Whedon Speak: Into the Fray


It’d been a while since I last read Fray, Joss Whedon’s first project for Dark Horse comics and the canonical future for the Buffyverse.  But as you’ll recall, I’ve developed foot-in-the-mouth disease and announced this whole cockamamie November of Whedon thing.  And with the character and world of Fray returning to prominence in Buffy season 8, I decided to revisit the original miniseries.  Easy enough to locate on the shelf.  It’s the one with the fuchsia spine.           

We’ll ignore, for now, the introduction by Jeph Loeb.  

In Whedon’s foreword, he describes Fray as his adolescent affections come to full color fruition.  Whedon was a comic fan, and even after making a name for himself as a script doctor and television creator, he still counted comic writing as a true ambition.  He’d thrilled to the exploits of Kitty Pryde, a character he’d later champion in his Astonishing X-Men series because she represented a model not often seen in comics or really any media all that often: the thoughtful, discerning, capable heroine.  What’s most telling about his commentary on the character is his insistence that Kitty wasn’t so much an innovation, but a concept that had been missing.  She wasn’t just a twinkling new idea, because girls like that did and shall always exist, but for whatever reason their role had been criminally overlooked, ignored, even denied in popular fiction.  Worth isn’t something suddenly garnered. It’s always been present.  We just hadn’t bothered to look for it.  

There has always been potential.  And as Joss often laments, it shouldn’t be as special as it’s made out to be.  Roll tape:  (If nothing else, watch the last minute or so).  




Strong female characters should be a given, not a bonus or a gimmick or masterful insight.  And they need not be warrior princesses either.  Whedon writes strong characters because they are vulnerable.  They worry and fall down and fail and get back up again.  If they have any power at all, it is often a liability.  They are not fearless, and that’s pretty much what makes them brave.  They don’t saunter, and if they do, they stumble.  They get nervous.  They doubt themselves.  Confidence aint no thing if there isn’t some fear as contrast.  And total confidence?  That’s both boring and silly.  These boys and girls, men and women and demons, they often doubt their ability, their stamina, their strength.  But they go through with it anyway.  whatever it is.  And when they win, if they win, that’s why we love them.  Or at least I do.  And I think a lot of you do too.   

Obviously I must have had a good time reading Fray again.  I think I enjoyed it much more this second or third time around.  It’s a great origin, maybe a perfect Hero’s Journey in the Joe Campbell tradition.  The most commonly referenced Hero’s Journey in pop culture is probably that of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars.  If you’ve read the book, you’ll probably see some real parallels.  Though this is the future (note the floaty cars), and the galaxy isn’t so very far away, Malaka Fray, thief, rapscallion, and parkour enthusiast, is called to be a vampire slayer, long after the term and job position have fallen into obscurity.  She initially denies the call, which is one of my favorite parts of the Hero’s Journey because it’s the part where everyone in the audience is unjustifiably pissed at the hero for turning down something seemingly cool, but also undeniably dangerous. 

“Luke, c’mon.  Lightsabers.  Do it!”

“Makala.  Those things you call Lurks?  They’re really vampires.  And killing vampires makes for good comics.  So suit up, grab the badass halberd/stake combo on the cover, and let’s pop some sternums before my pizza rolls are done!”

Obviously, sternums are popped.  And it’s not long after that when the real apocalyptic boogaloo goes down.  If I have any real criticism of the eight issue mini, it’s maybe a limitation of the format.  Eight issues is a lot of space to tell a story in comics, but I almost wish some of the later story points, mainly the final battle and a specific epilogue reveal, could have been held for a later arc.  While the first few issues unfurl at a leisurely pace, appropriate to an origin story and world-building tale, there’s a manic bit of Ragnarok towards the end.  It gives the mini the same feel as a single film adaptation of a longer work.  Character moments hint at a greater potential series, but many plot points are forced into resolution by the big, blockbuster finale.  Of course there are many loose ends to explore, but this did feel like all three confrontations with Darth Vader crammed into one film.  This may be tinged by the successful division of the season 8 comic into linear arcs, which, in my mind, is a really appealing model for a serialized comic story.

Now, considering all the other projects Whedon was working on at the time of Fray’s (really sort of drawn out) publication, the decision to conceptualize Fray as a limited series with an open ending does make sense.  This was Whedon’s first comic project, and in his introduction he explains that he only expected to sell a comic if it was in some way related to the Buffy franchise.  He was untested.  Of course Whedon has gone on to achieve critical success with his comic projects, and has since revisited Fray in the Tales of the Slayer anthology and season 8.
 
