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Sunday Slugfest: Buffy the Vampire Slayer #16

Posted: Sunday, July 6, 2008
By: Keith Dallas

Joss Whedon
Karl Moline (p), Andy Owens (i), Michelle Madsen (colors)
Dark Horse Comics
“Time of Your Life” (Part 1)

Ariel Carmona Jr.: 4 Bullets
Shawn Hill: 4 Bullets
Jon Judy: 4.5 Bullets
Paul Brian McCoy: 4.5 Bullets
Ray Tate: 5 Bullets





Ariel Carmona Jr. 4 Bullets

I have to admit that I never read Joss Whedon's Fray, a limited series about a futuristic Slayer set in the Buffy universe. May seem odd for such a huge fan, I always meant to add the 8 issue limited series to my already growing collection of Buffy comics, but honestly there were too many books I was already reading and keeping up with. I really want to get the collected TPB soon. I do know the basic mythology though.

This week, with the release of Buffy #16 the internet will be buzzing about the first historical meeting between Buffy and Melaka Fray, the Slayer from another century. I like the way this comic bookmarks their crossing paths in between a heavy dose of action and plot lines from the current series. A whole hell of a lot happens this issue which makes it feel as though it is twice as long as it regularly is, even though it isn't.

Dawn has undergone a staggering new magical transformation. Willow explains that a mystical occurence in New York is the result of a temporal anomaly. This necessitates Buffy and Willow to travel to New York where they meet up with Willow's former flame (sorry Tara fans, it's not a resucitated Tara and it isn't a certain werewolf either).

In their absence, Xander is left to defend home base in Scotland, but the castle comes under attack and oh yea, a certain skinless former adversary and Willow's former pet rat are plotting evil with a more current big bad. See what I mean? A lot happens. Usually hallmark episodes written by Whedon--both in the TV series and now in the comic--were very light on exposition and heavy on watershed events. In between all the action are the requisite quiet moments which were a trademark of the TV show and which have been ever present in season 8. For example, Xander puts up a brave front after the events of the past issue which saw him suffering another great loss.

There's a mildly disturbing scene where Willow's flame gets jealous over one of Buffy's remarks of affection towards the former, and her recent sexual daliances are referenced as an "experimental phase." This is balanced by very funny scenes of Buffy enjoying riding a limo for the first time in which she acts in exactly the way you would expect a young person in that situation to act.

Overall this comic is terrific. Whedon again exhibits great skill and respect for the characters he has created and has been directing since he was a college student, and the artwork by Karl Moline, who was the original artist on the Fray mini series and has returned for this story arc--while not as accurate as Georges Jeanty's when it comes to rendering the cast--is still pretty solid and expressive. Go get it!




Shawn Hill 4 Bullets

Plot: Nothing big, actually. Definitely an opening chapter. Joss is settling back into the saddle, and calling out his old friends.

Comments: You can tell it's Joss because the puns are sprouting thick on the ground. I mean excessively. But it's cute, because this is how these kids have talked since high school. There's definitely a Buffy/Will/Xan language that is pretty much their own to warp.

Willow's so confident now that she's grown into accepting her powers (and their potential for good). So are Buffy and Xander, actually. They're adults who still manage to keep the fun of childhood alive, despite the evil dangers they face.

Moline (great to see him again, considering this issue's guest star) doesn't quite have the Jeanty touch when it comes to rendering TV show likenesses. But he does pretty well, mixing in the comics-only characters too, as Joss lets us know that he hasn't forgotten Amy and Warren, who are still (I guess it's a lifelong mission for them) as anti-Slayer as possible. They seem to be working for the Twilight crew, which is just all kinds of bad.

Buffy is very cutely excited about a visit to New York (shades of Joss's Runaways stint, maybe? It's always adorable to see Follywood folks react to Noo Yawk as an exotic land), on the urgings of one of the Japanese vamp witches from the last arc. We see some old familiar faces there, too (Kennedy, anyone?) and then it's the worst possible moment for a time-directed ripple spell (get the reference in the title now? Get it? Of course you do.).

Buffy is a bit overwhelmed by her sudden visit to 200 years from now, but at least she's wearing a hot dress. I get the feeling, as both Slayers are fighting with the same scythe, they'll work things out sooner rather than later. Merging Joss's TV phenomenon with his first comic book hit is an inevitable idea; I'm sure next month will be more about surprises than nostalgia.




