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(Review) BtVS 9.15 'Billy the Vampire Slayer' Part II

21st November 2012 (01:51)

Here's the review of the final issue of the two-part arc 'Billy the Vampire Slayer'. This one was written by Drew Z Greenberg, who is noted for being, as far as I know, the only openly gay writer on the original Buffy' TV show team; and now has another claim to fame for writing what, again as far as I remember, is the first sexual m/m kiss on the show. (I'm not counting Angel kissing Spike on the forehead, though I know some people do...)


We start with a voice-over about how to "fight back", which I assumed was Billy talking to himself. Having finished the comic, though, I think it's actually meant to be Buffy giving Billy one of her inspirational speeches. As usual there's a double meaning, which I assume is about the experience of being a gay teenager who's harassed and bullied, and how you can cope with that.

Billy is in the school gym, training while Devon watches him - and as we see shortly, Katie is there too. (They being his two same-age friends from last issue). The main reveal here is that Devon lets slip to Katie that he's attracted to Billy (He's good, he's honest, he's not a poser) and Katie pounces on that gleefully. Billy isn't actually all that great at hitting the punchbag, so apparently he decides to stab it with a knife instead - and from the conversation, it's not the first time he's done that.

The two lads go off to spy on the 'Cubesmasher' video store, which we saw last month has been taken over by the local zompires as their lair. This is apparently Devon's idea, and he's very insistent that this is strictly recon and they mustn't take any risks. Two non-superpowered teenagers spying on 20 vampires is not my definition of "not taking risks", by the way - which is shortly proven when one of the zompires finds them. But before that happens, the two of them flirtatiously compare each other to the Hardy Boys - two teenagers who have numerous adventures as amateur detectives, in a book series first published in 1927 (and which was also the inspiration for Nancy Drew, who was originally a female version of them). The older one was the thinker and the younger was the action type, and the parallel is drawn to Devon and Billy respectively.

Anyway, a female zompire finds them. Billy is unarmed, and starts babbling to stall for time, apologising for having to stake her and warning her "It might hurt". In fact, it's Devon who stakes her while she's distracted. He chides Billy for breaking his "Rule Number One", which is "Always keep your stake in hand" - as opposed to Buffy's Rule Number One which is "Don't die", or her other Rule Number One (Rule 1a?) which is "You are always in danger". However, he's apparently impressed by Billy's "moxie". I can't say I really know what Billy did that was so moxilicious: he just sat there babbling until Devon saved him. Presumably Devon thought he was being all cool and coming up with witty banter in the face of danger?

Last month I wondered if Devon might have a dark secret. It seems from this issue that he doesn't; and I'm pretty certain that Drew intends for him to seem like a sympathetic and likeable character. It's unfortunate, then that I find his insistence on being "Billy's Watcher" off-putting. He's obviously just as good (as far as that goes) at fighting vampires as Billy is; so far they've scored one each. So why is he so keen to be the one who stays back and gives helpful advice, while sending Billy into danger? That seems kind of cowardly, although Billy seems to accept it with no demur. He's also trying to get Billy to play a role in his own little fantasy of Slayers and Watchers; again, even though it's not his idea Billy is going along with it. I guess teenage love is blind?

They go back to Billy's room, and are all excited about the fight (and each other), but before they can say anything relationship-related the TV comes on - as it often does in the Buffyverse - with news of a demon attack in the area. The big difference now is that the TV presenter actually says "vampires" rather than "a gang on PCP", since they're now public knowledge. To be specific the attackers are described as "feral vampires", presumably as opposed to the civilised kind following Harmony's Rules, and showing that the expression "zompire" hasn't yet become universal.

Is it normal for US TV shows to broadcast cellphone footage of an ongoing incident sent in by members of the public live, without pre-screening it? It seems risky to me.

I also wonder if there was a mix-up by the artist here, because from the dialogue, it seems that Billy saw his grandmother Sky at the library that was being attacked, on the broadcast live footage. But the pictures of the TV screen that were drawn didn't show her.

