It has been some time since I’ve posted a review of Dark Horse’s phenomenal Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 10 series, but given the absolutely amazing issue being released today, I knew this was one month that I just couldn’t miss. The dynamic duo of writer Christos Gage and artist Megan Levens digs deep into the characters and history of Buffy this month and brings us an impactful, nuanced, and powerful story that is, at least in this fan’s opinion, simply one of the best Buffy comics released by Dark Horse Comics to date.
Here’s a quick summary of Issue #20:
This issue opens with Buffy and Spike helping Dowling with a case involving an incubus who used his supernatural, hypnotic abilities to violate a counselor at a women’s center named Jean. After Buffy spends time speaking with Jean, the team heads to the streets to hunt down the incubus.
While Spike and Buffy handle the incubus, Xander (followed by a ghostly Anya) joins Giles and Dowling on another supernatural case involving the exorcism of a local psychic. Ghost Anya is momentarily seized by the demon, but Xander manages to save her in the nick of time. In a daze, the physic tells Xander that “the soul of Anya Jenkins is at rest” and “the presence that believes it is her . . . is not.”
Taking a break from their search, Buffy strikes out at Spike when he unexpectedly approaches her in the shower and triggers a reaction due to his previous (unsouled) assault of Buffy in her bathroom. While both are uncomfortable after the reaction, they shrug it off and get back to their hunt for the incubus.
Eventually, using herself and Jean as bait, the Slayer lures the incubus into appearing and decapitates the fiend. Afterwards, Buffy explains to Spike that his attack of her is something that still affects her, and she can’t predict how and when it will happen or how she will need to deal with it at the time. When Spike asks how he can help, she tells him, “It’s gonna be different each time,” but this time ends with the two embracing each other.
Our final scene involves Ghost Anya and a mysterious, unseen player who has control of her. Apparently, Ghost Anya isn’t the real Anya and has her memory erased periodically for some reason. While Ghost Anya laments not being the real thing, the unseen being states, “Does it matter? When this is over, you will be as real as she was.”
An honest, accurate, and nuanced portrayal of the effects of sexual assault. Gage is in top form as a writer with this issue, and his handling of complex and sensitive issues like triggers and effects of sexual abuse upon its victims is done with an admirable grace and respect. While I’m not personally a victim of sexual abuse or assault, I’ve known too many friends and loved ones (both male and female) who carry this burden with them, and I was impressed at how genuine and accurate Gage’s portrayal of victims’ feelings, fears, and struggles seemed.
Gage also succeeds in pitting the Slayer against the misogynistic darkness she’s always battled best. This issue’s incubus character is the perfect adversary to represent the ugliest parts of today’s geek (and national) culture, almost seeming to have crawled directly out of the darkest pit of internet trolls imaginable. (Think Gamergate level and beyond.) Consumed with “a special grudge against women who help other women” and motivated by a sick enjoyment achieved by “making them suffer,” the incubus spouts all-too-familiar beliefs (like the idea that his victims secretly “wanted” to be violated) that, unsettlingly, we’ve all seen posted in social media attacks against women asserting themselves in geek culture over that past few years. Seeing Buffy handily kick the incubus’ ass and use him to practice her decapitation skills is certainly a hugely cathartic moment from a character that has been fighting against these types of issues for over a decade.
