When I back away from the weeds of WordPress and comic solicitations and trailer debuts that I spend my days in, it’s really surprising that I make a living writing about and analyzing the pop culture that I love. While I’ve always thought way too hard about every TV show I’ve watched (I was a six-year-old with hot takes on “Muppet Babies”), I didn’t know that that energy could be turned into a career. I thought my Deep Thinker Hat should only be worn when reading classic literature, and that any deep thinks I thought while reading Peter David’s “X-Factor” had gone rogue. I thought that way until I met Professor David Lavery.
David Lavery — who passed away on August 30, 2016 at the age of 67 — taught at Middle Tennessee State University. That’s my alma mater and — thanks to the efforts of this passionate professor — worldwide academic center of “Buffy” studies. In 2002, Lavery and Rhonda V. Wilcox released “Fighting the Forces: What’s At Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the first collection of literary essays focused solely on Joss Whedon’s cult favorite show. They also started Slayage: The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies and created the Slayage Conference, a biennial international academic conference on all things Whedon. He went on to teach courses, edit essay collections and put on conferences for shows like “Lost,” “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men” and so many more. When it comes to thinking critically about pop culture — and doing so with gleeful yet authoritative pride — David Lavery was a giant.
And I, a “Buffy” fan since eighth grade and Tennesseean since birth, coincidentally ended up at MTSU. I had no idea who David Lavery was, nor did I know that other people thought highly of “Buffy” when I first went to a Halloween discussion event he hosted at a library off campus. That was, apparently, a test run for the “Buffy” class he’d soon teach. I built the summer of 2004 specifically around taking that truly life-changing class.
The last time I spoke with Professor Lavery was during my senior year in 2005. He wondered why I was a television production major as he had always thought that I’d end up following in his footsteps. I said no, television was my passion (even though my career trajectory at that time was leading to a life of local news and country music award shows). But he was right. David Lavery showed me that you can make a living out of loving pop culture, and now I do just that. I really wish I had told him how right he was.
As an editor and writer at CBR, I find hidden nuance in blockbusters, I treat popcorn fare as the art it is, I celebrate the weird and overthink the forgotten — just like David Lavery. I even still sometimes write essays about “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” I first analyzed pop culture, for real, 12 years ago in a classroom with Professor Lavery in command. This is the paper I wrote twelve years ago, unedited (even if it makes this 32-year-old professional editor a little nervous). If you’re familiar with my CBR work, then this is where my story really began — in a paper comparing “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to superhero comics.
Thank you, Professor Lavery, for showing me that art is everywhere, and all art is worth deep thought.
It’s cool, Buffy’s a superhero: Buffy vs. Comic Conventions
A teenage girl suddenly discovers that she has been given powers that separate her from the rest of humanity. She is startled at her new abilities since she is a normal teenage girl who is more concerned about boys than saving the world. With reluctance, she accepts her destiny and matures into a brave woman. Her name is Kitty Pryde. The similarity of this character’s origin story, as depicted in Uncanny X-Men #129 from 1980, to that of Buffy’s is no surprise. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Joss Whedon stated that Kitty Pryde was “not a small influence on Buffy.” Whedon has stated in numerous interviews that comic books greatly influenced his work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This is fairly obvious when one thinks about the themes and characters of the series. Buffy uses these themes and characters to much greater effect by expanding on them to tell more complicated stories. Basically, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a better comic book than most comic books.
In Whedon’s biography, Joss Whedon: The Genius Behind Buffy, both Spider-Man and Fantastic Four are acknowledged as comics that Whedon read as a child. In terms of theme, no other two comics could have inspired Buffy. Spider-Man initially used villains and superpowers to deal with the horrors of puberty while Peter Parker, the man behind the mask, struggled with carrying the weight of saving the world on his shoulders. Peter Parker can easily be related to Buffy Summers. Buffy never lets the viewer forget that she is the Chosen One and that she alone has been selected to fight evil. She always accepts that it is her duty to save Sunnydale and she comes to terms with this in “Choices” (3.19); she states “as in, I’m never getting out of here. I kept thinking if I stopped the Mayor or…but I was kidding myself. I mean, there is always going to be something.” This becomes even more apparent during the episode “The Yoko Factor” (4.20). After a heated argument, Buffy expresses her concerns about putting her mortal and powerless friends in danger. They are offended and Buffy states that she is “starting to understand why there’s no ancient prophecy about a Chosen One…and her friends.” Spider-Man kept his superhero life secret in order to protect his loved ones and Buffy does the exact same to her mother. It is not until her mother actually witnesses a vampire dusting that the truth comes out (2.22).
