Sunday, October 16, 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 Vol. 6: Retreat

Title: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 Vol. 6: Retreat

ISBN: 9781595824158
Price: $15.95
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 20010
Artist: Georges Jeanty
Writer: Jane Espenson
Collects: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 #26-30, MySpace Dark Horse Presents # 24-25

Rating: 3/5

"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 pillorying 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 way 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 photo referenced 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 humor, 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 than a 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 humor 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 favor, 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.

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