Just so we know where everyone's coming from, I approached the Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8 Motion Comic as a Buffy fan, and a comic book know-nothing--not as a snob who doesn't see the value of comics, but a busy guy who doesn't make time to read them. I'd meant to check out the Buffy books since they started rolling out back in 2007; this seemed as good a way as any to finally sample them.
For those (like me) in the dark, the notion of a "motion comic" is that animators take the original artwork and elements of the comic book (or graphic novel, or whatever) and bring them to (admittedly limited) life, using snazzy camera work, moving elements, music, and voice-over dialogue to create an approximation of a cartoon. It's not the same as watching an animated series or film, and it's not the same as reading the comic, but it's a fairly clever mash-up of the two experiences.
The good news about the Buffy Season 8 comic series is, of course, the involvement of Buffy series creator/mastermind Joss Whedon, who has written the scripts for several of the issues, served as an "executive producer" for the entire series, and brought on other Buffy writers as well. The bad news about the motion comics is the lack of involvement from those who appeared on the other side of the camera; in spite of the fact that, charitably speaking, most of the original cast members aren't terribly busy these days, none of them show up to resume their characterizations. It's a tad disorienting, particularly at first (kind of like that first DTV Aladdin sequel, when suddenly Homer Simpson is doing Robin Williams's Genie), though it is worth noting that several of the sound-alikes (Faith, Giles, and especially Xander) are awfully good sound-alikes.
It should also be noted that the word "complete" appears nowhere in the disc's title, as the series is ongoing, and this disc "motions" only the first 19 issues (they're at 40+ and counting). Within those 19, there are four four-part series: "The Long Way Home" and "The Time of Your Life" (penned by Whedon), "No Future for You" (by comic writer and Lost alum Brian K. Vaughn), and "Wolves at the Gate" (by Drew Goddard, who wrote episodes of Buffy, Angel, Alias, and Lost, in addition to Cloverfield). Whedon also wrote the disc's three one-off issues, "The Chain," "Anywhere But Here," and "A Beautiful Sunset."
The results are mixed. On the plus side, most issues (each running somewhere between 10 and 13 minutes) maintain the series' wry comic sensibility. Xander (now the eye-patched leader, with Buffy, of the central command of slayers at a castle in Scotland) gets most of the good lines--in one sticky situation, he notes "Unless I can fall-down-and-throw-up my way outta here, I got nothin'." As on the best Buffy episodes (and Firefly's, for that matter), the richest comic territory proves the deflating of fantasy/action clichés, usually in throwaway moments like when main villain "Twilight" stops an evil monologue to pull away his mask a bit, and then apologizes: "Sorry, itchy neck. Where was I?"
But as with the original series, if the strength is in the wit of the dialogue and the sly humor of the characterizations, the weakness is its occasional tendency to take its fantasy mumbo-jumbo with too much solemnity. Some of this (like the "slimy slug clan") is might goofy, and even when the dopier devices (like Dawn's "super-sizing") are given appropriate ribbing, they still can't overcome the general inanity. (For what it's worth, no one involved seems to have the foggiest idea what the hell to do with Dawn these days.) Presumably due to time limitations, the new slayer characters never really come to life (the way the slayers-in-training did in season seven, for example), save for Satsu, whom Buffy has a fairly gratuitous (and rather cheesy) Sapphic encounter with.
The most intriguing quality of the books is that they allow Whedon and his writers greater opportunity to play with structural and narrative possibilities, be it shifting point-of-views--the story of the "The Girl" in "The Chain," for example, or the Faith-ccentric "No Future for You" series--or scrambled timelines, as in the "Time of Our Lives" series. Those experiments, which feel more organic to this format and less an attempt to replicate the television show, point the way towards this new "Buffy" becoming its own, unique entity.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
Fox's two-disc set includes one 50GB Blu-ray disc with all 19 issues and bonus features, in addition to a standard-def DVD of the same elements. The set also comes with a mini-reproduction of the first issue, "The Long Way Home, Part 1."
The MPEG-4 AVC transfer is about average--the lines are clean, saturation is fairly good, and the image is smooth overall. The only trouble comes in those intense zooms used to create action and movement; the enlargement of those frames creates an image that is noticeably blurrier and less pleasing. But the jazzy 1.78:1 frame is, for the most part, in such constant motion that such bugaboos are fleeting and not terribly distracting.
The DTS-HD Master Audio track is nicely dispersed, keeping dialogue and narration clean in the center channel while evenly spreading effects throughout the surrounds. The big fight scenes crunch and smash their way through the soundstage, while echoing dream dialogue and other environmental effects are impressively mixed.
English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles are also available.
"Under Buffy's Spell" (5:17), shot at the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con, is a quick look at the series' continuing appeal in the new format, interviewing fans and creators and including some motion comic clips. "Buffy Season 8 Motion Comic Test Pilot" (5:34), created for "internal testing purposes," is a rougher working version of the first issue, an intriguing look at the work-in-progress. "The Buffy Trivia Experience" is a trivia track that pops up during the episodes--sorry, issues; the viewer-controlled "Season 8 Comic Book Covers Gallery" is pretty much exactly what it sounds like.
The standard-def disc also includes the DVD-ROM option to "Create Your Own Buffy Comic with Tooncast Studio," a fairly cool (if limited) interactive animation experience.
Because the Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8 Motion Comic disc ends less than halfway into the "season," the ending we're provided is less than satisfying--a dash, rather than a period. That incompleteness, the undeniably jarring experience of hearing new voices for characters we've spent countless hours with, and the simple aesthetic disparities between live-action television and comic book/motion comic may very well prevent "season 8" from playing as true canon for Buffy fans. It feels more like a curio, a collection of footnotes and epilogues. Then again, there are worse ways to pass the time.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.