Always running… from something!

Avid readers of this blog may have noticed that I’m fairly keen on Messrs. Vaughn and Whedon’s work in comics… so when Joss Whedon was set to write the next series of Runaways, I was excited. Both writers have similar strengths; their writing is witty, they create ensemble casts of characters that gel extremely well, and they tell a good story while providing more than enough ambiguity to keep things interesting beyond the plot.

I recently re-read Vaughn’s original three Runaways volumes and apart from a couple of minor issues (such as the slightly inconsistent quality of the artwork – there’s some gorgeous work there, but some panels and some of the inking feel rushed) I greatly enjoyed it. Coming away from Whedon’s run with the kids, however, has left me somewhat disappointed. When he’s at his best, Whedon is a fantastic storyteller, getting you involved way more than I would have expected from stories about teen vampire slayers or space cowboys. He’s not infallible, though; his first Serenity comic, while not abysmal, was in no way as memorable as the TV series, for instance.

And now, Dead End Kids: my first and main thought throughout was, “I wonder what Brian K. Vaughn would have made out of the material.” Again, Whedon’s writing isn’t bad, but there’s little of the sense of surprise or freshness that Vaughn’s stories had. The kids feel ever so slightly less real and more like comic book teens. (And don’t think you can worm your way into my heart by introducing a new regular character that comes from where I live, insiduous comic!) The art is absolutely fine, but it lacks the quirk of Alphona’s best panels. And the time travel gimmick, while fun, also comes across as a tad overused. In that respect, the story feels a bit as if Joss Whedon had written an episode of Star Trek.

Nevertheless, there are moments when Whedon’s talent shows. Even if the time travel plot is a tad overdone, its denouement is more poignant than I would have expected. There are some interesting hints at the direction in which especially one character might develop, with a daringly cruel punishment for two of the story’s villains. And there’s a couple of pages ending in the death of a minor (or should I say “small”?) character that had me giggle and go “Yewwww!” at the same time.

Was it worth getting the comic? Yes. Was it as good as the other volumes? That’s a definite no. In any case, I’m very much looking forward to Vaughn’s use of Whedon’s characters now. If I’m lucky, the first two volumes of Buffy: Season Eight (the comic-book continuation of a certain barely known TV series that Whedon supposedly had a hand in) should arrive this week, and if memory serves Vaughn has penned a Faith storyline. Should be fun to see how that one’s turned out.

On a very different note: we completed The Wire season 2. ***Warning: some spoilers to follow.*** Apparently there are people that didn’t like the second season too much, mainly because they wanted more Avon Barksdale, Stringer Bell and everyone’s favourite junkie Bubbles and fewer paunchy white guys with bald spots and union shenanigans. Okay, I could have done with more Bubbles too (who couldn’t?), but season 1, while tighter, didn’t have the tragedy of Frank Sobotka. The ending of episode 11, “Bad Dreams”, builds up to one of the saddest fade-outs I can remember. In a way, the reveal at the beginning of the twelfth and final episode of the season isn’t half as sad as seeing Frank walk towards his fate. Even Ziggy, one of the major fuckheads of television history, becomes a tragic character when you see the larger context of what is going on. Yet for all the sadness that permeates the season ending, the series never loses the anger and sense of humour that make it bearable. At least in the first two seasons – I may very well be setting myself up for a broken heart in any of the three remaining seasons.

Mais le chat, elle ne reviendra jamais…

I don’t particularly like superhero comics.

I treasure my copies of Batman: The Killing Joke, Watchmen, Top Ten, Promethea (notice something?), Arkham Asylum, Superman: Red Son.

And now the complete Joss Whedon run of Astonishing X-Men.

Contradiction? No. What I like is that those books and those writers do something interesting, memorable, sometimes subversive and often just plain cool with the superhero template.

While I’ll always consider Watchmen one of the masterpieces of comics (and, if pressed on the matter, literature altogether), I’ve got a special soft spot for Whedon’s X-Men. Moore is a fantastic writer but he’s mainly an ideas man. Almost no one beats my man Whedon (check out this male white nerd and his command of embarrassing language!) at characters. Firefly and Buffy wouldn’t be a tenth as good if you didn’t want to spend time with the characters. Whedon is adept at making you fall in love with the characters…

… and then breaking your heart.

