Comic adaptations of works have grown over time. From the time of Classics Illustrated, comics were used to adapt a work to a format readers would be more familiar with. Adaptations of popular movies allowed readers to re-live the thrills at a time when home video was non-existent. Today, though, the comic format allows creators to continue a work from another medium. It’s not a new phenomenon; DC Comics published a four-part series of graphic novels continuing the story of Village in The Prisoner: Shattered Visage in 1988. Today, though, getting the information out on adaptations is far easier thanks to the Internet and cross-medium works are far more common.
The benefit is that a work can find a format that works best to gather and keep an audience. Movies are expensive to make and market, and even if profitable, they may not have enough of a following to justify a follow up work. Television, while not as expensive as film and able to spread costs over a number of episodes, are still subject to whims of ratings; a niche series may not have the critical mass to survive a season. Comic books don’t have the expense burdens a film would and can be sustained with a far lower number of readers than a TV series can with low audience numbers.
Even series that have had a good run can take advantage of the switch to comics. Fans will want more, especially just after a series has ended, and the series’ creator can explore areas that the show couldn’t, either because of expense or network limitations. Such is the focus of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer continuation comic series. The Buffy TV series, itself an adaptation, ran for seven years, a good run. The series had a definite end, with Sunnydale sinking into a Hellmouth to seal it and an army of Slayers defeating demons trying to overrun the Earth. But Buffy’s story wasn’t done.
Buffy and her friends still had the army of Slayers, and that issue was worth exploring. Creator Joss Whedon continued the story in the comic series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight, published by Dark Horse Comics. A new threat hangs over the world, and Buffy and her army need to discover what it is before the Apocalypse happens. Or, the same old same old for the Scoobies. And the series wouldn’t be Buffy if personal issues came up. Not only does Buffy have an army of young girls with supernatural abilities to try corral, her sister Dawn has run into some problems, and her own personal life is falling apart. Again, nothing new for Buffy. The fans, though, expect Buffy and her friends to have to deal with personal issues while saving the world. Skipping that skips the essence of the TV series.
The comic series does deliver. The characters’ behaviour reflects their growth over the run of the TV series, from teenagers in high school to young adults trying to figure out what their place is in the world while dealing with weirdnesses most people never have to worry about. The graphic format allows for effects that would be difficult to achieve on television, either because of time needed, the expense, or because of the laws of physics. Dawn, as part of a curse, grew to be several stories tall; showing this on screen would require green-screening and filming her scenes twice, once with her and once with the regular sized cast. When TV episodes need to be completed within a week, that’s extra time that could be better used, especially if the curse is season long. In another scene, Buffy and Angel wind up changing settings page to page; if filmed, that would mean setting up in multiple locations for only several minutes of film. It’s doable for an episode, but would mean making extensive use of sets instead of location shots to minimize travel time. In a comic, both are easily done. Dawn can be drawn far larger than the rest of the cast without any camera effects or multiple takes and the new settings that Buffy and Angel use are needed in each panel anyway, whether they stay in one location or jump every panel to somewhere new.
Buffy Season Eight picks up after the destruction of Sunnyvale. Buffy and her Slayer army have found a home in Scotland with room for the young women to train. Dawn gets cursed while studying at university. A new threat and old adversaries return. Worse, the threat is one that Buffy herself creates. However, the draw isn’t the situation, it’s the characters. How the Scoobies react to the new threat and old problems is the key, and the comic shines there. The TV series was always more than just being about a student staking vampires, and the comic continues with the idea that the heroes are people, too, even the vampires.
Comic continuations come with their own shortfalls. Page limits mean a comic can be read in five to ten minutes, unlike a forty-two minute television episode. Comics are released monthly, unlike television’s weekly schedule. Artwork may not resemble the characters*, though that was not an issue with the Buffy comics. Sometimes, the limitations of one medium that will force a creator to come up with a work around that results in a better product will be avoided. While the limits of the medium can’t be helped, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight avoids most of the shortfalls, though does get self-indulgent at times. Some subplots linger too long, while others get ignored. However, what one reader finds dragging, another will find enthralling.
Overall, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight works as a continuation. The situation that develops in the comic builds from what was shown in the TV series. The characters grew from their experiences; the Xander of the comic is not the Xander of season one, but the Xander of the end of season seven after everything he went through. The hints of what Buffy was doing as seen on Angel were expanded. Like gravity, continuity is a harsh mistress, but fans have expectations. The continuation comic meets these expectations.
* When creating a comic based on a live-action property, the actors still have control over their likenesses unless there’s a clause in their contracts allowing for comic tie-ins. Marvel Comics ran into the problem in the Eighties with both their Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica comics, where they didn’t have the rights.to the likenesses.
Any geek-friendly property will have a role-playing game created for it, whether the result is official or unofficial. Licensing, though, can be costly, the result being that some properties get a game when the work is laying fallow, such as what happened with the earlier Star Wars and Star Trek RPGs. Having a current property tends to be a coup. Such was the case with the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Roleplaying Game.
The TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer first aired on the WB and then UPN. Despite being on smaller networks, the show picked up a cult following, a following that was more likely to also purchase RPGs. Eden Studios published the Buffy RPG during the TV series’ sixth season in 2002 using a modified version of their house mechanic as used in their Witchcraft RPG. Cinematic Unisystem, as the mechanics were called, simplified the skill list and added a drama die mechanic called Karma Points. The core, which involved rolling a ten-sided die and adding attribute and skill levels, remained and easily faded into the background when not needed.
The core Buffy rulebook contained everything players and gamemasters (known as Directors) needed to play. The language in the book contained Buffy-speak without being forced or impenetrable. Character creation was point-buy, with different pools of points for attributes and skills, and advantages; players needing more points could get disadvantages. The game allowed for different starting levels of power for characters. The low end represented the Scoobies like Xander, Willow, and Cordelia in the first season. The next level up represented the White Hats like Giles and Buffy herself. The top level existed for experienced heroes, like the gang in later seasons. Mixing power levels was possible, as long as the Director remembered the differences in abilities. The game provided help here by giving the low tier characters the most Karma Points at the start and allowing them to by the Points at a lower experience point cost than the higher levels.
For players wanting to play the someone from the series, all the major characters and some of the minor ones got full character sheets that reflected both the character creation rules and what was shown on the series. People wanting to create original characters weren’t forgotten. The core rules included advantages that acted as packages, including everything needed to be a Watcher, a Slayer-in-Training, a Werewolf, a Vampire, or even a full-fledged Slayer. The Director and players could decide to play in a different era, or work out how a new Slayer was called based on events in the series. After all, by the fourth season, two new Slayers, Kendra and Faith, had appeared.
Since the game was already set for urban fantasy, Witchcraft‘s combat mechanics were easily brought over, with important maneuvers, such as Stake to the Heart, being added to the common list. Actual play was quick; between the simplicity of the die mechanic and the option for the Director to use the average value for non-player characters instead of also rolling, a fight wouldn’t take an entire session unless it was meant to be the climax of a campaign’s season.
Helping to maintain the feel of the Buffy TV series is the terms used, like season and Director. Individual sessions are called episodes, though Directors can have games with multiple ongoing plots without defined borders without breaking the system. The episodic nature of TV series gives structure to new players without alienating experienced ones.
As is appropriate, when Buffy spun off Angel and Cordelia into their own series, Angel, Eden Studios produced the spin-off, Angel Roleplaying Game. The spin-off RPG used the same system, but included details on how to create new advantages for the various demons that appeared in the series. Eden also used Cinematic Unisystem in another licensed RPG, one based on Army of Darkness. The differences in the games came from the different advantages available, each reflecting the source material, and the tone of the writing. Army of Darkness didn’t have the Buffy-speak, opting for a tone matching Bruce Campbell’s Ash.
Overall, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Roleplaying Game not only makes the effort to recreate the TV series, it succeeds, The game allows players to enter the Buffy-verse without having to worry about the mechanics, letting them jump right in. The presentation maintains the feel by sounding like it came from the writers’ room, mimicking the dialogue the series was known for. Eden Studios deserves full kudos for their work.
Continuing from last week’s discussion on adaptations surpassing their originals. it’s time to look at a specific example, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The original Buffy hit theatres in the summer of 1992. Kristy Swanson played the titular character, with Donald Sutherland playing her Watcher, Merrick. The film was marketed as an action/comedy/horror movie, taking the elements of the typical slasher flick and flipping them around. Thus, the blonde cheerleader who would normally be one of the first victims of the slasher becomes the heroine, with her love interest, Oliver Pike as played by Luke Perry, becoming the dude in distress.
Los Angeles is in danger from a cabal of vampires led by Lothos, played by Rutger Hauer. One girl can save the city. Too bad she doesn’t know she’s LA’s only hope. Buffy Summers is a high school senior and a cheerleader, looking forward to her hobbies of shopping and her boyfriend, Jeffrey. Naturally, at Buffy’s school, there’s a schism between the popular and the outcasts, where Oliver and Benny (David Arquette) fall. Fortunately for LA, Merrick is searching for the new Slayer. The Chosen One, Buffy, isn’t as impressed, but her new abilities start manifesting. In addition, Merrick describes a dream that Buffy keeps having. She begins training under Merrick’s tutelage.
Oliver and Benny are the first of the school to run into the vampires. Merrick arrives too late to prevent Benny being turned into a vampire, but does rescue Oliver. Another of Buffy’s classmates, a girl named Cassandra, played by an uncredited Ricki Lake, is kidnapped by Amilyn, played by Paul Reubans, and sacrificed to the vampire’s master, Lothos, played by Rutget Hauer. Lothos has killed a number of Slayers in the past and has set his sights on Buffy. An encounter in the woods has Amilyn and his gang of vampires fight Buffy, Merrick, and Oliver, leading to Amilyn losing an arm and Buffy and Oliver getting closer.
Later, at a school basketball game, Oliver recognizes a classmate who has become a vampire. Buffy chases the the vampire and runs into Lothos himself. Lothos hypnotizes Buffy, but Merrick arrives in time to prevent anything further. Merrick is staked himself by Lothos, and dies. The Watcher gives Buffy one last bit of advice, to do things her way, not the old ways.
