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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 Vol. 8: Last Gleaming

Title: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 Vol. 8: Last Gleaming

ISBN: 9781595825582

Price: $15.95

Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2010

Artist: Georges Jeanty, Karl Moline

Writer: Joss Whedon, Scott Allie, Jane Espenson

Collects: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 #36-40, Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Riley

Rating: 3/5

And so, Buffy: Season Eight comes to an end -- the initially radical and audacious idea to present a comic book spin-off of a TV property as semi-canonical, overseen by series creator Joss Whedon (though other cancelled TV series have since re-emerged as comics). And where instead of simply maintaining the status quo, or assuming these are tales to be inserted into the established TV reality, instead it has taken the characters and concepts off in daring new directions, so that it both is, and isn't, like the TV series that spawned it.

But it's not the end of Buffy, Whedon and crew promising a "Season Nine" around the corner. But like the Buffy TV series -- and unlike too many other TV series -- the season is treated as a finite story arc, building to a definite opposed to ending on a cliff hanger meant to tease us into the next run of stories. Sure, things are left dangling, the future a question mark -- but ultimately, Last Gleaming is the final chapter in the epic that was season eight. Joss Whedon puts his name on it (he hadn't directly written a major arc in this season since Time of Your Life) yet long time Buffy-in-comics editor Scott Allie shares the by-line implying, I'm guessing, he did most of the actual dialogue (Whedon presumably busy on his movie projects) -- Allie evokes Whedonesque quips well enough, though it may say something that the strongest issue is the final one, which is credited entirely to Whedon (more on that in a moment). Also on board is season eight's main artist, Georges Jeanty, who I bob up and down on and I can't add much here I haven't said in earlier reviews (except I think he delivers some outstanding, actor/character-evocative work in the final issue -- ironic, because I read another review that felt his art on that issue seemed uninspired!)

The title itself is both an American-centric joke (the Big Bad of this season was called Twilight -- the title of the previous arc -- and in the American national anthem there's a line about "twilight's last gleaming") but also relates to the plot, as what emerges is a fight for the fate of magic on earth -- last gleaming hinting at the last of magic.

It's been a wild ride, this season eight -- and not always in a good way. As my review of the previous stories have indicated (assembled chronologically, not alphabetically) my initial enthusiasm waned, the season just taking too long, and getting too far away from the human realism of the series with its big, fantastical, comic book-y ideas...even as those ideas often weren't being developed very well (even editor Scott Allie, in one of the letter's pages, admitting they didn't explore some ideas properly). Anyway, Last Gleaming is both the climax to the season, and so assumes you're aware of what's gone before...even as the basic plot is wrapped around a world altering dilemma not even hinted at previously! That might seem an odd storytelling trick, but actually is not out of keeping with the TV series, where Whedon and the gang would often introduce a new threat or villain toward the end of a season, even as it's still part of the arc being teased along throughout.

So here's the thing: previously Buffy and Angel had created a whole new universe -- and then abandoned it. Not to be abandoned, that new universe now comes looking for a primordial magic seed that it kind of needs to kick start its own existence, a seed which hordes of demons also suddenly decide they want (yeah, it seems kind of vague even as I'm writing this). If the seed is removed -- all the hell dimensions will come pouring into earth. If it's destroyed, it will cut off earth's connection to magic, thereby eliminating much of the magic on earth -- including the powers of good witches like Willow. Buffy and her gang decide they need to protect the seed.

Which, I'll admit, is a problematic plot point for me. Protect the seed from an unending horde of demons? They kind of needed to suggest a plan, otherwise you just have a bunch of issues of the characters fighting when even we readers can see it as a pointless exercise in delaying the inevitable. Anyway, joining Buffy and the gang are not only Angel, but Spike. Which is kind of a problem for a climax to this season eight saga...because Angel and Spike had apparently been having their own adventures in other comics (by a different company) and it's kind of frustrating to have spent the last few years reading these Buffy comics...only to get a climax where you're still not sure what's going on with some of the characters. Admittedly, it's not important to the basic plot, but you might find yourself wondering why Spike is flying around in a space ship manned by giant bugs!

I had suggested at the end of the previous collection that most of the questions had been answered, and so I was hoping this final arc wouldn't just be one long fight scene. Well, as mentioned, a new plot is introduced...even as it does basically amount to one long fight scene.

So like I've said, despite an initial enthusiasm, my interest in season eight has waned quite a bit. To the point where even though I was buying the comics as they came out (as opposed to the TPBs) they would sometimes sit on my shelf, unread for weeks. I had read part of Last Gleaming...then kind of stopped, only reading the whole thing once I had all the issues.

And read that way, it's not bad...even as it leaves me mixed.

There were things I didn't like about Last Gleaming -- some reflective of much of this season. The emphasis on magic, mysticism, cosmic convergence and the like kind of makes for a story that seems a bit disconnected from reality, and which doesn't really make a lot of sense -- something true of magic-themed stories in general, and which Whedon himself has often acknowledged in the dialogue (at one point, referring to the Slayer axe Buffy acquired toward the end of the TV series, a character quips: "Yeah, I didn't really get what that thing was." or others joke about being "challenged by major plot points"). But that's why you shouldn't base too much of the plot and dialogue on expounding on it. The emphasis on recurring characters has been problematic -- granted, it's all about the fan boy nostalgia...but it also can feel like we're stuck in a rut, as this time even The Master is brought back. The Master! The series' first Big Bad...but with little logical justification.

The Master can make an appearance because the conflict takes the characters back to Sunnydale, where the TV series started. Admittedly, I didn't necessarily object to that bit of nostalgia, as it does create a sense of epic resonance...but strangely, I did object to a character referring to the town derisively as Suckydale when, for good or ill, this was the place that made them who they are.

