voll is not nuts to compare an illegally funded high-tech army of slayers to a group of terrorists (who, we should pause to remember, typically think they are waging a war to fix the whole world). Just what do all the demons represent when we shift to a global scale, and is it right for Buffy to take it on herself to wage a battle on *behalf* of other humans, when the name of the slaying game up until now has mostly been about self-empowerment. It struck me as appropriate that the first thing we learn about Buffy is that she’s taken on all the high-tech equipment that she only rarely resorted to in Sunnydale. The metaphor of a field vaporizer is different from the metaphor of a pointy wooden stick.
So there’s a lot of richness in the mix. Since the opening we’ve added on one other layer that ought to be equally compelling and that’s the notion that the difference between vampires and slayers is not only difficult for the public to discern, but that the public might actually side with the vampires against the slayers. More below on whether this wrinkle works, but the shift to global scale invites the question of how we distinguish good from evil. As Willow worries in NFFY, if you use the same tactics as the army you are fighting it’s not obvious why you’re good and they’re evil. It’s a question that’s been lurking in BtVS all along, but which now seems to be an explicit part of the mix.
3. If it is pulled off the deepening of the mythology in Twilight could also pay-off in a big way. That’s a big if (more below), but if the meta is of Buffy’s being pushed along by the universe (read: narrative demands) to fulfill a standard romantic trope (get together with her one true love), how cool is it that the result is that the ‘real world’ literally falls apart as a result? She and Angel land in a paradise where everything bends to their own will, which is what we want our stories to do (see, e.g. Lie to Me where we meditate on how much we want the good guys to win and live happily ever after). But stories like that aren’t true. True is messy and painful and requires sacrifice, but is real. We don’t know enough to say how the Twilight event will play out, but on a meta level it’s full of potential story-telling richness that ranks alongside the best of BtVS.
So that’s the promise of the comics. Along the way, I think it’s delivered some good moments that will look good regardless of how the last act plays out. I’ve already sang the praises of NFFY. The Chain and Renee’s death gave some nice moments about the sacrifice of being a slayer. Living Doll had interesting reflections on Dawn and Buffy’s relationship. Dawn has had a great arc and has emerged as a self-possessed woman who kicks some ass. The Buffy, the Bank Robber, panel of #10 was a beautiful moment for me because it instantly made clear a lot of what had seemed strange before (the source of Buffy’s funding, a good explanation for the tension between Buffy and Giles, etc.). People don’t much like Harmonic Divergence, but I loved the question of how much POV determines what seems good or evil to us. The critique of the media-mentality was a bit heavy-handed, but I thought the issue both pointed to spin out there as well as its own spin in an interesting way.
So that’s the glass-is-half-full part. Now for the part where the glass is half empty. These are not so much critiques since the comics aren’t done yet, as a laundry list of things I think need to be addressed for me to think that the comics work as a whole.
1. Continuity. The show did a big leap forward, and I think that works given the leap in medium and theme I already praised. But some of the early discontent about the comics was that the leap was too big and it was hard to see how to connect season 8 Buffy to the woman with that enigmatic smile full of promise at the end of Chosen. We are asked to step into a story where Buffy has *already* decided that instead of letting others carry on, she would double-down on personal sacrifice and continue as the general of an army. We aren’t told why the new slayers needed to organize on that scale or with that kind of equipment. We aren’t told just how hard Buffy tried (if she did) to find better ways of funding that army. It’s not enough to say all these slayers needed a lot of financial resources to be maintained – since there’s no reason they couldn’t have continued individually on the model that had gone before (being supported by friends and family and/or taking on jobs). It’s not enough to say the organizational requirements demanded a large financial inflow, since there’s no reason (that we’ve been given) about why the model that had gone before (individual girls fighting evil in individual communities with pointy sticks) couldn’t have continued. I’m not saying there’s no path from Chosen to where Buffy is, but I am saying that Buffy has taken a lot of decisions that have contributed to her difficult position now, and it’s impossible to assess where Buffy is if we do not know why she’s made the choices she’s made.
Willow suddenly had a *lot* more power than she used to. Yes, we’d seen her fly before. No, we’d never seen her set up Willow airlines and routinely fly people hither and yon. Happily, Goddesses and Monsters acknowledges there’s been a change, and we’re told that the question of what happened to Willow will get more development down the road. But for a good long while, it seemed to be a leap, and it was frustrating to many who were not sure whether we were supposed to notice that it was strange that Willow was now flying everywhere or whether that was something we were just supposed to roll with.
