Sunday, October 23, 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 Vol. 7: Twilight

Title: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 Vol. 7: Twilight

ISBN: 9781595825582
Price: $15.95
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2010
Artist: Georges Jeanty, Karl Moline
Writer: Joss Whedon, Brad Meltzer
Collects: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 #31-35, Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Willow

Rating: 3/5

Twilight is the seventh TPB collection in the Buffy: Season Eight saga. More significantly, this volume is intended as the penultimate arc in the proposed 40 issue epic (making it officially, the longest "season" in TV history, as it will have stretched out over close to four years...when most US TV seasons run -- what? -- eight months?).

As my reviews of these TPBs have indicated, my feelings have been bobbing up and down, my having begun rather keen on the idea (and a huge fan of the original TV series) but veering more and more toward ambivalence as it went along. The only reason I've stuck with it, frankly, is because it was marketed as a "season", promising to build to a definite final (though not necessarily a finale, as they presumably are hoping for a season 9, 10, etc. -- though some have suggested sales have slumped as the series progressed, so that may not be a certainty).

In addition to the season eight issues, this TPB also includes a Willow one-shot retroactively set before the whole season eight run, written by Whedon and illustrated by Karl Moline (the two last teaming on Time of Your Life). It feels like little more than a filler vignette -- nothing terrible, just not really essential. Willow goes on a mystical walkabout, but it doesn't really give us insight into much. Though it does show her first encounter with the snake-lady that has cropped up in a few earlier issues. It also features an appearance by Willow's dead lover Tara, something fans had been clamouring for for ages...but it's a pretty minor, inconsequential appearance.

Of the true, season eight issues, we begin with the single issue "Turbulence", also written by Whedon. Most of the story arcs have been relatively self-contained, albeit threaded with a sub-plot involving this season's big bad. But as we move toward the climax, the separation of the storylines is less clear. So "Turbulence", in a way, is an addendum to the previous arc, "Retreat" (and really should've been included in that TPB). Buffy and her Slayers had had a pitched battle with the forces of militarism and sorcery arrayed against them, and though the previous arc ended almost implying Buffy's side had lost, apparently that was just a storytelling SNAFU and instead, they beat them back -- to a draw, if not a victory. But something odd happened -- Buffy developed the ability to fly! So "Turbulence" deals with some of the fall out from that, character bits like Buffy coming to terms with the fact that Xander and Dawn have hooked up, and with Buffy's new Superman-like super powers, as well as a minor action distraction as Buffy must settle some rogue gods her side had invoked previously. It's a better-than-average issue, with some good character interaction.

Which then brings us to the four-part "Twilight", in which Whedon hands over the writing to Brad Meltzer for the story that promises to explain the last 30 issues and finally reveal the identity of the masked uber-villain, Twilight.

And I'm a bit mixed on how much to reveal -- given it is supposed to be the big surprise...yet Dark Horse Comics itself let the cat out of the bag even before the issues had hit the stands (in apparently a behind-the-scenes miscommunication between the editorial and marketing departments -- we're talking tearing-down-the-Berlin-wall sort of miscommunication). But I'll err on the side of caution and try to be oblique.

And like a lot of the Buffy season eight stories...I'm left mixed. Yeah, there are some cute quips, and yeah, the revelation is a doozer (if, y'know, Dark Horse hadn't ruined it). Although, like much of these Buffy comics, it's assuming a knowledge of the original TV series. And like most of the multi-issue arcs, it feels stretched. Indeed, this is probably the thinnest of the Buffy multi-issue stories. More concerned with its revelations/explanations, rather than acting as a meaty, stand alone read.

There is some action, and obviously, after all this time, you want to milk the revelations...but it does feel a bit like the characters are just talking for the sake of talking, coyly doling out the information in a halting manner just to justify four issues (as characters demand explanations, and are met with evasiveness). Meltzer takes so long to explain some of it, I think it actually ends up more confusing, not less, than if he had just explained it succinctly in a couple of pages.

