Thursday, October 20, 2016

Think Galactic- Buffy Season 8

For our first graphic novel discussion since "Saga", Think Galactic discussed "Buffy: Season 8" (2007-2011) by Joss Whedon, Georges Jeanty & many more writers/artists.

Taking place a bit after the events of the television show (which ended with Buffy & co. empowering thousands of other young women to have Slayer strength & abilities), "Season 8" follows the Scoobies in a much more global conflict with new villains. Possible spoilers below!

While a few of us had limited Buffy familiarity, I think it's fair to say that, for many of us at Think Galactic, Buffy approaches sacred text status—multiple viewings over the years, as a point of connection with others, involvement with staged productions of the musical episode, etc. This obviously affected our reception of the comics, and though we were critical of many aspects, a repeated phrase throughout our discussion was that "it's just nice to be back in this world, with these characters", even if the execution isn't always great.

We noted that the Whedon-y dialog didn't always come across right in comic-script form, with some of us wishing there was a way to get an actor-read audio companion, and others noting that some scenes didn't work on paper, but worked fine read aloud. We noted an improvement in pacing in issues that Whedon didn't actually write—Vaughan's run in particular, as someone more experienced with writing for the comic format.

All Olympians.
A major complaint that many of us circled around to at some point or other was the art style, which for simplicity's sake we might call "bad". Specifically, Jeanty's faces shift so much from panel to panel, and in any case look so similar regardless of character, that we had a really hard time telling who was who as we moved along, unless they were addressed by name or had distinctive clothing. We also noted a general lack of body-type diversity, which made think of those series of athletic references photos that made the rounds a while ago. Also thought of Aaron Diaz's posts (Figures, Silhouettes, Costumes, mildly NSFW on one or two of those) on character design, and how characters should be immediately recognizable.

Lots of discussion of feminism here. Not only does this pass the Bechdel test, it passes so hard that we tried to formulate an anti-Bechdel test that it may almost pass—when two male characters are talking to each other, it's usually about a woman. Much discussion of the feminism of the Whedonverse specifically, and the sentiment that Joss gets tons of praise for passing very low bars. Not that we think he's doing bad work, there's just this weird sense of "box checked" for that issue, and then it doesn't go any deeper.

"We need to talk about Buffy & Satsu" was a major point. Buffy has a (brief) relationship with another woman here, and we had some critiques of the episode—particularly the way it seems really hung up on binary sexuality (e.g. if Buffy isn't "really gay" then the relationship is just a weird anomaly), and, along a separate line of criticism, the glib, reductive cultural representation of Satsu. Good luck representing the largest continent and human population all by your lonesome, Satsu.

Also we face-palmed a little over the (probably unintentional) implication that Kennedy and Satsu are the only lesbian Slayers out of a population of thousands.

Things we liked!
  • Great cultural references on t-shirts, mugs, posters.
  • The vampy cat section, while ludicrous, was kind of fun, and put us in mind of Barbarella-type campiness.
  • The cartoony flashback sequence was super effective.
  • The sections where the dialog and Whedon-y repartee really clicked.
  • With the caveat that sometimes the characterization felt a little by-the-numbers (Buffy: "I'm so alone!" Willow: "I'm so guilty!"), there were frequent moments where the characterization was spot-on. Oz's response to a nuclear submarine materializing, for instance.
  • Really dug Dracula's reappearance, the idea that his capabilities aren't all tied up with the vampire powers, and the "Dracula, you're kinda racist" line.
Some other things we weren't really into:
  • The fact that EVERYBODY comes back and makes an appearance, with few-to-no new characters making an impression.
  • The lack of a sense of place. The television series were very good at conveying a few different stages for most of the action—The Bronze, Sunnydale High, the Summers household—and that never clicks in the comics.
  • While a few of us liked the "Fray" crossover/retcon ("Fray" was a comic set far in the future of the Buffyverse, mostly published before Season 8 began), many of us found it confusing and not really contributing to the rest of the story.
  • We also didn't like that Season 8 seems to go out of its way to forget that "Angel" the series happened, despite its reintroduction of both Angel & Spike. I was labelled a heretic for claiming that "Angel" is without redeeming features, and forced to recant in light of the muppet episode.
A lot of talk about the idea of "fan service" in continuing universes, and discussion of the difference between doing something because it works in the story, and doing it because it will spark a reaction in fans who are already familiar. Really interesting debate, especially given how much serial fiction relies on our feelings for recurring characters. (Was reminded of Urbanski's talk at Worldcon on franchised canon, and would highly recommend the Nerdwriter's video essay on Weaponized Intertextuality.)

On the downside of this issue, a lot of us felt like Season 8 recapitulated previous problems rather than growing in interesting ways—Buffy struggling with the "heavy lies the crown" theme, for instance. But on the upside, and again to repeat—we all just kept saying, throughout the discussion, how nice it was to be hanging out with these characters again.

One thing we would have liked to see more of was the "outing" of the magical world, which happened basically at the end of the television series. There's a little bit of that here with the Harmony segments, but otherwise little time given to how the rest of the world is reacting to these revelations. We compared Harmony's bits to the early promise of "True Blood" as an examination of sexual identity liberation and demonizing ("God hates fangs" etc.).

Other notable things:
  • "Please let it be deep" (scene where characters jump towards water) as a metaphor for the whole thing.
  • "I think you can blame capitalism again," talking about flaws relative to comic production realities.
  • Discussion of escalation mechanics in series, the peril of making the stakes higher each time in a way that destroys effectiveness of the small-scale story. Comparison to how this was handled in "Farscape". I feel like a few of us in the know often point to "Farscape" for examples and contrasts to common serialization issues (previously we'd talked about Scorpius syndrome, which is very different from, though parallel to, Spike syndrome).
  • Talked about the history of the term and role of "showrunner".
  • "The Animatrix" brought up as a counter-example of world-expanding without escalation issues.
Overall: great discussion, and despite our many quibbles very enjoyable. We're also told that Season 9 is more ensemble-focused, less shark-jumpy. Here's hoping!

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