But this also relates to a curious paradox to the comics -- on one hand, the comics have taken the characters in radical directions (re-watching the TV series recently, I had forgotten that by the end of the series, Willow wasn't anywhere near the kind of Dr. Strange sorceress she is in the comics) even as Whedon seems unwilling to let them grow. In earlier reviews, I commented the characters still seem to talk like teens, and at one point here a character sneers how Buffy still smells of acne scrub (not literally, of course). Yet by this point Buffy and her friends would be in their mid twenties, and surely the Buffy TV series itself was, essentially, one big Coming of Age saga, with a heroine who went from a slightly flaky teen worried about grades and essentially a single mom with a teen-age daughter, even getting a job at her old high school (demonstrating the character's growth explicitly by putting Buffy literally on the other side of the desk). Yet Whedon and company seem unwilling to let them grow into adults in the comics.

In fact, I would argue, Buffy (on TV) formed a stunningly ambitious character saga from season one to mid-way through season seven -- and then kind of lost its way in the second half of season seven, getting too caught up in the Slayers and the "I'm a general!" and all the fantasy/magic stuff -- a tone which, as mentioned, seems to be the driving impulse in season eight.

(And I should mention: obviously, I don't diss magic and fantasy -- I love 'em. But there needs to be a balance).

Anyway, so there's lots of fighting, lots of teeth gnashing -- and witty quips -- as they face insurmountable odds. And Whedon even goes the unexpected of killing off a major character for dramatic impact! (Or, at least, it's unexpected which character he kills). And finally Buffy makes a major decision -- a game changer, as they say. So the heroes win -- sort of ("The battle's won and we kind of won..." as they sang in the Buffy musical episode), but not without major repercussions, emotionally, and on the world.

And that's where I get really mixed. Because I've often said in my reviews over the years, that how a story ends can impact on how the whole reads -- hence why I grumble about comics with their rambling, never ending plots where villains escape rather than get defeated, and nothing ever really seems to climax. Because by building to a climax...Whedon makes me look back on the whole of season eight with a little more benevolence. It was a rocky, occasionally unfocused and misdirected ride, but at least it followed a narrative arc.

And then we get to the final issue -- Last Gleaming really a four part story, with the fifth an epilogue/aftermath. Suddenly after all the pyrotechnics and big battles (at least three of the season eight stories involved big armies clashing!) we get a quiet, introspective, down to earth story...that kind of roots you back in the characters that you spent all those TV seasons coming to care about. As well, it seems to be setting up a season nine that will, likewise, be more down to earth.

With this issue, there's even an accompanying editorial by Whedon that does something odd. Unlike what you'd expect, he doesn't tell us what a fun ride it's been and how great it was -- well, he does, a bit. But he also seems almost to...apologize. Okay, not apologize. But he seems to intimate that things didn't quite work out the way he'd hoped, and that maybe a lot of the feedback he was getting from fans was, well, pretty much what I've been saying in these reviews. He admits that he really wanted to explore the freedom of a comic book Buffy, with its limitless scope (and budget) but that maybe that dragged the characters too much away from the real world humanity that made them so endearing in the TV series. And though he could be lying through his hat, he basically says season nine will scale things back a bit -- not ignoring season eight (for example, vampires are now publicly accepted in this new world order) but maybe making sure the series will have one foot in the fantasy and magic...and one foot in the real world.

And so by suggesting that, and by delivering a compelling, "small" final epilogue that is quite affecting, it makes season eight as a whole seem a little more agreeable. As an off-beat experiment, one that can be enjoyed in the context of the larger Buffy canon (in the way that, for example, I really liked season six a lot more re-watching it recently, than I had when it was first airing). And it also makes one hopeful about season nine.

After promising myself for months that, once I saw season eight to its conclusion, I would be done with the Buffy comics...Whedon has kind of made me cautiously curious about season nine, hopeful he really will have learned what works, and what doesn't, in a comic book Buffy and is ready to apply that to a new arc.

Damn you, Joss Whedon...won't you ever let me go?!?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Zanziber vs. Marvel & Diamond (Conclusion)

Good news friends of the POV! After FedEx was not able to find my home address, they were able to deliver the replacements to my place of work. Yes, I meant plural. It seems as though Jason (from Marvel) added an extra book in the mix.

Still not happy with the way I was ignored by Diamond, but oh well.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 Vol. 7: Twilight

Title: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 Vol. 7: Twilight

ISBN: 9781595825582

Price: $15.95

Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2010

Artist: Georges Jeanty, Karl Moline

Writer: Joss Whedon, Brad Meltzer

Collects: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 #31-35, Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Willow

Rating: 3/5

Twilight is the seventh TPB collection in the Buffy: Season Eight saga. More significantly, this volume is intended as the penultimate arc in the proposed 40 issue epic (making it officially, the longest "season" in TV history, as it will have stretched out over close to four years...when most US TV seasons run -- what? -- eight months?).

As my reviews of these TPBs have indicated, my feelings have been bobbing up and down, my having begun rather keen on the idea (and a huge fan of the original TV series) but veering more and more toward ambivalence as it went along. The only reason I've stuck with it, frankly, is because it was marketed as a "season", promising to build to a definite final (though not necessarily a finale, as they presumably are hoping for a season 9, 10, etc. -- though some have suggested sales have slumped as the series progressed, so that may not be a certainty).

In addition to the season eight issues, this TPB also includes a Willow one-shot retroactively set before the whole season eight run, written by Whedon and illustrated by Karl Moline (the two last teaming on Time of Your Life). It feels like little more than a filler vignette -- nothing terrible, just not really essential. Willow goes on a mystical walkabout, but it doesn't really give us insight into much. Though it does show her first encounter with the snake-lady that has cropped up in a few earlier issues. It also features an appearance by Willow's dead lover Tara, something fans had been clamouring for for ages...but it's a pretty minor, inconsequential appearance.

Of the true, season eight issues, we begin with the single issue "Turbulence", also written by Whedon. Most of the story arcs have been relatively self-contained, albeit threaded with a sub-plot involving this season's big bad. But as we move toward the climax, the separation of the storylines is less clear. So "Turbulence", in a way, is an addendum to the previous arc, "Retreat" (and really should've been included in that TPB). Buffy and her Slayers had had a pitched battle with the forces of militarism and sorcery arrayed against them, and though the previous arc ended almost implying Buffy's side had lost, apparently that was just a storytelling SNAFU and instead, they beat them back -- to a draw, if not a victory. But something odd happened -- Buffy developed the ability to fly! So "Turbulence" deals with some of the fall out from that, character bits like Buffy coming to terms with the fact that Xander and Dawn have hooked up, and with Buffy's new Superman-like super powers, as well as a minor action distraction as Buffy must settle some rogue gods her side had invoked previously. It's a better-than-average issue, with some good character interaction.