It ends up being a kind of airy explanation of cosmic manipulations as though the universe itself were a sentient thing. Even the revelation of Twilight's identity (remember, I'm being vague) at first makes you think he's gone bad, then kind of wants to suggest that, no, he's still a good guy, and his actions (however evil and murderous) were fueled by good intentions -- then Meltzer just throws up his hands and has a character suggest it was cosmic forces manipulating him as if even Meltzer couldn't quite reconcile the character with the actions.

It can all seem less like an explanation...and more like narrative sleight-of-hand (and echoing the dubious logic of some of the plot twists in the final season of the TV series). It also doesn't help that, in a way, once Twilight explains his actions, the previous 30 issues (6 TPBs, 3 years!) seem like a bit of a shaggy dog story. It's a twist, but it doesn't really invite you to re-read the back issues looking for hidden clues and double meaning in the dialogue. In fact, even though in my mind I'm sure Whedon had intended this all along (at least the key points), viscerally it doesn't feel that way. Most of the revelations/explanations come out of nowhere, including suddenly suggesting Giles suspected some of what was happening all along -- and was even actively looking for something in his travels with Faith!

What's the point of dragging out a plot line for so many issues, if you realize there was next to no true foreshadowing or clues along the way?

Season Eight has been marred by a few lapses in narrative continuity -- perhaps a problem with recruiting different writers to write different arcs, who might not have the time, or patience, to do rewrites...with even Whedon dividing his attention between this and his TV and movie projects. As I say, at the end of "Retreat", it looked as though Twilight had captured some of Buffy's gang on the battlefield -- here references suggest he kidnapped them after-the-fact, under Buffy and Willow's noses. Amy, Warren, and a general show up at Buffy's doorstep, apparently having been kicked out by Twilight...but we never actually saw that scene! For that matter, Oz -- who played a big part in the previous arc -- is now completely absent from the story! And so on.

Meltzer is both a hot property comic book writer, and a "New York Times best selling" novelist -- but, I'll admit, I haven't been that impressed with (admittedly) what little I've read by him, in comics or novels. I say that because, after re-reading "Twilight", it's partly the execution of the tale, as much as the gist of it, that is the problem. It's kind of dull, and, as mentioned, it feels like he's stretching out the exposition just to justify the four issues. It's actually a big concept, one where Buffy is given an explanation, offered a chance at paradise...and ultimately rejects it. Thinking about the plot, it seems like it could've been a great, dramatic story...if told right. Instead, it feels like a bridge between the previous and the next arc, but it shouldn't -- it should feel like it's own story (within the greater epic)...but doesn't really.

Meltzer writes some okay approximations of Buffy/Whedon-esque quips...but then again, not quite, the characters seeming more superficial imitations of themselves. And he goes way overboard on the pop culture gags and references. Such jokes were always a part of Buffy's charm...but Meltzer just lathers them on, page after page, panel after panel, to the point where instead of rooting you in the narrative (making the characters seem more real by referring to things we, the reader, recognize) it kind of pushes you out of it -- even getting self-reflective, like a scene discussing X-Men heroine Kitty Pryde which is a joke on the fact that Whedon has claimed Kitty was an inspiration for his creating Buffy. Granted, that's part of the gimmick -- with Buffy demonstrating super-super powers, comic book fan Xander quips Buffy's transformation might be more important to him than his own birth! And as he puts Buffy through a series of tests of her new found abilities, including racing a "speeding bullet" and muscling a locomotive, other characters remark: "Oh, Jeez, I just realized what they were doing." But Meltzer lets his own fan boy impulses over ride his writerly restraint. Heck, at one point a character remarks a device was modeled after a machine in the 1982 X-Men/Teen Titans crossover...and you know what? It was!

(Comics seem a bit more forgiving about in-joke copyright infringements than movies or TV would be, with even Captain America's shield cropping up).