Jon Judy: 4.5 Bullets

I want to be Joss Whedon.

Is there anything he can't do? He can write and direct for the screen, compose music, and create comic books, and he can do it all excellently.

Me, on the other hand? I've only reviewed the book a couple of times, but I can't even think of anything new to say about Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Eight. How many different ways can you say a comic book is really freaking awesome?

Oh, I've got it: This book is totally frikking cool.

A mere mortal would have started a new story arc with a "down" issue, one in which little happens, especially after all of the action, and the death of Renee, in the last arc. In such a hypothetical issue, the Scoobs would get a breather and some grieving time, and after 15 fast-paced issues, who would complain if Whedon took a month for some down time? He could have used the issue merely to explore the characters' emotional states, given Willow and Buffy the opportunity to once again prove themselves as BFFs to a grieving Xander. Buffy could have had an awkward is-this-or-isn't-this-a-relationship talk with her girlfriend – or not girlfriend – and maybe we'd have gotten a page or two of Twilight cackling fiendishly over his sinister scheme.

Instead, Whedon began and ended this issue with a bang – the same bang, in fact – and instead of treading water, he plunged us straight into the next arc while advancing existing subplots.

Want development, finally, on the giant Dawn front? You got it. Want Twilight to do more than scheme? Check. Want to see Whedon do what he does best – throw an unbelievable series of shitstorms at his protagonists so that one goes from being a passive reader to becoming an emotionally-engaged empath, suffering with the Scoobs when they suffer, barely containing a smile when they get a moment of fun? Yeah, you get that too.

As for the art, Moline does as great a job depicting Buffy's world as he did Fray's. In fact, I honestly didn't miss Georges Jeanty on this issue, which is really saying something. He occasionally resorts to some of the pseudo-Anime big-mouth-big-eyes-for-no-reason faces that are so popular among some artists today, but other than that his work is flawless. The characters look like the actors they are supposed to represent, yet they also are abstract and cartoony enough to seem kinetic and alive rather than flat and imaginary. That serves the story well in the action sequences, of which there are a few.

Now this issue isn't quite perfect, but one must nit pick to find faults. Still, let's go after those nits.

Now I think this modern belief that all scenes must break at the end of a page is a flawed belief, but I also think it is more often than not better to do so. In other words, to say scenes must conclude at the end of a page is silly and arbitrary, but all things being equal it is better when they do. This allows the turning of the page – which is, after all, an inevitable part of reading a comic – to act as the bridge from one scene to the other. In other words, the reader's experience is going to be interrupted at that point anyway, so one might as well take advantage of that interruption by placing a scene break there. It puts a period – or an exclamation point – on one scene and makes the beginning of the next scene seem "natural" for lack of a better word. Peter David and Alan Moore write much more eloquently about this than I ever could in Writing for Comics and Writing for Comics – two different books with the same name, and both of them great reads.

So to summarize this long-ass thought, I think it is best not to transition from one scene to the next in the middle of a page unless one is doing so to draw parallels between the two scenes, or unless the transition is so smooth and flawless that it begs to be used.

So what does this have to do with BTVS #16? Well, the only major flaw with this issue is in the scene transitions in a number of instances – they are unnecessarily awkward, which is a disappointing because they did not need to be.

Consider page nine, in which Twilight and his cohorts discuss their latest scheme, the reveal of which occurs in panel one of page ten, which means there is a scene shift in the middle of page 10. Well, page 9 could easily have been reformatted to allow the reveal on page 10/panel 1 to occur in what would then be page 9/panel 6.

Similarly, page 12 could have been reformatted so that the first panel of page 13 became the fifth panel of page 12, thus putting the entire arrival in New York sequence on one page and the entire limo ride sequence in the next.

Speaking of page 13, the last panel there, panel six, begins a new scene, but it also uses a character not in the earlier scene, and she is against a blank background. As a result, it isn't even clear that the scene has changed. BTVS is one of the few comic books my wife reads, and at this point in the issue she looked up at me and asked "Who is this chick, and why is she in the limo with them?" Now in this instance the problem could not have been solved by simply making the last panel of one page the first panel of the next – page 14 is a little crowded as it is – but Whedon (I'm assuming he works with a full script, and is therefore the one responsible for determining page breakdowns) could have cut the last panel of page 13 and just replaced it with a transition caption with the character's dialogue, allowing the reader to turn the page and transition into this new scene, discovering who was speaking and where she was at, rather than risk confusing the reader with an awkward transition.