Billy decides, heroically and impulsively, that he has to go and rescue Sky. Devon isn't keen on the idea; he says Billy isn't ready, and they should leave it to the police. Billy gets angry with him and storms out, saying she is "The only person in this world who loves me for who I am" and that she was the only one to stand by him when he was alone. Fairly obviously, this isn't something Devon enjoys hearing.

We get more of the voiceover now, which as before I assume is Buffy speaking. Her words reflect the same sort of idea as what Whistler said in Becoming Part 1, about how you can't affect the big changes that happen in your life, but you can decide what you're going to do in response to them. Here, Buffy is saying that even when it feels to you as if you have no choice but to fight back, it's still an act of bravery not to be scorned when you decide to take positive action and choose to fight.

If it's true that Buffy is the one saying this, it also reflects well on her current state of mind, after the '(Apart) Of Me' and 'Guarded' arcs: she's ready to take control of her life again.

Last issue, we discovered that Billy's experience of being bullied as a gay teenager has led him to learn how to fight properly, which comes in handy when suddenly there are vampires. Here, we learn that he also discovered all the secret hiding places and escape routes around his town, so during the school holidays he could avoid people he didn't want to meet. It's kind of cheesy - his superpower is being bullied! - but it also reflects well on him that instead of giving up, he finds ways to resist, and turn the lemons life gives him into low-voltage batteries. Or lemonade, whichever.

In this case he knows a way into the ventilation ducts under the library. I get the impression he may have put the loose bricks to hide the hole there himself, since he talks about hiding his secrets in the same panel where he removes the bricks.

As expected, Devon comes after him now, and is all apologetic about their recent argument. He admits that his secret motive for not wanting Billy to go into danger was because he "likes him" and "didn't want to lose him". Billy points out the irony of Devon deciding to be the Watcher - the one who sends him into danger - and to his credit Devon realises how ridiculous that is. To his credit, he bursts out laughing and then agrees to go with Billy into harm's way to help. I may be willing to forgive him. :) 

So their relationship is now official and out in the open, although they agree they'll wait until after they've fought a horde of demons to rescue Billy's grandmother before they talk about it in more detail. "Being gay really is different" says Billy, but actually it sounds not much different to being straight if you happen to be from Sunnydale.

Billy, not Devon the Watcher, is the one who comes up with the plan - to sneak around the balcony out of sight of the main group of zompires, to reach the place where Billy saw Sky was hiding. When a vampire sees them anyway, it's Devon who stakes him. (Devon 2, Billy 1). Which again suggests they've got their roles the wrong way round?

The rest of the zompires give chase, and Billy decides it's up to him to hold them back ("That's what I've been training for") while Devon goes to rescue Sky. He kisses him first for inspiration - that's that first Buffyverse onscreen m/m kiss I mentioned, unless there was one I've forgotten.

Billy does remarkably well in his first proper fight - doubtless on a high because of the kiss. He stakes no fewer than three vampires, despite being surrounded by a whole bunch of them. (Devon 2, Billy 4) I have to say I'm a little dubious that a teenager with no superpowers and just a few weeks of boxing training could do so well, although to be fair it's already been established in Season 9 that zompires are not as good in combat as regular vampires, and even trained normals can defeat them. Although they're incredibly strong they're also almost mindless, and in 'Guarded' Dowling added that they are very predictable - once you know their patterns, they're easy to stake. 

Related to this and based on this arc's fight scenes, I'd add that it looks like zompires have one fatal weakness. When they have a human at their mercy, they don't go for the kill straight away: they grab them and growl and drool a lot first. That gives a prepared human, or their friend, the opportunity to stake them. While it may be just a convention of the fight choreography here, I do think it can be rationalised in terms of the existing vampire mythology. We know that vampires are sadistic and enjoy the fear and pain they cause in their victims: it could be that a zompire is relishing having a human apparently at its mercy, but doesn't have the brains to realise that some 'victims' are still dangerous, and sometimes you need to just kill them already.