I’m over what he did to Wash. No, really, I am. I know why he did it and I appreciate it. I want fictional characters to generate feelings in me, and I’m the kind of morbid git who takes the death of a character as final proof of these feelings. Thing is, unless I can believe that a character may die, I will not develop any deep feelings towards that character because, well, they’re not real. In a way, what makes characters real for me (apart from good writing and acting, of course) is that they have a life, and that life may end. If I know that a character can’t and won’t die (because the writers, producers or fans won’t allow it), then they’re no more real to me than my avatar in a computer game, with an unlimited supply of credits.

The flipside of that is, of course, that it allows writers like Joss Whedon, again and again, to break my heart. And, morbid Whedon-bitch that I am, I like the way it hurts.

But if I ever meet him in real life, I’ll have to kick the man’s shin until it drops off.

P.S.: I don’t care whether you’re into superhero comics or not. If you’ve liked any of Joss Whedon’s writing, if you enjoyed Firefly (in spite of not being a sci-fi fan), if you got into Buffy (in spite of the bad make up and silly special effects and, worse, the whole high school vibe) – read Astonishing X-Men. For some silly reason, I started with vol. 2, definitely the weakest of the run, yet I was still hooked on his character writing.

P.P.S.: Another thing that Whedon does very well is sexual attraction. And there’s some of that in Astonishing X-Men, in the last place where you might expect it. Hee.

P.P.P.S.: Yes, today’s blog entry has a title à clef. I’m allowed to be pretentious every now and then.

Girl power

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an odd beast. It is perhaps the wittiest series with what would seem to be the dumbest premise: HIgh school chick fights vampire. It was cheesy, it had bad fight scenes much of the time, and many of the actors weren’t terribly good.

Yet what Buffy got right, it got right. In every season, there were episodes that are up there with my favourite television fare ever – and yes, that includes Six Feet Under and Deadwood. Over the course of seven seasons, I’ve come to care about all the characters. That never happened with any of the Star Trek series that I watched as a teenager. Nor did I grow tired of Buffy in the way that I lost patience with The X-Files.

Much of that has to do with Joss Whedon’s characters. They quickly come to feel like people you want to spend time with. Yes, even Angel… and yes, even season 6/7 Buffy, although to a lesser extent. (There were moments – flashes – when I even liked Dawn. I’m sorry.) They come to feel real, which is an amazing feat, considering that these people tend to spend their time fighting rubber-mask baddies and being American teenagers.

Yes, the series lost some steam after season 5 ended. There’s a lot going on in seasons 6 and 7 where I thought, “Yes, I see what they’re doing there… I see where they’re going with this”, but it was less enjoyable than what had come earlier. But I do not get the hate those later seasons get from some of the fans. I do not get the vitriol or the sense of betrayal that you find on the internet. (But then, there’s so much on the internet I do not get…)

It’s interesting re-watching season 2 now (our Sunday morning fare), since this is pretty much when the series came into its own. In the sophomore year, the actors had found their feet and really got their characters, to the point where it didn’t matter that much whether they were great actors or not. The writing had got more comfortable, yet at the same time more daring. In season 1, a later episode such as “The Body” or “Once More, With Feeling” wouldn’t have been imaginable; after season 2, pretty much anything was possible. (Well, not quite. I was only prepared for Whedon’s sadistic glee in doing horrible things to his characters because I’d previously seen Serenity. Yes, Joss, I know what you were doing there, I know what you were going for, and if I ever meet you I’ll be sure to applaud you for your audacity while I repeatedly kick you in the privates.)
So, re-watching Buffy while cuddling up to my loved one keeps me from missing Giles and Willow, and Xander and Cordelia, Oz and Joyce… and Buffy. As Willow said so memorably, “Sweet girl. Not that bright.”

Good thing that Joss Whedon and Brian K. Vaughn (of Y: Last Man and Runaways fame) are doing season 8 in comic book form. Shiny.