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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?!?

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