Buffy is taking a break this month, still reveling in her issue-ending proclamation that she’s the Slayer. Buffy Season 9 Issue 14 instead ushers in the much buzzed about Billy (vampire slayer). The creative team of Andrew Chambliss and Georges Jeanty also get a break this month, with Jane Espenson and Karl Moline taking over to introduce Billy to the Buffyverse.
So, does Billy live up to the hype?
Well, yes and no.
I expected a lot from this issue, I’ll be honest. I’d heard Georges Jeanty tease the introduction of this character at Dragon*Con, had read the Out.com article several times, knew the world into which Billy would fall – I knew what was coming, and was hoping for the best. Certainly, there’s plenty of reason to believe that this would come off without a hitch – Jane Espenson at the helm? Jane Espenson, who wrote for some of my favorite shows? Jane Espenson, whose Husbands is hilarious and thought-provoking while poking fun at the notion of “over the top”? Jane Espenson, who can write dialogue like no one else?
Eh. Well. It was almost true?
Actually, the story was interesting – once you got past the exposition. Unfortunately, most of this issue felt like exposition – heavy-handed exposition, at that. For a character who gets two issues (and I’m not holding out for a life expectancy much longer than that for our boy Billy here), that’s a lot of exposition.
We meet Billy as he works through the angst common to most teenagers: he feels like an outsider. He doesn’t think his crush will ever notice him. He feels alone. He, apparently, really doesn’t like tomatoes on his sandwich.
He’s a typical teenager, every moment of his being screaming the kind of ordinariness that you find only in coming-of-age movies and overly-cool high school dramas. He’s taken up the classic teen angst pose – leaning on the windshield of a gloriously uncool car, parked just at the edge of airport property so he can watch planes come and go (better for musing about being trapped and needing to get out, of course).
Granted, Billy still lives in a post-Seed world, a world slowly falling to the hordes of Zompires that have, most recently, taken over the mall. Maybe he’s not exactly your typical teenager, then, but still – he’s close.
Billy faces plenty of challenges throughout: he lives with his quirky but loving grandmother because of bad blood between him and his parents. He feels like he doesn’t fit in at school, a fact hammered home by the bullies that stop him on the street. He doesn’t really know where he fits, but tries to make himself into something more, belying a confidence that proves invaluable in the end.
And that end? The zompires come to Billy-ville. They threaten him and he responds like a badass. There’s a particularly satisfying moment where Bully Garron stops mid-taunt, not because Billy finally stands up to him but because Bully Post has ripped the back of his head off. Gory? Yep. Awesome? Also true.
Faced with extreme danger (a zompire in his bedroom) and extreme motivation (saving his crush from being eaten by said zompire), Billy steps up, finds confidence in himself, slays the demon and prepares to save the day. It’s a solid story, if a bit done – but, really, everyone likes rooting for the underdog, right? Of course. It’s that belief in the strength of the perceived weak that serves as foundation for all things Buffy. Of course we’re rooting for the underdog.
At the core, I liked Buffy this month. But, it took me a while – and several re-readings – to get to that point. On the first run through, I was admittedly a bit disappointed. I wanted something more nuanced from the brilliant mind of Espenson. I wanted something that sounded more natural, that relied less on cliché and more on honest character expression. In short, I wanted more by getting less.
The first few pages leaned too heavily toward “too much – way too much.” We first meet Billy embracing not just teen movie clichés – but also, honestly, a lot of gay stereotypes. Yes, they’re gay-positive, but they’re still heading in the stereotype direction. Billy wears a NOH8 sweatshirt and listens intently as his friend tells him “it gets better.” His bullies are heavy-handed, calling Billy a “pretty girl” before reminding him that he’s living with his grandmother because his parents don’t support “his differences” – and, hey, does Billy know “lots” of LBGTQ youth kill themselves? True, yes, but the dialogue is stilted and wooden, failing to capture the natural cadence of everyday speech – let alone of bullying jibes and taunts.
Once the story got rolling, the heavy-handedness fell away to reveal a more natural interest in the characters. By mid-book, Billy had became three dimensional, not just the “Gay first, everything else later” character that the first few pages might suggest. Even his crush, Cute Devon, started showing some depth – that is, once he was done playing Exposition Puppet. I can forgive the redundancy in some ways – I assume it’s there for those readers interested in Billy as a character and who are coming to this without spending much time in the Buffyverse. Even so, the expositive exchanges between Cute Devon and Billy feel awkward – but not in the good, “talking to my crush” way.
Despite these qualms, I enjoyed this issue. Sure, it’s Buffy-free (she’s mentioned by name but is never seen) – but it still feels like a Buffy book. I liked the fresh perspective, the chance to see what non-Scoobies know about vampires, zompires, Slayers and it all. I’m intrigued to see who’s speaking in blue – I’m not convinced it’s Billy. I want to know what Cute Devon is up to – he knows too much and is a little too unstable in his support to be a one-note kind of guy. And, possibly most importantly, I love that there’s a character like Billy in this universe – and leading his own storyline. I think that there’s honest potential in here, that there’s definite traction to this.
The book ends as it starts, with Billy leaning on a (significantly nicer) car, watching planes come in. It’s a different world, though, both since he’s sitting with Cute Devon and since he’s come into his own, ready to stand up and protect his town from the zompire threat. Can he do it? Cute Devon is concerned. Billy thinks that someone needs to try. Both agree that running and punching “like a girl” are good things – a sentiment that defines the Buffyverse.
I think that this has the groundwork to be an interesting and important storyline – I just wish that it had taken a slightly more subtle approach in getting started.