Countering the loner themes of Spider-Man are the familial themes of Fantastic Four. The Marvel Universe claims the Fantastic Four as their first family and the team definitely grew into a makeshift family. Whedon made Buffy different from the other slayers since she has friends who support her even when their lives are in jeopardy. After Buffy realizes that she has to stay in Sunnydale for the foreseeable future, Willow backs her up and rejects acceptance to Oxford for UC Sunnydale (3.19). This theme is again expressed when, after the brutal arguments in the previous episode, the core Scoobies unite their essences for the final battle against Adam (4.21). It is in this episode that the Fantastic Four are paralleled with the four Scoobies. Willow acts as the spirit much like the Invisible Woman, Xander represents the heart like his wise-cracking counterpart the Human Torch, Giles and Mr. Fantastic represent the strong and mature mind of the group, and Buffy provides the role of the Thing due to her sheer physical power. It is in this moment that the Scoobies connect to the idea behind a legendary superhero team and they are thus able to defeat Adam with ease. The presence of these parallels illustrates that Buffy draws thematic inspiration from comic books but the way that these two opposing themes are mixed and countered with each other with neither message being negated shows that Buffy has taken a basic comic book idea and expanded on it for richer and more complex results.
The notion of expanding upon basic comic book ideas is also applied to Buffy’s characters and the Scoobies as a whole. Buffy is called a superhero throughout the series starting with the second episode. Xander tells Jesse in “The Harvest” that “it’s cool, Buffy’s a superhero” (1.2). She is later called a superhero by Joyce in “Dead Man’s Party” and by her amnesiac self in “Tabula Rasa” (3.2; 6.8). This is a believable notion since her powers put her at a level above humans and since she follows the path of most superheroes. Her disillusionment and desire to quit being the slayer after killing her lover mirror Kitty Pryde’s feelings after scattering the ashes of her former lover, Colossus (2.22). Buffy is a superhero in the vein of Kitty Pryde and, to a degree, Spider-Man.
As a group, the Scoobies can be described as a classic superhero team. As Buffy tells the wary Watcher’s Council in “Checkpoint,” she isn’t working with children but “two very powerful witches and a thousand-year-old ex-demon” as well as Xander, who has “clocked more field time” than the entire Watcher’s Council combined (5.12). Add other Buffyverse superheroes like Angel, Spike, Kendra, Faith, Oz, and Riley to their roster and the Scoobies tend to resemble a mystical version of the Avengers. Xander even refers to the Scoobies as the Avengers on two occasions (4.1; 5.16). By the start of the sixth season, Buffy’s home resembles the Avengers Mansion since the majority of the Scooby Gang live there. This idea is reinforced in the seventh season when dozens of potential slayers take shelter in the house. While Buffy and the Scoobies are textbook examples of superheroes, Buffy starts to elaborate on the stock comic book characters in the supporting cast.
Giles is the Mr. Fantastic of the Buffyverse but, unlike his predecessor, Giles possesses a richer personality. Giles has a razor wit, a dark past, and an amazing singing voice. Subtle nuances such as these are not allowed to Mr. Fantastic who follows the genius stereotype of being inartistic and emotionally distant. Emotion is truly where Giles trumps Mr. Fantastic; Giles loves Buffy with a father’s love and is thus fired from the Watcher’s Council (3.12).
