Saturday, February 8, 2014

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer Omnibus, Vol. 2" Review

Howdy Hellmouth hounds!  Get ready for another heartfelt analysis of Buffyverse material!

Based on the rousing response I received on my last comic book review, I’ve decided to put the Buffy novels on the back burner for the time being and continue critiquing the collections. So hold on to your hats - it’s time for “Omnibus: The Sequel” (aka “Buffy the Vampire Slayer Omnibus, Vol. 2”)!

Released in 2007 several months after the first Omnibus, “Vol. 2” similarly arranges its seven stories in sequential order rather than by publication date. However, compared to its forbearer, this collection’s chronology is extremely convoluted— the stories run the gamut of the series, taking place anywhere prior to Season One up to the early half of Season Three. Editor Scott Allie explains in the introduction that this fragmented flow is an attempt to show the various stages of the comics’ history, but the end result is still frustrating. Despite the terrible timeline, we press on!

Same drill as last time kiddies— I review each story, and then summarize my findings with an overview of the entire work. Feel free to jump to any specific comic!

Writer— Scott Lobdell & Fabian Nicieza 
Artist— Jeff Matsuda 
Cover Art— Jeff Matsuda & Dave McCaig 

Released near the end of the original run, “Vol. 2’s” starting story picks up immediately following the first Omnibus.

Still recovering from her stint in the mental asylum, Buffy is stuck babysitting Dawn for an evening at the Santa Monica pier. When demonic dudes interrupt their night on the town, Buffy is forced to intervene and inadvertently puts Dawn in danger. Fortunately, the Summers sisters have a watchful guardian waiting in the wings…

Despite not delivering on its holiday-inspired title, “Angels We Have Seen on High” is undeniably merry. Artist Jeff Matsuda delivers his signature cartoony, anime-inspired artwork, in the same vein as his designs on “The Batman” and “Jackie Chan Adventures.” He even sneaks in references to the latter with some clever cameos.

Aiyaah! It's Uncle and Jade!

If I had to use one word to describe this comic, it would be “adorable”— it’s bursting with bubbly personality and a self-aware sense of humor, and you can’t help but love it.

Say it with me: "AWWWWW!"

Based on his TV experience, Matsuda’s style lends itself exceptionally well to the comic book medium. With smooth transitions and incredibly expressive characters, his drawings seem to come to life; his work feels less like printed pages and more like a lost episode of the abandoned animated series.

I’m once again impressed by how well adding Dawn to the pre-Season One storyline works— her naïveté about Buffy’s dangerous duties adds a comedic dynamic that was truly a missed opportunity on the show. Also, her interactions with a certain brooding bad boy are disarmingly cute, and I wish the two had had more screen time. Sadly, much like my criticism of the first Dawn-centric story, this comic is too short, clocking in at a disappointing 10 pages.
Despite its brevity, “Angels We Have Seen on High” makes for a highly entertaining opener to “Vol. 2.”

Writer— Fabian Nicieza
Artist— Cliff Richards 
Painted Pages— Brian Horton
Cover Art— Brian Horton

Continuing the continuity of the previous comic, “A Stake to the Heart” stands in stark contrast to its predecessor’s lighthearted style and subject matter.

The issue begins with a gut punch moment— Hank officially leaves the Summers household, and Buffy, Dawn and Joyce endure the fallout of their fractured family. Angel, seeing Buffy’s sorrow, performs a spell with Whistler to ease her pain and unwittingly releases four malignancy demons that begin to prey on the women’s pain. Meanwhile, a certain book-loving Brit begins the transition into his role as Sunnydale High’s new librarian…

A serious, somber affair, “A Stake to the Heart” delves into Season Six levels of darkness— the entire cast struggles with anger, confusion and betrayal, and Buffy even contemplates self-harm and suicide. Similar to the most emotional episode of the series, the strength of the story is its riveting depiction of real-life events, in this case the anguish that accompanies divorce.

This grief is further amplified by the supernatural elements. With artist Cliff Richards’ grotesque designs, the nightmarish malignancy demons look like creatures out of “Pan’s Labryinth.” More importantly, Richards is able to visually depict depression as physical manifestations; feelings like being swallowed whole by guilt or rendered helpless by fear are all perfectly personified.

