Thursday, July 26, 2007

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: 'The Chain' (8x05)

One of the most overused PR phrases to describe a new film or album is that the artist is "going back to the core concept," or "back to their roots." That's why the prerelease buzz for every new Radiohead album is that it's the new OK Computer, and most Scorsese films are hailed as the next Taxi Driver or Goodfellas. This issue, and the comic series as a whole are all about going back to the core concept, the original spark that ignited Buffy. However, as season seven showed, that is far from a good idea, the core concept is nowhere near as interesting as the incredibly complex characters who sprung up as the show went on. This issue isn't bad, it's just not particularly noteworthy.

Writing comics may seem pretty easy, and the vast numbers of people from other media who do vanity projects in comics would back this up. However, most of these books don't turn out so well. Writing a comic, particularly one like this, which is based on a TV show, is tough. We're used to getting 45 minutes of Buffy a week for free, to get the equivalent of one episode every couple of months for $3 an issue is tough to get used to. The best comics writers tell stories that can only work in comics, Morrison and Moore are so incredibly good, it takes weeks to unpack what they put in 22 pages. That kind of analytical analysis isn't applicable here, we've got the twenty-two pages and that's it. Ultimately, comics have to be better than other mediums because that stuff is free and comics cost.

So, this is all a roundabout way of getting to the essential underwhelmingness of the issue. It's solid, but doesn't do anything to surprise or draw you in. Ultimately, the stories in this comic aren't good enough to draw me in on their own, it's primarily my affection for the show that has me reading, and this doesn't give me any moments on the characters from the series. So, it's just a decent standalone, much like the material in the Tales of the Slayers collection, nothing to write home about.

Conceptually, the story should work better. The basic idea is interesting, but I feel like it's all told in the first three pages. This is a Buffy decoy, she dies for Buffy, Buffy is a symbol who's bigger than any individual. The rest of it is just messing around this moment, filling in information that we pretty much already know.

The structure is reminiscent of Morrison's "Best Man Fall" from The Invisibles, and comparing the two works reveals a lot about why Morrison is a much better comics writer. Morrison has an uncanny ability to capture huge emotional moments in a single image or a couple of panels. He writes dense comics that usually take a longtime to read. Whedon's work is more open, with a lot of splash pages and repeat panels. Compare what we learn about Bobby Murray in 'Best Man Fall' with what we learn about the Buffy decoy here. Bobby has an entire life, she just has a couple of moments that are repeated over. And, even with the huge amount of information in 'Best Man Fall,' it's still more emotionally involving.

Comics bring out most of Whedon's worst tendencies. Even though I'm a big genre fan, I don't like the random monsters and demon realms. Buffy and Angel were almost always at their best when they focused on real characters, not random monsters. If he had access to more resources on Buffy, I feel like we would have gotten more of this gimmicky stuff, like the fairy or slime demon, but that doesn't do much for me. The supernatural stuff was merely a way to cast the characters' emotions onto a grander plane. The demons here, or Ord from the Breakworld in X-Men both take focus away from Whedon's greatest strength, creating memorable characters. The goofy comedy of the TV ad is also a mistake, I assumed it was an authorial conceit, but the captions imply it's an actual ad on TV, and that makes no sense.

Again, it's not that this issue is bad, it's more that it doesn't touch even the worst episodes of the series. What made the show work was the characters, and we can't get that in the comics. For one, we don't have the actors playing them. There's also the issue of time, we barely got to see where Buffy was at, let alone the others. And, at this point the most interesting characters from the show are all gone. Anya's dead, Spike is MIA, Tara's dead already. The core group is good, but what I really want to see is some followup with Buffy and Spike, or an issue showing how Xander feels about Anya's death. Ultimately, it's not the decompression of the story that bothers me, it's that comics have to have some kind of deeper subtext to power them beyond just twenty-two pages. Morrison and Moore can do it, this book doesn't quite make it.

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