I'll also take a moment to comment on Warren -- I had some ambivalence about the inclusion of Warren anyway because, in a weird way, he emerged as the TV series' creepiest villain...because he was so normal. Not a vampire or demon, just a petty little amoral misogynist. As well, his death had consequences for Willow and the others. So to glibly bring him back, as essentially a fantasy-like monster (skinless) just seemed cheap. And now in this arc, Meltzer even throws in a scene as if he's trying to humanize Warren, suggesting he has compassion. Buffy (and its sister series, Angel) was always big on the "redeemable villain" theme -- but Warren? Warren?!?


Of course, one can't review this story arc without commenting on the sex issue!

Yeah, that weren't a misprint. There's a whole issue devoted to, um, well, super sex -- of a kind not seen since the Superman-Wonder Woman roll in The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Okay, so maybe it's not the whole issue -- we do cut away to other characters talking, and explaining. But it's pretty graphic. Not in the sense of nudity (limbs and stuff obscuring the essential bits), but more explicit than anything they would've, or could've, done in the TV show itself. So even by the adult tone of these comics, it pushes the thing towards a "mature readers" caution -- and is that fair/wise/responsible? Thirty-some issues into a series to suddenly throw in a sequence that some may feel is inappropriately explicit for a general readership? It also feels like a stunt, and Meltzer taking what should be an emotionally dramatic connection...and just reducing it to a sophomoric bonking session written with the maturity of a snickering 12 year old.

Mind you, I kind of wonder about the ethics of that, given these are roles originated by real actors, and the drawings are meant to, vaguely, evoke the performers. Is this a plot justified depiction of fictional characters...or a lascivious exploitation of real actors? (Not that Buffy here looks that much like Sarah Michelle Gellar). This has been an issue cropping up throughout the comics, as almost all the lead female characters (and some of the male) have been depicted at one point or another in stages of undress they were never depicted in when real actresses played the roles.

Georges Jeanty continues as the series' chief artist, and continues the ambivalence I have toward his style. On one hand, it's decent work, sort of evoking the actors, and with enough realism to keep a toe in the reality of its live action TV origins, with enough of a cartoony/caricature leaning to play up the humorous aspects. On the other hand, it lacks much mood (as you might want for a horror property) and he doesn't fully evoke the actors consistently, often the female characters blurring into each other, and the cartoony, big-head-little-body aspect (that seemed to get more pronounced as the series has progressed, as though Jeanty's style has evolved over the run) may be part of why I find myself not getting as emotionally involved with the comics the way I did the TV series. Ironically, more than a few letter writers had complained about how Jeanty has depicted the women, accusing him almost of sexism. And, sure, in a roomful of Slayerettes they all have pretty similar physiques (no fat girls, no skinny girls) but a lot of artists tend to just draw the same types of figures. But I'd hardly call his Buffy, Faith, etc. sexploitive. They don't have big breasts, or exaggerated curves. In fact, given the big-heads-little-bodies style, they're hardly sexpots at all. At least, when they keep their clothes on (and it's the writers', not Jeanty's choice, to depict them sans apparel).

As mentioned, this is the penultimate arc, so it doesn't really end, leading us instead directly to the next -- and concluding -- arc. Though barring some further revelations, we've basically got most of the answers we were waiting for. One can only hope the concluding arc won't just be a five issue fight.

And by this point, I'm not sure how to rate it. I didn't hate "Twilight"...even as it didn't entirely excite me being, like I've said, a bit thin and, frankly, dull. But obviously, if you were following the Season Eight saga, it is essential to the overall arc, and so can't very well be skipped over. I'll stick around for the concluding story, but I think my overall feeling about Season Eight is that the individual stories needed to be stronger -- and tighter (fewer four parters) -- and the connecting sub-plot/thread made more complex, and better developed, to justify the sheer length of it all. 

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