Saturday, July 21, 2007


Here's the sitch: The Watchers' Council is Exploding Kinetoscope's newly designated slot where I'll be holding forth at length about Buffy the Vampire Slayer-and-Angel-related topics. Why would someone give themselves a column in their own undernourished free-form blog? Because that's how we do things around here. It also lets you know that whether review, exegesis, analysis, or op-ed, Watchers' Council makes assumptions of fan-level fluency.

This installment: Buffy Season 8: The Long Way Home. The first chapter in the Dark Horse comic book series is complete, with issue #4. The arc will be assembled in a collection on November 14, 2007, along with the more stand-aloney issue #5, but as of this writing, second printings of all issues are available at fine comic shoppes everywhere. Here's a first take on "Long Way Home".

"The thing about changing the world... After you do it, everything is all different." Nobody could quite put it like Buffy Summers, whose opening line to Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Season 8: The Long Way Home packs a lot of layers, some she does not intend, into that silly attempt at profundity. It's wistful on one hand, because Sarah Michelle Gellar is not saying the words, however clearly we may hear her voice. The medium, thus the world, well, it's different. Thrilling as it is to have new canonical Buffyverse stories, it is also a little sad. The story of how Buffy changed the world had an ending. A beautiful, important ending, probably TV's greatest ending. Now, as they said in Sunnydale, not so much. Because Season 8 shifts to Dark Horse comics, even if creator-guy Joss Whedon says they are Officially For-Reals Season 8, the series ending isn't undone. It can't ever be undone, from the perspective that BtVS was the collective endeavor of its writers, cast and crew: they built that world. Now, in comics, it is re-created by Georges Jeanty's pencils, and even with Whedon personally writing the first arc of the series, it's all different. Question becomes: can you deal?

BtVS ends properly with Buffy directly addressing some problems with Slayerdom as a female empowerment metaphor (e.g.- why's she got all the powers? Don't other girls need powers?) spreading her abilities to any girl in the world who needs strength. From a writer's perspective, it does not leave the Chosen One or her world in a ship-shape spot for telling stories of the nature it was designed. From the perspective of fans of the program satisfied by the daring ending, maybe we should not have more stories. Whedon Storytelling Rule #Made-up-Number goes that the artist has a responsibility to give the audience not what they Want, but what they Need. We may want this to go on and on forever, but deep down, that may not be good for us.

Conflicted as we may be about the cruel lonely weight of Slayerdom having been thrust upon Buffy, it is doubtful anyone has been itching for tales of a Slayer army. It's the one funny, resilient blonde girl we like, not a sea of anonymous faces; if the fan ambivalence over Season 7's surfeit of Potentials taught us anything, it's that too many Slayers spoils the cake. Or some mixy-metaphor like that. One facet of the Slayer metaphor has always been that those teen girls with magic kung-fu powers that place them difficult positions represent how we all choose to use our agency and power, or abuse it, as we walk alone through the world. So it's an aspect of the Chosen One left in the cold by "Long Way Home"; it was lost at the end of "Chosen", but sacrificed to a greater good, for the more central, specifically feminist message... which was also okay because after the last episode, no writers or actors need Buffy to be a singular presence anymore.

Here is the Buffyverse Unleashed. No limits on budget and scope, restrained only by Whedon and Jeanty's imaginations. Jo Chen's striking portrait gallery of cover paintings, stylized, idealized, mythic-toned visions of the Scoobies, are a beautiful wrapping and properly indicate the best qualities of the contents: heightened, and fantasy-rich. The ability to visualize creatures, battles, mystical realms and Willow in tight leather pants without a platoon of technicians is a double-edged axe-stake-thing. BtVS, as borne out by the slicker, more sophisticated filmmaking of Angel, intentionally restrained its scope, in exchange for intimacy. It was the right choice, for there is little in the woolly, globetrotting adventures of "Long Way Home" as emotional, poignant, or even character-oriented as the TV show. Bluntly, there is nothing in the first comics arc to make one weep, and BtVS was Cry Central Station for seven years. Season 8 did not have to be an action-driven comic. Comics, hand-held, a one-on-one interface that must be undertaken alone, with images able to be pored over, is the perfect medium for intimate storytelling. A choice was made, and the choice was to use the opportunity to tell the over-the-top monster-ass-kicking superheroine stories that could not be told on TV. Now: can you deal?

