Another month, another Season 8 comic. And beware, for I have Kittens of Doom ready to unleash on anyone who is mean to it! Just ask Emmie!
Anyway, here's the review.
The scenes of tension as everybody prepares for the inevitable attack are nicely done, with the cutting between viewpoints and speakers but the same conversation continuing - a standard 'Buffy' storytelling device. It may be a little stretching disbelief to wonder how they jumped straight from "a cat disappeared!" in the last episode to "The US Army is about to invade China and attack us!"... but since they've been attacked the same way every other time they were found, I suppose it's a reasonable guess.
I'm sure that the pairings of Xander and Dawn, Oz and Bay, Giles and Faith, Andrew and Satsu and Buffy and Willow is not meant to be a clue to current and future romantic relationships. :-) The Andrew and Satsu panel was particularly effective; he is using the standard military euphemism ("we will lose people") because he thinks in narrative terms; but Satsu is blunt and realistic. "Say it right," she reproves him. "People will die." And then Willow's outburst sets the cap on the scene. I was reminded of 'Empty Places', with the confrontation over tactics in front of a crowd of [Potential] Slayers waiting for leadership - but this time, both Willow is being far more assertive and Buffy is being much more in control of the situation. She very sensibly chooses not to have the argument in front of everybody else.
Also, Willow apparently has chopsticks in her hair. :-)
The next scene is one I have mixed feelings about from a pure story-format perspective; I think Willow's emotional meltdown would have worked perfectly on-screen, and it would perhaps have worked better in comics if it made more dynamic use of the medium - fragmented panels and so forth to show Willow's state of mind. As it is, the simple narrative panel-by-panel approach made what should have been a very powerful scene come across strangely flat. But quibbles aside, I have no problems with the content. Last month, Willow had an epiphany that her magic did not have to define her: she could choose a normal life instead, start a family, escape the fate of turning into Dark Willow and living for 200 years. But now she's confronted with the fact that her choice to set aside her power may have doomed all of them to death. She's helpless to protect them; and she's furious with herself for what she now sees as the weakness of giving way to her desire for normality. That, of course, resonates perfectly with Buffy who's in much the same position herself. I'm not 100% sure, but I think the final line "I thought I could have this... and I lost everything" is Buffy, not Willow, lamenting the fact that her idyllic retreat in the mountains has just collapsed around her. (And the "everything" she's lost almost certainly includes her newly kindled hopes of a relationship with Xander.)
I know a lot of people have commented on the 'stupidity' of the plan to abandon their powers and hide. The fact that everything is about to go horribly wrong for them as a result comes as a surprise to nobody in the readership, I'm sure. However, it's worth pointing out the situation they were in before: being hunted down by Twilight's allies in the military and among the demon world, no hope of sympathy or help from the general public. Every time they tried to fight, they were defeated; their powers weren't actually helping them before at all. And then they learned they were actively hindering them, by acting as a beacon to Twilight. So in fact, they apparently had nothing to lose by renouncing them, and maybe a chance to hide - either permanently, or at least until they could regroup and replan. No, wars are not won by evacuations - or retreats. But they certainly aren't won by dying gloriously in battle against a superior foe because you were too pig-headed to retreat, either. And if Twilight really were motivated solely by the altruistic desire to prevent the Slayer Army from disturbing the balance of the world and imposing tyranny over humanity - well, their voluntary renunciation of their powers and retreat would mean he's won all he set out to achieve, and has no further reason to fight them. Huh. Maybe he's a big fat liar and hypocrite after all? :-)
That's the tactics, now look at the symbolism. Season 8 has been an exploration of what happened when Buffy and Xander created an army to fight evil, and Willow chose to make bargains with mysterious serpent goddesses to achieve almost godlike power herself. They did it for the best motives, but at the same time sacrificed their chance at a normal life. The 'Retreat' arc shows them what they were missing, and they all realise it. Willow, who's perhaps moved furthest from humanity, is affected most powerfully by the reminder. But now, of course, they're seeing the price of that renunciation: a person without power can't hurt other people (except with harsh language), but nor can they help anyone (except with inspiring language). No, it's not exactly a subtle message, but it's powerful. Reversing the Slayer spell and turning all the Slayers back into normal girls does not seem to be the big answer to the questions Season 8 is posing. The bad guys don't stop hating you because you've put down your weapons.
Okay, back to the silly trivia questions. How does Willow actually know, when she points at her eyes, that they aren't black? There aren't any mirrors around. So I can only assume that she can physically feel when her eyes change colour... Also, this scene reminds us of the set-up from previous issues: that Bay has taught both Oz and now Buffy & Co to "redirect their power into the Earth"... this, of course, will be significant later.
