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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Bad Blood

Graphic Novelist

By Jason Henderson

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Bad Blood

$9.95 from Dark Horse

Written by Andi Watson
Pencils by Joe Bennett
Inks by Rick Ketcham

What a thankless task it is to produce adaptations of favorite properties like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There are several layers of "creatives" to keep in mind at all times. At the top of the heap are the folks responsible for the show itself: the executive producer (in this case Joss Whedon) and the story editors. Then there are the writers of the shows who define the stories to be accepted as "canon," even the actors, who define how the audience is going to read the characters of your tie-in novel or comic. I've been in this game before, writing Marvel and Highlander novels, and it's a weird little writing dance. The writer wants to tell a good story, but he or she has to tell that story in a way that the fans will embrace. Change a character in a subtle way and fans can become very upset, and the powers that be guard against that event rigorously. You don't own these characters and you can't take them anywhere really exciting, or it's liable to change them, and only the upperclassmen get to do that. In this arena, you might tell a good story, but it's a real challenge to make it sing.

To my mind still, as I've said before, the most powerful and effective comic adaptations of a series are Dark Horse's Aliens/Predator series and Topps' early X-Files comics by Stefan Petrucha. Aliens/Predator had plenty of room to tell fascinating stories because the audience had little in mind already, other than the general nature of the creatures, leaving the writers and artists to unlock whole new storehouses of story and art. At the X-Files comic, Petrucha somehow got clearance to take Scully and Mulder on long, intellectual trips that didn't echo the show as much as some would like but made truly thoughtful and exciting comics reading. Those adaptations sing.

And then there's the Buffy comics, which work, but don't quite sing. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Bad Blood collects in one volume the Blad Blood storyline, in which formerly beautiful Selke, a powerful vampire, comes gunning for Buffy and looking for a way to return her lost good looks. It seems Buffy tried to burn the vampire alive but left before the task was complete.

In fact, this is a story that has great potential, because I can't think of a time on the show when a monster came after Buffy for revenge. Normally, Buffy reacts to someone causing problems in Sunnydale. There have been times when evil came for the Slayer because they wanted her out of the way, but revenge is different. There's nice drama in our hero being pursued by someone with righteous anger. Revenge, for instance, is what made Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan a step above the rest of the Trek movies. An angry and personal enemy calls for our empathy, and we don't get to empathize much with the villains on Buffy. Did anyone want to see the Evil Mayor win?

But somehow the story just never quite comes across. Selke the vampire is exciting enough; she's full of self-loathing because she's lost respect among the vampires now that her face is hideous. (Burn scarring takes a long time to heal, and vampires are a vain lot.) In a nice subplot, Selke is duped by a frightened plastic surgeon who gives her a useless salve, and her childish desperation really plays. But Stefan Petrucha would have given us a long scene somewhere between Angel and Selke about the nature of beauty among the dead, and it would have given you chills. Here it's just a subplot that never comes to any real fruition.

Meanwhile, we have our heroes, who seem here chiefly to crack one-liners. This is the thankless writing I mentioned; the humor of Buffy has a distinct sound that relies on a repeated delivery cadence; it's hard to know if it's right without the actors to read it. The humor here is too movie-like and quippy, not the odd wordplay of the TV characters.

As a backup to Bad Blood, this collection includes the short story Hello, Moon, by Christopher Golden, a short character study in which Buffy essentially runs into the Creature from the Black Lagoon. After they fight a little they end up talking about the nature of fighting evil and knowing you can never really win. It's a nice moment that begs more plot, but moment is what it's here for.

You might say I'm too hard on the Buffy comics because I compare them too much to their live-action source material. Not so. Unfortunately it's the nature of the beast-- who will read a Buffy adaptation but a Buffy fan? Sometimes you can win the fan over if you offer more-- a peak inside the characters, a la X-Files or Aliens/Predator. But most of the time, my bet is that the writers can't provide it, and it's probably not even their fault. And that's the nature of tie-ins.

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