Buffy is a military general now, for all intents and purps, which sort of means she's failed to live the normal life she always wanted. So score one for the fight against Evil-doers, and one against the California girl who wants to go shopping. This is both disappointing - are Buffy fans really into military strikes? - and feels right. The Chosen One remains surrounded by people who care, but essentially alone. That maddening skill for shuttling between self-reliance and self-pity makes the girl tick. It's partly what draws Buffy to Angel and also what drove them apart. These notes obviously focus on the stingily parcelled out character drama, so, crucial moment in "Long Road Home": Buffy waxing wistful in soliloquy that she misses sex and churros.

Xander has moved into Command Central as the Slay Squad's de facto Watcher, which maintains his place as Buffy's Eyes and/or Heart. But sadly the action is now so perilous, the Everyman is relegated to watching a bank of video monitors in a Scottish castle stronghold (?). Willow has apparently been MIA for a year, not even bothering to call her BFFs, and can click between her world-destroying dark and light powers with as much consequence as flipping a light switch. This seriously steps on the toes of Willow's series arc, in which she learned to find healing strength in herself and her friends, not to use black magicks to avoid emotional pain. It was arguably a botched story on the show, but "Long Way Home" make mincemeat of Willow's journey from nerd to goddess nerd. So far. Because again, the last moment we had with her, that was her Ending. She'd Become. That's how Willow's story was supposed to end, and damn it, damn it, I miss her too. But it's want versus need. Can you deal?

"I used to be a Watcher," reflects Giles in his brief appearance. Now he sort-of trains unprepared Slayers, but the rules are so changed, the world so new, that Buffy knows more about preparing the girls for battle than Giles. He cannot love them all like daughters, and they do not need him to. Giles used to be a Watcher, but that seems a million years ago, in a town that is dead and buried. What is he now? Giles now has more Slayers to "watch" than ever, and is possibly feeling more useless than he did when he left Sunnydale way back in "Tabula Rasa". Hands full, but slate blank.

Dawn Summers, having likely lost her virginity to some magical being called a Thricewise, finds her growing pains have literally inflated her to giant size. Dawn's supersizing is one of Whedon's fine metaphors-made-flesh. The greatest point of pain in "Long Way Home" comes when Dawn refuses to confide in Buffy, instead pining for Willow to return: "I don't mean to slam you... But Will's like a mom to me." Ouch. Score another one against the Buffster. The younger Summers girl's perpetual whining is grating, but it is, all things said, the Definition of Dawn. No matter what sacrifices are made for her - and Buffy has literally died for her sister - Dawn never appreciates it, never believes or remembers it, never feels loved. Dawn's put herself in trouble's path? It must be Tuesday.

It is, however, a BtVS tradition to begin the season in an uncomfortable, unfamiliar place: Seasons 1 and 2 with Buffy disoriented and arriving in Sunnydale, Season 3 with Buffy reluctantly reclaiming the Slayer mantle, Season 4 with an alienating, intimidating entry into college life, Season 5 a battle with Dracula starts silly and becomes frightening, plus the shock-reveal of Dawn, Season 6 with Buffy dead, and Season 7 with everything turned upside down. Bearing this in mind, the slippery footing on which "Long Way Home" begins is probably intentional, and why it begins with the epigram about newly changed worlds. We want Sunnydale, but it's gone. It was nothing but a zone of trouble for Buffy, but there she is, looking out over the Scottish moors and wishing she were back in demon-infested So Cal.

However disconcerting, those season openers are stories in carefully pitched tone. So what's the story here? It's difficult to say, as like all BtVS season arcs, it's a slow build, with a surplus of misdirects. For e.g.'s.- a race of giant reptilian demons is on the rampage, but that's too rote as a Big Bad. More compelling but even less exotic, it seems the U.S. military has declared war on the superpowered teen girls. The military-industrial complex, in the form of the Initiative, got squarely roundhouse-kicked in the jaw by the supernatural way back in Season 4. In real world logic, it's only natural the government would reopen the X-File on the Slayer after she, say, demolishes an entire city. In story logic, it may feel like you've Been Here Before. Or maybe that's what "Long Way Home" means. This plot could play out as a snappy/complex head-on engagement of patriarchy vs. female empowerment issues that the series skirts around, toys with, or grapples on an ideological level, but rarely allowed to crystallize in the drama. "Long Way Home" is too busy playing catch-up with the cast to elaborate, but that's a forgivable choice when any and every reader cares about these characters so deeply.