Which then brings us to the four-part "Twilight", in which Whedon hands over the writing to Brad Meltzer for the story that promises to explain the last 30 issues and finally reveal the identity of the masked uber-villain, Twilight.

And I'm a bit mixed on how much to reveal -- given it is supposed to be the big surprise...yet Dark Horse Comics itself let the cat out of the bag even before the issues had hit the stands (in apparently a behind-the-scenes miscommunication between the editorial and marketing departments -- we're talking tearing-down-the-Berlin-wall sort of miscommunication). But I'll err on the side of caution and try to be oblique.

And like a lot of the Buffy season eight stories...I'm left mixed. Yeah, there are some cute quips, and yeah, the revelation is a doozer (if, y'know, Dark Horse hadn't ruined it). Although, like much of these Buffy comics, it's assuming a knowledge of the original TV series. And like most of the multi-issue arcs, it feels stretched. Indeed, this is probably the thinnest of the Buffy multi-issue stories. More concerned with its revelations/explanations, rather than acting as a meaty, stand alone read.

There is some action, and obviously, after all this time, you want to milk the revelations...but it does feel a bit like the characters are just talking for the sake of talking, coyly doling out the information in a halting manner just to justify four issues (as characters demand explanations, and are met with evasiveness). Meltzer takes so long to explain some of it, I think it actually ends up more confusing, not less, than if he had just explained it succinctly in a couple of pages.

It ends up being a kind of airy explanation of cosmic manipulations as though the universe itself were a sentient thing. Even the revelation of Twilight's identity (remember, I'm being vague) at first makes you think he's gone bad, then kind of wants to suggest that, no, he's still a good guy, and his actions (however evil and murderous) were fueled by good intentions -- then Meltzer just throws up his hands and has a character suggest it was cosmic forces manipulating him as if even Meltzer couldn't quite reconcile the character with the actions.

It can all seem less like an explanation...and more like narrative sleight-of-hand (and echoing the dubious logic of some of the plot twists in the final season of the TV series). It also doesn't help that, in a way, once Twilight explains his actions, the previous 30 issues (6 TPBs, 3 years!) seem like a bit of a shaggy dog story. It's a twist, but it doesn't really invite you to re-read the back issues looking for hidden clues and double meaning in the dialogue. In fact, even though in my mind I'm sure Whedon had intended this all along (at least the key points), viscerally it doesn't feel that way. Most of the revelations/explanations come out of nowhere, including suddenly suggesting Giles suspected some of what was happening all along -- and was even actively looking for something in his travels with Faith!

What's the point of dragging out a plot line for so many issues, if you realize there was next to no true foreshadowing or clues along the way?

Season Eight has been marred by a few lapses in narrative continuity -- perhaps a problem with recruiting different writers to write different arcs, who might not have the time, or patience, to do rewrites...with even Whedon dividing his attention between this and his TV and movie projects. As I say, at the end of "Retreat", it looked as though Twilight had captured some of Buffy's gang on the battlefield -- here references suggest he kidnapped them after-the-fact, under Buffy and Willow's noses. Amy, Warren, and a general show up at Buffy's doorstep, apparently having been kicked out by Twilight...but we never actually saw that scene! For that matter, Oz -- who played a big part in the previous arc -- is now completely absent from the story! And so on.

Meltzer is both a hot property comic book writer, and a "New York Times best selling" novelist -- but, I'll admit, I haven't been that impressed with (admittedly) what little I've read by him, in comics or novels. I say that because, after re-reading "Twilight", it's partly the execution of the tale, as much as the gist of it, that is the problem. It's kind of dull, and, as mentioned, it feels like he's stretching out the exposition just to justify the four issues. It's actually a big concept, one where Buffy is given an explanation, offered a chance at paradise...and ultimately rejects it. Thinking about the plot, it seems like it could've been a great, dramatic story...if told right. Instead, it feels like a bridge between the previous and the next arc, but it shouldn't -- it should feel like it's own story (within the greater epic)...but doesn't really.

Meltzer writes some okay approximations of Buffy/Whedon-esque quips...but then again, not quite, the characters seeming more superficial imitations of themselves. And he goes way overboard on the pop culture gags and references. Such jokes were always a part of Buffy's charm...but Meltzer just lathers them on, page after page, panel after panel, to the point where instead of rooting you in the narrative (making the characters seem more real by referring to things we, the reader, recognize) it kind of pushes you out of it -- even getting self-reflective, like a scene discussing X-Men heroine Kitty Pryde which is a joke on the fact that Whedon has claimed Kitty was an inspiration for his creating Buffy. Granted, that's part of the gimmick -- with Buffy demonstrating super-super powers, comic book fan Xander quips Buffy's transformation might be more important to him than his own birth! And as he puts Buffy through a series of tests of her new found abilities, including racing a "speeding bullet" and muscling a locomotive, other characters remark: "Oh, Jeez, I just realized what they were doing." But Meltzer lets his own fan boy impulses over ride his writerly restraint. Heck, at one point a character remarks a device was modeled after a machine in the 1982 X-Men/Teen Titans crossover...and you know what? It was!

(Comics seem a bit more forgiving about in-joke copyright infringements than movies or TV would be, with even Captain America's shield cropping up).

I'll also take a moment to comment on Warren -- I had some ambivalence about the inclusion of Warren anyway because, in a weird way, he emerged as the TV series' creepiest villain...because he was so normal. Not a vampire or demon, just a petty little amoral misogynist. As well, his death had consequences for Willow and the others. So to glibly bring him back, as essentially a fantasy-like monster (skinless) just seemed cheap. And now in this arc, Meltzer even throws in a scene as if he's trying to humanize Warren, suggesting he has compassion. Buffy (and its sister series, Angel) was always big on the "redeemable villain" theme -- but Warren? Warren?!?


Of course, one can't review this story arc without commenting on the sex issue!

