Thursday, January 31, 2008

Eighth Time's the Charm

Welcome to Season Eight of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer!"

"But," I hear you cry, "There's no Season Eight, John. The show was cancelled after the seventh season."

Hypothetical You, you are correct again.

But you can't keep a good concept down. So like Buffy herself, the series was resurrected, taking comic book form thanks to Dark Horse Press, and with series creator Joss Whedon handling the scripting chores, the saga of Buffy and her Scooby Gang Pals continues.

The first five issues of the comic have recently been collected in graphic novel form under the title "The Long Way Home" and it's a direct sequel to the events that closed out the seventh season and the complete televised series.

But is it a worthy successor?

Some time has passed since Buffy Summers and company wiped out the Hellmouth and its massive vampire nest under her hometown of Sunnydale in the series finale. In that time, she has become the reluctant leader of a squadron of young, untrained slayers -- she complains that "everyone keeps calling me ma'am." Her other friends have also taken on new, unaccustomed roles. Geeky Xander is now in charge of a sort of Slayer Command Central. Geekier Andrew is off in Italy, scoutmastering a squad of slayers (or is that a "cell" of slayers?). Watcher Giles admonishes the new girls and cuts deals with demons. And witchy Willow has been off who knows where. Oh, and little sister Dawn ain't so little any more.

Each televised season of "Buffy" featured one overarcing threat, referred to as "The Big Bad." In Season One, it was the Vampire Master. In Season Two, it was Spike, Drusilla and, in the series' greatest twist, boyfriend Angel. And so on. Here, a General informs Buffy that her current course of action -- gathering and training superhuman slayers -- puts her at war with the entire human race.

Her reply? "Oh- Kay." It's a new kind of Big Bad.

The military adversary calls up memories of Season Four's "Initiative," a secret government sponsored monster-hunting outfit. As with that group, the Season Eight military also recruits some of Buffy's past antagonists, at least one of whom is a lot worse for wear.

Joss Whedon's scripts have lost none of their snap or pop cultural savvy. As with his run on Astonishing X-Men, he combines his trademark sharp dialogue with concepts and set pieces that would bankrupt any network that tried to stage them. He obviously enjoys throwing off budgetary constraints.

The art by Georges Jeanty and Andy Owens is admirably economical, effectively suggesting the familiar characters with a minimum of linework. Jeanty's style leaves everyone looking a bit overly baby-faced, however. And on occasion, faces in the distance are reduced down to two dots and a curved line.

The story arc entitled "The Long Way Home" takes up the first four issues reprinted in this volume, but the fifth and final story is the most powerful. "The Chain" concerns a nameless young girl tapped to double for Buffy on an especially dangerous undercover mission. In the brief tale, she will exhibit remarkable levels of bravery, self-sacrifice, self-doubt, and ingenuity, before one final heroic act. Her qualities are all the more poignant for her anonymity, just a link in the chain. Yet so much more.

This volume is indeed a worthy successor to one of the best TV series in recent memory. If I can't have a weekly dose of new "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" anymore, "The Long Way Home" will substitute nicely.

"The Long Way Home" (issues 1-4) -- 3 1/2 stars

"The Chain" (issue 5) -- 4 stars

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