By Steve Morris
Spoilers below, of course: we’re talking about the last issue of the run!
“Comics are the best medium. If you can think of it, then you can put it on the page. Comics have an unlimited budget!!” said the writer, moments before an artist punched them square in the face.
Season Eight of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a huge get for Dark Horse Comics at the time – an official continuation of the cult TV series, which would be written by Joss Whedon and a bunch of his famous friends, including Brian K. Vaughan, Jane Espenson, Jeph Loeb and Drew Goddard. The much-loved show, which at the time did not have a widely despaired-of creator with a string of accusations against their name, would continue on “canonically” every month, as Whedon followed on from the open-ended finale and revealed for readers what happened after the cameras stopped. A popular franchise, a devoted audience, the original creators, and a massive medium which could accommodate anything the writers needed: it seemed perfect.
What I don’t think anybody expected was that Joss Whedon wanted to make a Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic. Like… he really wanted this thing to be the comic-y comic to ever comic. And with that vision to champion a medium came the downfall of the run.
The start of the “season” (which lasts 40-ish issues, has a few tie-in comics, and ultimately brings in the cast of the IDW Angel comic to bring everything together) is simple enough, enjoying the enhanced ability of comics to go big. With Georges Jeanty as artist, the comic could give a simulacrum of the actors’ likenesses without being distracting, and the series could move the characters to an ancient castle in Scotland, turn Dawn into a giant (subsequently a centaur), expand out a much wider cast, and have far more explosions than the WB would ever have budgeted for. It was all so much bigger than Buffy had ever been before. By the time we reached the finale, there was an army of werewolves and flying cthulhu monsters; Buffy had gained the power of flight; and Spike flew a spaceship piloted by talking bugs.
It was too much comics.
Not only had the story gone off the rails, the characters bore little relation to the ones we saw on TV. Whedon kept trying to expand his reach, but with his increased Kirby-wish-fulfillment scale meant a loss of character. Sensing the void in its sudden mythological epic, the series plugged in that gap with, weird sex stuff. Xander had a slow-burn love interest who was killed off and forgotten about in the space of one issue so he could instead start dating Buffy’s school-age sister, Dawn, for example. A nice new relationships which would’ve been standard for the series suddenly switched gears as Whedon realised he didn’t need actors and could hook up anyone he wanted. Out went the fun new character, and in her place came Buffy’s possibly underage sister. Who finishes the run by going back to school. Hm.
That wasn’t the end of it. Whedon, with seemingly no editor, went full-on horny as the season progressed further and further, with little rhyme and plenty of ramble. There was a mystical dimension Willow could only access if she had an orgasm, you see. And once she was there she struck up a relationship with a blue snake lady. Oh, and Angel turned out to be the masked villain of the series, whose plot was to birth a new universe by having superpowered sex with Buffy. Sex which caused several natural disasters as they flew at superspeed into mountains and oceans. You don’t believe me, so here’s a page to prove it:
Whedon’s scripts seemed to revel in being as ultra-sexual as possible, to little benefit or character development. Early on Buffy sleeps with one of the other female slayers, but the character is then sent away to Japan and essentially ignored for the rest of the run, while Buffy herself goes back to being horny for other people and never thinks about that night again. There’s so much potential for sex and longing to be part of a character arc or motivation, but the series seemed more interested in providing big Entertainment Weekly-provoking moments than letting the characters breathe into natural life. It’s the other side of having no boundaries within comics: there’s nothing keeping things under control and logic flies out the window.
Buffy Season 8 wants to be Casanova or Umbrella Academy, and it wants to be inspired by the quip-heavy politics of a Brian K Vaughan-type. But the whole thing is so eager to please and entertain in comics-y fashion that it becomes a fast parody of itself which slides into can’t-believe-it disaster. It’s a 2022 Ed Sheeran music video. Everything all at once, no consideration or theming necessary. Worse still, as the narrative pushes ever-onwards, you can see Whedon realise the mistake he’s made. There’s a lengthy afterword in the collected edition which acknowledges that, yeah, he really blew this.
Realising that, Buffy The Vampire Slayer #40 is an epilogue to the previous run, but also an apology ahead of Season 9. Series editor Scott Allie even joins in as co-writer to prove it! The issue desperately wants you to know it’s sorry that the previous story went too big too hard, didn’t make sense, and tanked a lot of the characters. As a result, it’s a fascinating issue to read, with the sense that Whedon himself is constantly standing just to one side of the story, gesticulating wildly at all the returns to status quo he’s put in. It’s all going to be normal now I’ve worked out the weird sex stuff I couldn’t put into the show.
Crucially, Whedon seems to have finally realised that what made Buffy so popular was that it featured funny and likeable characters who actually spoke to each other, and finally brings that into the comics format. There are no armies, castles, or submarines here: the characters instead spend almost all of this issue in domestic situations, sitting around, and talking to each other. It’s a massive improvement, because there’s a reason for things to happen, and for the characters to act the way they do.
Issue #40 puts Buffy in a noticeably grounded scenario, working as a waitress and living in the shared flat with her sister and Xander (who are still dating). Magic has been destroyed, all Buffy’s allies from season 8 now hate her, and the broken characters are quietly ushered away so Christos Gage can try to fix them in some spin-off comics. In one swoop, all the high concepts are removed, and Buffy is reset as an everywoman rather than the horny superpowered military commander she became in season eight. Jeanty even changes his artistic style to a hybrid Mark Bagley/Whilce Portacio format, emphasising the disconnect between the previous thirty-nine issues and this final one.
And for all Whedon’s showboating, that’s the big thing I take away from the last issue of the run. An artistic choice which changes everything so much more quickly than Whedon’s hastily-resetting script. With that one choice Jeanty makes, we see more understanding of the comics medium than anything that came before it. Jeanty’s shift in artistic style is exclusive to the comic book medium. TV shows can’t shift style so effortlessly; films can’t change their approach so quickly, but comic books are a medium where the artist is in control, and they are the ones who present and tell the story, no matter how it might be scripted.
The “unlimited budget” of comic books is actually trading in artistic currency: your artist has to be able to not only present what you’re writing, but do it in a way which makes internal sense within the story being told. You see it when Ed Brubaker writes for Sean Phillips; when Kelly Sue DeConnick writes for Emma Rios. Comics don’t have an unlimited imagination where you can do whatever you want however you want – they have the imagination of the artist. By choosing to change his artistic style, Jeanty does something Whedon seems unable to across forty issues: he embraces comics as a medium, rather than an opportunity. It’s about format and form rather than simply narrative and script.
Brian K Vaughan can write something nonsensical and amazing like Saga because he’s writing it for Fiona Staples. Similarly, he can write something horny and character-driven like Y: The Last Man because that’s something Pia Guerra can really work with. Whedon wants to do both at the same time, but doesn’t seem to understand the importance of that creative partnership in making comics work. He writes the things he wants to be on the page, rather than the things which would work on the page. That’s why Buffy Season 8 was a mess, why the writing in issue #40 doesn’t convince us that things are going to change – but why Jeanty’s single artistic choice means so much. It’s an artist’s medium, no matter what a superstar screenwriter thinks.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer #40
Written by Joss Whedon & Scott Allie
Drawn by Georges Jeanty
Inked by Andy Owens
Coloured by Michelle Madsen
Lettered by Richard Starkings & Jimmy Betancourt
Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.
This post was made possible thanks to the Shelfdust Patreon! To find out more, head to our Patreon page here!