Besides these dramatic drawings, the issue is also interspersed with painted pages by Brian Horton. Hauntingly beautiful, this poignant imagery not only defines each demon, but also delivers a parallel narrative; as a paraphrase of the poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the concurrent story serves as a counterpoint to the main plot and adds additional dramatic weight, à la “Watchmen's” famous work-within-a-work.  

*sings* "I'm on a boat! I'm on--" Bad timing?

I have but two minor complaints: Angel’s use of magic seems foolish and out-of-character, and I highly doubt Whistler would go along with his plan; also, it’s inconsistent as to when Buffy can and can’t see the demons, and their end goal is a bit vague.  

With its heartrending portrayal of heavy concepts, “A Stake to the Heart” is a profound entry in the Slayer canon and, thus far, my favorite Buffy comic.

Back to Comics

Writer— Jen Van Meter 
Artist— Luke Ross 
Cover Art— Luke Ross, Rick Ketcham & Guy Major

The first comic in the Omnibuses to take place subsequent to Season One, “MacGuffins” also holds the distinction of being the inaugural Buffy issue, being published by Dark Horse in their “Dark Horse Presents” series.

While visiting her dad in Los Angeles during summer vacation, Buffy receives a box containing two mischievous creatures bearing the comic’s namesake. Revealed to be part of a mystical mental test, the MacGuffins proceed to wreak havoc throughout the house. She must solve the riddle to pacifying the pests and clean up their mess before her father returns.

It’s here that the momentum “Vol. 2” had gained with the previous stories comes to a screeching halt— “MacGuffins” is as shallow and pointless as the trope from which it derives its name.

With its rainy day setting and household hijinks, the plot is a blatant rip-off of a beloved Dr. Seuss book, with the MacGuffins serving as stand-ins for the titular character’s scheming sidekicks.

Besides being unoriginal, the plot feels improbable; after Dawn’s disastrous encounter with mysterious mail, you’d think the Summers girls would be slightly more wary of accepting strange packages. Moreover, the reason given for the MacGuffins’ appearance is completely absurd. Giles has a distinct distaste for deceiving his charge and would never mislead her in such a manner.

The most offensive part of this issue, however, is Luke Ross’ over-sexualized artwork; Buffy’s Barbie-like body and form-fitting outfits, along with lingering shots of her splayed legs, give the visuals an uncomfortable, leering vibe.

Uninteresting and forgettable, “MacGuffins” is like the blank pages at the beginning of the collection— just a waste of space.

Writer— Christopher Golden 
Artist— Ryan Sook 
Cover Art— Ryan Sook

Skipping ahead to Season Two, “Queen of Hearts” continues the crazy antics of Spike and Drusilla and is the second issue of their eponymous series.

While driving cross-country toward Sunnydale and their inevitable collision course with Buffy, the couple makes a detour in St. Louis for their own form of R&R. While gambling at a riverboat casino, they learn their luck’s being manipulated by a sinister force lurking beneath the Mississippi. Never ones to stand for foul play, Spike and Dru go about savagely shifting the odds in their favor.

[Insert "Hunger Games" joke here]

After his colorless characterizations in his last Spike and Dru outing, Christopher Golden completely redeems himself with “Queen of Hearts.” Although in some ways it’s a rehash of their previous adventure, this entry is eminently stronger with its spot-on dialogue and significantly elevated stakes (no pun intended).

One of the best parts of the issue is Golden’s examination of the always-alluded-to sexual aspects in the Spike/Dru relationship. One particular scene in a strip club presents a perfect blend of violence and sensuality and further cements Spike and Dru as the Mickey and Mallory of the Buffyverse.

Ryan Sook, who previously worked on the series’ covers, takes the reins on the artwork here, a trend that continues for the next two issues. According to Scott Allie, Sook’s style was apparently controversial with the fans, but I find it to be fitting; his noirish illustrations are very similar to Mike Mignola— dark, gritty and heavily shadowed, they’re well suited to the horror-heavy narrative.

