How do I love thee, Joss Whedon?
Let me count the ways.
The TV shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse.
The comics: Fray, the Eisner-nominated Astonishing X-Men, The Runaways, the Eisner-winning Sugarshock.
The web series Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog that made Neil Patrick Harris cooler than cool and somehow simultaneously won a Hugo and an Emmy.
There's the movie The Avengers, of course. That's where you showed the whole world the awesome that is Whedon—the humor, snappy dialogue, surprising drama, heartbreaking loss, and strong individuals who find even greater strength and wisdom in community.
There's the new Much Ado about Nothing, which showed here in Austin during South by Southwest.
But what I've maybe loved the most over the last five years is the comic book version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Its canonical eighth season, produced and often written by Whedon, is now completely available in beautiful oversized hardcover library editions from publisher Dark Horse. Maybe we're moving into a digital age, and I do read most of my everyday comics on my computer, but there's no denying what makes a book—especially a comic book collection—special. Here it's attention to detail—sturdy spines with stitched binding, thick glossy paper, incredible color reproduction, a ribbon for a bookmark, and added value—stories, artwork, conceptual behind-the-scenes stuff that makes each of these four volumes some sort of crazy Joss Whedon Director's Cut Super Special Edition.
The story, which begins after the last televised season of the TV series, takes as its central premise the idea that Buffy, originally the lone Vampire Slayer ("There is one in every generation" goes the slogan), has empowered girls around the world to join her in fighting evil.
Not every one of them chooses to fight evil, by the way. We are introduced to some girls who have chosen to use their power for their own glory, not to save the world, which seems absolutely like what would happen. But enough have answered the call, and Buffy has gathered a castle-full of Slayers (as well as TV cast favorites Xander, Willow, Andrew, Dawn, and, eventually, the whole Scooby Gang) who are training to become agents of justice and warriors against the endless tide of evil that washes against this reality.
The villains are relentless—in Season Eight we encounter past villains Amy and Warren, future villain Dark Willow, Japanese vampires empowered by Dracula himself (who makes a wondrous guest appearance), and others—but as is traditional in Whedon's plots, behind most of the badness is a Big Bad, Twilight, who turns out to be surprising in a whole lot of ways—who he is, and what he is here to do.
Each story arc contains twists and turns aplenty, laugh lines and crying moments. People we love will live and die. Spike the Vampire will return to save the day—in a spaceship crewed by talking bugs. Buffy will develop superpowers, and Xander will try to quantify them in terms of all of his favorite Marvel and DC superheroes. Xander will fall in love more than once—tragically.
As in all Whedon stories, these are great individual characters. But as in all Whedon stories, Buffy is at heart a story about community—about building community, about how we are better together than we are alone, about how we need each other to be the best people we are capable of being. Union College English professor Tanya Cochran, one of the founders of the Whedon Studies Association (!), says that "One of the themes that runs through his work is that the loner hero, at some point, can't go it alone . . . There is always some tension between being the sole savior and having to work with others to accomplish a goal." Meghan Winchell, a professor of history at Nebraska Wesleyan University who has taught a course on Whedon, agrees that "'Created family' is one of the most prominent themes in Whedon's work . . . Whedon writes for the hero, but the hero cannot prevail without support from friends. He also makes sure that the hero learns this lesson, sometimes the hard way."