Billy is caught by one of the zompires and shouts to Devon for help, but Devon is grabbed by a zompire himself. Inspired to desperate heroism by his boyfriend (not to mention himself) being in danger, Billy knocks back the one behind him with his stake, then stakes the one in front of him, then finally stakes the one behind him with a backhand blow as he runs to Devon's rescue.

He stakes the final zompire (Devon 2, Billy 5), and has an emotional reunion with his grandmother and with Devon. I have to assume the other 15 or so zompires in the library ran away at this point, or else they didn't notice the fight going on and Billy was able to stake all the ones coming after them.

At this point the scene shifts, and we're now on a rooftop in San Francisco. Buffy is there, along with Detective Dowling. (I assume it's him, although he's not actually named - I checked back at how he was drawn in previous issues, and it does look like him). Buffy is just finishing a speech to Billy and Devon, which is why I assume the earlier voiceovers were from her.

Buffy is talking about how you need to remember you're not alone, even when it feels like you are; and that's the best way to fight back. Presumably that's intended as a meta-message from Drew to any gay teenagers reading this comic. It doesn't matter too much what tactics you use to assert yourself against a sometimes-hostile world - with calculated strategy, or brute force, or careful precision; your bravery is praiseworthy either way, and the really important thing is to remember that you're not alone.

In terms of Buffy's own life choices, the message fits as well. She's been feeling very isolated for most of this season: the other Slayers have mostly rejected her, Xander and Dawn have their own mysterious problems and want a normal, non-slaying life; Willow has gone on her own quest, and Spike has left as well because Buffy couldn't tell him what he wanted to hear. She even lost her own body for a while. 

But things have started to turn around for her. At the end of '(Apart) of Me', she was still feeling isolated - perhaps more than ever - but her non-robot-double at least inspired her to start fighting again to change her life rather than just drifting along without direction. In 'Guarded' she tried the conventional "career with a salary" path, which turned out to be a dead end for her... but at least she recognised that, and realised that "saving the world" will always be more important to her than merely ensuring her own comfort. 
However, another element of 'Guarded' which turns out to be important to the overall arc is that it confirmed to Buffy that she's not alone. Even when it seems that her old friends - Willow, Xander, Dawn, Spike - have all moved on and left her behind, she can find new colleagues and friends - Kennedy, Dowling, and now Billy and Devon. I think that's a big metaphor for life in your mid-20s, when your old school and college friendships often do seem to fade away or get replaced as life moves on.

That doesn't mean I'd be happy if the Scoobies got written out of the series, of course, and I don't think it's what's going to happen. I'm pretty sure they'll all be back by the end of the season. However, I do think this is a deliberate writing choice, and it's an accurate and vivid metaphor, even if it's also a courageous decision by the writers - since I'm sure a lot of fans will resent new characters taking the spotlight away from their favourites.

Anyway, back to this issue. We're not told what happened in the intervening time between the fight in the library and this rooftop scene, nor how long it's been. It's clear that Devon and Billy have left home to come and live in San Francisco, given that Billy talks about the city being "a beacon for people like us" and "a place to belong". I assume they all escaped from the library okay - but with most of the town's population turned into zompires, maybe they decided it wasn't safe to stay, or they couldn't bear to stay. 

As for how they contacted Buffy: we know from last issue that Devon follows "Buffy's people in SF" on Twitter - I'm pretty sure "her people" means Andrew in this instance - and that his sister met Buffy at the coffee shop. Presumably he got in touch with her the same way, and offered to help. Maybe, for that matter, he called her in to deal with the rest of the zompire infestation, though that's not mentioned in the story.

Buffy takes them up on their offer - or at least Billy. Devon is falling back into his 'Watcher' role and staying behind as Buffy leads Dowling and Billy on patrol. Her final words to him are "Just so you know... you belong." 