“Queen of Hearts” is best summed up by visualizing the lyrics to its song-inspired name played as the characters drive off into the (figurative) sunset:

“And I will always keep on trying
To gather this strange piece of mind
Without it there’d be lonely me and
Oh, darlin’, lonely you…”

Back to Comics

Writer— Doug Petrie 
Artist— Ryan Sook 
Cover Art— Ryan Sook

Boasting another music-based title, “Ring of Fire” continues the “Queen of Hearts” timeline but jumps to the middle of Season Two, taking place after “Passion” but before “I Only Have Eyes for You.” At this point in the collection I’ve completely given up hope for any semblance of a consistent, sequential storyline, so I’ve decided to just sit back and enjoy the ride.

In the aftermath of Jenny’s death, a traumatized Giles becomes increasingly unhinged, and Buffy worries about the mental state of her mentor. Meanwhile, Angelus, Spike and Drusilla steal a suit of samurai armor from a Japanese cargo vessel; the armor belongs to the demon warrior Kelgor, who in ancient times raised an army of the undead, and the three hope to harness his power. Buffy must prevent Kelgor’s resurrection and recover her errant Watcher.

Marking the first foray by a writer from the show into the comic book medium, author Doug Petrie delivers a stellar script. As an epic story steeped in mythology, the plot of this Oriental outing is very similar to a Buffy book I previously reviewed; while Kelgor himself isn’t that compelling, it’s the combat surrounding him that make this issue stimulating.

Beyond the big-budget, narrative, Petrie’s greatest contribution is his character usage; the underutilized Kendra factors heavily into the plot and Petrie’s writing shows her to be capable and cunning.

As a bonus, we don't have to hear her awful accent!

Besides his badass Ripper-esque actions, we also get a few tender moments with Giles, as he achieves final closure with his lost love.

Ryan Sook is at the helm here again, and although most of his work is well done, there are times when his drawings seem a bit… off. At various points his characters, particularly the males, have pudgy facial features, and the Scoobies look like they have bags under their eyes along with elongated, chicken-like necks, and the inconsistency can be extremely distracting.

I do have a few negative comments about the narrative. In addition to being a bit like the Season 2 finale, Petrie introduces several plot points that feel unresolved; one in particular with government goons goes absolutely nowhere. Also, I’ve realized how difficult it is to portray Drusilla’s particular manner of deranged dialogue— here she sounds more like our favorite vapid vampire than her normal schizophrenic self.

Ambitious and action-packed, “Ring of Fire” burns with creativity (see what I did there?), an assessment acceded to by Joss himself, who in a rare occasion expressed his approval of the comic.

Back to Comics

Artist— Ryan Sook 
Cover Art— Ryan Sook & Guy Major

The final “Vol. 2” comic to feature our favorite bloodsuckers, “Paint the Town Red,” was actually the first issue in their series.

Following their flight from Sunnydale, Spike’s lingering jealousy over Drusilla’s lust for Angelus drives a wedge between the couple. After ending their relationship in a fiery blaze, Spike heads to Turkey and takes over a small seaside town. Drusilla unexpectedly tracks him down with a new friend in tow— a necromancer. When her scheme to make Spike suffer encounters an unexpected hitch, the two must put aside their differences to defeat this new peril.

For his third go-round at this comic series, Christopher Golden gains a co-contributor— Spike himself, James Marsters, brings his creative input and adds extra credibility to the comic.   

The authors take a unique approach by exploring the progression toward the characters’ eventual breakup, an event that was mentioned on the series but never shown. Their incensed interactions in this issue, particularly in the opening, remind me of the brutal relationship between a certain cruel clown and his starry-eyed sidekick.  

Koines, the necromancer, is a creepy character with his power over the dead, making this the most ghastly story in “Vol. 2;” it’s gruesome fun seeing Spike and Dru massacre hordes of zombies with medieval weapons.  

Once again, however, I take offense with Drusilla’s style of speech. She sounds “normal” at the onset, yet becomes more coherent as the story progresses, making it seem as if her madness is something she can control.

As an unseen chapter in the Spike/Dru dynamic, “Paint the Town Red” is another rewarding issue that has you rooting for the couple to rekindle their twisted romance.

Writer— Dan Brereton 
Artist— Hector Gomez 
Cover Art— Hector Gomez

For our concluding comic “The Dust Waltz,” the first Buffy graphic novel, we jump forward to Season Three, sometime prior to “Lover’s Walk.” 

