Oh, The Places You'll D'Oh!

The good: Jo Chen's beautiful cover, which perfectly captures Eliza Dushku's features and the wry bit of "screw you" she always brought to the role of Faith; the marvelous first two pages, with their witty combination of Cleveland and Dr. Seuss; Giles' spot-on dialogue; the new "villain" Lady Genevieve (I put villain in scare quotes because even bad guys are rarely that clear-cut in the Whedonverse, and Genevieve already seems to have more going on than just her plot function); seeing Wood again; Faith's use of chamomile as a moisturizer; the My Fair Lady references (more musicals, please!); the return of Giles' evil Season Two tattoo (say that five by five times fast); the monkey T-shirt Faith wears while stabbing Giles with a fork.

The not-so-good: Generally ignoring, then abandoning Cleveland by the end of the issue-- c'mon, they tease us with a Dawgtown Hellmouth for years, then don't even take advantage for a whole issue?; the art (oh, Lord, the art); the rather pointless Xander-Buffy interlude; the odd "paft!"'s that function as staking sound effects on page six; Giles' dialogue aside, the oddly fanfic vibe of Brian K. Vaughn's writing throughout.

Verdict: A slight disappointment.

Oh, Buffy Season Eight, why must you continue to be such a mixed bag? We're six issues in, and I have to admit-- I had really high hopes for this new one. And yet...

"Disappointment" is a relative term with anything connected to Joss Whedon. As those who know me well well-know, I have a big jones for Whedon's work, from Toy Story through Sugarshock; heck, I can even find kind words for the much-maligned Buffy movie. And Buffy The Vampire Slayer is, I believe, the richest, most endlessly rewatchable series ever done for the small screen, and a constant source of theoretical inspiration and sheer enjoyment for me and many others here in Cineville. Whedon clearly draws on comics for both archetypes and serialized narrative structure (the whole notion of an "arc" stretching out over a season, for instance), and has done really interesting work in comics like Fray and The Astonishing X-Men (and the aforementioned Sugar Shock is a delight). He's gathered a top-notch group of artists and writers around him, and has found a way to extend and complicate the fauxtopia of the seventh season finale, creating a very rich narrative and thematic playground for everyone to romp in. And even an "ennh" issue of Buffy Eight is better than a lot of mainstream stuff you'll find at your local shop (put down that issue of World War Hulk. Just...step away). So, what's the problem?

I think a lot of it, for me, has to do with questions of translation: although Buffy the Vampire Slayer drew extensively on comics for inspiration, the episodes weren't actually comic books. Whedon is a comics geek, but he's also a film geek, and his film studies background and extensive knowledge of film technique and history made Buffy pop in a way that other comics-based/influenced shows and movies often didn't. So much of the show's magic comes from hearing the dialogue rat-a-tat in conjunction with imaginative music cues; seeing Whedon's Vincente Minnelli obsession (which I share, and love Whedon for) express itself in langourous long takes and tracking shots; thrilling to the show's superb use of cross-cut editing to build suspense:

There's been an ongoing, honorable attempt to translate all this formal wizardry to the page, but so far it hasn't took-- the static quality of the comic panels and the silence of the dialogue balloons means something gets lost-- it's "Buffy," but it's not, and sometimes the translations are just painful (although I will admit that, shorn of Alyson Hannigan's ooky intonations and two-expression range, Willow becomes much more lovable). As sheer story, it's fascinating (I won't spoil any of the neat twists and political intrigues they're building, for those of you waiting for the TPB), but as an experience it's lacking, and which you prefer might end up determining whether or not you enjoy it.

That's why I was hopeful when Brian K. Vaughn took over for Whedon with this issue: as the co-creator of such fabulous books as Runaways, Y: The Last Man , and Ex Machina, he is Joss Whedon's creative inverse: influenced by TV and cinema, but able to translate those interests to the comics page with marvelous precision (witness the opening of Ex Machina for the most "cinematic" take on 9/11 in all of comicdom). And in Runaways, he created such an entrancing blend of action, suspense, magic, teen angst and familial discord that he'd seem a natural to take over the Buffy writing reigns, and really make the comic pop like the show once did.

But, for all its many good points, Buffy #6 feels less like a professional comic and more like an ambitious fanzine. To start, there's the art: up until now, I've liked Georges Jeanty's slightly illustrative, children's-book-like graphics: they've given the more mystical sections an air that connects them to Maurice Sendak, Alice in Wonderland, and other apt precursors (Giant Dawn is an image that rivals anything the TV show did), and his expressive faces have done much of the heavy "acting" of each issue, really capturing the emotional stakes of the characters. But suddenly, with this issue, everything feels off: rather than mystical, the characters appear child-like (Faith looks like a ten-year old, Buffy the character on a Swiss Miss box), and the expressions have lost the subtlety of previous issues. The backgrounds and colors aren't as rich (that marvelous Cleveland skyline on page two aside), and there's none of the imaginative page layout that we've seen in previous Buffy issues (and across Vaughn's prior work). How about letting Jo Chen take over the inside of the book for awhile?

Vaughn's writing feels less like his own take on Buffy than an echo of the TV scripts (interestingly, Whedon's current writing arc on Vaughn's Runaways has the same problem), with Whedon's voice ghosting him at every panel. After those fabulous opening pages, the jokes tend to fall flat, the expositional interludes are clunky, and Buffy is a cipher (and not in a good way). Faith has her devil-may-brood badassness intact, but little of her wit and vulnerability (maybe a lot of that was the underrated Dushku). He fares better with Xander and Giles, and has created a fascinating new character in Genevieve, and he's such a comics pro that I have hopes the dialogue will improve. But for now, the shadow of the Executive Whedon is falling way too heavily everywhere.

About Cleveland: Why abandon it so quickly? I'll admit a big draw was seeing an issue set in the fair metropolis just to the east of Cineville, not only for the nerdy "I've been there!" quality (comics as a home movie taken by someone else), but also because-- well, it's Cleveland, man. There are sooo many obvious Hellmouth jokes to make, but there's also a rich history of culture, cuisine, crime (see Brian Michael Bendis's Torso) and corruption that might have made Vaughn's arc feel as noirish and gripping as a good episode of Angel. Plus, as anyone familiar with the history of the form knows, Cleveland=Comics. Just a partial list: Siegel and Shuster (creators of Superman), Harvey Pekar, Brian Michael Bendis, Walt Simonson, and Brian K. Vaughn himself: all born or raised in Cleveland or the surrounding area. Heck, even someone as dyspeptic as Anthony Bourdain knows that Cleveland rocks. I hope they make me eat my words by returning to the City of the Burning River soon, but for now it feels like a lost opportunity.

In the end, My Fair Lady might be an unintentionally apt narrative model for this arc: Vaughn seems like the Eliza Doolittle to Whedon's Henry Higgins, straining to fit his own voice into someone else's model of narrative and linguistic propriety. Let's hope he ends up more Julie Andrews than Audrey Hepburn.


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