Yeah, that weren't a misprint. There's a whole issue devoted to, um, well, super sex -- of a kind not seen since the Superman-Wonder Woman roll in The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Okay, so maybe it's not the whole issue -- we do cut away to other characters talking, and explaining. But it's pretty graphic. Not in the sense of nudity (limbs and stuff obscuring the essential bits), but more explicit than anything they would've, or could've, done in the TV show itself. So even by the adult tone of these comics, it pushes the thing towards a "mature readers" caution -- and is that fair/wise/responsible? Thirty-some issues into a series to suddenly throw in a sequence that some may feel is inappropriately explicit for a general readership? It also feels like a stunt, and Meltzer taking what should be an emotionally dramatic connection...and just reducing it to a sophomoric bonking session written with the maturity of a snickering 12 year old.

Mind you, I kind of wonder about the ethics of that, given these are roles originated by real actors, and the drawings are meant to, vaguely, evoke the performers. Is this a plot justified depiction of fictional characters...or a lascivious exploitation of real actors? (Not that Buffy here looks that much like Sarah Michelle Gellar). This has been an issue cropping up throughout the comics, as almost all the lead female characters (and some of the male) have been depicted at one point or another in stages of undress they were never depicted in when real actresses played the roles.

Georges Jeanty continues as the series' chief artist, and continues the ambivalence I have toward his style. On one hand, it's decent work, sort of evoking the actors, and with enough realism to keep a toe in the reality of its live action TV origins, with enough of a cartoony/caricature leaning to play up the humorous aspects. On the other hand, it lacks much mood (as you might want for a horror property) and he doesn't fully evoke the actors consistently, often the female characters blurring into each other, and the cartoony, big-head-little-body aspect (that seemed to get more pronounced as the series has progressed, as though Jeanty's style has evolved over the run) may be part of why I find myself not getting as emotionally involved with the comics the way I did the TV series. Ironically, more than a few letter writers had complained about how Jeanty has depicted the women, accusing him almost of sexism. And, sure, in a roomful of Slayerettes they all have pretty similar physiques (no fat girls, no skinny girls) but a lot of artists tend to just draw the same types of figures. But I'd hardly call his Buffy, Faith, etc. sexploitive. They don't have big breasts, or exaggerated curves. In fact, given the big-heads-little-bodies style, they're hardly sexpots at all. At least, when they keep their clothes on (and it's the writers', not Jeanty's choice, to depict them sans apparel).

As mentioned, this is the penultimate arc, so it doesn't really end, leading us instead directly to the next -- and concluding -- arc. Though barring some further revelations, we've basically got most of the answers we were waiting for. One can only hope the concluding arc won't just be a five issue fight.

And by this point, I'm not sure how to rate it. I didn't hate "Twilight"...even as it didn't entirely excite me being, like I've said, a bit thin and, frankly, dull. But obviously, if you were following the Season Eight saga, it is essential to the overall arc, and so can't very well be skipped over. I'll stick around for the concluding story, but I think my overall feeling about Season Eight is that the individual stories needed to be stronger -- and tighter (fewer four parters) -- and the connecting sub-plot/thread made more complex, and better developed, to justify the sheer length of it all. 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 Vol. 6: Retreat

Title: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 Vol. 6: Retreat

ISBN: 9781595824158

Price: $15.95

Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 20010

Artist: Georges Jeanty

Writer: Jane Espenson

Collects: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 #26-30, MySpace Dark Horse Presents # 24-25

Rating: 3/5

"Retreat" follows on the heels of the previous TPB (Predators and Prey, with Buffy and her followers and fellow Slayers feeling besieged from all sides -- physically and ideologically. Throughout season eight, The Slayers had been at odds with the mysterious villain, Twilight, teamed with a military global conglomerate, but in the previous collection things went more public -- and public opinion has made them pariahs. So when the going gets tough...the tough decide to skedaddle out of Dodge. Deciding the magical aura Buffy and her crew give off makes it easy for Twilight to track them, they go to the one guy Buffy figures "makes a living being less magic" -- former TV series regular, Oz, who has learned to control and suppress his werewolfism. They find him living an idyllic life in a Tibetan retreat, and he agrees to help them divest themselves of all their magics and powers.

Unfortunately, when Twilight and his army find them anyway, the now-powerless Slayer crew have a fight on their hands.

Joss Whedon has managed to recruit some of his old TV series writers for the comic, further cementing the notion that this is more than just Buffy-in-name. Here it's Jane Espenson. And though I find myself rather mixed on this arc...I'm not really laying the blame for that at Espenson's feet. Indeed, there's some nice writing, some cute quips, some good character moments -- even subtle stuff that you can re-read with hindsight and go, "ah, I see it now." This was billed as the longest Buffy arc to date -- though that just means five issues as opposed to the more common four -- and it's stylistically ambitious. Espenson tackles it more like an arc, as opposed to a single linear story serialized over five chapters. Though the time frame isn't stated, we can infer it covers a few weeks (at least) and chapter 3 (issue #28), in particular, acts as a nice little story within the larger story.

Yet it took me a while to finish this (the fifth issue actually sitting on my shelf, unread, for weeks) and equally long to get around to re-reading it (I find myself re-reading many of the Buffy comics before reviewing -- ironically, less as a mark of how good they are, and more because a first reading can leave me ambivalent). Part of that may be because this is among the least exciting of the multi-issue stories -- the focus is more on the characters, the theme of the Slayers retreating to this monastery, as opposed to action and adventure. And when the action does kick in -- it's just a long battlefield sequence.

Part of it is just a feeling that the themes and big ideas are kind of pushing the series away from a firm, believable grounding (again, an objection I had to season seven of the TV series). I mean, the idea of the Slayers on the run, and besieged, makes for a nice, dramatic story. But it also raises problematic questions. Just as in the previous TPB, the idea of suddenly making it be that vampires are public knowledge seemed a bit of a "too much, too soon" change. Here, one can say, sure, I understand the need to flee, given the circumstances. But by giving up their powers -- essentially becoming normal teen age girls -- they go from people "fighting the forces of darkness" to...what? What are they trying to accomplish? Sure, I can understand intellectually one might say, they're just trying to survive, and they'll worry about step two later. But it just seems as though their relevance to the cosmic scheme of things is rapidly becoming...nil.