We have gone three years without knowing the basic resolution to Buffy’s last major love interest. In particular, we haven’t been told whether she knows the guy is back or not, much less how she reacted to that news (if she got it). This will, finally, become clear in #36. But Allie and others have repeatedly said that we should just assume that she knows, and in a season that has made much of Buffy’s love life, that hasn’t been a very satisfactory answer. If it is the case that Buffy knows, how hard would it have been to drop in a bubble or two and say so? Maybe give an inkling of how she reacted? We can see the bottom line – Spike’s not in her life. But we don’t know the why of it. Is she mourning a lover she thinks is dead? Is she angry at the vampire who came back and didn’t tell her? Did they meet up for coffee and come to an amicable decision to go their separate ways? The strength of the show was that history mattered. You couldn’t understand Buffy’s relationship with Riley if you didn’t know about Angel, including the reason for his absence from Buffy’s life. Yet we’ve been asked to watch Buffy’s feelings for Xander develop without knowing a few key facts about her last relationship. For the section of the fandom that assumed that Buffy had some significant feelings for Spike there’s a continuity gap here that along with catching up with a girl who’s big choice to rob banks to fund a high-tech army are remain hidden in shrouds makes it difficult to connect this Buffy with the Buffy we last saw. For myself I can say that while I’ve been intellectually invested in the comics, it is also the case that I’m emotionally-disconnected. This Buffy could get killed in the next issue, and I wouldn’t feel like anything had happened to the ‘real’ Buffy back on the edge of the SD crater in Chosen. The technique of in media res is really interesting, but it doesn’t work if we aren’t given the key bits of information needed to keep us connected to the characters we knew way back when. Some fans have managed the leap just fine. But for others, the leap has been too far, and this late in the game it’s unlikely that we’re really going to be given the snippets of information that will emotionally connect comic-book Buffy with TV show Buffy.
2. The Public’s view of Vampires and Slayers. For me it’s not hard to see how the public could come to hate slayers. If a high-tech army set up shop in a castle near me and the soldiers were these super-powered beings who go around killing things, I might have some issues with them myself. It’s harder to know what to make of the idea that vampires are out and are generally liked. The most common rejoinder to this complaint is that it drafts of the current vampire craze in popular culture. The reply to the rejoinder is that there’s a difference between thinking fictional vampires are cool and getting cuddly with actual reanimated corpses who are very prone to killing people. A second common rejoinder to the complaint is that we spent years having the citizens of SD be in denial of the obvious vampire activity in their world. The reply to that rejoinder is that there’s a big difference between willfully not seeing evil, and deciding it is cute and you want a date with it. Predators and Prey is widely regarded as the worst arc of the season, and a big part of the problem is that the snippets of life in a world upside down didn’t do enough to make it plausible that the world could go upside down in that particular way. Allie has hinted that magic might be behind all of this, and that would fix the problem straight-up. Without some in-text explanation, the story is really making it difficult to suspend disbelief enough to go with the flow.
3. Retreat. Speaking of difficulty suspending disbelief. Here I just have a string of questions about how Buffy’s plan makes sense. First and foremost, are we supposed to think it makes sense? Or is it supposed to show how muddy Buffy’s thinking is given the enormous stress she’s under? She decides the slayers should give up their power. Since when could slayer power be shrugged off like that? She has to give up power because that’s how Twilight is tracking her. OK. But importing arms is going to not be noticed when you’ve got a military opponent with lots of high-tech gear? Has she not seen 24? Does she not know that a half-way competent intelligence operation should be able to track down a bunch of mostly Caucasian women in Tibet trafficking in arms? Given that the power-down is at best a band-aid, why are they sitting around farming? Yes, you can fill in the blanks on this – but I’m left with no idea whether we are supposed to believe this is the best Buffy could come up with or whether we’re supposed to read it as signs that Buffy’s actually hit a pretty defeatist mentality and isn’t thinking very hard.
Along with the problematic nature of Operation Sitting Duck, we’ve got the tweaks to the mythology involved in Buffy and the slayers just being able to shuck off their power. Perhaps to put an exclamation point on the bending of the mythos to suit the needs of the plot, we’ve literally got goddesses ex machina to come in and fight when Operation Sitting Duck issues in the exact result any rational person would have expected. Yes, the mythology always bends to meet the needs of the plot, but it needs to be done in a way that brings the audience with it, and in Retreat I just flat got kicked out of the story. The writers were too visibly making things up to fit what they dramatically thought they needed and I found it impossible to care about the resulting predicament the characters found themselves in.
Finally, we hit the big emotional moment where Buffy really is out there leading her army against humans, and we don’t get anything like the dramatic punch crossing that huge line ought to have had. We did finally get to deal a bit with that issue in Turbulence when we see that these ‘evil’ army guys are just normal dudes trying to do right. But this ought to have been a big moment in Buffy’s story and it really was down-played.
4. Instead we get swept up in Twilight. Buffy’s got superpowers. I’ve already said it makes sense to go there if you want to do commentary on the comic book genre. My problem is I’ve got no idea what that commentary might be. Meltzer’s jokes are nice shout-outs to comic book geeks, but I can’t get any more mileage out of it than that. Here’s hoping it’s a development that will have some meat to it, but right now, I’ve got nothing.
