Whedon Speak, Part One: Of Vans and Vampires

 


Somewhere in my basement, most likely at the bottom of a box of Goosebumps books, you might find a copy of the Homeward Bound II junior movie novelization. It may or may not be adjacent to a copy of the Monkey Trouble junior novelization. It took me far too long to realize that the majority of books which include color stills from the films upon which they are based, printed on glossy, glossy paper, do not belong in any kind of credible home library. But like many people, I crave adaptation and reinterpretation. To this day, I still find worth in translating stories from one medium to another, even if I’ve been witness to the creative molestation of some of my very favorite properties. In this way, I view the practice of adaptation much in the same way as I view vans.  Just as vans can harbor great evil and perversion, so too can a van transport you to great artistic heights and endeavor. Sometimes the candy is real and sometimes there really is a lost dog.

Today I want to talk a little bit about a franchise that turned in the keys to its Hollywood set and ended up with a really great van. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the uber-successful Season 8 comics series. Yes, the Scooby gang landed a real Mystery Machine.

Please refrain from throwing rotten produce until the boring part where I talk about craft.

Comics get high marks in the adaptation department these days, with great vans panel to screen translations like Iron Man and The Dark Knight performing ludicrously well with critics, crash tests, and box office. But when translating in the opposite direction, from film or television to a comics mini-series, the results are not always so spectacular. They are notoriously hollow incarnations. And held against an equally crappy comic of original intent (a creator owned work not based on any pre-existing work) the licensed property title will often garner a more impassioned response. The perception is that there exists something more inherently noble about an original story than the alternative, which is often perceived as a wholly commercial money grab. The classic artist versus the establishment battle. The time tested reality is that these adaptation comics are often shadows of the original work.  And if that original work was successful enough to warrant a comic incarnation, dollars to doughnuts says there is going to be some lofty expectation. When the medium is comics, there’s already a volatile status quo in regard to authenticity.  

In no other medium does the expectation for authenticity play such a prominent and divisive role as in comics, because in no other medium do characters develop the kind of unbroken and complex histories associated with our sacred totem characters. Comics are constant, snowballing history from month to month, some since the 30s and 40s. Comics are visual and iconic, robust with an almost religious penchant for repeated symbols and phrases. The death of the Waynes, Uncle Ben’s sage advice, the mantra of the Green Lanterns. And though comics creators often tinker with the classics and reinvent or revise or retcon, we always refer to old ideas and old characterization with a kind of reverence. Will the story remain true? I’m not simply talking about continuity, but something wholly insubstantial yet altogether present, something almost spiritual. It’s the vision. It’s the voice. And this intangible force often passes from creative team to creative team like an Olympic torch. We cry out when the runners fumble. We marvel when the flame persists. 

This is why comics inspire so much passion, both enthusiastic and zealous. We get angry when Spider-Man doesn’t behave like Spider-Man. It’s not just the kind of mechanical misstep made by a writer in the space of a novel. This isn’t just a betrayal of a reader’s suspension of disbelief. The scale is grander because this is tradition. It’s not really the initial quality that defines a legend. It’s time.

I think if any other medium comes close in this regard, it’s serialized TV drama. Buffy slugged it out for seven seasons, amassing the kind of character development and complexity that Star Wars and Harry Potter fans can only fool themselves into thinking they could claim. Isolate the character of Willow Rosenberg in the pilot and then again in the finale. These are two very different people. But trace the path from one to the other, and there is no jarring transition. This character arc happened organically. The television series ranks among the top character pieces in the medium. It’s a soap opera which mostly dodges the usual pratfalls associated with the genre. And most importantly, it features a signature style and voice which endures, even though it was authored by not one, but many people. Part of the cohesion is due to Joss Whedon’s editorial guidance, but even without his hand, the voice of that original script and the established language of the series, early on, is so resonant and specific, that diverging from that model is almost unthinkable. When a character is fully and truly realized, they dictate the trajectory of a script. It’s consistency.

