In 2007, Joss Whedon brought his creation Buffy the Vampire Slayer to comic books. That’s not to say that Buffy hadn’t appeared in comic books before. She had been starring in comic books for nearly a decade. But this time her appearance would be very different. Instead of a licensed property trying to fit in around the edges, the new Buffy the Vampire Slayer series would be an official continuation of the TV show. Joss Whedon would write many of the issues himself. And he would supervise the others, written by a combination of television writers and comic book superstars.
The concept was a huge success. It was one of the most successful comics of the year. It was critically acclaimed. It sold well. And the fans loved it. It also sparked a mini wave of similar concepts as other companies tried to continue television shows as comic books, or position their comic books as continued television shows. IDW was one of the first to follow suit with their Star Trek Year Four series, continuing the original television series which was canceled after the third season. Dynamite tried a different spin with their Battlestar Galactica Season Zero series, taking place before the most recent series. And last year Boom Studios joined the wave with Farscape, as helmed by series creator Rockne O’Bannon.
Farscape hasn’t had the same impact as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Its sales are only a fraction of the other title. Now, there are a number of reasons why this might be the case. Farscape has a smaller audience (it was on cable rather than network television). Boom is a smaller company. Rockne O’Bannon isn’t as well known as Joss Whedon, and he hasn’t worked in comics before. Plus Farscape already had its send-off with the Peacekeeper War television mini-series.
But there’s also the fact that it just isn’t as good as the Buffy series. I think that the differences- and the similarities- between the two help illustrate what makes for a good comic book adaptation or continuation of a television series.
First of all, like any licensed property, you have to avoid the standard pitfalls. It’s often difficult for licensed properties to get the voice or the characters right. There almost always seems to be one or two characters speaking differently or acting oddly. And some shows have their own rhythm and way of speaking. It’s not always easy to get that right either. In this case, both Buffy and Farscape are fairly successful. The characters sound right and act right. The tone is true to the original series. I think that’s explained by the involvement of the series creators, Joss Whedon and Rockne O’Bannon.
There’s also a common pitfall regarding the introduction of new characters. It’s hard to introduce a new character who fits into the established cast. It’s unlikely for the new character to be as fully realized in the mind of the audience as a character who has previously been played by an actor. Both series have dealt with this particular pitfall mostly by avoiding it. Buffy has predominantly focused on established characters Buffy, Willow, Xander and Dawn. The few new characters are given supporting roles and slowly fleshed out over time, like young slayer Satsu and rebel slayer Simone. Farscape has also used new characters sparingly, treating them like one episode guest-stars rather than series regulars. However, a new character in the third story has worked out very well. His name is Colon and he’s part of Moya’s crew in an alternate dimension. I could easily see him becoming a fan favorite. He fits right in standing beside D’argo and Zhaan.
Then, one of the biggest pitfalls facing licensed properties is that the series can only tell certain kinds of stories. They’re usually limited by the established canon of the source material. This can hamstring the adapted series, though not always. This is why Buffy the Vampire Slayer works so well. As the official eighth season, the comic book series has the freedom to break new ground. Buffy can establish a headquarters in Scotland instead of Sunnydale. The knowledge of vampires can go public. An earlier cast member can come back as a family man. These are significant changes to the format, but they’re accepted by the fanbase.
Farscape is starting to do some of the same things. They’re only ten issues in, compared to Buffy’s 26, so it’s understandable that the changes haven’t been as numerous. Yet, in the first story, Rockne O’Bannon already restored Rygel to the throne of Hyneria. This is a major plot development. This has been Rygel’s goal since the first episode and now he’s finally achieved it. This also has the side effect of removing Rygel from the crew. O’Bannon has addressed this by adding Jothee to the crew and bringing back Sikozu- more significant changes.
The bigger struggle for Farscape has been in dealing with the ramifications of the Peacekeeper War. That story ended with a happy ending. So Farscape has had to wrestle with the question of how to tell a story after it’s already had a happy ending. Do you undo the happy ending? Not so far. But O’Bannon has introduced a couple of stories that have to potential to undermine that happy ending. One story caused Aeryn to question herself as a mother, and another story has challenged Crichton’s role as a father. I don’t think O’Bannon is going to break up his happy family. But it is interesting to see him show that “happily ever after” isn’t always easy.
