Dark Horse Comics
Before Season Eight, Joss Whedon brought generations of Slayers and vampires to comics with the help of his acclaimed TV writing team and some of the best artists to ever grace the comics page. Now all those stories, plus selected stories from Season Eight, are collected in one deluxe hardcover with a new cover by Jo Chen.
Joss writes multiple tales: a somber vamp tale, drawn by Cameron Stewart; the story of the first Slayer, drawn by Leinil Yu; and more.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Tales also reprints for the first time new Season Eight stories written by novelist Jackie Kessler (Hell's Belles) and award-winning cartoonist Becky Cloonan (Demo), featuring vampires living in the public eye, killing Slayers and killing each other.
Before I was a Harry Potter fan, I was a Buffy fan. And much like my experience with Harry Potter, I didn't get in on Buffy fandom until it was almost over. Had I gotten into the whole fanfic thing a few years earlier, Buffy is probably the fandom I would have written for. (I even have several OC series outlined in my head, but no, I doubt I will ever write them.)
Anyway, when the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series began back in 1997, I wasn't interested. I'd seen the underrated 1992 movie, which was entertaining but certainly not memorable enough to make me think "Wow, this should totally be a series." I remember one reviewer commenting, when the new series was announced for the WB Television Network, "This is proof that Hollywood is officially out of ideas." I was inclined to agree.
I never watched an entire episode of BtVS until the hiatus between Season Five and Season Six. Then, I think it was Sci-Fi Channel running a Buffy marathon that got me hooked. They showed the entire series over the course of about a month, and by the time Season Six began, I was a fan.
What I liked about Buffy was not the comic book heroics or Sarah Michelle Gellar (she's cute, but I'd much rather see more of Eliza Dushku...), and while its famous snappy banter and dialog full of "Buffyisms" was amusing, that's not what won me over either. It was the progressive worldbuilding, the ongoing character development, and the continuity of storylines extending from one season to the next, and the way Whedon would drop some little hint forgotten way back in an earlier season which would return as a major plot device years later. Heroes would become villains, villains would become heroes, harmless schlubs would turn into monsters, and monsters would become... more interesting monsters. This sort of storytelling is something many TV series attempt, but few manage successfully, especially between seasons. Whedon has the same kind of storytelling talent and overarching vision as J.K. Rowling. Like Rowling, he's not really a great writer so much as a clever one, and like the Harry Potter series, Buffy had its share of missteps and downright clunkers amidst the brilliance. But I still count it as one of my favorite TV shows ever.
Even if you are not a Buffy fan, there is no denying that BtVS was hugely influential on the urban fantasy/paranormal romance genre. Yes, Anita Blake came first, but the racks full of waif-like hotties falling out of their low-risers and carrying sharp objects is largely owed to the popularity of Buffy.
I'm not going to summarize the TV series or the Buffyverse for you; either you're already somewhat familiar with it or you can catch up reading the review below. But in a very small nutshell: Buffy is the Slayer, one in a long series of Chosen Ones, granted mystical power to fight vampires and demons. There is only ever one Chosen One*; when the current one dies, some other girl somewhere in the world becomes the new Slayer. Nothing particularly original about this premise; like many unoriginal ideas brilliantly executed, it's the writing that made this series work.
* Of course this rule is violated multiple times even before the events at the end of Season Seven.
So, the TV series ended with its seventh season in 2003. At the end of the series, Willow (Buffy's best friend and a witch who has a habit of going Dark Phoenix) cast a spell that took the power that originally created the Slayers and spread it all over the world. Suddenly, instead of only one Slayer in all the world (modulo those exceptions that occurred during the series...), there are thousands. And Sunnydale, the fictional Southern California city where most of the series took place, which incidentally sits over a gate to Hell, is a smoking crater.
Season Eight is a graphic novel series published by Dark Horse Comics which picks up where Season Seven left off. And since Joss Whedon is the producer/editor, albeit usually not the writer of the individual stories, he has said that Season Eight is indeed official canon for the Buffy series. How much this matters is debatable, since it's unlikely that even if there were to ever be another BtVS TV series they would actually treat the comic books as part of its continuity, but so Joss hath said.
Season Eight begins by showing us what has changed: the Slayers are now an army, with Buffy as its nominal leader, and by "army" I mean they're literally organized and have somehow acquired all kinds of hardware and secret bases and stuff. They're running training camps, they're recruiting new Slayers all the time, and Xander is rocking his eye patch as the operational commander of the Slayers. (Yes, of course they make Nick Fury jokes; this is Buffy and it's Xander; how could they not?)
Oh, and somewhere along the way Dawn had an affair with a magical creature called a Thricewise who... turned her into a giant.
Whedon wanted Season Eight to be a part of the regular Buffy continuity, but one in which he could do all the things he couldn't do on a TV show constrained by ratings and a special effects budget. The series succeeds and fails in the same way that most of the Buffy seasons succeeded and failed. Individual parts of the storyline were occasionally brilliant, funny, and/or dramatic, but as a whole, it failed to come together, and especially towards the end, became almost incoherent.