More preparations, and Dawn's obviously-meaningful line that "You just have to be strong in another way". She and Xander are obviously geeking out over the military weaponry, and brush over the objections of at least one of the Slayers to "taking up a gun". I assume that it's specifically guns she objects to, since I can't imagine a Slayer willing to join Buffy's organisation that wouldn't then be willing to take up a stake, axe or sword. She's quite cute struggling under the weight of the manpads (though, of course, there's also the horrible symbolism of young women about to be crushed by the weight of modern warfare and the burden of turning themselves into killers, blah blah.) Also, I assume Jane Espenson read the word "manpads" somewhere, had a giggling fit and decided she had to have Xander demonstrating one.
I did wonder what the "big thing" Andrew was whispering about would be... I half-expected it to be a nuke, but it turns out to be nothing so dramatic. This is something that the issue will do again on the next page, when Buffy has her idea. When Buffy gets an idea it's usually something that saves the day at the last minute - but again, this time it turns out to be only a minor ruse that might buy a little time. Seems to me that Jane enjoys raising our hopes that they're going to pull out a secret weapon and save the day, only to crush them again...
While not all the scenes in this issue work perfectly, I thought the brief conversation between Buffy and Giles was note-perfect, both in painting the picture of what's happening to them, and characterising the two of them and their relationship.
More Dawn and Xander cuteness. It turns out that while Dawn's knowledge of military weaponry is surprisingly extensive - although perhaps not quite so surprising given how good at research she is - she at least doesn't know how to operate their radar systems. Of course, when Willow first installed them back in 'No Future For You' Dawn was still too big to fit inside a building... I did like the exchange about the radar noise being mistaken for incoming aircraft. I'm not sure if the Slayer with long brown hair is supposed to be someone we recognise or not? It's maybe possibly Kennedy, but I think she shows up in a brief cameo later on instead.
Finally, the scene switches to even more cuteness when one of the Slayers refers to Dawn and Xander as "mama and papa" and they smile at each other. I'm going to assume for now that's because their being a couple is now recognisable to other people, and not because Dawn is actually pregnant. But you never know. :-)
Buffy's big idea: get Andrew to do some fake magic to maybe trick Twilight into not attacking straight away. Not quite up there with using Faith's dagger to lure the Mayor into a room full of explosives or releasing the energy in the Scythe to turn every single Potential into a Slayer. The inevitable yak joke was funny, though. Fandom needs more yak jokes. Oh, and Buffy is still experiencing lurid scarlet-tinted flashbacks of her sister kissing Xander. Awww.
And suddenly everybody appears to be wearing a Kevlar helmet. Presumably they got a job lot on the black market when they bought all those weapons too. Dawn and Xander still have total; respect for Buffy, even though they're not sure they're going to win. Buffy is all stoic and hiding her misery, which isn't helped by the fact that her sister is now happy to kiss her would-be-boyfriend openly in front of the entire army. Three Slayers using manpads fall over from the recoil... I do hope that was one of Twilight's jets they shot down and not a civilian airliner. :-) And the woman shouting "Tanks!" here is, I think, Kennedy's cameo appearance. Anyone else agree?
A nice little cameo of Faith putting on her helmet, and hesitating for a while looking stricken - presumably thinking "God, I thought I was through with this crap!" But as soon as Monroe's wolves show up she's back to her usual sarcastic self. Isn't there a continuity error here, though - I thought Monroe was killed in the flashback earlier, and it was only his followers who carried on the fight? Unless the werewolf that Bay killed was one of his followers rather than Monroe himself - there were three in the group Oz was talking to. Nice irony in that Monroe confirms that Oz, too, is losing something important to him.
Now the battle scenes. These have to be taken with a certain amount of poetic licence, unfortunately - by the time the enemy forces really got as close to the monastery as they're shown in these panels the battle would be almost over, not to mention that real soldiers haven't lined up shoulder-to-shoulder and charged on a battlefield since 1916, and it didn't go very well then either. But we watch (or read) 'Buffy' for the emotional impact and subtle meta-stories, not for the documentary realism, don't we? :-)
Speaking of which, the soldiers appear to be wearing the kind of uniform US soldiers wear in Iraq, nor are any of them ethnically Chinese, hence my comments before about a US invasion of the People's Republic of China. I'm going to have to assume that Twilight 'arranged' things either by blackmailing/enchanting the Chinese authorities to allow this, or by teleporting the entire army into Tibet... presumably from Iraq, where it was stationed ready and waiting for Twilight's orders. (Rumsfeld and Cheney were in the pay of Twilight? That would explain a lot...) For the record, the tanks just seem to be generic tanks, but the attacking force does include at least one Bradley IFV and a couple of HMMWVs so they're definitely using US military hardware.
The secret weapon is revealed, and it's one of the torpedoes from the submarine. Cute. A Mk-48 torpedo carries one-third of a ton of high explosive in its warhead, so should be reasonably effective against tanks... I suppose we have to assume that the rest of Twilight's force pulled back at this point to regroup, otherwise - as I said - the battle would already be over by this point.
Everybody goes 'crazy with happiness' - at the fact that they've just killed humans, you'll notice - but Buffy doesn't share the joy. They're still losing, And she and Willow then jointly come up with the idea that perhaps will save the day after all. (OR WILL IT?)