Shaken, Buffy tries to return to her old life. At school, though, her friends have turned on her, making her an outcast. Buffy realizes that her priorities have changed while her old friends are still fixated on shopping and the upcoming senior dance. Even her boyfriend, Jeffrey, has found a new girlfriend. Oliver, though, stays by her, understanding what Buffy is going through.
The senior dance is for seniors only. As per tradition, vampires cannot enter a building unless invited. The vampire army built by Lothos and Amilyn, though, consist of high school seniors, and each of them received a formal invitation to the dance. Buffy arrives in time to fight the vampires inside and outside. Oliver takes on his old friend, Benny, while Buffy first stabs Amilyn then goes after Lothos. Once again, Lothos tries to hypnotize her, but Buffy is ready with a cross and a can of hairspray. By using her keen fashion sense, Buffy defeats Lothos.
As mentioned, one aspect of the film was comedy. The movie was light entertainment, a summer popcorn movie that was common before the Blockbuster Era we currently have. Buffy was moderately popular but not a major hit. Joss Whedon wrote the screenplay for the movie, though there may have been some meddling by executives to get popcorn fare.
Five years later, Joss Whedon returns to the character with the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series. The pilot for the series was once meant for a potential sequel to the original film, but as the show continued, the link between the movie and TV series became nebulous. Ideas from the film appeared, but reworked to fit the new show.
The TV Buffy, with Sarah Michelle Gellar taking over the lead role, kept the horror and the comedy, but became far more darker and tense. The show first aired on the WB, owned by Warner Bros, and was a breakout hit for the fledgling network. In 2001, Buffy moved over to UPN, a Paramount owned network. Despite being on smaller networks, the show gained a following.
In the pilot, Buffy Anne Summers and her mother move to Sunnydale after an incident that resulted in the burning down of the gym at Buffy’s previous school. Buffy is hoping to be a normal girl, despite being the Slayer. All those hopes are dashed when Rupert Giles, played by Anthony Stewart Head, appears as her new Watcher. Sunnydale High sits on top of a Hellmouth and Buffy’s abilities are needed to prevent Hell from boiling out. Being the newcomer, Buffy starts out as an outcast in the school. She meets Xander Harris, played by Nicholas Brendan, and Willow Rosenberg, played by Alison Hannigan, who befriend her through common experience of being outsiders. Cordelia Chase, one of the popular crowd and a cheerleader to boot, represents what Buffy could have been. Cordelia eventually joins in with Buffy and her friends in fighting the evil lurking in Sunnydale.
Through the series, the cast grows, emotionally and numerically. Seth Green, who had an uncredited role as a vampire in the original Buffy, joins the cast as Oz, Willow’s boyfriend. David Boreanaz joins as Angel, a vampire who becomes romantically linked with Buffy. After Buffy is clinically dead but revived, a new Slayer, Kendra, played by Bianca Lawson, arrives. Unlike Buffy, Kendra was raised by the Watchers, and the difference between the two Slayers is evident. Kendra lacks Buffy’s ability to improvise, leading to her death and the activation of Faith, played by Eliza Dushku. Again, the difference between Buffy and Faith is evident. Faith didn’t have the support system Buffy did with her friends.
Each season carried a theme. The first season, set mainly in and around Sunnydale High, showed that high school was hell. By the time Buffy graduates in season three, she had prevented several apocalypses, saved the student body more times than they could count, and befriended many others. Season two shows how Buffy’s approach, while not always successful, had advantages over a strict teaching. The season also had Buffy fall in love with the wrong man, Angel. Angel was under a Gypsy curse; if he ever achieved happiness, the Angelus personality within would be released, causing untold tragedy. Season three shows the difference between the relationship Buffy has with Giles, the relationship the Council of Watchers would impose on Slayers, and the relationship Faith had with the Mayor, who was using the girl for his nefarious purposes. Season four was about change, with Buffy and Willow heading to university, Xander getting a job, Oz leaving because he’s a danger as a werewolf, and Cordelia leaving for LA with Angel for a spin-off series*.
The series became known for its writing, taking chances that wouldn’t normally be seen on the regular networks. “Hush”, a fourth season episode, took a show known for its snappy dialogue and made everyone mute, unable to speak, and was successful. “Once More, with Feeling”, from season six, was an all-musical episode, making /Buffy/ the second show to try that, the first being Xena, Warrior Princess.
How does the TV series stack against the original? The series built on top of ideas presented in the movie and gives them more time to develop. The implications of the Buffy-verse is shown to viewers. The result is a TV series that has more than its fair share of academic papers written about it, with over two hundred produced about various aspects of the show, from dialogue to characterizations to the metaphors of humanity used as the base of many episodes. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series has had comics, including Seasons 8 through 10, and games, including Eden Studio’s role-playing game of the same name. The TV series has far surpassed its original.
Next week, continuing the history of adaptations with the early years of the film industry.
* Angel, naturally enough. Set in LA, Angel was the head of a small private invesitgation company, specializing in the unusual.