Lilith and Lamia, two centuries-old vampire sisters, come to Sunnydale to hold the eponymous ritual— a fight to the death between their two champions that will culminate with the opening of the Hellmouth and the unleashing of the Ancient Ones. Meanwhile, Giles anxiously awaits the arrival of his niece, Jane, from Oxford. As the frightening festivities collide with familial fun, The Scoobies must fight to prevent the apocalypse.

A cringe-inducing comic, “The Dust Waltz” is like a waterfall of the worst elements from all the collections; everything about it, from the script, to the speech, to the art style cascades over you in a torrent of terribleness.

The first problem is the name of the ceremony itself; for an ancient tradition, “The Dust Waltz” sounds more like a misnomer the Scoobies would use in place of the actual title. When even the characters start mocking the name of the comic they’re in, you know it’s stupid.

Author Dan Brereton attempts to expand the Buffyverse mythology with the introduction of Lilith, commonly cited as the mother of all vampires; indeed, she’s even revealed to be the Master’s sire. What could’ve been an interesting development is dragged down by her overly-dramatic dialogue. 

I feel the need to eat some ham to go with that cheese.

This tale has the most confusing continuity of all the comics; characters’ descriptions of past events seem to contradict one another, and I was only able to determine its placement by double-checking the introduction.

My biggest grievance with the story is the character of Jane. The fact that she only refers to Giles as “Uncle” makes their interactions about as awkward as the inclusion of Max on Calvin & Hobbes.

Most egregious though, is Jane’s perplexing personality. She’s positioned as the antithesis to her conservative relative— adventurous, outgoing and action-oriented. Despite being set up as a strong female lead, her actions are a compounding series of letdowns— she guides the group into a dark cavern… and is the first to run screaming at a sign of danger; she stands ready to fight a pack of werewolves… and then promptly faints; She's ready to save the day… and then leaves to find an adult. To top it off, in the finale she stops to retrieve a trinket and puts the entire group in danger for ABSOLUTELY no reason. Jane’s about as useful to the Scooby Gang as ‘90s Jubilee was to the X-Men.

"Guys, I can use my powers to light our panicked retreat! I'm TOTALLY helping!"

Besides the script, the artwork here is absolutely atrocious.

With the progenitors of all vampires and werewolves playing a prominent role in the story, you’d expect both species to take center stage; yet, they’re overshadowed by a bevy of random beasts. I have it on good authority that the editor completely disregarded Brereton’s script descriptions, resulting in this mish-mash of monsters.

Cordelia and Willow are totally indistinguishable from one another, with both having the same facial features and hairstyles— the only way I was able to tell the two apart is to go back and figure out what clothes they were wearing at the beginning of the issue.

But by far the worst part of the illustrations is the character designs; Gomez, known for his fantasy work, particularly the character of Red Sonja, continues his penchant of portraying voluptuous females; every single woman, particularly Lilith, has a buxom bustline and clear-cut cleavage. The rest of the cast doesn’t escape unscathed either. Although normally not unattractive by any means, this stylized Scooby Gang are like sculpted gods—with chiseled chests and flawless features, they look nothing like your average teenagers and more like Abercrombie & Fitch models. Gomez seems less concerned with conveying the narrative than putting his creations in noble, heroic poses.

All that's missing is a soft breeze to ruffle their hair...

As the polar opposite to “A Stake to the Heart,” “The Dust Waltz” is by far the worst Buffy comic I’ve read; while “MacGuffins” may have been forgettable, “The Dust Waltz” is outright offensive.


In terms of pacing, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer Omnibus, Vol. 2” is like a prized thoroughbred that shows promise on the day of a race; it begins with a fantastic opening out of the starting gate, maintains a steady pace throughout, and then is abruptly wrested off the track, taken behind the stands, shot and turned into glue.

Despite suffering from somewhat erratic levels of quality, the strong stories alone, specifically “A Stake to the Heart,” are worth the price of admission.

Rating: 3/5 stars

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer Omnibus, Vol. 2” is available through Dark Horse, Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Be sure to follow the various contributors via their social media accounts!

Scott Allie
Scott Lobdell
Fabian Nicieza
Jen Van Meter
Dave McCaig
Brian Horton
Christopher Golden
Ryan Sook
James Marsters

No comments:

Post a Comment