And that may be because these Buffy-in-comics stories are starting to borrow the more tired ideas from comics which is the idea of heroes who spend most of their time fighting villains who spend most of their time attacking the heroes. Few of the Buffy comics have really involved Buffy and the gang just going out and stopping some evil from hurting innocents. It makes for a kind of limited, and rather self-enclosed, storytelling formula. The further result is comics that are more just action-adventures, with a heavy helping of character interaction, rather than plots where you go, oh, now wasn't that a clever story? An example of the latter would be No Future for You, with its undercover agent/Eliza Doolittle themes -- even if it too came across as a slight execution of a potentially much more interesting idea.

Heck, this isn't even the first time in the Buffy comics we've had an army of Slayers battling an army of foes (who just want to kill Slayers) while giant monsters rampage overhead (Wolves at the Gate anyone?)

Re-reading the whole series again, I realize that, in a way, Whedon and company are maybe trying to deliberately do a comic book opposed to simply doing another TV season in comic book form. So the ideas are bigger, the special effects more outrageous, the fantasy element more overt -- heck, the recurring villain, Twilight, wears a mask like a super villain. And part of that is altering the reality from a world like ours, where demons and Slayers are under most people's radar (even if the TV series played it increasingly loose as to how much the wider world knew, or suspected) to a comic book/sci-fi reality where vampires appear on talk shows. Whedon clearly wanted to incorporate the whole X-Men theme of heroes feared and hated by the world they are trying to protect. But in my reviews of the earlier TPBs, I commented the comic had already kind of removed the characters from the real world setting of the TV series (where the characters lived among normal people, had jobs, school, etc.). But as such...we aren't given much chance to see -- or believe -- in this New World Order and how it came about. We watch the characters watch TV specials pillorying Slayers, as opposed to seeing how it affects them personally. So that when it does affect them personally, it still seems a bit out-of-left field. I mean, when we suddenly cut to Faith & Giles (who have been teamed up in the season eight mythos) hiding out you're left thinking, um, why? Even assuming the hysteria had reached that would someone know Faith was a Slayer to look at her?

This vague reality relates to Twilight and his army allies throughout the season -- I mean, how official is it? Are governments involved, or just rogue militaries? In this story arc, when Twilight and his army attack the Slayers in he acting with the knowledge of the Chinese government? For that matter, no where in this idyllic depiction of Tibet is it mentioned Tibet is occupied by China! Again...the "real" just doesn't seem at play here.

Season eight can be a bit choppy, as if we're missing bits -- segues that would connect one story with another. In the opening blurb to this arc in the original comics, it's mentioned that Buffy's gang was driven from their Scottish castle -- which I remember from Time of Your Life -- and a "musty cabin in the woods"...which I don't! Maybe there were some ancillary comics and specials that weren't part of the official season eight numbering scheme that nonetheless were to be read as part of the season. I do know there was a Tales of the Vampires mini-series (not to be confused with an earlier Tales of the Vampires graphic novel) that was marketed as part of season eight, and maybe it did a better job of laying the ground work for this new direction. Heck, the Buffy TV series had a bit of that with occasional crossovers with its companion TV series, Angel. But some of it also just feels like choppy and abrupt storytelling -- maybe a problem when different writers are being brought in to write different stories. The Buffy TV series was extraordinarily good at maintaining its own inner logic, developing stories and characters, but it had its lapses -- and this was particularly true in the seventh season, where you sometimes felt as though different writers were trying to take the characters and themes in different directions (a couple of episodes having Buffy give dramatic, supposedly inspiring speeches...and then another episode lampooning Buffy's speeches! or the whole storyline where the group breaks from Buffy, then simply reunites). So Buffy and Giles have a bitter parting way back in issue #9 -- then reunite in this story arc with a hug and a simple "Glad your back."

And there are also ethical problems. In the TV series they made a big distinction between killing demons (good) and killing humans (bad -- no matter what the human had done). Granted, as the series progressed it became increasingly hypocritical as the demon community was shown to be pluralistic, with plenty of demons that weren't especially evil. Yet here, Buffy and her crew have few qualms about (potentially) killing humans. Plus there's the whole Willow thing. The comics want to play around with the ambiguous theme of Willow still having a dark edge, but just because they acknowledge it, doesn't change the fact that they are essentially condoning it. So in one scene Willow gets info from a demon by (off the page) torturing and killing him, making a quip about a "skinless demon" -- a line particularly significant because that's how she killed Warren in season six. So Buffy momentarily wrings her hands about the ethics of it...and then we move on as if, well, it's not really that important. (Adding further to the awkwardness is that Buffy and Giles both had done some pretty dark things themselves, so it's not clear where they think the lines are, anyway -- heck, back in No Future for You, Giles was trying to arrange a cold blooded assassination). Here -- and sometimes in the TV series, too -- the characters will address interesting ethical or philosophical issues for a scene...and then just forget about it.

And having just re-watched the TV series after a few years, I realize that in season seven, Willow had considerably scaled back her magics (compared to season six) making her whole portrayal in season eight a bit inconsistent!

What further makes this arc problematic is that it ends rather inconclusively. So far, most of the arcs have succeeded in telling a read-it-for-itself story, while still being part of the great narrative. Here the arc ends, after five issues, with a few things dangling and a big "huh?" scene. Ironically, that "huh?" scene -- deliberately meant to intrigue us for what's to come -- bothered me less than the way the principal plot ends. And it's muddled somewhat unintentionally. That is, it ends seeming as though Buffy and her group has been defeated by Twilight and his group...yet the next issue (uncollected in this volume) suggests the opposite...and that Buffy and her group have repelled Twilight. The confusion comes in the way the final scenes are depicted. Because at the end of Retreat we see a few of Buffy's friends being the next issue, we learn that's all that happened. A few were captured -- unbeknownst to Buffy -- but the main body of Buffy's forces are sill intact. It makes for an odd ending.

This TPB collection really should've included issue #31 (written by Whedon) because not only does it explain that more clearly, but it resolves another rampaging -- literally -- plot point.