While writing can be taught on a mechanical level, distinctive voice can not really be defined through traditional elements. It’s something that happens with time and experience. It’s not enlightenment, per se. It’s closer to confidence. Because all voice really is, is a consistent and honest translation of what’s in your head onto the page. It’s a comfort with yourself. And once it’s found, the trick is to never let go of it. For Joss Whedon, the X factor has to do with a playfulness of dialogue. I think the same could be said of Shakespeare. It’s having fun with the language we’ve always had. 

There are several rare factors contributing to the success of the comic series. Obviously Joss Whedon serving as the show runner is an assurance of both quality and that invisible but crucial mark of ownership which says, “This counts.”  The knowledge that this story is authored and approved by the man behind it all is important to us because we respect his work and we are always concerned about the meddling of new chefs over the kettle. But ah, the plot thickens.  

The curious aspect of the season 8 comic is that many people, even huge Whedon fanatics tend to agree that although he, himself, has written some terrific stuff for the book, the best stories are coming from the other writers he’s assembled. There are maybe two reasons for this. For one, Whedon is more of lyrical writer and as such, his dialogue probably sounds best when spoken and not merely printed. It’s the same reason some students of Shakespeare aren’t won over until they see a stage production. Whedon’s maybe a little too musical for his own good, though the more comic scripts he writes, the surer his footing gets. Confidence. The other reason is that his fellow contributors seem to be massive fans of the characters they’re writing, and of their distinct voices. Brian K. Vaughan translated Rupert Giles to paper like I never imagined possible. He tapped into the Whedon lexicon as well as Anthony Head’s rhythm as a performer. Again, there’s no way to concretely define it all, but every subtle detail adds up to an authentic portrayal. This is a work of love and not the hollow corporate facsimile we’re sadly accustomed to. 

But more on season 8 next time. Because this is a road trip. And November is all about Joss Whedon and his motley crew. From Buffy to Angel to Firefly to Astonishing X-Men and maybe even an episode of Roseanne.

Get in the van.

 

 


Paul Montgomery is five by five.  Nab him at paul@ifanboy.com or on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Well, you’ve certain set yourself up here. A big overview, and now we begin our journey? Alright… I like the leather interior and the fuzzy dice. I’m along for the ride. Don’t disappoint, Montgomery.

    Oh, and can we stop along the way and see the world’s largest ball of string? Heard it was cool.

  2. Comparing Whedon to Shakspeare is bold. Very Bold. While I don’t necessarily agree with completley, I do agree that Whedon is, at heart, a playwright. His works is best when performed, not read

    Chuck has been good as an adaption. Mad Men could be interesting…… no wait nevermind. The acting on that show couldn’possibly be translated into panels. Hell, who am I kidding I’d give it a go..

    When speaking about Pia Guerra’s work on Y THE LAST MAN, BKV often refers to her ability to make her characters act. I thhink I heard him say once that she creates the best actors in the buisiness.

    Has the Godfather adaption from BOOM! dropped yet?

    oh and I call shotgun!

  3. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    I never said Whedon was as good as Shakespeare.  They’re writing from the same place though.  And they both like to play with words.  

  4. @DaveCarr  Whedon used to have the cast of his shows over to his house on a regular basis for Shakespeare-reading parties.  He says he conceived the idea of the character Illyria while watching Amy Acker do a part from ‘King Lear.’  That isn’t to say he writes as well as Shakespeare, but it makes me think that suspecting a kind of kinship is appropriate enough.

    Paul, on the adaptation question, did you ever read any of the older Dark Horse ‘Buffy’ comics?  The trades I’ve seen were pretty hit-or-miss, overall, but I recall they did a particularly good job with some of the Giles storylines.  Stuff about him and his past and the Watcher’s Council that I wish we had seen more of on the show.

  5. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    I have very limited experience with the older stuff.  I’ll be reviewing the Tales of the Vampires collection though.  

  6. @Paul Yeah, I guess my mind jumped to hyperbole there, my bad  I’m looking foward to the rest of this, though I sort of pity you. I wouldn’t know when to stop!  Love him or hate him,Joss’ impact can’t be overstated.