Now I can think of no easy, or good, way Whedon could have broken down page 15 so that it encompassed one scene, so I won't fault him for that one.

Regardless, if the worst thing you can say for a comic book is that some of the scene transitions were a little awkward, then you've got a damn good comic book on your hands.

And the worst thing I can say about this comic book? It's got some scene transitions that are a little awkward.

So, yeah, damn good comic book.




Paul Brian McCoy: 4.5 Bullets

Now that's what I'm talking about!

I've been enjoying this series, don't get me wrong, but no one writes Buffy like Whedon. I was a latecomer to the series, only watching regularly after catching Season Four's "Hush." I was immediately hooked, and began obsessing over the syndicated episodes. Then (according to my Amazon history) in 2002, I started buying the DVDs and watched the whole series from start to finish whenever a new set was released.

And yes, I did like Season Six. A lot. So there.

I was also a big fan of Whedon's Fray and have been hoping for a return to that world.

Thus, "Now that's what I'm talking about!"

Craft-wise, this issue is like one of the better episodes. The dialogue is perfectly snappy, the characters interact like they always have, and there are quite a few mysteries, hints, and shocks; all of which make this issue a must-read for any fans of the series. I mean, it was nice to see Dracula again for the last storyline, and it was a fun few issues, but I kind of felt that I didn't need to actually read them to appreciate the entire season. But that's the way a Buffy season (or, of course, nearly any ongoing television series that maintains an overall story arc for each season) is; not every adventure is going to contribute directly to the main narrative. And in Buffy's case, they're almost always entertaining in their own right.

So the last story was fun, but not essential. This issue, however, you need to read.

Not to spoil everything, but the gang goes to New York on a special mission, time travel is involved, Dawnie isn't a giant anymore (she's way cooler than that, now), Willow shows her chops, and there is a major event back at the headquarters. There's practically something on every page that made me happy.

Oh yeah, and the art is pretty good, too. Moline's pencils are loose and energetic, and there's an almost animated feel to them. The characters don't always look exactly like their television counterparts, but now and then, almost casually, you get a glimpse of the actors. Owens inks are light and don't overwhelm the art, while Madsen's colors are vibrant and airy in the modern setting, then shift to darker, more threatening tones when we get to the future.

This is one of the best issues of the series so far, I'd say. Thanks, Joss. You're the greatest.




Ray Tate: 5 Bullets

"In every generation, there is a Chosen One. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer....Tomorrow, Willow will use the essence of the Scythe to change our destiny. From now on, every girl in the world who might be a Slayer, will be a Slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power. Can stand up. Will stand up. Slayers....Every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong...They got power. They got resources. And they got a hard-line ideology that does not jibe with American interests. Worst of all they got a leader."

Buffy, Willow and Xander hold a war council to discuss recent events including a time anomaly and a temporary move of operations. Meanwhile, Dawn undergoes another transformation, and the Big Bads plot a new attack against Castle Summers. Oh, yeah, Buffy also gets shunted into a possible future--one occupied by Fray, the future Slayer.

What I love about this week's Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that it's basically a set-up issue. I've seen hundreds if not thousands of this type of story chapter. Some are good. Some are bad. Most are mediocre. Very few are spectacular. This first part in what I'm sure will be a superb crossover is spectacular.

I can't begin to describe how much energy Joss Whedon and Karl Moline infuse into the start of the story. Usually, such chapters lull you to sleep with the driest possible expository dialogue, clunkily delivered by generic talking heads that supposedly are the stars. Sometimes, if you're lucky, you'll get some mild twitchy artwork and maybe a plot point or two confusedly laid out. Oh, maybe I'm just being cynical, having been burned too many times by DC and Marvel.

If Buffy the Vampire Slayer fought anything, it was pretentiousness. Buffy, Willow and Xander do not confer around a round table. They discuss plans over a relaxed informal meet that's aided and abetted by Scottish take-out. Whedon makes certain that their dialogue sparkles with their personalities. Moline evokes their body language.