When it comes to avoiding pitfalls, both Buffy and Farscape have been very successful. They are both true to the series from which they sprang and believable continuations. However, a successful adaptation is not just about avoiding mistakes. The really great adaptations take advantage of the strengths of the different media or format. And I think this is where the difference lies between the Buffy and Farscape comic book series.
The wonderful thing about comic books is that there is no limitation except one’s imagination. A creator is not constrained by special effects budgets. An artist is not limited by the talents of a make-up artist. You can do almost anything. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has fully taken advantage of this. There are huge battle scenes on a regular basis. One of the cast members has transformed to a giant, a centaur and a living doll. There was a fight between a giant and a giant robot. There was a group of vampires who transformed into wolves and panthers and smoke. The series has featured a bunch of exotic locations, like Tokyo and Italy. It’s not that the television show never had stuff like this. It did feature a werewolf as a regular character, after all. But it was never able to do this kind of stuff with this kind of regularity.
Farscape hasn’t done this to the same degree. The first story hinted that it would. The crew went to Rygel’s home planet of Hyneria for the first time. It featured a civil war as Rygel strove to regain his throne. There were scenes with numerous spaceships and others with hundreds of Hynerians. As a television episode, that story would have killed the make-up and puppet departments. As a comic book story, it was incredible. But after that early experiment, the series has been much more sedate. It has pretty much stuck to the kind of aliens and special effects that one would have seen on the original show. This isn’t exactly the first time John Crichton has visited an alternate dimension. That’s not to say it’s awful. The show had great aliens and special effects. That’s one of the reasons why fans loved it so much. But it does make the comic book feel like a two-dimensional television episode, when it has the potential to be so much more.
Comic books are also paced differently than television shows. It’s a different format, a different schedule. The Buffy series has played with that format. Many of the stories are four-parters, which would be roughly equivalent to the length of a television episode. But Joss Whedon has also mixed in shorter stories and one-shots. That’s given the series the chance to examine different situations and supporting characters. It’s also kept the series fresh as the pace varies. Farscape hasn’t done this. Partly, this is an editorial choice. Farscape is being published as a series of mini-series rather than as one ongoing series. But that means that every story is exactly four issues long. It’s repetitive. And it adds to the feeling that you’re reading a two-dimensional television show instead of a comic book series. Boom Studios could mix a few one-shots. Or Farscape could feature a mini-series that doesn’t follow the format of a television show, like IDW’s Angel Spotlight mini-series which looked at different members of the supporting cast. Farscape is being published as a comic book but it’s limiting itself to the rules and format of a television show.
Finally, in comic books, the artist is incredibly important. The comic book artist takes the place of the set designer, the special effects studio and the actor. They create the environment, the alien landscapes and exotic locations. They draw the monsters and the aliens, the magical spells and the big explosions. They pose the characters, with facial expressions and body language. The artist is indispensible.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer has benefited from great artists. Georges Jeanty may not have been a big name in comics when he was added to the title (though I was a fan, thanks to his work on Gambit), but he has done stupendous work. He manages to make a cadre of young female slayers all look distinct and different. He captures the look of the main characters without being slavish to photo-realism. He draws detailed and interesting backgrounds, whether it’s on the streets of Tokyo or in a forest grove (but not too interesting that it steals attention away from the main focus). He does everything right. And guest artists like Paul Lee, Cliff Richards and Karl Moline have maintained that level of quality.
The art on the Farscape series has been a huge letdown. It was even worse on the D’Argo spin-off. Neil Edwards barely even drew backgrounds for his issues. The entire story could have taken place in an empty hangar. Will Sliney had his own problems on the second mini-series. The characters were drawn with very simple line work, which deteriorated as the series progressed so that we were practically looking at stick figures by the end. Tommy Patterson has been the best of the bunch, but that’s not high praise. He just isn’t consistent in his depiction of the characters. For example, Zhaan’s head is a different shape in almost every panel. Even humans like Crichton and Katralla experience a few amorphous digressions from page to page. It detracts from the story. And it looks unprofessional.
I love Farscape. And I would love to love the Farscape comic books. But, while certain aspects are competent, the series of mini-series isn’t close to living up to its potential. Meanwhile, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of the best comic books on the stands today. It remains the benchmark by which other adaptations and continuations are measured.