And then we see that Bay has been wounded. Uh-oh. She and Oz had a happy romantic relationship,and we all know what that means. (Well, maybe not, Maybe she'll pull through, just to confound expectations). Oz seems almost bewildered, pale and staring with shock; notice that his line "Buffy. Help." is spoken flatly, with no exclamation marks or large text to show emphasis. And now we get the big reveal of just exactly what it was that Bay's magic-suppression techniques involved. She thought they were calling on "the powers of the Earth" by their traditional Tibetan names; Buffy, who has way more experience in these things, realises that "The Earth is just the modern name for the local crazy wrath goddesses" - and they haven't been giving their power to some abstract Gaia force, they've been giving it to powerful and angry supernatural entities. Oops. And also, uh-oh. (The impression I get is that Bay didn't know exactly what she was dealing with but the others took her on trust since her methods worked, rather than that she deliberately lied to them - but the latter is certainly possible.)
Willow isn't too happy about the implications of this either, possibly because she has even more, um, intimate knowledge of goddesses than Buffy does these days. But it's interesting that she concentrates on trying to patch Bay's wounds while it's Buffy who puzzles through exactly where their magic has been going and what they can do about it. Almost as if Willow is deliberately avoiding the subject - though Buffy seems to do pretty well working it out herself. She's not just a pretty face and stylish yet affordable boots. She's also switched into total badass mode, which is always fun to watch. "I need to talk to these goddesses."
Remati, also called Palden Lhamo, is a Tibetan Buddhist deity sometimes associated with the Hindu goddess Kali, and is the divine protector of Tibet and the Dalai Lamas. She was once an evil and wicked spirit who killed and skinned alive (*koff*likeWillow*koff) her own son, before meeting the Buddha and converting to the Law. She's the blue one with three eyes.
Vajrayogini is a Tantric deity and Buddha, also called the 'wrathful black one' and noted as representing the wild, fiery and untamed force of enlightenment. She's usually drawn holding a large knife and a cup filled with blood and wearing a necklace of human skulls, which Buffy would probably say sounds less with the enlightened and more with the wrathy. She's the red one.
Ekajari, also known by bizarre coincidence as Tara, was once the goddess of heaven of the Tibetan Bon religion before being converted to Buddhism. She's determined and fierce and tramples her enemies underfoot. She's the pink one with a single pointed tooth.
Okay, hands up who thought that Buddhism was a gentle and peaceful religion? Or a non-theistic one? :-)
Big dramatic confrontation between Buffy and Oz about Bay; Oz is - naturally enough, but also symbolically - only concerned about his wife's injury, not the big army that's about to kill them all. Big picture/little picture, one of the season's themes. But Buffy and Willow are working side by side to fix the problem, all personal concerns forgotten. And then...
The three goddesses appear like the strands of a DNA molecule, then burst into reality in all their glory. Are they here to save the day, defeat Twilight and bring glorious victory for our heroes?
Well, we know that there is another issue in this arc (and at least ten more after it), so this isn't the climax. And crazy wrath-goddesses whose choice in clothes and accessories has a very strong "human skull" motif are unlikely to be very sympathetic or friendly, or good at telling friend from foe, or at going away when they're no longer needed...
I read a review of one of Guy Gavriel Kay's novels once - I think it was by Dave Langford - who noted that one of the clichés of a certain kind of fantasy fiction is when the heroes summon the Wild Hunt. Everybody warns them that doing this is insanely dangerous, that the Wild Hunt is powerful and old magic that can't be controlled by mortals... but the heroes go ahead anyway, and of course the Hunt defeats all their enemies and saves the day and they all live happily ever after. Just once, the review said, it would be nice to see a book where the Wild Hunt turned out to be exactly as dangerous as everybody says, and summoning it destroys the good guys' army right alongside the bad guys'. Kay's book did that. Will Espenson's?
There's another complication too, of course. Willow fed all her insanely vast amounts of magical power into these goddesses. Will that come back to haunt her in the next issue? And will it turn out to be a weakness or a last-minute secret advantage?
Finally, a mention of the letters column, which amused me. We have a long letter from a gay man criticising the narrow-mindedness of those fans who complain about "the gay stuff" in Season 8, and complimenting Scott and Joss on sticking to their guns; and then it's followed by... a letter criticising Season 8 for "this Buffy lesbian stuff" which is apparently spoiling it all. Hmm. (And Scott replies to the first letter in an "Aww shucks, thanks" kind of way, and leaves the second letter to speak for itself. He's a cruel, cruel man.) And another word on the infamous Warren continuity error, in which I want to cheer Scott for his summing up... and also for the illuminating remark that "[Joss] knows he has a fan base that is more focused on this sort of continuity than he is, but he follows his own vision nonetheless [because he has a] keen sense of drama". Which we knew anyway, but now it's in print. :-)