(Review of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Vol. 5: Predators and Prey)
By David K. Ginn
As the back description of the volume reads, “Predators and Prey collects a series of one-shots establishing the new world order – where vampires reign supreme and Slayers are public enemy number one.” For those familiar with the series, this is a surprising but satisfying turn that, like the volumes before it, rejuvenates the story with a fresh spin.
The story thus far is that Buffy and pals were running a worldwide Slayer organization – an almost inevitable result of a magic spell that made all potential Slayers into real ones. Over the past year or so, they’ve crossed paths with a shadowy nemesis known as Twilight, whose main goals have yet to be revealed. Predators and Prey shows how, due to the sheer enormity of their operation, the world of vampires, demons, and things that go bump in the night can’t stay a secret forever. In a clear jab at the “sparkly vampire” frenzy of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series and HBO’s True Blood, the world falls in love with vampires and deems the Slayers to be evil.
What’s particularly great about Predators and Prey is that it exemplifies producer Joss Whedon’s unfalteringly honest approach to long-term storytelling. Only recently has Walking Dead writer Robert Kirkman beat him for the title of “Character Genocidist,” and more writers are stepping up to take the throne. Contrary to long-held views on the matter, killing major characters shows more heart – and loyalty to the story – than the weak fanboy attachment that has made so many other stories stale. The big change in Predators and Prey doesn’t involve death, but a new, irrevocable step forward for the entire fictional universe (dubbed by fans as the ‘Buffyverse’). The writers have traded the comfort of secrecy and anonymity for the chaos of global affairs, and at this point in the series, it was really the only direction they could go in.
Predators and Prey’s greatest accomplishment, however, is that it tells a complete story in five loosely connected one-shots. Fans looking for a cowboy hanging at the edge of a cliff will be disappointed five consecutive times, as each chapter of the story is a wildly imaginative “Tales of the Buffyverse” entry that somehow manages to progress the narrative and add countless layers in the process. This fun, loose-but-focused method of storytelling is the best of its kind since, well, the early days of the Buffy TV series.
Quirky Buffy veteran Jane Espenson delivers the outrageous debut of the ‘New World Order’ with the one-shot “Harmonic Divergence.” Anyone wondering what Buffy would be like if it were infused with a hint of Betty & Veronica, you can look no further. Espenson gleefully blends her B-horror dry wit with her unabashed love for up-to-date pop culture. She writes Buffy as if she were writing for a fashion magazine, which is why it comes as no surprise that this volume comes complete with a fake, in-universe magazine featuring the issue’s titular character. Always ditsy and stuck in a high school mindset, Harmony is a constant reminder of what the show used to be, and her role in the comics serves that purpose effectively. Previously, a running gag on the show consisted of her unsuccessful attempts to be Buffy’s main nemesis. Now, as she brings the existence of vampires into public awareness – and posh – she inadvertently succeeds where she had failed so many times.
The strongest chapter of the lot, or at least the one that lends itself most beautifully to the comic medium, is “Swell.” In it, the public’s adoration of vampires has awakened an unholy demon – merchandising. Vampy Cats are the new cuddly plush dolls that are slated to reassure children everywhere that vampires are their friends. In typical Buffy fashion, the dolls are actually evil, and are seeking to infiltrate the Slayer organization with a foothold. “Swell” is hands-down one of the funniest and most entertaining issue of any comic to be released in years. Georges Jeanty demonstrates a mastery of his craft, showing that even he and his pencil have a great sense of humor. Maybe some of the great visual details were planned from the beginning, or maybe they were his little touches; either way, he and writer Steven S. DeKnight come through for a remarkably delightful tale.
The eponymous chapter, “Predators and Prey,” is Buffy’s first return to the usual format. Buffy is once again the main protagonist, and her wise-cracking, pop-culture-spouting circle of friends is with her to keep up the levels of sass and fun in the face of danger that fans have come to expect. The tale acts as a bowtie for the rest of the volume, telling a one-shot story but also progressing the main plot in a way that the other entries are simply not equipped to pull off. It is in this chapter that Buffy’s trademark library of pop culture references explodes in ways that will make nerds everywhere drool in amazement. Two facing pages are devoted entirely to a nerd monologue of such epic proportions that it cannot justly be described. Buffy vet Drew Z. Greenberg has penned a script that will be hard to top by other writers later in the series.
“Safe,” the volume’s fourth chapter, is a perfect drop into the darker side of the Buffy universe. Many episodes of the show – and its spinoff series Angel – dealt with the moral ambiguity of a world where demonic evil exists, and “Safe” is a refreshingly mature reprise of that theme. Coupled with Faith’s return to the spotlight, the issue most closely resembles the Brian K. Vaughn Buffy arc, which was compiled in the second volume, No Future for You. It’s short, and it’s clear that there should have been much more to the story, but as a one-shot, it does the most with space allotted to it. The highest testament to quality writing is when the reader is left wanting more. Scriptwriter Jim Krueger artfully constrains himself, and while less may not be more in this example, it’s hard to find a flaw in the penmanship.
The volume gets quirky and cute again with the final entry, Doug Petrie’s “Living Doll.” Throughout the series, a running gag included Buffy’s sister, Dawn, being transformed into various creatures. First she was a giant, then a centaur, and now a porcelain doll. Once again, the issue’s major flaw is the brevity with which it handles a great concept and even better story. Just as with “Safe,” “Living Doll” could have been made into its own graphic novel without losing any of its quality or impact. Still, the end feeling is more of excitement than frustration, as Buffy shows how much it can do in so little space.
Bottom line: Predators and Prey is a great breather from the typically chaotic plot, but its firm establishment of a new dynamic – and its fearless ability to make those changes – secure its place as a necessary and riveting volume for fans. Alternately, the stories are fun and loose enough to pull in new readers, which is an easy quality to lose with serialized genre fiction.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is published regularly by Dark Horse Comics, and can be found at major book retailers.