From the ashes of film, Joss Whedon gave life to ‘Buffy’ on TV. Now, he’s turning a new page.
WHEN audiences last saw the cast of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” in May 2003, Buffy and her friends had won a nearly apocalyptic battle between good and evil. Their hometown of Sunnydale, Calif. -- also known as the Hellmouth -- was a gargantuan pit as a result. After peering into the crater, Buffy, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, walked away with a smile, and the television series came to a close after seven seasons.
On March 14, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” will return in comic book form. Joss Whedon, “Buffy’s” creator, has written the first five issues and will oversee -- or “executive produce,” he says -- the whole arc as if it were a television show. Whedon has enlisted former “Buffy” staff writers, along with a few writers from the comic book world, to join him in continuing the story, which is scheduled to run for at least 30 issues to be released monthly. Whedon, the show’s fans and the series’ publisher, Dark Horse Comics, have deemed it “Buffy Season Eight.”
“When you create a universe, you don’t stop living in that universe -- I know a lot of the fans didn’t,” Whedon said. “But I was surprised to find myself back in it so firmly as well.”
It’s yet another reinvention for “Buffy,” which Whedon turned into a TV series after being disappointed with the results of the frothy 1992 movie, starring Kristy Swanson, that he had written. So, in summary: “Buffy Season Eight” is a comic book run like the television series from which it came, which itself evolved out of a feature film -- a classic evolving specimen for this era of ever-shifting media platforms.
The common element is Whedon, 42, the movie-TV-comics auteur behind “Buffy,” “Angel,” an “X-Men” comic series, the screenplay of “Toy Story,” and the flop television show “Firefly” as well as its movie resurrection, “Serenity.” In recent years, he has expressed frustration with both the television and movie businesses, but the less pressure-filled world of comics has been a constant.
Scott Allie, senior managing editor at Dark Horse Comics, knows his company is benefiting from Whedon’s urge to create more “Buffy” stories. Excitedly and without hesitation, Allie said, “Oh, it’s gonna be huge.”
A moderate ratings success on the WB and for its final two seasons on UPN, “Buffy” nevertheless inspired as worshipful a cult as you can find in the pop landscape. It told the sneakily dark coming-of-age story of a young woman who was special, in that she was chosen to save the world from vampire-led evil, but yearned to fit in. Buffy was surrounded by loving friends and family, bad boyfriends, and demons. Her high school was literally hell, she died a couple of times during the series, and as her tombstone once read, “she saved the world -- a lot.”
Since the show ended, “Buffy” fans have made do with what was left to them. Across the Internet, the show continues to be parsed: its feminism, its use of language, its influence on current shows such as “Lost,” “Heroes” and “Veronica Mars.”
More concretely, a public sing-along of the show’s musical episode, “Once More With Feeling,” has grown so popular that its inventor, a film programmer from Brooklyn, is planning a “Rocky Horror Picture Show"-like national tour. Penguin recently published “The Physics of the Buffyverse,” a book in which science writer Jennifer Ouellette explains the principles of physics using examples from “Buffy” and its spinoff, “Angel,” which ran from 1999 to 2004.
“It really was like being home again,” Whedon said wistfully about returning to “Buffy.” “ ‘Oh, here are my old friends. They’re so funny!’ You can hear their voices so specifically. It was a comic spoken in the voices of actors you worked with for seven or eight years.”
Whedon, interviewed over lunch at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, looks like a ruffled college student. A third-generation television writer, he has a deadpan delivery but affects voices as he talks to illustrate or emphasize important points. “Buffy” was known for its characters’ tone and banter, and hearing him is like listening to the show -- making its translation into comics reliant on, or at least greatly enhanced by, a reader’s familiarity with the original.
Or, as Jane Espenson, a former writer and co-executive producer of “Buffy” who has signed up for comic book duty, put it: “The voices of those characters are in my head forever and ever. The reason characters talked like that on ‘Buffy’ is they talked a bit like Joss -- and we all ended up talking like Joss.”
Season 8 begins
DARK Horse’s Allie said that the voices come through in the comic’s dialogue, and the visuals will reward fans. “You don’t have cute Sarah Michelle Gellar running around, but you’ve got good-looking characters and much better-looking monsters.”
Oregon-based Dark Horse, one of the country’s largest comic book producers, has published works by Frank Miller and Mike Mignola and also many tie-ins with Hollywood, such as “Star Wars,” “Alien vs. Predator” and “The Mask.” Dark Horse published the ancillary “Buffy” comics that came out during the show’s run, which Whedon had little to do with. There were “Angel” comics too. Later, Whedon co-wrote a series that bridged the gap between “Firefly,” his canceled Fox show, and “Serenity,” the movie rebirth of it in September 2005.