“Captain America blowed it up real good” is how Xander explains Riley’s actions in “Shadow” (5.8). Upon his introduction, Riley embodies the essence of Captain America. He is big, strong, friendly, inoffensive, and void of any darkness. The similarities stretch past outward appearance. Captain American enlisted in the army and was administered the Super-Soldier Serum to make him stronger and more physically powerful. This is done with his knowledge and he uses his strength to fight Nazis and evil. Riley is also given what could be called a Super-Soldier Serum, but it is without his knowledge and potentially detrimental to his health (4.14). It is this that makes Riley realize that the world is not clearly defined. Much like Captain America, a hero not known for his moral ambiguity, Riley views the world in black and white. When he discovers that the woman he considered to be a mother-figure was actually drugging him in an attempt to eventually turn him into a mindless super-soldier, Riley starts to slowly descend into his own inner darkness. Riley’s character can actually be viewed as the result of someone asking the question “what if Captain America had the Super-Soldier Serum forced on him against his will?” Both Giles and Riley represent classic superheroes re-envisioned for the Buffyverse.
Anya, Spike, Andrew, and Angel are examples of villains who become heroes. The most successful of these in the comic book world are Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver. However, villains who become heroes in comic books have never wreaked as much havoc as the villains turned heroes on Buffy. Hawkeye was a thief and Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver’s tenure as villains lasted only a few years. The villains of comic books who have done as much damage as Angel or Anya, villains like Magneto and the Kingpin, do not reform and it never lasts if they do. Buffy depicts the road to redemption realistically and allows its reformed characters to have relapses and struggle with their true nature in ways that have more natural outcomes than comic books. Spike seeks out a soul and struggles to become a champion during Buffy’s seventh season while Deadpool tries his hardest to become a true hero only to forget about it when the next writer for his comic book comes along.
And therein lies the one fundamental thing that allows Buffy to use comic book conventions in ways that comic books cannot. Buffy is the product of a singular vision executed by a team of individuals who have agreed to follow the singular vision. Comic books are not bound to a singular vision over their lifetime and this is why the comic book style narrative achieves so much more on Buffy than in actual comic books. Since Buffy is the result of the singular vision of Joss Whedon, continuity is able to remain intact. Jenny Calendar remains dead, Buffy has to readjust to her afterlife, Xander loses an eye that doesn’t grow back, and characters like Oz and Cordelia move on past Sunnydale. Since comic books are the result of one singular vision’s work on top of another, the overall series tends to become more disjointed the longer it runs with the new writer having no clue what the original writer did. Because of this, Multiple Man is resurrected with no repercussions, Archangel’s original wings grow back a decade after being ripped off, and characters who have sworn to never return to being a superhero, like Skids and Kitty Pryde, always do.
The most glaring and obvious example of this would have to be the dark Willow saga of season six which is known to have been inspired by the Uncanny X-Men story The Dark Phoenix Saga. In the story, original X-Man Jean Grey is possessed by the cosmic entity known as the Phoenix. Along with this possession comes the power of a god. This power slowly corrupts her and turns her apocalyptically evil which leads her to commit suicide to save the universe from herself. The basic premise of too much power corrupting an inherently good person is what the end of season six is all about. Andrew even acknowledges this when he states that Willow is “like Dark Phoenix” (6. 21). The sixth season ends with an emotionally destroyed Willow sobbing in Xander’s arms and the next season will see her emotionally paying for her actions (6.22). The effect is subtle but satisfactory since it does not undermine or forget the previous events. In Uncanny X-Men, however, Jean Grey is resurrected and it is revealed that the being who killed herself on the moon was not Jean Grey at all but the Phoenix entity itself that had convinced itself that it was Jean Grey. The details get even more complicated since every writer to follow Chris Claremont’s tenure has attempted to leave their mark on greatness by toying with the story. Any impact and emotional resonance that the story had upon being published in 1980 has been destroyed by 24 years of additions and sub par amendments.
This loss of emotion will never happen to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Unlike comic books that go on for quarter centuries, Buffy ended while still true to the original purpose of the show. Buffy as a series is complete and no human being can alter the events and meaning of the show’s seven seasons. If the same could be said for comic books, then maybe they would be as good as Buffy.