This arc does include some rather significant character bits -- some just character "moments", others relevant to the on going development of the relationships. And, of course, the characters and the soap opera-y angst was a big appeal of the TV series. And those scenes generally work for me (Espenson having a good feel for them)...but sometimes sort of don't, at least not as well as I remember the TV series working. Part of it is I think the characters have, bit by bit, pushed me away, some of the choices Whedon and his crew having made (dating back even to the final season of the TV series) making them not as endearing as they were. Part of it maybe that the way you tell scenes in a TV show (with live actors) doesn't necessarily translate directly to comics. You can still do character scenes...but you have to do them different. Or maybe, horrors of horrors, it's just me -- maybe I'm getting old, my brain is slowing down, and I'm just not able to read -- and read -- comics the way I used to.

Another problem may be Georges Jeanty's art. Jeanty has been the principal artist on the comic book series (with a few breaks here and there) and like the series overall, I have mixed feelings on it. It's certainly good work, and he can evoke the actors (without seeming like simply photo referenced publicity stills). Yet though sort of realistic, there is also an inherent aspect of cartooniness, or caricature, which though not inappropriate given the series' heavy use of humor, maybe helps undercut some of the more character intensive moments. And though Jeanty can evoke the actors well enough in spots, at other times, not so much, particularly with similar-type characters. There were more than a few times where I wasn't sure if a character was Faith, Dawn or Kennedy -- or some random, unnamed Slayerette -- since they all have long brown hair.

The art is bright, too. Jeanty (and inker Andy Owen) go for a lot of simple line work, and a lot of open, clear environments. But despite the humor and action, another aspect of Buffy is that it is, after all, a horror/supernatural series, and could maybe benefit from a darker, more mysterious mood, a use of shadows and such.

Given the gorgeous, painted covers supplied for most of the issues, one can't help but wonder what a Buffy comic would feel like if illustrated by Jo Chen (though, admittedly, the care and effectiveness an artist can put into a still cover painting often isn't the same as what they can deliver in a multi-panel narrative).

Some of my ambivalence toward this arc is less a reflection of it, than the season eight overall. Certainly, if you've been following the season, it's one of the more essential volumes, dealing directly with the overall conflict with Twilight, featuring some important character developments and, as noted, even introducing some unresolved plot threads. But as a story on its own, it just seems a bit uncertain. The idea of the gang retreating to the monastery and seeking to divest themselves of their powers is an interesting idea (even if it seems a bit as though it might be a shaggy dog plot -- though even that, it could be argued, is in its favor, as it emphasizes it as a self-contained arc). But there's just not really a strong, core story it's wrapped around, with the big battle with Twilight and his crew...just another big battle.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Zanziber vs. Marvel & Diamond (Update)

I received the following email from Jason @ Marvel today:


Hi John,

Sorry that Diamond had not gotten back to you with your request.

While we personally don't have X-Men: Phoenix--Endsong at our offices, we do have similar trades that could function as a replacement for your damaged copy. Here's what we have:


X-Force: Sex and Violence

X-Men: Second Coming Revelations

Any of these titles interest you? If so, let me know which one would act as a suitable replacement for X-Men: Phoenix--Endsong and we'll send it your way.




I've let him know I'm happy with the level of service he has and is providing and that X-Men: Phoenix Rising will fill the void that Endsong has left. I think I should be able to replace my misprinted copy. Once I have my replacement from Marvel, I'll post a full update.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 Vol. 5: Predators and Prey

Title: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 Vol. 5: Predators and Prey

ISBN: 9781595823427

Price: $15.95

Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2009

Artist: Georges Jeanty, Cliff Richards

Writer: Jane Espenson, Steven S. DeKnight, Drew Z. Greenberg, Jim Krueger, Doug Petrie

Collects: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 #21-25, MySpace Dark Horse Presents # 18-19

Rating: 3/5

Stylistically, so far the comics have been a four issue story, preceded, or followed, by a one off story. That formula has been mixed, because -- as you might expect -- some of the four parters haven't necessarily warranted four issues to tell. But here, for the first time, is a five issue collection featuring five different stories. And creator/writer Joss Whedon has got around to recruiting some of the writers who worked on the Buffy TV series to join him in comics, with four of the five issues here written by old Buffy TV veterans (actually, this is the first TPB collection in which Whedon himself hasn't written at least one issue).

Another stylistic quirk is how the five (shorter) stories are used to explore the Buffy "universe", with Buffy featured in a couple of the stories, but barely appearing in a few of the others, as the focus shifts to Faith & Giles (already featured in an earlier story arc -- No Future For You), Kennedy, or characters original to the season eight comic book world, as we look in on Satsu.

And the opening issue features...Harmony. Yeah, Harmony, from the TV series -- high school diva who was turned into one of the undead. Harmony persuades a TV crew to follow her around for a new reality series about vampires -- Paris Hilton with fangs, essentially. Although initially no more than a cultural blip, much to Buffy and the gang's consternation something happens to turn Harmony into a media star. Which becomes a bit of what you'd call a game changer, as Buffy and her Slayers find that if it isn't bad enough fighting the forces of darkness, and being at odds with the military of most they've even lost the war for public perception. Vampires are suddenly trendy and cool...and Slayers are perceived as the bad guys. As a story, it's a decent tale, weaving threads involving Harmony, with a newly empowered rogue Slayer, as well as Buffy and her gang. The handling of the new Slayer and her motivation is nicely done. The concept is both an obvious satire of the reality TV trend, but also maybe a dig at the vampire-lite genre, novels and TV shows where vampires instead of being the creepy undead are embraced as cool and sexy by fandom.

Where the story is a bit problematic, I'll admit, is in the rather major way it changes the "reality" of the franchise. Okay, it's hard to say what the reality was. Even in Buffy's Sunnydale days on TV, there was always the coy question about how much "normal" people knew or suspected about what was going on regarding vampires and demons. But it seems like such a sudden shift to abruptly have it be that the whole world knows about (let alone accepts) the existence of vampires. It probably warranted a few more issues to develop the idea. Essentially, Buffy goes from a series set in, more or less, "our" reality, to a series set in a fantasy/sci-fi parallel reality. In a way, it just cements my feeling that Season Eight isn't just a Buffy TV season presented in comics...but is Buff re-imagined as a comic book property with the emphasis on outrageous special effects, giants, flying, etc., and now basically taking Slayers, vampires, and the whole supernatural reality public, borrowing the whole X-Men milieu of heroes "feared and hated by the world they've sworn to protect".

