For many Buffy fans (this one included), the Series 8 and 9 comics have been a welcome and calming salve to the end of the TV series. The Sunnydale Slayer, however is not the only ruler in Joss Whedon’s comic Kingdom, Or Queendom might be a better word. Fray a tale of a future vampire slayer was an eight part series, published 2001 – 2003, and was closely linked to the final season of the show, with cross overs into the Season 8 books. Angel has also been given the comic treatment both in books parallel to the series and following on. There are also a series of Firefly comics chronicling events between the end of the series and the film, Serenity and more canonical tie ins are, apparently, planned.
Outside of Whedon’s own TV spin-offs, he’s also responsible for the Dark Horse MySpace web series, Sugarshock! ; Marvel’s Astonishing X-Men series (#1-24), as well as taking over from Brian K Vaughn on Marvel’s Runaways and doing numerous guest editions on a variety of other popular comic imprints for Marvel, DC and Dark Horse. Joss might not be as widely popular from his work in comics as he is with his reputation TV and film, but that’s not to say that his comics, some of them bagging some prestigious comic awards, are in any way trivial or secondary to his more well known work.
In chapter four of Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion, six commentators put the Whedon comic ‘verse under scrutiny in 12 individual poular culture essays. The range here is impressive, everything from the obvious Buffy inclusions to a look at the more obscure Sugarshock! as well as his work with the major franchises. It would have been better to have more discussion of the comic art across the titles, comics are a collaborative medium after all, but on the whole this section serves as a decent introduction to Joss’ comic works.
Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion – Chapter by Chapter Review
4.01. Joss Whedon 101: Fray by Patrick Shand
Writer, Patrick Shand is in a good position to kick off the Comics chapter in this volume, not only being a comic writer in his own right, but also having written for the Angel series. Here, he gives an overview of Fray, highlighting the similarities with the whole Buffy experience including character and plot, but also making sure we all realise why Melalaka Fray is a unique character operating in a unique universe.
Shand’s introductory chapter is just that. He gives a detailed summary of all the major premises of the series and the characters, showing how the world has changed since Buffy’s time and also how it’s very much the same. If you’re after in-depth analysis of Fray however, you’re best to look elsewhere as this is far more of a review than other more essay-like chapters in this book. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s a well written and thoughtful review, written by a guy who obviously both knows and deeply cares for the subject. If you’re wondering whether or not to give Fray a crack, then Shay’s 101 should definitely convince you.
4.02 Joss Whedon 101: Astonishing x-Men by Cesar R. Bustamante, Jr.
Writer, multimedia journalism student and comic fan, Cesar R. Bustamante, Jr here takes an introductory look at Whedon’s work on the Astonishing X-Men series. Very much like Shand’s chapter on Fray, Bustamante is here taking much more of a review stance, overviewing Whedon’s story arc, pointing out its flaws and strengths and how John Cassaday’s art works to support Joss’ words. The review gets into the heart of the comics, how and why they work so well with Whedon’s typical emphasis on character usually over plot. That’s not to say though that plot is ever neglected, and Butamante does well to point out how the seeds for the entire story arc of Whedon’s X-Men are laid in the opening issues, much the same as the narrative arcs of Buffy were working across all seven seasons of the show.
One of the strongest aspects of this review is the admittance that, as the X-Men have been around for such a long time, there’s not a great deal that hasn’t already been done. But it’s Whedon’s trademark characterisation that gives his series a fresh new edge. There is a sense that Bustamante doesn’t really buy a lot of the dialogue which comes over in typical Joss style – witty, sarcastic, dotted with pop culture references – questioning whether or not the characters are suited to talking like this, and even offering a bit of a complaint that Joss apparently can’t go three pages without cracking a joke. These are all more than fair observations, so it’s good to see a less favourable commentary offsetting a book that, at times does lean toward fanboy/girl gushing.
4.03. Tom Brokaw’s Coat: Joss Whedon, Astonishing X-Men and the Accessibility of History by Dr. Shathley Q.
This is one of a few articles in this volume written by Pop Matters’ comics editor, Dr. Shathley Q. In this chapter, Shathley Q looks at the publication of the Astonishing X-Men in the context of what was happening in the real world at the time of both writing and publication. Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men is, as Shathley puts it, an X-men at the end of its own history as well as an X-Men at the End of History proper. The essay goes into a discussion of Francis Fukuyama, a conservative thinker who wrote at length on ideas of the end of history, understanding history as a teleological force that ends with Liberal Democracy, specifically 1989 and the Berlin Wall. What does that have to do with the X-Men? Well, this is where this essay gets a little convoluted as Shathley Q goes into so much discussion about Fukuyama’s publishing and thinking history that it takes a long detour around what I see as the point of this whole chapter – that Astonishing X-Men is not only the last in a series of a very specific type of X-men story in that post 2008 GFC so much of what was taken as normal in U.S culture and society has changed, and these changes are and will continue to be reflected and represented in popular culture. Further, Whedon’s X-Men is also an arc that doesn’t rely on knowledge of the entire X-Men publication history – a great deal of which was heavily influenced by the socio-political and cultural climates of its creation, and as such it is easily accessible for new readers, but at the same time, Astonishing X-Men remains iconic X-Men.
