Brand Whedon and the fault line between mythos expansion and fan exploitation

Giles is one of my favourite characters in the whole Whedonverse - erudite, awkward, brave, shy, resilient, loving and, oh yea, British he is a rich, textured, lovable, complex figure. When it was reported years ago that there might be a spin-off television series include BBC involvement and to be called Ripper, I was so excited.

As I was to hear about the new four-part mini-series from Black Horse that will feature Giles investigating disappearances at an inner city LA high school

Whedon  worked with global franchises long before Buffy aired on TV, and the Marvel brand in particular. Whedon had been involved on the X-Men film project in 1994, although very little of his input can be seen in the final movie, and then in 2004 he was given the opportunity to take over the comic book series. The first two limited seasons had run in the 1990s, and Whedon with illustrator John Cassaday took the helm between 2004 and 2008.

A review of one of the titles Whedon wrote, Astonishing X-Men, draws attention to the intermingling of tones, the centrality of teamwork over individual genius and the grasp of the franchise’s allure for fans: ‘He knows how to write a team book with humor, action and drama. He knows how to handle team dynamics while allowing each character to have a unique personality’ and goes on, ‘Whedon absolutely nails the interpersonal dynamics. The team is small - Shadowcat, White Queen, Cyclops, Wolverine and Beast - but this lets the spotlight shine on everyone. No character dominates the page’. Cassaday’s artwork is also highly commended and one can see here the trademark Whedon television aesthetic translated and adapted for comic books ). Not only the aesthetic (great writing supporting an excellent story and great visuals bringing that into graphic existence) but also a politics associated with it: the democratising nature of the team over the fascist nature of the individual enforcer. The ability to work with a pre-existing franchise (and a franchise beloved by its fans) and to do so while retaining his own sense of aesthetic and political motivation would be rewarded later on with the opportunity to write and direct one of the biggest films ever made. And while industry recognition for his television work was hard to come by, Whedon and Cassaday won an Eisner Award in 2006 for best continuing series for their work, as well as two further nominations.

His work on X-Men coincided with comic-book version of all of his television series. While his work on Fray is the first example of a comic book spin off from a Whedon franchise, its extreme futurity means that, though canonical and important to the overall mythos of the Buffyverse, its relation to the world experienced by the audience is somewhat attenuated.

Serenity: Those Left Behind is a limited series of three issues that bridges the gap between the cancelled Firefly and the fan-inspired movie, Serenity. Written by Brett Matthews with drawings by Will Conrad and colours by Laura Martin, the Whedon-created story is a canonical part of the Firefly world. Plot points of note include Inara’s leaving, Book’s decision to leave and the introduction of Fanty and Mingo and, more importantly, The Operative, who will play such a vital role in the film that Whedon wrote and directed after the well documented fan response to Firefly’s cancellation and subsequent efforts to raise money for the movie. 

My forthcoming book has a lot more on Whedon's comic book career, and as a previous novice in the world of comics, I am thankful to him for expanding my horizons.

So, what's my problem? Well, it's the predictable and intractable fan dilemma. I want to see more of Giles, I want the universe of Buffy to keep growing and offering new stories, new ideas. BUT it's been 20 years. The anniversary DVD box set is being released. Adults who can now vote were not born when the show first aired. Obviously, a great idea has no expiration date (James Bond, DR Who, for example) and Whedon's creativity is always restless, and Giles has been somewhat overlooked in the comic-book afterlife of the show. But there is  apart of me that feels like this is an excerice in profit mining. 

The comic book world has its own rules, histories, cultures, expectations but the variant cover (to ensure uber-fans and collectors buy the same story multiple times to get a full set) is just exploitation. No-one is making the person buy the items, I hear you shout. I disagree. Fan culture is such that creators and producers know that they can rely on a ferocious level of loyalty and that includes financial. Every cult hero has a cult who follows them and a cult member is no more able to leave than a particular type of fan is able to not buy the variant covers, the omnibus re-issue, the whole shebang.

It is impossible to avoid the intersection of art and money, product and market, consumer and consumed. But sometimes Anya's celebration of capital feels a little too real...

"Capitalism. A free market dependent on the profitable exchange of goods for currency. A system of symbiotic beauty apparently lost on these old people. Look at 'em — perusing the shelves, undressing the merchandise with their eyeballs. All ogle, no cash. It's not just annoying, it's un-American".

And I'm feeling all kinds of un-American today.


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