Comic fans can be natural cynics, so when Dark Horse Comics announced it would be introducing a gay male slayer to the pages of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Nine,” a number of critics (some less friendly than others) jumped up to debate the move. However, it didn’t hurt the story’s ultimate acceptance that Jane Espenson was one of the two writers (along with Drew Z. Greenberg) charged with writing the “Billy the Vampire Slayer” arc.
A writer and producer on the “Buffy” TV series, Espenson isn’t new to either the ethos of the Buffyverse or the “Buffy” comic books (she wrote issues #21, 26-30 and the “Riley” one-shot during “Season Eight”). And as the co-creator of “Husbands” — a web-sitcom about a pair of gay newlyweds — she’s equally familiar with the fight for LGBT equality and the drive for authentic, multi-dimensional gay and lesbian characters in fiction and critics.
In advance of Billy’s debut in today’s “Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Season 9” #14, Espenson spoke with CBR about the character’s critics, the God-spark of Billy, whether he could make it on TV or against tougher vampire competition and the benefits of working with both artist Karl Moline and co-writer Drew Z. Greenberg again.
CBR News: How did you and Drew Z. Greenberg decide that this was the story that you wanted to tell?
Jane Espenson: For me, it really started when I noticed that most of the people telling me that “Buffy” changed their life were young gay men. And when the reruns started airing on Logo, that confirmed for me that there was this whole big group of people that grew up watching “Buffy,” identifying with her and her outcast status and her secret and her inner strength. It just hit me that we had a story to tell about a boy who wants to be a Slayer. And I didn’t want it to be a story about him getting a door slammed in his face. The thing about inclusiveness is that it continues after you make it in — always have a hand held out to help up the next person.
Because “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” began as a TV show, the comic carries a slight burden where some of us — I think — view its evolution and direction and wonder if those same choices would have been made were this unfolding on TV. Is the story of Billy the Vampire Slayer something that would have made it to air?
One of the nice things about being a comic series is that you can tell stories that wouldn’t work (or would be too expensive) on film. But, actually, Billy is a story that would totally work on TV. I don’t think we would actually have to change anything we wrote. Neither Drew nor I have an interest in shocking anyone; the point of the story is about inclusiveness and identity, not sexuality, really, and I would certainly hope that we’ve reached a point where that could air.
I co-created an online comedy with Brad Bell called “Husbands” that is much spicier in content, since it’s about newlyweds, and I don’t think even it has anything stronger than what you’d see in any sitcom about straight newlyweds. We are in a new era.
The rules of the world you’re writing seem to dictate that this may have a sad end. Slayers persevere thanks to their courage and internal strength, but they also survive against long odds because of a special physical gift that Billy doesn’t have. Are we going to see him struggle because he lacks “slayer power”?
He’s going to need support, that’s true. Luckily, he has someone.
How vital is Cute Devon to the story that you are trying to tell?
He’s the support. Devon is very crucial to the story.
Would Devon and Billy be up for the challenge — physically — if they were taking on the usual “Buffy” brand vamp and not the less erudite and coordinated zompires?
That’s a good question. Sadly, no, I don’t think they would be, not without a lot of Batman-style tech or something. There is a lot of strength that comes with being called.
What is it about Billy that uniquely qualifies him for slayer duty, and what is it Devon sees in Billy that makes him think that he (Billy) is up to the challenge?
The fire in the belly. Ultimately, as is so often the case, the most important ingredient in success is wanting it and putting in the work.
What was it like to work with Karl Moline again and how did you, Drew, and he collaborate on both Billy and Devon’s look? Also, was it different working with Drew on a comic versus working with him in a TV writers room?
We both loved working with Karl. As is common in comic book work, all the work with the artist was at a distance. We saw character sketches and gave notes, then we saw rough sketches that gradually resolved into the finished pages. We gave a few notes, but not a lot — we liked what was happening!
And working with Drew was easy. We originally planned to be more collaborative on a panel-by-panel basis, but ultimately, I fell more in love with issue 14, and Drew with issue 15, so we actually were working independently, if side-by-side, for most of the time.
Buffy writers seem to be able to do the yeoman’s work of injecting socio-political issues into comics while also telling a worthy story under the “Buffy” banner. We saw this with the seventh issue of this season with Buffy and abortion, and now we’re here and there is a gay slayer and people’s faces are melting. Naturally, critics are often guided or blinded by ideology, but some of the criticism that this book is getting seems to be coming from people who contend that the choice you and Drew made to make Billy gay was itself guided by ideology or an agenda. How do you feel about that, and are people missing the point here?
I guess I’d ask, “What’s wrong with having an agenda?” The core of the “Buffy” style of storytelling is to always have a reason to tell a story — to have something you are setting out to say. That is an agenda. In this case, we set out to say that it’s worth working to be included, even if the system is set up to exclude you. The only way that having an agenda is going to make me feel bad is if we fail to accomplish it gracefully. You don’t want to feel like a public service announcement, even when you hope to serve the public.
“Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Season 9” #14 in on sale today from Dark Horse Comics.