The universe has been forcing this Twilight event. OK. As noted above, this does have some meta aspects that are interesting. But the exposition feels very forced, and this is already in a story where bending the mythos to fit the story has already stretched suspension of disbelief a lot. In story, how does this make sense? Why would the universe ‘want’ to ‘evolve’ in this way? And we’re missing a lot of nuts and bolts stuff. Why exactly does Buffy get powered up at the end of Retreat? Why did Angel get powered up before she did? It’s not too hard to see why Buffy is the super special slayer, but is Angel a super special vampire in his own right, or is he just Buffy’s main squeeze? #35 was advertized as delivering the big picture on all of this, and all I can say is mission NOT accomplished. I’ve got no idea what’s going on with any of this stuff. Here’s hoping it will make sense once we get through Joss’s arc.
5. In addition to just having a hard time understanding what rules the ‘verse works by anymore, Twilight throws in the big hard question of what we are to make of Angel. Again, we’ve been told that #35 would give us enough to know so that we could form independent judgments of where Angel is at. Alas, I still have no clue. Yes, you can go back to some places and see that Twilight wasn’t the evil guy he seemed. He probably sabotaged that missile in ToYL. But why didn’t he tell Buffy what he was up to so she could keep the slayers who did get killed from getting killed? There are too many places where it’s not remotely obvious Angel was doing the best he could to stem the tide against slayers. If all we are going to get is Angel’s say-so on this, it’s not enough for me to make sense of what we’ve been shown. In Retreat, he’s got Buffy so much on the ropes that we are supposed to think Operation Sitting Duck is the best she can do – how is that stemming the tide? And are we supposed to think it’s good that he let a lot of human soldiers get killed when their own general wanted to retreat them out of harm’s way? I could go on and on. Twilight has been sold to us as evil for 33 issues, and a few bubbles aren’t enough to move Angel into the ‘good’ column. But if it’s not supposed to move him into the ‘good’ column, what are we to make of Buffy’s singular lack of concern with the inadequacy of the few bubbles which are all she got before going from trying to kill him to boinking him to another dimension?
6. How does this Angel square with the Angel who’s been off on his own series for several years now? Above all, how does Connor fit into all of this? Is Connor still alive? If so, how to explain Angel’s shocking indifference to the fate of the world he and Buffy left behind? Again, we’re told we are going to get more story on this, but as of now it’s not adding up.
7. How does the epic saga of Buffy and Angel fit into a season that has been about the consequences of the slayer spell? Let’s leave aside the problem that for those of us who don’t believe in eternal destined love, it’s a bit bizarre to find out that Buffy and Angel are still the It couple of the ‘verse. Some of us had thought that their decision to lead separate lives for years without making the slightest effort to undo the one big obstacle to their eternal love (his detachable soul) suggested that they’d in fact decided to go their separate ways, with some fond memories and some sort of abiding ‘love’. All of a sudden after being dormant for years, their love affair is the center of the story, and indeed the entire verse. Let’s leave that aside, and assume that the fans who think B/A are the It couple have just had this right and the rest of us have had it wrong. Within the context of the season, how does it make sense for Angel to take a prominent role in a story about the world’s reaction to the army of slayers? It feels like the season is literally broken into two right now. Usually when there’s a big twist like the Twangel reveal, it adds layers to what’s come before. I’ve been sitting with it for months and I’ve still got no answer to people who think that the B/A love story burst in pretty much out of nowhere.
I could go on, but I’ve already gone on far too long. I continue to hope that Joss’s arc will address enough of these questions so that I can feel like I’m looking at a coherent story, one worth thinking about. But right now, I’ve got far too many questions. In BtVS, it’s always worth thinking about the story. In Dollhouse, it turned out to not add up and not really be worth a ton of hard thought (though kudos to those who get something from that show). For me, Joss can be a wonderful writer, but he’s not infallible. I give exactly even odds on season 8. Maybe it’ll make sense and be great. Maybe it won’t.
The last thing worth remarking on is the issue that doesn’t bother me that much, and that’s the question of how feminism is faring so far. Compared to the opening issues of AtF, I don’t think there’s anything like the problem with the objectification of women’s bodies that can happen in the comics in season 8. But there are places where that envelope is pushed – bubble baths, Dawn’s rather frequent nudity. I can see why it bothers some people. We don’t yet know what to make of the renewal of Buffy-Angel, but I’m still not understanding why Buffy didn’t have a rather huge problem with his explanation that he’d decide to masquerade as her worst enemy to save slayers rather than to bring her into the loop on all of that. That’s not exactly respecting the woman’s position as the leader of the army in question. There’s a real tension between the slayer army as metaphor for women’s liberation (with season 8 as a saga of backlash) and slayer army as a darker metaphor for people using violence to fix a world in a way that ends up being destabilizing. Feminism isn’t high on my agenda, but this is another arena where Joss’s arc will make a great deal of difference in terms of whether we can still see Buffy as a fundamentally feminist-friendly show. I think it’s too soon to think Joss has forgotten that he cares about feminism; but if this was all the story we were going to get, I think it would be a fair complaint.
And so I conclude where I started. I’ll know in January (assuming #40 actually comes out then) what I think. In the meantime, I’m just sitting here on the fence.