To be clear, while I believe this to be a powerful and important chapter in Buffy history, I don’t mean to suggest (nor does this issue) that Buffy: Season 10 #20 has solved any of the many issues regarding sexual abuse and assault, the way in which victims have been marginalized or disregarded, or that this plotline serves as some sort of definitive example or depiction of those who’ve suffered in a similar manner. I hesitate to say that any sole work of art or expression can complete those tasks. What I do believe is that many out there, including some who have dealt with sexual abuse and assault, may relate deeply with this issue and connect with the emotions and message behind it. Gage’s script doesn’t shy away from the fact that there is no “fix-all” for these types of situations and builds strength out of the fact that the writer doesn’t seem to feel pressured (nor pressures the reader) to resolve everything in a clean and all-too-tidy fashion. Obviously, this is a continuing struggle, in a multitude of ways, but, damn, does it feel good to see Buffy standing up to the true “forces of darkness” that Whedon created her to fight! The character has always been a subversive force against male dominance and misogyny, having been birthed from the idea of taking the now-classic horror trope of the helpless, blonde female victim in a slasher film and giving her the agency and power to flip the situation and turn the monsters into the ones who should be afraid. While I don’t want to overstate the role Buffy, Whedon, and the many others who worked on the series (both on television and the comics) have had in regards to the changing tides of our culture’s gender equality and many other social issues, it’s important to point out that entertainment like the current issue of Buffy is both a sign of things changing and a way to make the important, yet complex, concepts more digestible for general consumption. Much like the television series’ handling of Willow’s sexuality and lesbian relationships, the Buffy comic, in many ways, is carrying on that tradition of pushing important issues to the foreground of the series, attacking them head on, and having faith that the readers will understand, discuss, and pass on the message. It’s no secret that the rise of the presence of LGBT characters on television has helped to change long-held beliefs and garnered support for the fight for LGBT equality in our country. There’s no reason to think that the same path wouldn’t work for other marginalized groups and ideas, including how we look at and understand victims of sexual abuse and assault. I believe the presence of depictions like those in Buffy: Season 10 #20 are an indication that the scales are already beginning to tip. Near the end of the issue, as our hero wipes the blood of her enemy from her weapon, the Slayer has this to say, and it clearly applies not only to the events taking place in Season 10, but the changing world we fans live in:
“A lot of these things count on the shadows. They liked it when people didn’t believe in them. Were afraid to talk about them ‘cause they’d be made fun of or called crazy. New rules now.”
Gage also refuses to settle with just delivering a stellar issue and decides to push it into uber-stellar by using this opportunity to thoroughly address one of the major issues remaining in the current Spuffy heaven we Spuffy fans have been living in: the remaining effects of unsouled Spike’s attempted rape of Buffy in Season 6. While Gage has been slowly building to this since early in Season 10, addressing the subject several times, the final scene in this issue between Buffy and Spike is unbelievably raw, honest, and heart-wrenching. Gage could have gotten off easily with a simple, romantic, cookie-cutter ending between the Slayer and her vampire partner, but, instead, we get a layered, sensitive, and respectful portrayal of how one copes with this sort of experience, how guilt plays a massive role in it, and how a partner can realistically support a lover who bears this sort of burden. It’s this kind of writing that reminds me why I love these characters and those who keep them alive so gorram much. I can only imagine that, somewhere, Joss is unbelievably proud.
The artwork of Megan Levens. Merciful Zeus does Levens just continue to be an unbelievable source of talent and awesomeness for this book (which is probably why two pages of her phenomenal artwork already graces the walls of my humble abode)! In all seriousness, though, Levens is the real deal, and she literally seems to knock it out of the park with every issue that she’s given. Buffy: Season 10 #20 is a fantastic example of her work, and Levens’ mastery of natural and believable body language really stands out during this issue. There is a difference between being a great artist and a great visual storyteller, but Levens is clearly both.
Authentic Xander and Anya banter. Boy, did I miss Anya way more than I thought I did. While there’s certainly some heartbreak regarding Xander’s invisible ghost sidekick/ex-fiance, it’s certainly nice to those two crazy kids together again in some fashion.
Congrats to the whole team! When I first started gushing over this issue on Twitter, Gage and Levens were both clear to point out how much of a team effort it was, crediting editor Sierra Hahn and assistant editor Freddye Miller for their valuable help. I also must applaud the colors of Dan Jackson and the lettering of Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt, as well as the whole team at Dark Horse Comics for putting out such quality content!
Absolutely nothing. Enough said.
The Ugly (Fan Buzz, that is . . . )
Fan reaction for this issue been very positive. So far, Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 10 #20 received an excellent review from Geeked Out Nation.
Who the @#$% is wearing Anya’s face (…er, ghost face)? So, out the window goes my theory regarding Anya. For those who don’t remember, I had proposed that, much like the general public’s knowledge of vampires informed their new abilities, perhaps the commonly accepted concept of ghosts and/or spirits caused Anya to be resurrected in phantom form. Now, it appears that this Anya is not who she seems and that has to indicate that pain and sorrow may be just around the bend. Honestly, I’ll be the most disappointed if Xander keeps this secret to himself. Xander should’ve learned by now that keeping huge secrets from his friends never works out for the best.
That’s all for now, Scoobies. I’ll be back soon with my review of the latest issue of Angel & Faith.
’Till the end of the world,
-Bryant the Comic Book Slayer