Joss Whedon himself even "apologizes" to readers in a letter in the final volume of the series, Last Gleaming, in which he promises that Season Nine (yay? for those who still want more) will be more of a "back to basics" with Buffy walking the streets and staking vampires. Of course he's not retconning Season Eight out of the continuity, but Buffy as a superhero who can literally fly and throw submarines around is really not Buffy, and you can tell when the writers just got way too carried away. From the ending, it seems they're going to dial it down a bit in the next season, and after interdimensional demon invasions, anthropomorphic universes, at least three sets of gods, and a Big Bad named "Twilight" (yes, Season Eight started before that other Twilight became a thing), and have I mentioned Buffy throwing submarines? I think more focus on characters, which is where Buffy was always strongest, will be a good thing.
There is a lot of snark and humor and the best pages are the ones that feel just like the old series with the characters dialoging away.
Just about everyone from the first seven seasons makes an appearance, including (in the grand old tradition of comic books) characters who were supposed to be dead but aren't. The writers go for the dramatic cheers and gasps when you-know-who shows up again or and whats-his-name returns from the grave, but mostly it's an update of what all our friends have been up to since the TV show ended. Oz is in Tibet, Faith and Giles are running around doing covert stuff while Buffy is leading an army, and Spike has somehow acquired a steampunk airship crewed by giant bugs.
All characters have evolved and continue to do so. Buffy still acts the blonde not infrequently, but the weight of responsibility and a few more years has turned her into a reluctant young adult. Xander has taken several levels in Badass (and picks up a few more during Season Eight), but he's still lovable old insanely-unlucky-in-love Xander. Willow: still a witch, still lesbian. Turning into even more of a grown-up than Buffy. And Dawn is, well, still the Scrappy-Doo of the gang (her line), but she's growing up, too.
And she fights a giant mecha version of herself in downtown Tokyo. That scene alone probably represented the best and worst parts of Season Eight: it was awesome, hilarious action and it made absolutely no sense.
There is more worldbuilding, as we get to see what happens when the world is populated by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Slayers, and not all of them think that what they'd really like to do now that they're superhuman is spend the rest of their lives fighting vampires. No budget means unlimited settings and Buffy and friends can travel all over the world. Whedon has never been afraid to make permanent changes in his world, and he does quite a bit of this in Season Eight: both Slayers and vampires go public, and in a satiric twist, Harmony becomes the star of her own reality show and makes vampires cool, while the Slayers are regarded as a public menace.
The Season Finale introduces yet another major world-changing event and some significant character deaths.
Twists, turns, Sudden But Inevitable Betrayals, old foes, old friends, and heartbreaks, very much in the Buffy tradition.
Buffy turning into a superhero. She flies. Faster than a speeding bullet. Yes, really. Yes, there's a mystical reason for this development, and no, it's not permanent, but still. C"mon, Joss.
Too many people-who-should-be-dead returning. This is one of the reasons I stopped reading superhero comic books. What's the point of killing someone off when you know that no death is permanent? Yes, in fairness, the TV show did that more than once, but still, death in the Buffyverse has always been (usually) a fairly permanent condition and thus not taken lightly. A few more "You thought he was dead, didn't you?" big reveals and I'll just start to expect that anyone who dies in Buffy will be back in a season or two, just like in superhero comics. Just because Buffy is in a comic book doesn't mean she has to follow all superhero conventions.
WTF? I still don't quite follow what all happened in that hot mess of an ending. Sorry, but the Big Bad, Twilight, and the big Master Plan and all that? Did. Not. Work.
Dial it down. Just because you can now plot anything you can draw doesn't mean you should. Sometimes the ridiculousness was funny (giant Mecha-Dawn!). Sometimes it was just stupid (submarine teleporting into the Himalayas...)
It's long been an axiom of the Whedonverse that two characters happy and in love = tragic bloody fatality in the near future. This doesn't change in Season Eight. Which spells ominous forebodings for who the major character death(s) will be in Season Nine.
Is it worth reading?
I'd give it a qualified 'yes.' If you are a big Buffy fan, you will probably like it, or else you'll totally hate it for the various ways in which it screwed with the Buffy universe, paired off and/or killed certain major characters, etc. It does have a lot of that "Buffy" tone while still being quite different as you'd expect from a different medium.
If you're a casual Buffy fan, you'll probably like it but not love it.
If you're not a Buffy fan... well, I can't say this is something I'd use to lure someone into the fandom, as it's entirely too self-referential and no one unfamiliar with the series is going to get most of the jokes or even know most of what's going on. As a comic book series in its own right, it's okay, but nothing special -- certainly the storyline does not compare with the best of the TV seasons -- and wouldn't be my recommendation for a non-comics fan.
That said, I enjoyed it enough that I'll read Season Nine, but I'll keep waiting for the trade paperbacks.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Tales
Just as a physical keepsake, this is a beautiful, well-made hardcover volume. It's not the cheap binding you usually see with comics compilations, and it's even got a red ribbon bookmark attached. And quite a gorgeous cover as well. So if you're a Buffy fan looking for a coffee table book, this is a worthwhile investment.
Oh, but you want to know what's inside.