Buffy having finally experienced a relationship that didn't end tragically acts a lot like her old Season One-Season Two self. By reading the dialogue, you can tell that she's happy to be alive, and that wasn't always the case. Buffy is in fact at her most mischievous in this issue. She happily needles Willow about one of her former paramours. This intrigues Xander enough to catalyze some classic interaction among the trio of friends.

Observe the way Whedon massages the dialogue. The conversation dovetails from topic to topic. None of these words sound forced, and the mood shifts with the changes in subject and speaker. Pieces seem to be dropped entirely, only to be smoothly re-examined later. Slips of the tongue happen in the dialogue to open up new information for the reader and to imbue depth to the characters. This is how it's done.

Karl Moline and Michelle Madsen direct the cast to convey genuine emotion. When Xander talks about Renee's death, his head droops. When trying to dig for more dirt from Buffy about Willow's encounters, he exhibits a poker face to hide the contrasting eagerness evident in his dialogue.

The clothing design and color choices alone make the scene interesting. Xander wears his Brigadier outfit. Buffy's dressed casually in tee-shirt and jeans; Dawn's color choices reflect hers. Willow's given a looser, more flowing look that's based on old time fashion mixed with the sensibility of the modern. Her aspect identifies her passions, and the ensemble looks fantastic on her when she takes flight.

The artists distinguish the characters as much as Whedon does purely with dialogue. He'll put a brogue in the voices of one character. Moline and Madsen will add fringes on her short boots and match different colors for her attire. This uniqueness shouldn't be dismissed as simple flourish. The singular appearances of the characters are an important difference in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The characters may not get lines, but they are all Slayers or Wicca. They're vital background, not figures that should blend in with the scenery or each other.

The scene shifts to Dawn's transformation, and Whedon, Moline and Madsen bestow to this revelation a splash page. Dawn is a classically illustrated vision and characteristically pissed off; on the other hand, on some level, Dawn believes she deserves her enchanted punishment, and there's a hint of shame in her lovely countenance.

From there, Whedon cuts to the Big Bads. I'm intrigued by Whedon's segues. On television, you would have experienced a quick almost imperceptible cut from Dawn to the Big Bad known as Copperhead. Television exploits a phenomenon called the persistence of vision; this trait, an expression of the eye's physiognomy, explains why single images on film run together at a particular speed seem to enact one fluid motion. Whedon cannot do that exactly in a comic book. Instead, he sets up the idea that Copperhead is contemplating the predicament of Dawn. This wouldn't be too outré given the presence of magic surveillance. The positioning of the panel creates a foreshadowing in the corner of the reader's eye. While we're stung humorously by Dawn's transformation, we can see the villain peripherally being amused by something.

Moline for the following segue positions the fruit of the Big Bads' scheme in the first panel on the next page. He devotes the remainder of the panels to Buffy, Xander and Willow. This does three things. It intertwines the two scenes. Whedon already hinted at a link with his first segue. This layout cements it. The linkage generates suspense. Moline emphasizes the target. Finally, the positioning of the two scenes eliminates a lot of unnecessary, expository drawing. Moline has created Synchronicity in the two scenes. We can watch the one scenario unspool. Indeed, we can follow Buffy and Willow into another setting and not have to worry about the Big Bads' preparations, which would have been long and tedious. It's more pertinent to the story to follow the heroes. In the back of your mind, the Big Bads' plan unfurls. From the heroes' points of view, the strike comes from out of nowhere.

Following Willow and Buffy to New York allows the creative team to fashion some fascinating interplay between the ladies and Kennedy. Willow and Kennedy's reunion is a subtle symphony, and Whedon is the maestro. Rather than rely on cliché schmaltz, Whedon crafts an original, more personal depiction of Willow and Kennedy's loving interactions.

A number of people seem terrified that Whedon is pushing Buffy and Willow into a relationship. I sincerely doubt their fears have merit. These scenes give me more reason to doubt. As Willow gives a scientific lecture on the nature of the time anomaly, Buffy makes an offhand remark about Willow's first season fascination with science. Clunky exposition? No.

Willow's impressive knowledge of time travel theory, which is reliant on speculative science instead of magic, naturally triggers Buffy's memory, and that memory leads to her feeling pride for her friend. This also exhibits Buffy's maturity. As a teenager, she probably didn't realize what Willow taking over as defacto teacher for the deceased Miss Calendar meant. As an adult, however young, she can muse over such a thing and see the event in a different light. Kennedy has a more visceral reaction to Willow's reunion with her geek side: "How hot am I for the teacher right now?"

