[No I'm serious, this isn't turning into an all-Buffy blog! But this is kind of a big thing. And just so's you know: spoilers follow below the fold.]
So if you're a fan you know and otherwise you may or may not: Buffy's 'eighth season' is running as a ~30-issue comic book from Dark Horse. Joss Whedon sketched out the years-long story arc and is writing the first five issues, the last four or five, and a handful inbetween; Brian K. Vaughan picks up with a Faith arc this summer; half the Buffy writing staff will be taking a swing at the series, along with a bunch of names from the world of comics (of which Vaughan, lately of Ex Machina and Y: The Last Man and now slumming it at Lost, is the most exciting to my eyes). The whole thing is 'canon' (i.e. this is what 'really happened' after the finale of the TV show), it's getting a huge publicity push extending into the mainstream entertainment press, and on the first day Dark Horse sold 100,000 copies of issue #1.
So is it good?
It isn't just good. It's Joss Whedon good. If you're wondering whether to get it, don't wonder: see the show and get the comic. Hey, it's three bucks. Take the risk.
The second-level question, in a more fannish register, is: Is it Buffy? The series had a singular voice and style, grounded in Whedon's integrity as a storyteller and his peerless dialogue; is it all still there, still what fans fell for ten years ago? Are the Scoobies really back?
Um, yes with an asterisk.
Whedon has been working on Marvel's Astonishing X-Men title, equalling Grant Morrison's run on the series in terms of fan response and raising the exposure (and sales figures) of the title tremendously. He's taking over Vaughan's Runaways shortly. Comic books were an early love of his, and he's internalized the clipped rhythms and particular ironic image/text counterpoint of the standard comic book narrator. If you read his futuristic-Slayer series, Fray, several years back - and I heartily recommend it - you've gotten a preview of the dialogue in Buffy Season Eight. Buffy is no longer a teen-drama series, it's a superhero team series, and it more closely resembles its obvious antecedent X-Men on the page than on TV. Buffy is never in peril in issue #1; there's a combat sequence, and Buffy drops some quips on the monsters, but this issue is 100% setup, not posing major emotional questions, just establishing a mood. And given how little space Whedon tends to devote to speech bubbles in his comics work, compared to a wordy comics-writer like Brian Michael Bendis, it should come as no surprise that the loopy recursive asides and good-natured buffoonery of the Buffy TV series are absent from this first issue. Buffy's internal monologue sounds like her, yes, and it works up to a laugh-out-loud final rant before hitting a strange closing note (when she calls herself 'Summers') - but it's more pared-down than ever before, bound by the rules of its new medium to new proportions and a bit of a new tempo.
Oh, and also absent (temporarily): Willow and Giles. Indeed the setup is looking a lot like Season Seven's opening episode ('Lessons', aka 'Welcome Back to the Hellmouth'), hinting at a Big Bad (whose boots are those hovering above the church?) and keeping the main characters dispersed for the moment. To an extent that's just the way things go in comics, but part of the appeal of Buffy has always been its glorious unabashed excess, its formal excesses justified by Whedon's characters' dynamism and expressiveness. The austere formal compositions of 'The Body' were so shocking in part because viewers were used to those characters talking constantly, inventively, almost compulsively; the musical seemed like a perversely logical extension of the characters' day-to-day histrionics and melodrama, no matter how closely-observed. But there are no wasted words in the new Buffy comic. If you read the Serenity miniseries a couple of years ago you may have noticed a similar transition, from the show's indulgent loopy faux-Westernisms to a more hardboiled tone. The same thing has happened with Buffy. Admittedly this is only the first episode, and there's a ton of scene-setting to do, but it sounds like a lightly-redacted version of the Scooby Gang. Clearly them, clearly beloved recognizable friends, but cooled down the tiniest bit.
Gone, for instance, are the many, many Whedon-onscreen sentences of the 'I just - (long pause, actor takes two steps away from camera, turns back with hand gesture of mild exasperation/searching and begins talking again) - I just wish you (etc.).' It doesn't play as well on the page as onscreen, and Whedon's right to adapt his writerly rhythms to the new medium. But gone too are the actors' familiar gestures and tonal interpolations and interpretations. There's a reason Gellar, Brendon, Hannigan, Head, et al. were paid to read those lines; I can imagine what they'd sound like, but I can't generate the same performance in my head.
The art, not unrelatedly, is a valiant effort to serve both hardcore fans (who would bitch incessantly if the characters didn't look like the actors) and the dynamism of superhero comic tradition. The first issue is more or less standard fare visually speaking, and if the talking-heads Buffy/Xander sequence isn't terribly inventive the Buffy/Dawn two-page spread is one of those all-time keeper images, beautifully designed and drawn. And it could only exist on the page; Whedon never had the TV budget to handle anything like Giant Dawn.
From a character standpoint, the issue was (frankly) awesome, and troubling - the former in part because of the latter. There's tension galore in the ranks, with Buffy still isolated and Dawn hating her and Xander getting uncharacteristically (but understandably) prickly when Buffy refers to him as her 'Watcher' (what a complex character he's become at this point - I hope Whedon can cook up compelling material for Xander, as he slowed down throughout Seasons Six and Seven but seems revitalized by his new position as Nick Fury Jr.).* The new Slayers aren't yet differentiated but that's OK; it took the Potentials half a season to grow their own personalities.