    Apropos of nothing, I think Jimski should go on the roof a la grandma in Beverly Hillbillies. I remeber him having a sort of falling out with Whedon’s propensity to kill off meaningful chracters. Seems like he might be an unruly passanger :). I will say that I sympahtize with his perspective though.

    What interests me most about Joss is the way in which he sort of becomes lost in his best work. Like all good playwrights/screenwriters his scripts cause the actors to shine, and after a while, it’s possible to believe that these ccharacters are people who aimply exsist. Ironically, It’s Firefly that strikes me as the best example of characters who simply live/

  7. Next time I’m at the library, I’ll try and remember which trade/issues had the Giles story I’m thinking about.  There’s one about him visiting [season 2 spoiler]’s grave, and then going back to England to talk to the Council, which gets dark in a cool way.  One thing that’s really interesting about the comics is that they tell stories set in the earlier seasons, but — since they were actually written later — layer in things that we didn’t know about at the time (and probably hadn’t been invented), like a darker view of the Watchers’ Council.  (Have I mentioned that I love the Watchers’ Council?)

  8. @ohcaroline The Watcher’s Council was one of my favorite parts of the series.

    It strikes me that this is a particularily good time to converse about adaptions, because it seems to be a legitmate trend in comics. Marvel has been pumping out some great work with the Stand and and others. And the Skottie Young Wonderful World of OZ mini has me postivley gleeful.

  9. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    I am very, very excited for the Oz book.  

  10. @DaveCarr, I think tradition would actually dictate that I be tied up in the trunk.

    Whedon and I go way back, probably too far back now. His characters are unbeatable, even as their dialogue slowly evolves from slang to argot to some kind of secret code over the years. He has the ability to put people in wildly unreal worlds and make them feel realer than people with whom I actually interact in person on a daily basis. It is his plots, though, that have done me in. One of the things I always loved about him was the way he subverted conventions, but I find that now he just has conventions of his own that feel, if not like writing autopilot, at least like fodder for a solid drinking game.

  11. Oh, and how cool is that Oz project going to be? Seriously.

  12. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    I think the problems we’re hearing about from the Dollhouse series stem from Whedon actually killing all of the characters in the second episode.  He realized what he’d done and called times. 

  13. I heard that the problems with ‘Dollhouse’ were all John Cassaday’s fault.

  14. @Paul & ohcaroline:

    I must be out of the loop. What is the problem with Dollhouse? Has Whedon abandoned the property?

  15. I was just today reading Joss’ latest "everything is fine, I love being tortured by Fox" communique:

    http://whedonesque.com/comments/17945

  16. I’d love to see Joss do an episode or arch on How I Met Your Mother or Big Bang Theory. Maybe he can refresh himself doing chracters outside the supernatural, characters  in which he’s not ao emotionally invested. Back to the Basics, as ait were. There is something to be said for playing in the coporate sandbox. Might freshen him up, make him redsicover that he is just as good without the high concept

  17. I’m just getting into the meat of the show now (S4) for the first time ever, and I’m living it.  Can’t wait to get the S8 trades once I’m ready.

  18. The thing I’m most excited about is the supposed backstory of the Shephard Book that’s supposed to be coming in one of the next couple of Firefly books.

  19. I just have to say that I hate IDW right now becuase of what they’ve done to Angel. All they did was slap Joss Whedon’s name on it and told Brian Lynch to write some crap out. Cuz that has been one of the most dissapointing things I’ve read in a while.

  20. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    I believe Whedon handpicked Lynch after reading his Spike comics.  He also plotted the series, didn’t he.  

    Anyway, After the Fall is getting a full review very soon.   

  21. Great Piece. I’m a huge Whedon/Buffy fan and I consider those characters old friends of mine. I know it’s weird, but he does that…

    Yeah, and he picked Lynch after reading his Spike stuff. The whole storyline for After the Fall is actually what he had planned, if there ever was a season six. He said so in an interview, but unfortunately I can’t remember where. I think it’s pretty clsoe to the voice of the show (especially the Spike bits) and very, very consequential.