Reemergences of Ethan Rayne, Amy Madison, and, frustratingly, Warren Mears, are momentarily thrilling for the long-haul fan, but are all problematic. Whedon dispatches the no-goodnik Chaos magician Rayne with a prosaic bullet to the brain, as if to add heft to the new Big Bad military man General Voll, but it is an inglorious end to a long-long-time favorite minor menace. Not that Ethan Rayne has a destiny to complete, but he dies with no final showdown and/or reconciliation with Giles, which seems sloppy and let-downy. Though he assists Buffy by guiding her through her own brain's dreamspace while she's gone Briar Rose-snoozy under Amy's enchantment, it's hard to get warm fuzzies from Ethan's change of heart, because unless rationale is forthcoming, it comes out of nowhere. Whether his motivations become clear later in the season, it is still Ethan's implied history with Giles, not Buffy, which lends him any mystique, and links him to the core story in a meaningful way.

Amy Madison's Long Way has been intertwining with the Scoobie Gang's since the very thirdest episode, "Witch". Her slow ascendance into powerful villainy from victimization has struck some Season 8 readers as desperate recycling, but it can also be seen as a natural story to tell, picking up one of the few loose threads left accessible in the cataclysm at the end of "Chosen". The rest of those threads are just buried under too much rubble.

The resurrection of Warren Mears is a different matter altogether. Yanked out of the Hellmouth, and striking a deal with General Voll, Amy lures and incapacitated Willow to her new paramour's lair. Whedon gives the undead, still skinless S6 Big Bad a killer entrance, and a truly great monologue. Warren asks Willow, whom he's strapped to an operating table, and about to go Injury-To-The-Eye-Motif on with a scalpel: "I wonder... are you 'bored now'?" reminding the witch of her cavalier blow-off as she once had him bound and pleading for his life. But the crux of the problem is that Warren needs to be dead. Willow needs to have killed him. Whatever esoteric magical explanation may be in the wings, likely that he's "technically still dead" in some way (Warren gives a lovely poetic explanation: "her magic is my skin"),the metaphor and Willow’s terrible act of murder are partially undone. Divisive as it may be, the power of the controversial sixth season is in the inexorable slide into despair and the difficult crawl back to the light. To earn the strength she finds in "Chosen", Willow needed, in storytelling, emotional and mythic terms, to have killed Warren. It is the ultimate transgression against her religion, power, her friends, the memory of Tara, and Buffy's duty; Willow murdering Warren is the climactic moment of losing the girl we loved. This resurrection nonsense has Buffyverse precedent, of course, with Anya being ultimately "let off the hook" after getting sworded in "Selfless", with Angel's return from Hell, with Spike's rematerialization on Angel, to say nothing of the Slayers' own life sacrifices. While it is hard to begrudge those slights-of-hand, because they provided opportunity for fine stories, all those Lazarus tales work at the expense of definitive moments of the series. But frankly those characters weren't truly finished; Warren's tale was well-served by his ending but the troubling thing is how it subtly twists Willow's journey over the series.

Warren's greatest function was as illustration of the banal but real evil that is waiting line with you at the comic book store or sitting in the basement playing video games: petty, small, juvenile, unexotic misogyny and violence. That's why he was a startling, great villain. Now he's running around with powers and no skin and a souped-up tech-witch girlfriend. In the emotional math of story construction, Warren Mears' death was the balancing of an equation in the tale of The Worst Thing Willow Ever Did; while grief-blind Willow thought (didn't think exactly, but felt) she was righting the scale of cosmic justice for Tara, that's not what was going on. The universe was repossessing on a debt Willow owed for resurrecting Buffy. It happened all Season 6 long, as Willow fled down dark alleys to avoid emotional pain, and ironically caused nothing but worse, fresh agony in her wake. It's scary and fucked-up that Willow killed a man in cold blood. We don't want it to have happened, but we needed it.