This essay very much removed from the previous review type chapters in the Comics section of this volume. While it doesn’t get bogged down in more academic styles of analysis, it’s still a bit meandering and complex and therefore it’s difficult to grasp the overall point of this essay until the very end, and still who knows, perhaps I missed it.
Oh and those not familiar with Tom Brokaw or his green coat (so, me and probably a lot of other non-U.S readers) will benefit from a bit of Googling for context.
4.04. Joss Whedon 101: Runaways by Kevin Chiat
Australian freelance writer, blogger and PhD student, Kevin Chiat here serves up a 101 to Joss’ work on the Runaways series (issues 25-30). First up, there are one or two surprise spoilers for the Runaways in this chapter, so consider this your warning. Spoilers aside, Chiat has written an informed introduction to a series that could be Joss Whedon’s least popularly known work. Runaways is situated in the context of Buffy in its treatment of authority figures and a group of kids banding together against evil. This is a valuable context to anyone coming to the series from other Whedon stuff as well as a good introduction to the characters and their situations.
Chiat has also done well to point out how even before Joss was writing for Runaways, his influence was established by original creator, Brian K. Vaughan in the ways the series subverts traditional superhero genres and gender roles, something Joss is perhaps most critically applauded for. From there we go onto a discussion on how Whedon took the Runaways into a different direction, opening it up to the wider Marvel universe as well as creating all new characters.
There is a small amount of discussion on the art, though not as much as I would have liked to read in a dedicated comics chapter. Chiat also talks about the current state of Runaways as a suspended publication and speculates on its future. I do think this ending speculation does date the chapter a little, but it’s a small complaint.
4.05. Joss Whedon 101: Angel: After the Fall by Patrick Shand
Shand takes us back into another Whedon 101, this time looking at the Angel: After the Fall comics that takes place after the TV series finished. Shand is obviously a huge fan (and more or less admits it in his own words). The introduction gives a fairly detailed run down on the Angel ‘verse situation in the opening issues, so don’t read this is you want to go in fresh without spoilers.
This is a fairly short chapter, and it isn’t until the final paragraphs that we get into any worthwhile commentary that’s not summing up what’s happening in the story, which I think is a shame. Angel as both a TV series and a comic has never been the most popular of Whedonverse lines and considering Shand’s obvious love of the show and the comic, it would have been valuable to understand why he sticks up for it as much as he does. “Angel might have had one of the best and smartest endings to a television series, but it is continued by an equally smart comic book.” So ends this chapter. Elaboration on this concept in a lot more detail would have made for a much stronger and more valuable introduction.
4.06. IDW Retrospect: A Look Back at IDW’s Angel with Brian Lynch and Scott Tipton by Patrick Shand
Another instalment from comic writer, Patrick Shand who, as mentioned above has written for the Angelverse comics. Here we’re allowed into the industry side of the Angel comics from their move to IDW (Idea and Design Works) from Dark Horse from 2005 to 2011, with input from two IDW writers, Scott Tipton and Brian Lynch. And Shand himself, of course. For anyone who has read any of the Whedonverse TV spin-off comics, it’s more than obvious that the writers and artists are connected to original material on a level far deeper than just something they’re working with. They’re fans, just like us, and this chapter proves it. Lynch, Tipton and Shand were all invested in Angel and Buffy before they started writing in the canon. That in itself is really enjoyable to read about from a fellow fan’s perspective. We also get a bit of insight into what it was like to work with such major characters and effectively decide their fate, and why the Angel series has really drawn to a close with Angel: Yearbook, despite the character’s continuation in Dark Horse’s Angel & Faith series. For anyone interested in how these media-tie in comics are written, or at least how the writing teams are assembled, this chapter should hold a fair bit of interest.
4.07. Joss Whedon 101: Sugarshock! by Jack Milson
Jack Milson, who previously brought us a Firefly chapter on fandom, here delivers a short and sharp introduction to Joss Whedon’s web comic, Sugarshock! This chapter could have so easily been just another plot run down review type of read, but instead, Milson introduces readers to Sugarshock! in the context of how digital media has affected to comic industry and what that means for creators and readers. One of the more interesting aspects of this discussion is how the popularity of the original online version allowed print versions which then in turn allowed for reissuing of the digital formats. Of course, we also get a bit of a plot run down and introduction to the characters, but this too is done in the wider context of the Whedonverse. While I enjoyed this read, and agree with everything Milson says for the most part, I’m not sure I can sit comfortably with the claim that Sugarshock! in its originality and “off the wall” defiance of genre categorisation, makes Firefly look hackneyed. Such different beasts, in my opinion, can’t be so easily compared. If you weren’t already interested in reading Sugarshock! before reading this 101, you’ll be racing for a copy (print or digital or both) after.