The title of this arc caused a lot of controversy when it was announced. Why does Billy get called a "Vampire Slayer" despite his lack of Slayer powers, when other heroic normals like Xander and Gunn never got the title? One thing I only just noticed, though, is that the cover of both issues actually puts a question mark after the words. It says: 

Starring...
BILLY
The Vampire Slayer?

Buffy's statement that Billy "belongs" at her side demonstrates her own opinion, which is pretty much what I expected. To Buffy, what's important is whether you're willing to step up when danger threatens, take a stand, fight to protect the people you love. She discovered in 'Guarded' that Dowling has been organising the San Francisco police to fight zompires, and now presumably she's heard what Billy did to save his grandmother. While she doesn't comment directly on the 'Slayer' business, I can well imagine her taking the line that your actions are more important than what you call yourself.

Overall, I can't say I was all that impressed with this arc. It felt too predictable and by the numbers, with no surprising twists or complex emotional scenes. It's telling that at least a third of my review has been talking about the last couple of pages where Buffy appears, rather than the rest of the comic. Still, while the story itself wasn't exceptional, my impression is that Billy is going to be a permanent addition to the cast - especially since the next arc is called "Welcome to the Team" and he's confirmed to appear in it. So it's good that he was properly introduced. Of course, to be a proper Buffyverse character, his love interest will have to be horribly killed sooner or later, so Devon is now officially on deathwatch. :) 


Comments

Posted by: Kiki May (kikimay)
Posted at: 21st November 2012 11:39 (UTC)
Buffy's glare

I'm also expecting to see Devon die in the next issues. Poor guy, but he's too good to be true.
Can I say that I'm not so impressed with Billy as character? He seems the male equivalent of a Mary Sue, a Gary Stu.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 21st November 2012 13:36 (UTC)

I dislike Devon, so I wouldn't say he's too good to be true. But then again, I disliked Tara as well (until Season 6).

Billy just seems kind of one-dimensional to me. He's heroic, he's gay, he was bullied but found ways to fight back, and...that's it? But maybe he'll get more complex as the story moves on.

Posted by: Kiki May (kikimay)
Posted at: 21st November 2012 13:49 (UTC)

I mean that Devon is cute, kinda mysterious, good in fight and he thinks that Billy should fight (It was all his idea in fact) and now he's conveniently in love with Billy. I don't know, my whedonite senses for tragedy are tingling ...

Posted by: erimthar (erimthar)
Posted at: 21st November 2012 16:47 (UTC)

Is it normal for US TV shows to broadcast cellphone footage of an ongoing incident sent in by members of the public live, without pre-screening it? It seems risky to me.

No, they would never actually do that. Far too risky from both a legal and public-relations standpoint.

There were a few other things that just didn't work for me about this issue: one minute he's losing a fight with a punching bag, and the next he's acrobatically dusting vampires one after another. He sneaks into the library by removing a human-sized section of bricks from the wall, and then puts them back how? He and Devon appear in SF to join Buffy long-term despite the fact that they're supposedly still in school. Maybe it's summer break?

I have nothing against these characters, I just don't think turning 2 issues of the main series over to them, when there are only 25 issues to work with, was such a good idea. Billy would have been better off having his story told in a stand-alone one-shot or miniseries, but I suppose nobody would have bought it except hardcore fans like me who must read everything that's canon.

I expect Billy will not be a well-liked character. It's an iffy proposition to try and insert onesself into the Scooby Gang (only Oz and Anya managed to do so without widespread fan hatred), and Billy will be perceived as trying to take the place of the largely absent Xander and Willow.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 21st November 2012 17:12 (UTC)

Yes, zompires that are less capable in combat than punching bags are a bit of a stretch - though heroes being inspired to fight above and beyond their normal capabilities by a loved one being in danger are certainly a familiar trope.

I don't know that he did put the bricks back; we didn't see that happening. Still, I don't see why it would be hard to rebuild the wall from either side.

We also don't know how long elapsed between the library fight and the final two pages; nor, for that matter, do we know if anybody except Billy, Devon and Sky are still alive in their hometown after the zompires got through with it...

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