All the while, Allie was interested in a “Buffy” comic that “replaces the TV show in a way we never could do before.” A year ago, he opened an e-mail from Whedon, and it unexpectedly contained the script for the first issue of “Buffy.” Allie remembered thinking, happily, “Oh, OK, so you’re going to write this?”
Until then, Whedon had been hopeful that a series of TV movies based on “Buffy’s” costars would be produced by 20th Century Fox Television, the studio behind the television show. The movie spinoffs would be able to get around the inconvenient truth that Gellar no longer wanted to play Buffy by sending fan-favorite characters like Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Spike (James Marsters) on their own adventures.
“It was a pipe dream ultimately, because I think the studio thought they could do this for no money -- that everybody would show up because we’re all buddies,” Whedon said. “But I don’t think they noticed that everybody seems to have careers. It was an unrealistic business model. And once I realized that, I just decided, ‘I can find a man to draw them instead!’ ” (20th Century Fox Television declined to comment.)
In the year since Whedon wrote the first issue, he and Dark Horse worked on finding the right artists and assembling a team of writers. From the “Buffy” world, Espenson, Drew Goddard, Drew Greenberg, Doug Petrie and Steven DeKnight have said they will contribute; from the comics side, Jeph Loeb and Brad Meltzer joined the project; and Brian K. Vaughan will write the four-arc series after Whedon’s first five issues.
Vaughan’s series will focus on Faith, a recalcitrant slayer who was Buffy’s friend, then her nemesis and finally her ally. “When I sat down with Brian to talk about his arc, that was the closest I’d been to a writers’ room since I left television,” Whedon said. “You know what? It felt so great.”
Espenson said she’d like to write “comedic stand-alone” issues throughout “Buffy Season Eight.” She said: “ ‘Buffy’ was a show that Joss ran from top to bottom. I liked working for Joss as a show runner, and I hope he’s really, really running this.” She paused, and laughed: “ ‘Tell me what to do, Joss, and I’ll do it!’ ”
Some work situations run more smoothly than others.
As Whedon was getting “Buffy Season Eight” up and running, he was supposed to be writing and then directing a high-profile comic adaptation: the movie version of “Wonder Woman” with Warner Bros. After having been associated with the long-gestating project since March 2005, Whedon announced he was quitting last month on the fan site Whedonesque.com, writing, “We just saw different pictures.”
When asked to elaborate, he didn’t really. “I don’t want to go into it too much, because they still own that script,” he said. And then: “I cannot tell you what they wanted. Because they never told me what they wanted. When I asked them, ‘Well, what is it that you want?’ They said, ‘We cannot tell you.’ I can tell you what they didn’t want: Me!” And then: “And they treated me extremely well; I’m not trying to slam.” (Warner Bros. declined to comment.)
Many roads ahead
BUT Whedon is clearly unhappy about the experience and the time wasted: “You know, when you get into a giant thing like ‘Wonder Woman,’ to add up to nothing -- it’s going to be four years between projects. I don’t have that many four years.”
He said he will now focus on “Goners,” an original screenplay he wrote and is developing to direct for Universal that he called “a ghastly tale of female empowerment -- something new for me!”
He would also like to return to television, after telling Variety in 2004, “I have a bitter taste in my mouth with where TV has gone in the past five years.” Whedon said the experience he had with “Firefly,” which was canceled after 11 episodes, taught him what guarantees he would need to go back. “I don’t want another ‘Firefly.’ I can’t do that. It hurts too much,” he said. “I’ll learn to golf or something instead. And that, by the way, is not going to help the golf world.
“But because of the new media, because of DVDs, because of the Internet, there are so many new avenues that basically I feel like I can go back to TV when I have the power to set up a paradigm wherein I know I can complete a story.”
For now, he has more “Buffy” stories to tell. Espenson said that, knowing Whedon, she was not surprised he came back to “Buffy.”
“It’s about youth. It’s about feminism,” she said. “Strength and learning who you are. It’s hard to imagine a franchise that captures as much of Joss’ soul as this one does.”
But in reflecting on it himself, Whedon wonders. “I was like, ‘Am I really an artist of integrity, or am I just grieving for my mom? What’s going on here?’ I have so many questions about why I do that -- why I go back to that well when I could be moving forward.” He hesitated, then said: “But the fact of the matter is when you work with people you love, you want to work with them more. Same goes with characters.”