It’s an odd feeling to realize you’ve been reading a comic for more than twenty issues based entirely on inertia. As I flipped open Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Eight #27 yesterday it occurred to me that I had no real memory of what had happened in the last issue, or much genuine interest in what would happen in this one. And yet I keep reading, even though I dropped the parallel Angel comic after the first storyline (largely due to the art — I watched the last season of Angel on a thirty-year-old, aerial-only TV on a UHF channel coming from 200 miles away, and it still looked better than the comic.)
How did things come to this? I was a die-hard Buffy viewer back in the day, following plotlines eagerly, laughing at clever dialogue and making fun of American viewers who had to wait months to watch the Season Three finale. I had never checked out the spin-off comics until the announcement that Joss Whedon himself would return to launch a new comic which would be an actual continuation of the series, rather than stories that stood awkwardly around in the darker corners of the TV show continuity and tried to keep their heads down. Now here we are, three-odd years later, and I have next to no memory of any of the stories, up to and including the latest (I hazily remember something about a submarine in Tibet.)
The most obvious answer is that when we wished for more Buffy the Whedon Genie, wanting to teach us to be careful what we wished for, gave us more of the show’s last season — the one that spun its wheels for months on end before wrapping up with a twist ending that basically ignored everything that had happened before. It’s true that the last season is part of the problem, because the ending left the writers with an almost unsolvable problem: suddenly every potential Slayer in the world was fully-functional, which means that in the comic they have to deal with hundreds of superhuman vampire killers. (Of course, even that ending was an unfortunate compromise: what they should have done was make every woman on Earth a Slayer, the logical conclusion of the show’s female empowerment fantasy.) Not only does this make it hard to come up with believable villains, but it makes Buffy herself a lot less special.
How have the writers dealt with this? By ignoring it, mostly. The Slayerettes make plenty of appearances as spear-carriers (should that be stake-carriers?) and cannon fodder, but somehow when there’s constabulary duty to be done they’re never around. This frees the writers to recycle plots from the series or, if they’re feeling unusually creative, borrow well-worn tropes from other comics. Xander falls in love! Then his girlfriend is killed! But he’s okay, because in the next issue he’s wisecracking as usual. (Probably because his girlfriend had absolutely no personality, so it’s reasonable her death would affect him less than getting a stain on his favourite T-shirt.) Buffy and the others are pursued by an evil being too powerful for them to defeat! (Again?) They’re on the run from the law! (Hey, guys, how long has it been since we last did “Legion on the run”?) They’re hated and feared by the society they’ve sworn to protect! (Did Whedon have it written into his X-Men contract that he could take that with him when he left?)
That last is an interesting one, because it is a great example of how the comic has gone completely wrong. Apparently the world has gone ga-ga for vampires and, consequently, decided that Slayers are icky. This happened because Harmony did a reality show about vampires and, because people love reality shows, they’re now cool with the idea of people who see them as ambulatory Big Gulps. Now this could have been a good idea, a joke on how things like Twilight have defanged vampires, except that the writers don’t seem to realize that in order for something to be satire it has to, you know, satirize something. What might have worked is if someone had written a Twilight-ish novel based on Angel and Buffy’s relationship, casting Angel as the brooding, tortured character and Buffy as the heartless Slayer who eventually spurns him, but instead we get a simple shot at reality TV in the apparent belief that name-checking something is the same as satirizing it.
In the end, I think the problem is pretty simple: Joss Whedon hasn’t written anything particularly good since the last season of Angel. He’s written things that were good in spots, or that had the potential to be good, and his genius for casting is as strong as ever, but if you look honestly at his post-Buffy/Angel work there’s nothing that would, for anyone who wasn’t already a fan, rise much above a “meh.” Whether this is because since becoming JOSS WHEDON he’s started to believe his own press, or whether he just had a few good ideas in him and is now slowly joining Kevin Williamson in aging-wunderkind-land, is hard to say, but he’s certainly not bringing his A game to the Buffy comic.