There’s a saying in creative writing: your style is formed by what you can’t do. During its seven seasons on television, most of what Buffy the Vampire Slayer couldn’t do was the result of its low budget. If you ever listen to the audio commentaries available on the DVDs, you can hear tantalizing hints of cool ideas that the writers were forced to abandon due to money. A brutal fight scene pitting Buffy and Faith against a pack of vampires in the episode “Bad Girls” was supposed to take place in a flooded underground chamber (it turns out flooded sets are extremely expensive). During the final confrontation between Buffy and Frankenstein-knockoff Adam in “Primeval”, Buffy was to cast a spell on her enemy that turned the chain gun grafted onto his arm into stone (it was changed to merely making his gun retract). A crucial battle between Buffy and Glory in “Spiral” was supposed to involve Buffy tearing a telephone poll out of the ground and beating the hellgod with it; Joss Whedon praised writer Steven S. DeKnight for an action-packed teleplay before informing him the scene wasn’t feasible and needed a complete rewrite.
But now, four years after the TV show came to a close, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has returned in the form of a monthly comic book series, and the most important thing to note is that Whedon’s imagination no longer has a dollar value attached to it. If he or any of the writers can dream it, an artist can draw it for the same cost as a scene of the heroes sitting around talking in a non-descript location. And so the first four issues of this series (dubbed “Season Eight”) have been wall-to-wall with Jerry Bruckheimer-level excess. Buffy now lives in a castle in Scotland that doubles as a high-tech headquarters for the army of slayers she’s training. Xander directs individual squads of the slayers from a command center equipped with a multitude of flat-screen televisions. Dawn has grown to gigantic size as a side effect of having sex with a human-looking creature called a “Thricewise” (the magical equivalent of a STD, perhaps?). Already we’ve seen epic battles between hundreds of slayers and an army of the undead, and a massive assault led by Buffy on a shady government facility. The scope of this series is far beyond what the TV show would have been capable of, but is that a good thing? Is more always more, or in this case is more actually less?
Because the action scenes have gone so far over the top already, they’ve felt surprisingly weightless and inconsequential. They’re bigger in scale than say, the Buffy-Angel swordfight that closed out season two, but they don’t have the same emotional power as watching Buffy stab Angel and condemn him to a fate worse than death. Instead we get panels of anonymous slayers charging fearlessly into battle against the living dead or government soldiers, which is cool-looking but not nearly as memorable.
The other frustrating thing about this first arc has been the constant reintroduction of past characters, even those I’d assumed had been forgotten by Whedon, which makes it tough for newcomers to get into the series. This arc revealed that the new villains are witch Amy Madison (one of the more interesting characters that the show never had the time to fully develop), and her boyfriend, skinned-alive and previously thought to be dead Warren Mears. I realize it’s hopelessly nerdy to complain about resurrecting Warren when the series contains black magic, vampires, and other supernatural activity, but I still think it’s a bit of a cop-out. While Whedon’s explanation makes a certain amount of sense, it cheapens the mythology of the series to suddenly bring a character back from the dead — especially when that character was thought to be deceased for some time. In the past, each season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer introduced new characters and told a self-contained story involving them and the regular cast; season eight’s dependence thus far on previously established characters feels somewhat lazy and needlessly complicated.
I don’t mean to suggest that the comics are a disaster by any means. Whedon’s trademark wit is still as sharp as ever, combining pop culture references with his own particular brand of dirty-minded humor (a brief journey into Buffy’s subconscious includes a sexual fantasy involving Angel, Spike, a nurse’s outfit, and chains). The characters still act like themselves, and thanks to the artwork of Georges Jeanty, mostly look like themselves as well. And the series has already set up compelling mysteries that have me eager to discover the answers.
But I’m finding myself uninterested in the unholy amount of spectacle that the financial freedom of comic books offers. Instead I’m curious as to what Whedon and his writers will be able to accomplish with some of the less obvious forms of creative freedom: the ability to write standalone issues or whole story arcs around minor characters that wouldn’t have a turn in the spotlight on a television show, or the opportunity to travel the globe and show a war that’s happening on multiple fronts. The upcoming August issue will focus on the short life of a newbie slayer who’s assigned to impersonate Buffy as a decoy for her enemies, and future arcs will center on Faith’s adventures in London and a storyline in Tokyo. Hopefully these new directions will help lead Whedon back to the emotional heart of the series. It’s the one element of storytelling that’s worth more and yet cheaper than any special effect money could buy.