I feel confident in recommending Fray to anyone who likes a good action/adventure comic, regardless of their history with the Buffy franchise.  It is so far removed from the continuity of the series that there really is no learning curve.  And fans of Brian K. Vaughan have absolutely no excuse not to pick this up, because these guys must have trained under the same Watcher.  The dialogue, the hooks, the suspense.  It’s all there.  Genre fiction at its finest.  Fray takes place in a moderately realized futuristic setting, but it really isn’t about that world like many books of this type.  Whedon shows his knife skills by establishing just enough of a sense of place to tell his story, introducing elements which are actually utilized in the sequence of events.  No more, no less.  It’s a great foundation for a great character, and I do hope that he continues telling stories like this.  I love his established characters, and the work he’s done writing for characters created by others, but there’s something really exciting about seeing a master storyteller create new worlds and uncovering inspiring characters who deserve a place leaping between the rooftops of our daydreams.  



Paul Montgomery voted today.  Eight times!  Summon him at paul@ifanboy.com or on Twitter.

Comments

  1. ohcaroline ohcaroline says:

    Great analysis — I *love* "Fray" for all the reasons you’ve given.  I’m awaiting the next part of the crossover eagerly, and I’d love to see it continue as an ongoing.  (Though, you know, maybe with a writer and artist who could hit a little more reliably). 

    I love the observations about Whedon’s heroines, too; he invent this kind of character, but he did a lot ot bring them to the forefront, and to inspire a later wave of writers — it seems Buffy was to Vaughan as Kitty was to Joss.  (I’m equally happy to leave Jeph Loeb out of it).

     

  2. GungaDin GungaDin says:

    Fray is one of my favorite single trades. I hand it to people who kinda wanna know Buffy but don’t want to dive in, Buffy fans themselves, people who like a good done-in-one sorta story, and just anyone, really. It’s fairly awesome. My friend read the thing in one sitting at her college library because she felt like skipping class.

    I’m, personally, pushing for a Whedon/Goddard Fray ongoing. I think I’d die if that happened…

    P.S. That Youtube clip has always been one of my favorite things ever.

  3. J4K3 J4K3 says:

    Whedon For President 2012

  4. RobAbsten RobAbsten says:

    I proudly bought Fray in issues, own the trade, and re-read it twice this past summer, gearing up for the crossover event. One of my favorite comics of all time. 

    And yes, I own the entire Whedonverse ovure (sp?) on disc. And Titan A.E. So yes, I’m biased, but it all still rocks.

    Nice column, Paul. 

  5. billyjack77 billyjack77 says:

    man i wish fray had continued i really liked it alot!

  6. Jim Mroczkowski Jimski (@jimski) says:

    I remember how excited I was by this one when it was coming out in issues. Unfortunately, this was my first post-return-to-comics suuuuuuuper late book. I literally did not realize lateness was a thing that could happen, then Fray and that f***er Kevin Smith knocked me around the ring for a year or so. Between the two of them, this was the book that was worth the wait. I remember thinking, "Well, he does have three series in production; that has to be a priority. I’m sure his future comic projects will be much more timely. I will buy them all in issues, officially learning nothing from this experience."

    I just bought a used trade of Fray last year for the sole purpose of having it on the shelf. Reading it alongside the current (also excellent) Buffy series, I am struck by how much slangier Fray is in the current series.

  7. Paul Montgomery PaulMontgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @Jimski – Yeah, it’s weird.  His dialogue is actually much more restrained in Fray than in his current books.  Printed Whedon dialogue is sort of like a phone cord.  Every once and a while you have to pause and let it untangle for a minute.  Requires a specific rhythm or emphasis to make sense in a lot of cases.  

  8. Diabhol Diabhol says:

    I bought the trade for a friend last year. Never did read it myself (but I know better now :) .

     

  9. soniaharris soniaharris says:

    Fantastic article, I’m so glad that you’re bringing this much-ignored book to the fore. I also read it as a companion to the recent issues of Buffy and felt that it added tons.

    When you said this: "Kitty wasn’t so much an innovation, but a concept that had been missing.  She wasn’t just a twinkling new idea, because girls like that did and shall always exist, but for whatever reason their role had been criminally overlooked, ignored, even denied in popular fiction." it reminded me of why I have such a huge debt to Whedon, both in literature and life I believe that he’s transformed our perception of women through his work.

    Coincidentally, I wrote my article last night and it’s going to be a great companion peice to yours (but a lot more stupid, ’cause that’s how I do things ;)

  10. Paul Montgomery PaulMontgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    Excited to read your article, Sonia!  These are subjects really close to my heart and I think it’s important that we talk about these things, perhaps especially in comics.  And I’m glad that we’ve got writers like Whedon who get that.