4.08. Joss Whedon 101: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight by Nick Bridwell
Writer, Nick Bridwell runs down the entire plot of the Season Eight story arc, and that’s about all this chapter offers. But, at least he gives a spoiler warning. The complete transfer of the Buffy canon to comics was a legendary move. There were certainly Buffy spin-off comics during the series’ TV run, but this is the canonical narrative proper continuing on. And more importantly, continuing on in a way that would have been infinitely impossible to realise on TV. Season Eight takes full advantage of the comic medium and works that into the most epic Buffy arc ever. And then, in a fascinating move by the writers, brings it all back around again, right to the simplicity of the beginning. This 101 chapter just doesn’t do Season Eight fair justice. Sure, Bridwell is obviously a fan and has enjoyed the arc, but there’s no sense he understands why it was such a monumental component of the entire Buffy lore.
4.09. Giant Dawn and Mutant Superheroes: Joss Whedon in Comics by Kevin Chiat
Chiat’s second essay in this volume opens by talking about the increasing mainstream popularity of the comic form that was happening in the early 2000s as culture makers became more and more interested in transmedia narratives. For a lot of producers, this was of course a monetizing move, but there were others that were always drawn to the form. Reading Chiat’s introduction, you can only assume he’s placing Whedon in the latter group. Joss is a kind of rare breed of culture maker who is as much a mainstream industry as he is a cult icon, so perhaps it’s for that curious intertwining that it seems Chiat at first isn’t so sure where to situate the Whedonverse comics in the transmedia culture industry.
From there we move onto a run down of Whedon’s major comic works: Fray; Astonishing X-Men; BTVS Season 8. These sub-chapters serve as overall introductions to the different series but also offer a bit of an analysis on what makes these particular works tick so well as comics and, more specifically, Whedon works. It’s also good to get some analysis of the art in the different comics, something that hasn’t really been examined in this whole comics section at all.
4.10. Joss Whedon 101: Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope – Hush Money: Observing Fandom Through the Eyes of Joss Whedon and Michael Spurlock by Dr. Shathley Q
Once you wade through that title, Shathley’s next essay looks at Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, a documentary by Michael Spurlock, produced by Joss Whedon, that looks at the position of fans in the comics industry. First up, this is Morgan Spurlock – the Super-Size Me guy, though the essay repeatedly calls his Michael except in the closing list of works cited. Not having found any reference online to Morgan going by Michael, I can only assume this is one very sloppy typo. If there’s a reason for it, can someone please let me know.
The documentary asks questions like: Where do the comic fans fit in? What powers, if any, do they have in the industry? And how does this effect the products they’re offered to be fans of? Who owns comics? This is an interesting, if a little dry to read, examination of the comic industry, starting from the medium’s history. It’s really more of a discussion of Spurlock’s film, with some extra analysis of the issues it raises, so for those who haven’t seen the documentary (like myself) it’s a bit difficult to contextualise the points being made. There is enough here though to spark an interest in the documentary.
4.11. Chronological Bibliography of Print Comics Written by Joss Whedon by Dr. Shathley Q.
This chapter isn’t so much a chapter as a list, so really, there’s not much tp be reviewed here. Except to say that it leaves me wondering why it was included here in the Comics section, rather than as one of the various bibliographical appendices in the volume. That aside, this is a handy index for readers looking to add the Whedonverse to their comic library.
4.12. Much With the Moral Ambiguity: An Examination of the Fallen Heroes and Redeemed Villains in Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season Eight and Angel: After the Fall by Patrick Shand
This essay isn’t so much about the moral ambiguity of Whedonverse heroes, something, as Shand himself has pointed out, that is already entirely obvious and has been discussed at length. Rather this is an examination of the moral ambiguity of the Whedonverse villains,and how the heroes and villains have taken on a role reversal in the post-TV canonical comics. From that perspective, we’re here promised a fresh and interesting take on a standard concept but I’m not sure that is really delivered.
There’s a decent discussion of Buffy’s own moral ambiguity in the opening, but it’s not something we haven’t heard a lot of before so it does risk falling into the stating-the-obvious category that Shand said has already said he’s not writing in. It is though important for Angel’s context in Season Eight, and how he (and Twilight and Buffy) blurred the villain/hero boundaries. This whole discussion might have been strengthened had, instead of talking about Buffy’s moral grey areas, we’d gone straight into looking at the tragic tale of Charles Gunn, hero turned evil vampire. Gunn, in the context of moral tension, is a far more interesting character than Buffy if only because his situation has hardly been analysed at all. These changes in the villain/hero dichotomy we see in Season Eight and After the Fall represent, according to Shand, an overall shift in Whedon’s work. This is an overly broad statement as Joss’ oeuvre isn’t limited to the Buffyverse, and while moral ambiguity might be something that he plays with in a lot of his creations, sometimes there’s still downright good and downright bad.