Whedon is investing the kind of personal attention in the comic he should have given the last years of the show, so S8 could be a perfect opportunity to sort out some of the damage inflicted on the stories and characters in the flummoxed Season 7. Or it's a chance to throw whatever he doesn't like into the crater where Sunnydale used to stand. It was never possible to judge a BtVS season until it was complete, so it goes with Season 8; serialized fiction is only a serial the first time through. Unable to nail down what plot points are mysteries and which are dump-areas, or how the shape of the season looks from a balcony vantage, issue to issue, some moments are hair-raising, some frustrating, all tantalizing enough to keep one antsy for the next installment. There are enough interesting irons in the fire to expect good things of the finished season, but the comics structure is All Different from television. Thus far S8 hasn't dipped into the kind of self-contained chapters and episodes within/working toward a season arc that made BtVS such a structural marvel. Issues 1-4 feel like maybe two "episodes" - or one of the two-parter season openers - though the massive battle action, beasts, and army of zombies in kilts blow two seasons of budget, including Gellar's salary, on special effects alone. Series editor Scott Allie reports there could be fifty-plus issues comprising Season 8, originally announced as only 25. That sounds like a canvas as ample as any 22 TV episodes, though one prays publication can be sped up, because commercial breaks between acts are one thing, and multiple month gaps are quite another.

Could be "Long Way Home" is supposed to come out of the gate, hooves pounding, eyes popping and snorting fire. It's been four years, after all, so some heraldry, trumpets, kilt-zombies may be in order. Otherwise, Whedon's got the superhero comics writing knack, knowing you can Do Anything. So besides just action spectacle, he plunges us into demon dimensions, multiple mystical non-corporeal planes (yipes, what is this, Angel or somep'n?), and beads out smart page and panel breaks and reveals: funny cutaway panel of Andrew bored at a Slayer slumber party, surrounded by nubile super-teens in teddies... and an already-notorious splash panel torn from inside a sex dream far more insane than any Angel/Spike/Buffy three-way fanfic you've ever read. Mostly because there's a nurse uniform involved. Here's to hoping the pace can slow, and characters can begin sharing real scenes, not just a few panels. Promising story leads in this direction: Gojira-Dawn's problems are already more interesting than anything she's done since Season 5. Apparently Kennedy sorta-died off-stage, straining her romance with Willow, which gives one hope. Xander's got a mutual bone on for Renee, one of the Slaylings, though it's hard to tell where his heart's at right now. It is all breathless-fast and vague, but most intriguing is a complicated subplot romantic-mystery involving Buffy receiving a magic wake-up kiss of True Love (no, for real), tell-tale cinnamon lip-gloss, and Satsu, a Japanese Slayer (finally), who is obviously in love with the boss-lady. It's adorable. It plays out over a handful of panels through the story thus far, so delicate casual readers may not notice. And it is about minutia and people painting themselves into emotional corners. Y'know: the stuff Buffy is about.

In "Long Way Home"'s final moments, Buffy is told that from the military's perspective, she and her Slayers-in-Training are at war with the human race. That from General Voll's vantage, they are in effect no longer human beings. It is a question that has been a long time coming. The Slayer line was produced by inhumane means and for questionable purpose: a prehistoric girl, bound hand and foot to the Well of the Slayer, raped by the essence of a demon, all of it engineered by the first patriarchal Watcher prototypes, the Shadow Men, too chickenshit to fight their own battles, foisting the blessing/curse on the unwilling heroine. Human in physiology, mind and soul, or not, the calling of the Slayer is to protect the human race. If Buffy has renegotiated all the other terms of her contract, why not this one, too? Voll tells her "it's you against the world." Taken aback, she bleats "Oh..."

She thinks about it for a beat, darkens, and finishes: "'Kay."
Well, nobody could quite put it like Buffy Summers.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The COBRA WOMAN Codices: Drafting a Psychic Map of Cobra Island

The Door

A soft blue rectangle beyond a door in High Priestess Naja's orange chambers indicates the sky outside. The door leads to a balcony, and perhaps is only a window when seen from the opposite side. The balcony overhangs a courtyard in the palace. The courtyard is sometimes open to the public throngs, but impossible to access once inside the building. Outside, sometimes it is night, sometimes day, but in the orange room the sky remains perpetually powder blue. The menacing environs of the jungle island outside and the dangerous royal intrigues within are separated and/or united by the irrational, impossible space between, leaving nowhere in the geography of Cobra Woman as safe ground.

Set in a thick forest of matte paintings, projected ocean waves and secondary-color keyed slabs of curlicue set dressing, loomed over by a tiny-huge volcano that exists in eternal midday, the terrain of Cobra Woman is seared by dream-fever, coast to coast. Native Indian sidekick Kado (Sabu) feigns sleepwalking to eavesdrop on his pal Ramu (John Hall)'s plans to visit Cobra Island, but a day later indicates he was really in thrall of a visionary dream. Has he ever truly awoken? Has the spectator?

