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 firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter.