‘Serenity’ soars, but are ‘Buffy’ and ‘Angel & Faith’ running out of ideas? (Comic book reviews)

 

This question has been creeping into the back of my mind throughout the “Buffy” franchise’s three seasons of official continuations from Dark Horse Comics, but it’s especially evident now, early in Season 10 of “Buffy” and “Angel & Faith”: Are these titles running out of good ideas?

Not entirely. There are two pretty great concepts driving “Buffy” Season 10 right now. The first is that Giles is back from the dead, but now he’s a teenager. Angel and Faith resurrect him late in Season 9, and he reunites with the Scooby Gang in early Season 10, telling a bummed-out Faith that Buffy needs his help more than she does.

Xander notes that they don’t plan to stop with the “Giles as teenager” jokes anytime soon, but there’s also a more serious side to this arc: While Giles retains all the knowledge and personality traits from when he was an adult, his brain chemistry is now that of a teen. Essentially, he has lost his leadership skills. I don’t know of any other story of an adult going back into a teenager’s body. Movies and TV shows like “Never Been Kissed” and “21 Jump Street” have adults going undercover as teens, and movies like “Big” and “13 Going on 30” have teens magically becoming adults. So “Buffy” Season 10 is delivering an interesting variation on the age-hopping genre.

The second intriguing element is the character of Xander, who late in Season 9 feels he has to betray Buffy in order to save the life of his girlfriend, Dawn. Now that Dawn is back, he feels uneasy about his relationship with both of the Summers sisters. The Scooby Gang has gone through trials like this before – notably during the Dark Willow saga – but this could be among the toughest. An upcoming trio of issues penned by Xander actor Nicholas Brendon — following in the actor-turned-comic-writer footsteps of Amber Benson (Tara), Juliet Landau (Drusilla) and James Marsters (Spike), who will write another Spike series later this year – should make strides in exploring Xander’s troubled state of mind.

While “Angel & Faith” Season 9 outclassed “Buffy” Season 9 thanks to the Giles resurrection arc, the tables have turned early in Season 10. Faith joins up with Kennedy’s firm of superpowered security officers. In her first assignment, she gets a gig as a bodyguard for a pop star. Supposedly it’s to protect him from groupies and hangers-on, but – in vintage “Buffy”-verse fashion — the opposite is the case: He’s (literally) the monster. Faith’s role reminds me a bit too much of “Dollhouse,” where Eliza Dushku’s character is hired out in a variety of capacities.

Meanwhile, Angel is back to helping the helpless in London and its new suburb, Magic Town. Except that none of the old gang is with him (unless you count Giles’ two aunts). The emphasis on magic as a central story point in Seasons 8, 9 and 10 is irksome. I think it worked better as a tool for telling parables during the TV heyday of “Buffy” and “Angel.”

A major reason why “Buffy” Season 10 seems so slapdash is that the characters lack a home base. The early issues take place in Santa Rosita (a Sunnydale-sized town), where super-vampires have displaced zompires, which had previous displaced run-of-the-mill vampires. But where the heck do Buffy, Xander, Dawn, Willow and Spike live? If they’re still in San Francisco, they must have a ton of mail piled up there.

“Angel & Faith” also seems unhinged because while Angel has a flat in London, Faith is flying around the world with Kennedy’s company. So at the moment, “Angel & Faith” is more like “Angel” and “Faith” — two stories sharing one book. One can assume the two characters – who play off each other so perfectly, since they are the only people who can understand and sympathize with each other’s backgrounds – will reunite in Season 10 eventually. Perhaps they’ll somehow find themselves on opposite sides of a conflict?

While I’m not giving up on the “Buffy”-verse titles, it is telling that “Serenity: Leaves on the Wind” (currently four issues into its six-issue run) feels like a more necessary and vibrant story. Zack Whedon, Joss’ younger brother who has built up an impressive resume himself, is doing an outstanding job in a story that builds off the “Serenity” movie and the one-shot “Float Out,” where we learned Zoe was pregnant.

Zack Whedon brought back Jubal Early and cathartically had Kaylie kill him. (Yes, she literally dumps him out the garbage chute in an issue-ending scene that feels so shockingly “Firefly”-esque.) More intriguingly, he brought back the Operative. Now that he knows he can’t stop the Signal, the Operative has nothing to fight for, so in a disgraced, unengaged manner, he’s actually helping Mal (although Mal is wisely not turning his back on the Operative for one second).

“Leaves on the Wind” has also given us a neat variation on the prison-escape story with an Alliance prison that has no walls because it’s in the middle of a huge desert. You can leave, but you’ll surely die. And the guards let the prisoners fight and kill each other. Zoe’s challenging task is to get her fellow prisoners to work together against their oppressors.

Despite the similarities, “Firefly” stood out from “Star Wars” because this story was about people who just wanted to keep flying after they lost the revolutionary war. Pretty much every “Star Wars” story is about the war itself. In “Leaves on the Wind,” a new group of Browncoats seeks out Mal – a legend among Independent-minded folk — to serve as their leader. He wants nothing to do with it, as he doesn’t want to go through the worst time of his life again. On the other hand, as “Dumb and Dumber” once put it, the Serenity crew has got no food, they got no jobs … (I’m not sure if the heads of Wash’s toy dinosaurs are falling off.) So maybe the best revenge isn’t to live well, it’s to kill a bunch of Alliance bastards. It could be an epic arc, but the “Serenity” comics will have to be wary of treading too much into “Star Wars” territory.

Arguably, Joss Whedon’s and Dark Horse’s approach to these franchises is backward. “Buffy” and “Angel & Faith” too often seem to be grasping for story threads, whereas “Serenity” is overflowing with great stuff. Yet the former are ongoing series and the latter is only a miniseries rather than a full-on “Firefly” Season 2. While I suspect the “Buffy”-verse titles will recover and find interesting new character angles, the “Firefly”-verse is bursting with unanswered questions. For example, we still haven’t gotten two key yarns between the series and the film: Book departing for Haven and the gang meeting Mr. Universe for the first time.

Then again, we have seen “Veronica Mars” and “24” return to live action this year, so maybe we don’t want too many “Firefly”-verse questions answered in comic form, just in case Joss gets a break from the Marvel-verse and tackles his own sci-fi saga again.