The tell-it-in-one format of these stories allows the comic to indulge in a little house cleaning, or at least touching on some on going story threads, and looking in on wayward cast members. So we have a couple of almost completely Buffy-less issues. One looking in on Satsu being visited by Willow's girlfriend, Kennedy, in Japan, and they and their cell of Slayers investigate some sinister new Japanese toys (in a story with a not inappropriate but somewhat heavy handed feminist sub-text) -- neither Kennedy or Satsu are among the series' best characters, but successfully carry a 23 page story. Another looks in on Faith and Giles (neither seen since issue #9) investigating a mysterious town that supposedly offers sanctuary to Slayers who no longer wish to be Slayers. As well there's an issue where Buffy -- teamed with Andrew -- gets into an altercation with Simone -- a Slayer gone rogue and who had been referenced in a few earlier issues. And another Buffy-heavy issue is perhaps the most significant continuity-wise (other than the Harmony issue) -- wrapping up the long running Dawn-under-a-cursed-spell sub-plot that had started out clever but, frankly, had long since seemed like an idea in need of a point.

If one wants to poke around for deeper meaning, in the context of the Slayers-as-pariahs theme, a number of the stories here revolve around safety and sanctuary, and the notion that although there might be comfort in hiding, it's not necessarily the right thing to do.

As you can probably guess, this isn't the best volume to just sample if you haven't been following Season Eight, as you won't really know who some of these people are, or what the significance of the stories may be in the larger context. At the same time, because you get five stories, as opposed to the usual two-per-collection, it makes for more-for-your-money and an agreeable anthology. None of the stories are perhaps exceptional, but all are enjoyable page turners. The Harmony and the Faith episodes are arguably the best but they all happily weather subsequent reads. All boast the requisite mix of Buffy-esque quips, character examination, deeper themes, and action. And, by virtue of being shorter, the plots don't over stay their welcome.

Regular artist Georges Jeanty draws most of the issues, and as the Buffy Season Eight wears on, I find myself getting increasingly mixed on him. Not so much because there's any change in his style, or drop in quality, merely that I just find myself more conscious of the things I'm less fond of, the cartooniness, the big heads. But I admire his eye for, and attention to, detail. Though why his depiction of Dawn as a wooden doll actually evokes actress Michelle Trachtenberg more than his depiction of a flesh and blood Dawn I'm not sure! Cliff Richards pinch hits on the Faith/Giles issue and though his style is similar enough to Jeanty that there's not a glaring shift, I kind of like him more, his work a little more realist -- actually more so than some of his work I'd seen on the earlier era of Buffy comics (the non-canon comics). He also evokes actress Eliza Dushku quite well. Jeanty or Richards, the art remains, as always, perfectly okay.

I said that I'm not sure this is a good one to start with if you haven't been following the Season Eight run. But conversely, the five-for-five (or five-by-five if you like Buffy references) story format maybe makes it a nice sampler. The other Buffy TPBs you basically like -- or dislike -- for the primary story collected. Here, you can enjoy it as just a little collection of Buffy (Universe) tales to keep on the shelf, and to revisit from time to time. And even if someone might wonder "Who's Satsu and why does she warrant an issue?", conversely, the basic plots are reasonably self-contained, and many offered up by veteran chroniclers of Buffy's TV exploits.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Zanziber vs. Marvel & Diamond

It all began in July when I finally got around to reading X-Men: Phoenix - Endsong. I had purchased this particular trade a few months prior while I was doing some traveling. When I got close to the end, I found that several of the remaining pages were improperly bound into the spine, rendering the conclusion unreadable.

In the past, when I have had issues with other trades, I have been able to contact the publisher (DC & Dark Horse specifically) and they were willing and able to send me a replacement. With my previous experiences to guide me, I contacted Marvel's customer service for assistance. That is where I was put into contact with Jason Strauss ( who seemingly wanted to help. (Having worked in customer service for many years, I know that it is job 1 to make sure that the customer feels that their issues are being dealt with.)

Jason's response was to either take it back to the comic shop (hardly an option) or contact Diamond Distributors. I asked for assistance in contacting them and he provided me with 2 phone numbers: 1-800-452-6642 and (410) 560-7100. I called and left a message hoping that my problems would be resolved.

A few days later, I received a voice mail from Don (or Dan, I had a hard time distinguishing) asking me for further information. I returned the call and left him a message of my own detailing the problem and methods of contacting me. I did suggest that with my cell phones history of spotty service that it would probably be easier to contact me via email. To this date, I haven't heard back from him, even after leaving several messages.

On August 19th, I received an email from Jason @ Marvel wanting to know if there had been a resolution to my problem. I informed him that there had not and asked for any further assistance. He suggested that he would contact Diamond on my behalf and hopefully that would help the situation.

On September 25th, having still not heard anything from either Jason or Diamond, I emailed Jason to find out what was going on. He informed me that he didn't receive a response either, and that was all he could do to help.

At the time of writing this, I have made another attempt to contact Diamond to get this resolved. Right now, it's not all about me. What if something similar had happened to a customer who purchased a trade from Borders during their going out of business sale? They're not able to return it to Borders, are they?

If anything else happens, I will make sure to post about it. Please pass this along to others who might have a similar situation in the future. Right now, I will NOT be purchasing any Marvel trades, and I suggest the same to others.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 Vol. 4: Time of Your Life

Title: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 Vol. 4: Time of Your Life

ISBN: 9781595823106

Price: $15.95

Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2009

Artist: Karl Moline, Georges Jeanty

Writer: Joss Whedon, Jeph Loeb

Collects: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 #16-20

Rating: 3/5

The fourth "season eight" TPB collects the four-part "Time of Your Life" story, wherein while investigating some cryptic portents of a temporal disruption, Buffy gets catapulted into the distant future where she comes face-to-face with the future Slayer, Fray -- with a mysterious foe manipulating things behind the scenes. Also included is the one shot tale "After These Messages...".