The Somnambulist

A small rocky hill is, in the eyes of Kado, a great black wall enclosing a lost world — the same he encountered in his dream — but it grows between shots to a pointed yellow mountain. As Kado and Ramu scale the peak, the rock bends like rubber to leave Kado dangling precariously, though strong Ramu is able to suspend his companion's weight while bent at the waist and without tumbling down the precipice. Where these yellow-black wall-mountains are located cannot be surmised. Though they render the island inaccessible in the unreliable dialogue, travellers during the film and in its unseen backstory go to and fro with little difficulty. Fire Mountain, omnipresent punishing god/volcano, is visible at the same angle from every window of the palace. Ramu is advised not to voyage to Cobra Island by his future father-in-law MacDonald (Moroni Olsen) but in the same conversation MacDonald shows him exactly where the lost world is located on a map, in close up.

The twisted DNA-bound saga of separated twins Tollea and Naja (Maria Montez, Maria Montez) locked in power struggle over the title of High Priestess of Cobra Island has infected the land, the sea, the air, the people and animals, the celluloid itself; the sparks between the sisters fly off, creating new aberrant twins wherever the fire lights. This is the logic of the double-traced map of Cobra Woman: everything has its twin, identical but reversed, sharing space with itself. Every character, prop, setting, line of dialogue, event, operates while cooled in the shadow of its opposite; often these twins are created by throwing all gears in reverse, negating their own existence. Hava (Lon Chaney, Jr.), mute flunky of the Cobra Island queen, feigns blindness as he travels to Tollea's village though his plan does not require it, and the blind-Hava that should not exist on seeing-Hava's mission tips off Kado that something is amiss. Hava's task is to abduct Tollea, but is in more properly to re-abduct her to her forgotten birthplace, Cobra Island; in effect to remove her from her home that he may bring her home. By the climax, Fire Mountain erupts, only to be declared permanently dormant seconds later.

The Sisters

If Tollea/Naja embody splits between unwitting savior and gleeful murderer, between skeptic and religious zealot, between, simply, nice and mean, they are also divided by strength and weakness, for nothing Tollea specifically does, short of show up on Cobra Island against her will, actually contributes to Naja's downfall. Theirs is not simple a dichotomy of good and evil, but of will and circumstance, too. The high priestess even causes her own death as she backs over the unlikely balcony wielding a spear in Tollea's direction, a blurred defensive/offensive posture. To complete the proper opposition of forces, Naja's bloody dictatorship does not give way to benevolent rule by her twin, but dissolves into off-screen anarchy: in the coda, Tollea flees the throne to return to her man, leaving Cobra Island with no leadership.

Like the omnipresent Fire Mountain, the pliable rock walls, and the mutable courtyard space, which all bend to the necessity of situation, the populace of Cobra Woman's world find themselves shuttled from location to location by means none can explain. Kado arrives with much effort and swinging from ledges at precisely the correct dungeon window where Ramu is being imprisoned, though there is no way to identify the chamber from outside the palace. The entire plot hinges on the backstory conceit that infant Tollea was smuggled off Cobra Island aboard MacDonald's boat, when he chanced to visit the island at the same time the baby was supposed to be put to death. But the tale goes that MacDonald was knocked unconscious and woke up on his vessel with the Cobranian stowaway. Who placed her there, when, and why are subjects never broached. Ramu steals the robes of High Priest Martok (Edgar Barrier), and walks undetected past palace guards, but how he locates Naja's quarters in the vast building cannot be known. Friendly chimp Koko materializes inexplicably on Cobra Island, but the tale of her journey from India by separate means from the Hava/Tollea and Ramu/Kado boats is never to be told. Duty calls, and so: there they are, just as one may look up anywhere on Cobra Island, and see Fire Mountain, smoldering against the blue sky. There it is.

The Mountain

Here then is Cobra Woman as the genre theorist's perfect text, in which characters' movements, the shape of the universe, and order of events to not stem from internal motivation of free-willed characters, but are at the mercy of the unyielding dictates of external story, diamond hard, immobile in place, before the players took the stage. Why do they keep coming? How can so many continue to arrive on the rocky shores of this forbidden, secret home to a lost civilization? Cobra Island draws all fish into its golden net. There is no resisting its irrational pull.