And the whole thing is funny, and brisk, and exciting, and studded with enough 'I can't fucking wait' moments that I, um, can't fucking wait for the next issue. I can't. I'm so happy to have new Joss Whedon Buffyverse material that any formal criticisms I might have just melted away as soon as I opened the book. Is that a too-fannish suspension of critical faculties? Based on the previous paragraphs I'd venture no, hopefully. The dialogue in the first issue isn't as flowery as the TV norm, but that's sensible and fine, and I'll get used to the new rhythm. There's loose talk right now of an Angel Season Six run over at IDW; that series seems even better-suited to this kind of treatment. But at least a half-dozen times reading the first issue of Season Eight I laughed out loud not at a joke but out of relief - to be able to return to a fantasy world that has been awfully important to me for several years, reading new work by one of the writers I admire and trust most. There are lines in issue #1 as dork-goosebump-raising as anything since Season Six's 'Goodnight, bitch.'** And the idea of Dawn going off to Berkeley and getting knocked up by a demon is, ya gotta admit, perfect.
The comic book is its own thing. But yes, the Scoobies are back, really back. If their joy isn't yet infectious, Joss Whedon's obviously is. Which in the long run is even more important, I should say.
Now if you'll excuse me I'm going to have a piece of milk chocolate to reward myself for not resorting to the use of the word 'squee' even once in this...whole...
* I found Xander's comics-fan geekery adorable on television; in the comic book it seems ever-so-slightly metafictional in a way that nearly took me out of the story for a second. But you can't blame Whedon for taking fannish pleasure of his own. After all, he brought the 'real' Nick Fury back into Astonishing X-Men as fast as he could.
** That triumphant couplet - 'Say goodnight, bitch.' 'Goodnight, bitch.' - from Steve DeKnight's 'Seeing Red' affords one of Buffy's naughtier radical-feminist pleasures; the characters (i.e. the writers) were generally conscientious about the dangers of merely inverting misogynist tropes (which preserves their artificial value metrics, etc.). But Buffy's defeat of Warren at the amusement park, complete with Jonathan's exhortation to 'Smash his orbs!', was straight-up revenge fantasy. Whedon gave viewers an equally on-the-nose statement with the Buffy/Caleb fight in 'Chosen' - 'You don't have the...' (She cuts him in half from the scrotum up.) 'Well who does, nowadays?' - but complicated it that pleasure with the challenging, lovely rest of that episode, answering the 'Kill or be killed' imperative of boys-at-war with a 'Share and be invincible' morality totally foreign to Caleb (and his priestly fellow-travelers). The case of Warren wasn't simple either, of course; in 'Villains'**** Willow subjects him to torture-by-slow-penetration before stripping him very naked (removing his skin), and this particular ironic-masculine treatment is acknowledged by the writers as flat-out villainous. DeKnight was probably the Buffy writer with the most out-and-out 'comic book' sensibility besides Whedon (cf. 'Apocalypse Nowish' in Angel's near-catastrophic fourth season); it makes sense that he's ended up on TV's Smallville, though he's too good for that laughable show. He would bring something to Lost along with Drew Goddard - but why wish that on someone you admire?
*** I don't think I'm friends with anyone who uses this noxious affected-childishness-geek-pleasure neologism. Not a lot of words in the English language make me physically sick, but 'squee' does. It's one of those terms meant to indicate not specificity but poverty of expression: you say it when you don't know what to say, or in any case when you're play-acting not knowing what to say. Like 'fucking' as an adverb, for instance, my own constant use of which you can just piss off about, since at least it isn't fucking squee.
**** Noxon's riveting 'Villains' is still the best episode of Season Six's very up-and-down final three. Fury's finale ('Grave') achieves a shaky power in places, and ably fulfills a number of season-arc requirements without the delicacy of a Whedon script, and Douglas Petrie's 'Two to Go' (6x21) has a creepiness that nicely complements the rising Dark Phoenix action, but Noxon's script contains the last moments of Willow's believable humanity before the final blowout. Her whole 'You poor bastards, I've got to save you' speech in 6x22 is too convenient, too rushed, and (frankly) not earned, but the horrifying/heroic hospital scene in 'Villains' is as compelling as any other moment in the late sixth season. 'Normal Again' gives it a run, but that episode plays like the greatest fan-script of all time, and feels like a bit of a vacation from continuity, in a way. And following on the painful wedding (and Xander's abandonment of Anya, which I still don't buy, after all this time), it contains Xander's teary return to the Scoobies, which is inexplicably better on the page than onscreen. For whatever reason Nick Brendon bobbled the delivery of those lines, and the abandonment continued to seem false. Which is a shame, since the whole 'yellow crayon' closing speech in 'Grave' (an infamous Whedon rewrite) is also a little hard for me to believe, leaving Xander kind of hanging out there for most of the second half of Season Six. Ever get the feeling I've watched this show too many damned times? I get that feeling sometimes.*****
***** I usually deal with it by watching an episode of Firefly to clear my head.