‘Buffy’ flashback: ‘Chaos Bleeds’ (2003) (Book and comic book review)

The most heavily marketed “Buffy” video game, “Chaos Bleeds,” got both comic book (June 2003) and novel (August 2003) adaptations. Usually video game tie-ins are red flags for readers, because there’s a danger they will be the literary equivalent of watching someone play the game. On the other hand, authors are often aware of this danger, and they have been known to dodge it. In “Star Wars” Legends, for instance, “Republic Commando” and “X-Wing” are among the elite book series.

In his novelization of “Chaos Bleeds,” one-and-done “Buffy” scribe James A. Moore effectively toes the line. Reading the book – set in early Season 6 and based on the game narrative by Christopher Golden and Tom Sniegoski — I can see the video-game structure and tropes. Villains whom the Scoobies have killed in the past, starting with the vampire Kakistos from “Faith, Hope and Trick” (3.1), come to Sunnydale. And later the Scoobs are sucked into an alternate dimension where they encounter other vanquished or nightmare foes.

This is understandable: Gamers want to face off against the classic “Buffy” villains. So Faith faces Kakistos and some gator-monsters (although she doesn’t wrestle them naked in this case), Spike takes on the Initiative’s Adam, Willow meets Vampire Tara, Xander battles an alterna-Anyanka, and Buffy has a showdown with a Giles who never shook off his Ripper ways (plus zombie gorillas, for some reason).

In another nod to gaming, Moore writes long fight sequences. To be fair, he writes good long fight sequences, including a harrowing graveyard battle where her mom’s corpse might be resurrected. But they are still too long – at least early in the book. As the narrative moves forward, Moore allows things to breathe more. He brings us to favorite locales like Sunnydale High, the Espresso Pump, the Sunnydale zoo and the factory – which has been taken over by the Master’s blood-bottling operation from “The Wish” (3.9). Some of these locations are almost Lovecraftian in their horror, and the alternate dimension version of the Sunnydale hospital calls to mind the grindhouse TV series “Blood Drive.”

This could be overwhelmingly grim except that “Chaos Bleeds” delivers excellent character moments and reflections. The author has insightful things to say about Xander’s love for Anya, Spike’s feelings for Buffy (which he’s still embarrassed about) and Willow’s inkling that she’s enjoying magic more than is healthy. Moore’s only misstep is that he skimps on Buffy’s struggles to engage with the land of the living in the wake of her resurrection. It might’ve also been neat to have the two Slayers converse more, although the author might have been writing this around the same time Faith returned to TV in Season 7 and didn’t want to be redundant or contradictory.

In early “Buffy” books, Ethan Rayne pops up as a villain so often that he might as well move to Sunnydale. It’s second only to Oz dealing with the full moon as an overused trope in those Season 3-set books. But in “A New Man” (4.12), Ethan is hauled off by the Initiative, never to be seen again on the show, so this Season 6 story is a reasonable time to bring him back.

The fact that he’s in league with The First, though, is the most blatant of the book’s many continuity oddities. The First, of course, is the Big Bad in Season 7 (which concluded its TV run just before “Chaos Bleeds” came out). In Season 7, Buffy references having faced The First before, in “Amends” (3.10), but does not mention this big battle from less than a year earlier. Also, no one else remembers they have already faced The First, and Giles does not recall Hope’s Dagger, a weapon from this book that can hurt The First and would’ve come in handy in Season 7.

Additionally, Spike and Faith interact in Moore’s novel, contradicting their “first” face-to-face meeting in TV land in “Dirty Girls” (7.18). (They also met in the body-swap episode “Who Are You” [4.16], but only Faith was aware of that meeting, since Spike thought Faith was Buffy.)

In “Chaos Bleeds,” Buffy worries that she has killed Ethan, noting that she has never killed a human before. This arguably contradicts “Spiral” (5.20), where it seems like some of those Knights of Byzantium bite the dust in the highway battle. However, the TV series never made a big deal about Buffy killing those humans, so it’s possible we’re supposed to believe they were merely wounded.

The “Chaos Bleeds” one-shot comic, written by Golden and Sniegoski with pencils by Cliff Richards, has fewer continuity contradictions with the TV show. However, it mightily clashes with Moore’s novel by telling an alternate story that uses the same premise. In the comic, the Gorch cowboy vampire family — including Tector, whom Buffy offed in “Bad Eggs” (2.12) — comes through a dimensional rift and harasses the Scoobs. Giles, Willow and Tara eventually use magic to close the rift.

Sid, the demon hunter trapped in a ventriloquist’s dummy’s body from “The Puppet Show” (1.9), is on hand in the background of the comic — and someone who hasn’t read the book will assume Sid has something to do with the rift, since Ethan isn’t mentioned. In the novel, Sid directly works with our heroes and is unambiguously a good guy.

It’s tempting to read the comic as a prequel to the novel, but that doesn’t work: In the novel, no one mentions a previous dimensional rift. Also, Willow is confronted by Vampire Tara in the comic, but in the book she acts like it’s the first time she has experienced this.

The comic contains a note that it is set in Season 5, and while that seems like a typo, it might not be. If the comic takes place in Season 5, we could argue that the gang’s memory of a dimensional rift and Willow’s memory of seeing Vamp Tara are no longer fresh, and they are vulnerable to being surprised by the same thing happening. The comic’s epilogue about The First planning a bigger move down the road could then apply to either the “Chaos Bleeds” novel or Season 7. Or both. (It’s also possible that the typo belongs to the book. But the novel feels more at home in early Season 6 than in the compressed post-“The Body” narrative of Season 5.)

Whew. There’s a lot of continuity issues to puzzle over in the “Chaos Bleeds” saga, but if your concern is simply ferreting out the good spinoff fiction from the bad, Moore’s novel offers a fair amount of solid character writing if long fight scenes don’t turn you off. Surprisingly, considering the writers’ pedigree, the comic is not very good. It feels like a rush job to tie in with the game.

“Chaos Bleeds” novel:

“Chaos Bleeds” comic:

Click here for an index of all of John’s “Buffy” and “Angel” reviews.

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