She also reacts to Buffy's remark: "Hey, grubby paws off, Lez-Faux."

Whedon does so many things with this scene. He reinforces Kennedy and Willow's relationship. Kennedy learned of Buffy's sexual experimentation from Willow. Kennedy and Willow are truly a couple who reveal secrets to each other. Whedon draws upon Kennedy's animosity toward Buffy on ample display in Season Seven; while Kennedy respects Buffy, she doesn't actually like her all that much. He etches that line between the two women even deeper. Floating above the line is Willow. Kennedy resents that Buffy knew her longer than she, and now that Buffy has discovered her bisexual nature, Kennedy feels threatened by her; in a way her reaction mirrors that of the fans.

Whedon reveals all these emotions and information to the reader without a scintilla of typical expository dialogue. His revelations drift in an atmosphere of wit rather than milquetoast melodrama. Since Whedon overtly addresses fan opinion regarding Buffy and Willow, he signals that this union is even more unlikely to happen.

Buffy and Satsu's relationship was gently hinted at before being consummated. I don't believe Buffy can become involved with Willow or Xander, unless copious amounts of alcohol lubricate the evening. Whedon typically eschews the expected. This is the writer who surprised everybody by saving Dawn, the favorite to die, and killing Buffy. Had you wagered on the event, you probably would have lost a fortune. A lot of fans were certain Whedon killed Giles early in Season Seven and that the former Watcher was actually the First in disguise, but Whedon surprised the fans yet again. Giles was real. He survived the set-up "execution" because he heard the First's minions' "squeaky shoes." I don't believe Giles will turn out to be the new Big Bad Copperhead either; this is a popular fan hypothesis. Rather, Whedon is saving Giles and Faith for the long game. I have no idea who Copperhead is, but the presence of the mask doesn't necessitate familiarity. It would be just like Whedon to have Buffy pull off Copperhead's mask in the crescendo and have the Scoobies be absolutely baffled by a stranger's face.

Whedon opens the story with a clash of Scythes wielded by Fray and Buffy. Buffy's memories unfold as the Slayers take a dive. The scene shifts first to Dawn, then to the war council. Buffy's memories are so numerous that the reader is actually caught off guard when Buffy travels through time and space to end up at the feet of the future Slayer.

The Slayer Handbook

Fray--The Slayer of a future where there is only the Chosen One; possessor of Buffy's Scythe and the destroyer of "the Lurks, the demons, and the forces of darkness." Fray was created by Joss Whedon and Karl Moline for her eponymous mini-series published by Dark Horse available in TPB and highly recommended by yours truly.

Kennedy--Slayer team leader. Willow's significant other. She was introduced in the Seventh season of the television series and took part in the final battle against the First in Sunnydale. From the outset, it was clear that Kennedy, unlike all potential Chosen Ones, was destined to be Slayer.

Violet--One of the more reluctant potential Chosen Ones introduced in the Seventh Season; upon being empowered her first words were "These guys are dust!" She also took part in the final battle in Sunnydale and now serves on Kennedy's team.

"A pebble thrown into a pond"--Willow's analogy for a time anomaly is rooted in Doctor Who. "See...Every large decision makes ripples."; The Doctor--"Remembrance of the Daleks." The large decision in question was whether or not the Doctor wished to have sugar in his tea. The Doctor in his conversation with John, the proprietor of the shop, determines that John's entire history, indeed his current existence, rested upon the need for sugar in a cup of tea.

Appendix--Buffy Speak

"Hoo? Bah?"; "Hamnoo?"--"Whatchoo talkin' about, Willis?"

"Boss of Bosses"; "The Great and Terrible"--Kennedy's sobriquets for Buffy.

"Dawnbo"--Xander's pet name for Dawn, Buffy's sister; a play on words combining Dawn and Dumbo. Could be Rambo, but I'm betting my Quatloos on Dumbo, a large four-legged beast.

Appendix II--Fray Speak

"Toy"--Lame.

"Spin me"--Fool me.

--"Half-coi"----Half-assed.

--"Glam"--short for Glamour; an illusion spell; colloquially--a trick.



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