This "season" of Buffy seemed to be relying a little too heavily on trotting out the old toys. Getting a bit too mired in rehashing continuity like a, well, like a comic book. And this continues that with Buffy meeting Fray. Fray was Joss Whedon's first foray into comics, back when the Buffy TV series was still on going, chronicling the adventures of this far future Slayer in a world where no one even remembered what vampires were -- calling them Lurks. It was essentially Buffy meets "Blade Runner". And it was the first example of Whedon treating a comic book as part of official canon, as it marked the first appearance of Buffy's axe, The Scythe, before it was used in the TV series! I had read Fray, and liked it, but I suspect this story will be a mite confusing if you haven't read it. Even I found Whedon's plunging us back into the milieu of Fray, her friends and foes, and the future slang, a bit confusing, as there's little effort to re-aquaint us with a character and milieu that first saw print some six years earlier (with only one other appearance in the Tales of the Slayers anthology in between). Still, to further cement the Fray reunion vibe, the art chores are handled, not by season eight regular artist Georges Jeanty, but original Fray artist Karl Moline.

This arc also sees the return of Kennedy to the fold, after only being alluded to previously (and seen in a brief flashback in issue #10). Kennedy wasn't perhaps the most popular character introduced in the TV series (not really a fault of the actress) but she is part of the mythos, so it's nice to have her brought back (and not get killed off in a pointless scene!)

Since the "season eight" has been heavy on the cryptic hints and vaguely teased sub-plots, reading "Time of Your Life" can seem a bit frustrating, as the villainess behind Buffy's displacement seems to be playing all sides, offering different explanations to each, so that you suspect it's going to build to a non ending question mark. But it doesn't -- sort of. Well, there are big questions, but not necessarily of the kind that make you assume this all is just a set up for a future story arc, so much as questions that you suspect are meant to remain cryptically unanswered (kind of like the origin of Anya's fear of bunnies in the TV series). Though I'm writing this before season eight has concluded, so who knows? So after a reasonably diverting romp of Buffy and Fray running about in the future, with the requisite amusing quips -- while we cut back to an unrelated attack on Buffy's modern day Scottish stronghold by the forces of this season's Big Bad, Twilight -- the story does build to a strangely poignant climax.

Though as a Fray story, it's more just a reminder the character exists, and to satisfy fans who had long clamored for a Buffy/Fray crossover, rather than as a true showcase for the character.

The problem with doing a comic that is so heavy on tying into the continuity of a TV series is sometimes the comic wants "revelation" scenes which can be a bit vaguer than intended simply because you aren't quite sure who the person is supposed to be -- because the artist doesn't quite capture the actor's likeness. I'll admit, when the villainess is revealed at the end of the second still took me a bit to realize who it was! Likewise, in a cutaway to a (unresolved) sub-plot, another character emerges from the shadows who left me kind of sure I knew who it was supposed to be, rather than sure-sure.

The one off issue also pays homage to past continuity -- sort of. There had been talk of a Buffy animated TV series a few years back that never managed to hit the airwaves. So "After These Messages -- We'll be Right Back!" tips its hat to that in a story where Buffy has a dream, flashing back to her high school days (when the animated series was intended to be set) and drawn in a cartoon manner. Written by Jeph Loeb and drawn by artists who had been involved in developing the aborted series, it also acts as a nice "flashback" to the milieu of the early seasons of the TV series. Some reviews I read took exception to the sub-text of the story, which seemed to be suggesting this was a more simple, innocent time for Buffy -- when it wasn't. But I don't think the intent was to be pejorative, so much as just to contrast a time when Slaying was a part of her life...with "season eight" where it's now her entire life. And in light of the changes to the Buffy "reality" in the very next issue (collected in the TPB Predators and Prey) it perhaps takes on added resonance. It's actually kind of enjoyable for its nostalgic tone...

..though I would argue it draws attention to precisely what's wrong with the season eight concept.

Like with too many modern super hero comics, Buffy "season eight" is losing touch with the notion of a "real" foundation. With Buffy living in rural Scotland, surrounded by Slayers and Wiccans, there's none of that grounding normalcy of Buffy and her friends dealing with school and jobs and relationships. And physically removed from society, there's less opportunity to tell stories, as the TV series did, of Buffy investigating occurrences and crimes that aren't directly related to her. Which is why there's so much emphasis on villains targeting her and on referencing past continuity. In a way, it's the season eight continuity that's simpler, more innocent, and the earlier era that was more messy and complicated!

I find myself ping ponging back and forth on "Time of Your Life" more than I have for most of the other arcs. In my initially posted review, I had commented that I was mixed about it reading it in monthly installments, but enjoyed it more re-read all together. Yet re-reading it now -- yet again! -- in the context of re-reading all my "season eight" comics, I find it slipping down in my estimation once again. "Time of Your Life" is fast paced, to be sure, but to the point where it can just seem...busy. Lots of running about, jumping, fighting, but all in service of a rather nebulous plot. As mentioned, the orchestrator of the action is playing all sides, so you're not really sure what is true -- or even if -- making the whole saga a bit of red herring...or even a shaggy dog story. There are some funny, Whedon-esque quips, most certainly, but as a whole it can seem kind of muddled.

The problem, overall with season eight, is just a sense that there's too much emphasis on the story arc, the cryptic foreshadowing and such, without enough sense they really are taking us anywhere (or anywhere soon). Some revelations seem to come out of nowhere, instead of being carefully foreshadowed (such as the bank robbery in issue #10) whereas others seem to get resolved rather anti-climactically (such as the romantic sub-plots in the previous arc, Wolves at the Gate). Heck, this story arc begins with the characters following up on a scene from the previous arc...yet re-reading that earlier scene, it didn't actually present the clues the characters start out with here!

WANTLIST - Hasbro SDCC 2024 G.I. Joe Classified Series: Cobra Commander (Once a Man) Figure

  When I first started my action figure collection, I tried to keep it within the 3.75" realm because that's what scratched by nost...