Tales collects several Dark Horse BtVS series that ran earlier than or concurrently with Season Eight. Some of these stories go back over ten years. It's all "canon" (according to Whedon) just like Season Eight, but most of the stories involve minor or original characters not seen in the series. It's basically a bunch of short stories showing other parts of the Buffy universe, both historical and post-Sunnydale-go-boom.
I have to say that overall, I enjoyed this book more than I enjoyed Season Eight, possibly because most of the characters were new ones and thus I had no investment in them except within the context of their own little tale. We know from the series that there have been Slayers throughout history, but we only ever saw a handful, and any fan worth their salt has thought of a ton of historical Slayers they'd like to see. Here we get quite a few of them collected in one place.
So you want more Slayers. The first part of the book is like a Mattel Barbie-shelf-full of Slayers. Future!Slayer, Medieval!Slayer, French Revolution!Slayer, Regency!Slayer, etc.
Most of these stories were quite short. All had a twist of some sort: some were wittier or funnier than others, some were light-hearted and some quite dark, but I wouldn't say any of them bombed. The quality of the artwork and the stories was quite good, though all were written in a much more serious tone than the main Buffy series; Navajo!Slayer and Jungmädel!Slayer do not exchange snarky Buffyesque repartee with their friends and enemies. Regency!Slayer does trade a few barbs at the ball with her vamp, in a story that's obviously paying homage to Austen, and fans of Nikki, the 70s Slayer from the Big Apple, will enjoy her pulp adventure with a demonic dinosaur.
Nikki is the only returning character, unless you count the future-Slayer from Whedon's other Buffy series, Fray.
Besides the above, there is also an American Slayer recruited to stop a German agent in WWII (evidently Jungmädel!Slayer didn't last long) in what was probably my least favorite story, as the tone and the set-up didn't really fit into the BtVS universe.
I could read Slayer tales all day; these were all "extras" with little relevance to the universe or the main storyline, so YMMV, but if you're the sort of person who likes AU or OC fanfics (and who doesn't? Asks the guy who writes AU and OC fanfics...) these will be candy for you.
The other series collected in this volume is Tales of the Vampires. Like the Slayers' Tales, this is a series of short stories about individual vampires. They're all evil; no divergence from Buffy canon there. But rather than being the undifferentiated monster mash usually seen getting dusted by Buffy, here the writers were able to create individual stories about vampire characters. You'd expect some of them to be pretty interesting (if evil) characters, since after all they are theoretically immortal.
As with the Slayer tales, I found the stories and artwork to be mostly pretty good. The ones I found least interesting were the stories featuring canon characters: there's one with Angel wallowing in angst and providing absolutely zero new insight or character development. (I never liked Angel at all, though part of that was the fact that David Boreanaz just can't fucking act, I'm sorry, and whether he was gazing soulfully into Buffy's eyes or turning Angelus and nasty, he always made me think of a constipated Boy Scout trying to remember his lines.) There's also a Spike and Drusilla short story which was very meh. But the others were pretty clever (aside from the inevitable Jack the Ripper-vampire story which was only a little clever).
Most of the vamp tales are relatively modern. One of my favorites was the nightclub-hopping vampires who are reacting with mixed feelings to Harmony's brave new world of vampires as tres chic, able to feed openly but not supposed to kill. There were also several stories featuring the predictable angsty goth outcast teenagers who think becoming a vampire would be just the most awesomest thing in the world. The more emotionally-charged stories were the ones portraying vampires as soulless and sociopathic but still possessing a shred of their old personalities and attachments to friends and family members. Given that these stories were mostly written in the pre-Twilight era, it's quite refreshing to read post-Twilight vampire stories where that whole cool!sexy!vampire sensibility is there, but it's quite obviously a facade over creatures who are always, in reality, soulless bloodsucking monsters. Yet more than once you actually manage to feel sorry for a vampire, soulless monster or not.
There is a meta-narrative framing several of the tales, featuring a group of children who are being trained as the next generation of Watchers. They have been brought down to a dungeon to hear tales of vampires from a captured vamp that the Watchers' Council is keeping in chains. Naturally, as the captive vampire tells his tale, it develops that something sinister is going on. The outcome is fairly predictable, but there's a sweet twist at the end involving a regular series cast member.
I actually found the vampire stories to be more interesting and original on average than the Slayer stories, but all were well worth reading.
Verdict: I'm really reviewing two things here: the entire Buffy Season Eight series and the Buffy the Vampire Slayer collection. The latter volume is one I would recommend unreservedly to any Buffy fan, and I'd even recommend it to comics fans in general; while it would help to have at least a general familiarity with the BtVS setting, it's not really necessary to understand and enjoy these collected short stories. As for Season Eight, I believe that serious Buffy fans are fairly divided over whether they love it or hate it, but my reaction seems to be pretty typical, in that I thought the first part of the series was pretty darn good, but by the end it had gone from awesome to kind of okay but really muddled. Nonetheless, it didn't bomb so badly that I won't read Season Nine. I don't think, though, that Season Eight will hold much appeal to anyone who's not already invested in Buffy fandom.