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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Tuesday (1/8/13) 3:51pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  <none>
TV:  <none>
Books:  Buffy: Season 8

Buffy, Season 8 [comics]
This is the comic series that picks up three months after the finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  This was written by Joss Whedon with many of the original writers of the show, and is part of the Buffy-verse canon.  "Season 8" ran for 40 issues.

In a way, I have trouble keeping in mind that this comic series is a real thing that exists in the world.  To me, it feels like it's just some theoretical thought experiment, designed to address two questions.  First, how do you continue a story past a very, very, *very* definitive end point?  And second, what would a group of TV writers come up with, without any constraints from networks or budgets?

Let's address the first question first.  With Buffy, Joss Whedon got a very rare opportunity for a showrunner: the chance to end his show.  Shows don't end.  They get canceled.[1]  The showrunner maybe gets a month's advance notice, but usually -- and especially in those days -- the show is just yanked.  So Mr. Whedon got to pick his ending.

And he took full advantage of that, ending his show with a thundering finality.  He blew up Sunnydale.  He destroyed the Hellmouth.  He killed Spike.  He made it so Buffy was no longer unique, but was one of thousands upon thousands of Slayers.  Mind you, this was a show about Buffy Summers, the world's only Slayer, who was empowered to fight the demons and monsters who congregated around the Hellmouth in Sunnydale.  After season 7, "only" and "Hellmouth" and "Sunnydale" were no longer going concerns.  Joss Whedon methodically knocked down nearly everything the show was all about.

How do you go on from there?

As far as I can tell, there's *always* somewhere you can go with a sequel.  If anything of consequence happens in story #1, then there have to be repurcussions you can explore with story #2.  The problem is, usually those repurcussions lead to a markedly different story than the original.  Quite possibly it centers on a different character, since your first story essentially finished its protagonist's arc.  Maybe it wants to have a different tone (think The Empire Strikes Back versus Star Wars).  Maybe it needs to address different themes.  I suspect *every* story can have a good sequel, but that 'good sequel' wants to be something that's shaped very differently from the original.  But instead, the sequel gets produced by people who want something functionally *identical* to the original -- this means either you get a forced and silly storyline, or you do some Procrustean thing to that natural sequel that it gets distorted beyond recognition.

All of which is a very roundabout way of saying, "A comics series makes sense here."  See, another way that the 'natural sequel' can mismatch the original is, maybe it feels like it should be a different *format*.  In this case, after you've established that there are now thousands and thousands of Slayers around the world, well... there *is* a story there.  That season-7 finale has consequences, and it does lead to another story.  But that story is well beyond the scope of a normal TV show.[2]

It seems like the best question you can ask, when contemplating a sequel, is that sort of whiny-voiced, captious, "But wait, what about...?"  So: what *about* these thousands of Slayers you just made?  Sure, everything was tied up in a neat little bow as our Scoobies stood by the crater-that-was-Sunnydale -- but what about these Slayers?  Aren't some of them going to be bad?  Won't the establishment react badly to these newly-empowered girls?  Most endings in fiction work very hard to distract you, street-magician-style, from all these whiny little questions.  But if you embrace them, you find the main threads for a sequel.

And so they've followed those threads into this comic-serial-scaled storyline -- and that leads us to point number two: how do these writers behave, now that they can act without constraint?  They're free from network Standards & Practices.  They can do any special effect you can imagine.  They can bring back any character they want.        So what do they do?

The answer, for better or worse, is: "they do everything".  They make Dawn a giantess.  They up the nudity and sexytimes beyond anything you could have on a TV show.  Seemingly every character in the Buffyverse has a cameo.  Sometimes, this excess-for-excess's-sake pays off -- when a man is tired of giant!Dawn fighting giant!mecha!Dawn, he is tired of life -- but more often it feels like something that gets in the *way* of the story.  My favorite scenes from Buffy aren't about spectacle -- it's hard to be too excited about the best CGI that the late '90s could provide on a TV budget -- they're almost all just two people talking in a room.  After a while, all the comics razzle-dazzle felt distancing, like a haze between me and the story.  When the action got too big I just couldn't relate to it in any visceral way.[3]  But more to the point, the story was putting more and more emphasis on the sort of spectacle that isn't really what I watched Buffy for in the first place.[4]

Fortunately, there was still plenty of "what I watched Buffy for in the first place" present and accounted for.  There was a lot of joy to just seeing the characters again, and seeing them react to these new, bizarre circumstances.  Even the silly one-issue dream sequence -- a protracted excuse for Whedon to use material from the failed Buffy Saturday-morning cartoon -- was given the humor and pathos we expect from the show.

Unfortunately, towards the last quarter of the series, I started losing track of the story.  Specifically, it felt like events were happening arbitrarily, or at least for some other reason than "it's the next logical thing that would happen in this world."  When Buffy was sent forward into Melaka Fray's storyline, I'm sure that was deeply satisfying to a lot of Fray fans, but you could see the plot going into contortions to make that crossover happen.  Mind you, I'm all for making cool stuff happen even if it doesn't 100% make sense, but this got distracting: "wait, why is she travelling through time? and what are the rules of time-travel here? and wait, what exactly is she trying to do?"  I'm sure there are answers to all of these questions, but I was focusing more on my own confusion than on the story, and that's never a good thing.

It got worse when Twilight's identity was revealed.  Sure, it made perfect sense from a story-structure perspective:  we want Twilight to be someone important, and surprising, and we want the reveal to have consequences.  But I spent the rest of the series in a sustained "whaaaat?"  Wait, why was "Twilight" doing this? and, wait, there's a new dimension? and they're banishing magic, why?  Again, I'm sure the writers knew what they were doing, but the story was so complicated, with so many bits and bobs that needed explaining, that I basically gave up on the plot and looked around for neat character moments.

According to Whedon's afterword, a lot of this late-season-8 material was an attempt to explain how we got from the end of season 7 to the start of Fray.  And that feels accurate -- the plot *feels* less like a simple story in which one event follows the next, and more like a complicated story that has to connect <x>, <y>, <z>, and <q>.  And on top of that, they were shoehorning in an excuse for a Fray crossover, and... well, welcome to the world of superhero comics, I suppose.

In any case, the end of season 8 bodes well for season 9.  Apparently they're aware that they maybe went a little too superhero-crazy-go-nuts, they got that out of their system, and now they're pulling back on the scale, and aiming to tell smaller and more human stories.

They'll do fine.

For next time:  this week, I'm watching the Lord of the Rings films, in preparation for Fandom on Saturday.  Also, I'm still reading the Doc Savage book Devil on the Moon, to prepare for Strange Worlds.

[1] ... or, in some rare cases (like Dollhouse), they get unexpectedly-not-cancelled.  "Um... okay.  What do we do now?"
[2] ... of course, this may just be a sign that the writers deftly picked storylines that felt right for a comic, because they were writing a comic -- and if they were making another TV season, then they'd pick storylines that would make sense for that scope, and it would feel equally inevitable.  But I doubt it -- I think the TV season 8 would have been full of awkward and obvious dodges to somehow portray this world on a TV budget.
[3] I'm reminded of Arthur Dent trying to wrap his mind around the destruction of the earth, and repeatedly failing.
[4] Compare this to the Firefly comic books, which do far less of this "OMG WE CAN DO ANYTHING NOW" overreaching.

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