Past month or so I’ve mostly been reading Buffy comics – the official ones that follow on from the end of the TV show. I don’t mean it as a slight to describe them as like comfort food, a retreat to the safe and familiar rather than the new and challenging. I suspect the evident thirst for the Harry Potter sequel I encounter on every commute to work arises from the same principle. These are characters and worlds we’ve grown up with. Revisiting them is like catching up with old friends.
In my grander moments I like to describe Potter and Buffy as my Old and New Testaments. They do share quite a lot with each other (not least that they both launched in 1997). Both series centre on a ‘chosen one’, and both have strikingly similar character dynamics (compare Ron / Hermione / Dumbledore with Xander / Willow / Giles). More importantly, when you boil them right down, they both turn out to be about the same thing. Buffy survives into adulthood because she shares her mission with her friends, who unconditionally fight to protect her. Likewise Harry, Ron and Hermione form a core ‘Scooby Gang’ who assist each other with unravelling mysteries and risk life and limb to save each other. Both works explore themes of love, courage and sacrifice in the face of death.
If that sounds a bit Christian, that’s because I think it might be. Rowling is an (in fairness not entirely committed) Anglican. Whedon is an atheist but not averse to portraying Buffy as a Christ-like figure. However, it’s not God that makes these two worlds appealing. There’s precious little sign in the Potter and Buffy universes of a benevolent overseer who will reward virtue. Instead they both resemble something St. Augustine could have imagined – an unrelenting and overwhelming struggle against the forces of Satan. That would be grim going, but in the face of those odds our flawed and often helpless heroes somehow manage to fight on. And in sharing those battles, readers and watchers can participate in the incredibly powerful bonds of friendship forged by the resistance to such insurmountable forces. In their own ways, they bring the epic heroism of The Lord of the Rings into the school yard.
I think the Buffy comics really come into their own when they get to grips with that thematic undercurrent. This occurs in Season 10, which is expertly steered by Christos Gage and Rebecca Issacs. Their story arcs repeatedly stress what remains a constant theme in Whedon’s work, which is that real families are not natural but artificial, that is to say, made. Buffy’s gang of friends may bicker and fall out, but when a ‘Big Bad’ rears its head they stand together to face it. Gage and Issacs also have the ability to mimic another real strength of the show, which is to use the central narrative idea as a prism to highlight facets of the characters – for example the way a fight with a succubus in the one-shot ‘Triggers’ is used to draw out the buried repercussions of Buffy surviving a rape attempt. The way Season 10 manages to evoke the feel of the show is almost uncanny.
This imitation might sound a tad dispiriting. Surely the freedoms afforded by the comics form should have provided the chance to push the series in a new direction, rather than just slavishly follow the TV show’s dynamics as closely as possible. In fact, Whedon did try this with Season 8, the immediate follow-up to the show. No longer tied down by a special effects budget, the comics went in all kinds of epic cityscape-levelling directions. But there was a cost. The writers ended up so distracted by the opportunities available that they lost track of the narrative, to the point where I found it quite difficult to understand why stuff was happening in the final ten or so issues. In response, Season 9 scaled things right back down, and consciously tried to recapture the look and feel of the TV show.
More significantly for me, Whedon appointed a single writer to pilot the ship during Season 9. This makes me wonder whether the problem with Season 8 wasn’t so much its experimentation as the fact that too many balls ended up getting dropped in the juggling act between various writers. Season 9’s smaller team did manage to retain control of the narrative, although Andrew Chambliss and Georges Jeanty didn’t quite achieve the verisimilitude Gage and Issacs arrived at with Season 10. But then that opens up the prospect of a Buffy comic that retains the core principles of the show, manages to craft a meaningful season arc, and makes full use of the potential of the form for the fantastic and awesome. Comfort food is all very well and good for a while, but eventually you do want to try something new.