Joss Whedon and Erika Alexander (writers), Jon Lam (artist), Dan Jackson (colorist), Steve Morris (cover artist)
Giles is one of my favorite characters in all of the lovable Buffyverse, but the new mystery mini-series Giles is rubbing me the wrong way. I was so looking forward to it, too.
The story of the magic-obsessed-punk-turned-librarian-know-it-all-Watcher-father has blossomed in Angel and Faith comics since the show ended. This four-issue limited series is part of Season 11 and has trouble following on that work. With a story by Joss Whedon and Erika Alexander (writer for Dark Horse’s Concrete Park and Maxine Shaw from the sitcom Living Single), art by Jon Lam, occasionally flashy colors by Dan Jackson, Giles #1 has set up a host of unsolved problems that lack the solid center I’m used to in a ‘verse I’ve been at home in for almost twenty years. The fact that Whedon is alongside Alexander to write this story doesn’t improve it. Fans usually get excited when Joss returns to plot, but recent accusations seem to have cooled this effect. For this review I’m putting authorial effect aside: this story is a mess. Let me explain why this matters with some previous season spoilers that attempt to tantalize rather than actually “spoil” for the people who’ve not been hanging out in the Buffyverse.
At the end of comics Season 8, Giles died at Angel’s hands (sort of). Throughout Season 9, Angel feels guilty about his part in Giles’ death. With Faith, he collects magical bits to reconstruct/resurrect Giles. Wonderful moments of Christos Gages’ whole arc are the numerous flashbacks to Gile’s life—little!Giles, teen!Giles, punk!Giles, and other!Gileses make satisfying appearances. Angel and Faith succeed in the Season 9 arc, “What You Want, Not What You Need.”
The catch? Giles has all his adult memories but is in the body of a thirteen-year-old boy. During the resurrection spell, his witchy aunts let their desire to give him a second chance at life leech into the magic. Through Season 10, we get to see Giles try to work out what the heck it means to be a man in a child’s body—with uncomfortable hijinks aplenty. Think Order of the Phoenix Harry Potter angst mixed with a 1970s sex farce with all the characters you know and love. It’s often delightful. Fans of the Buffyverse are used to our characters having a hyper-soap opera-level of internal layers. What about a soul, a chip, and a trigger in one head, anyone? But they need to be recognizable.
In Giles #1, these rules are broken. Giles is a fish out of water in a Compton-adjacent charter school that’s experiencing something supernatural. Potential for compulsive glasses-cleaning is high!
This mini-series takes place during Season 11, which has already completed in Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics. In Buffy Season 11 issue #3 (“A House Divided, Part 3”), Giles gets fake documentation to help him pass as human (ID is tough when you’re resurrected). Later in the issue, Buffy, Willow, and Spike are rounded up in an internment camp for magical people and beings run by a harsh, unreasonable U.S. government bureaucracy, and Giles disappears from the narrative. He reappears in #12 (“One Girl in All the World”) to say that he’s been away and would like not to think about it right now. In both issues, Rebecca Isaacs draws him as a thirteen-year-old.
In Giles #1, he’s drawn as at least sixteen. I suspect that this choice is so that his lusty thoughts about the issue’s new character of consequence, Roux, won’t be quite so odd. But they’re odd conversations anyway. He’s also dressing like a young Republican. I expect sweater-vests from my Giles, not a rumpled white collared shirt and khakis. His attempt earlier in Season 11 to dress like Justin Bieber would have been a goof, but an improvement. As it is, the look is boring, not nerdy. Otherwise, the art is good here. The pages designs flow nicely, even if the plot doesn’t know where it’s going.
The issue begins with one-page flashfoward to an eclipse, Giles jumping off a bridge, moodily yelling “Love sucks!” as he dives for a purple tentacled monster calling him “mother.” The page ends with the narration “I can’t breathe.” This is a phase I can’t hear without associating it with Eric Garner’s death. It feels disjointed in Giles’s thoughts. Yes, he’s underwater, but there are many other phrases we could use. He says “I can’t breathe” again later in the issue as he thinks about what he calls a “panic attack” that’s actually panicky flight from a monster. He also says this flight is part of a “midlife crisis.” Incidentally, I think this issue doesn’t understand what any of those words mean. “Midlife crisis” usually implies buying a sports car and dating a younger woman, not running away from glowy, purple-tentacled demons. That’s good sense.
The narration is sometimes in Giles’s head, but it’s an oddly off Giles. I expect purple prose, but this is not the purple prose of either an adult or a teenager. He muses about how he brought a gin smoothie for lunch. It’s off.
Roux is a young black woman with great feathered hoodie who seems to be “watching” (in the Buffy sense) another young black woman named Blue. They never speak to each other, which seems like a real missed opportunity. Roux is a loner and a vampire (we find out!). She’s got a purple-tentacle connection. She’s trying to investigate Giles, but there is so much jumping around it’s hard to follow her logic. Giles has the hots for her, which fits with his hormonal persona. Blue never speaks, but is picked on by some bullies that I can’t bring myself to care about. The issue consistently refers to both Roux and Blue as “girls,” a word I only like referring to people over thirteen if it’s followed by “power” or if you’re Nina Simone singing “Little Girl Blue.” The publicity around the issue wants me to wonder about them more than the art or the words inside.
The overall mystery is set up by several factors, among which we have:
- a couple of encounters with purple, slimy tentacles that have a familial connection to Giles,
- a tattoo of “AIX” that Roux and a security guard share,
- a teacher Giles didn’t know was going to be there but he knew in his former life as a NASA writer with a wife name Hazel (I don’t know why Giles was at NASA either, people),
- the smell of peaches (which I find an intriguing detail that plays out on a Steve Morris cover for both issues #1 and #2),
- an overall malaise that’s affecting the school,
- a principal with a militaristic guard on her,
- missing teachers, administration, and students,
- the *yawn* bullies with no backstories that give us our fight scene, and
- an inexplicable teacher’s aid/student/indigenous art collector who seems to live in a lead-lined room adjacent to the cafeteria and gives Giles a Flava Flav-esque mirror necklace. For magical reasons. I think.
I’m confused rather than tantalized by all of this, but maybe the worst part is that Giles knows who Flava Flav is. I’m not saying ’70s punk dinosaurs can’t know Public Enemy, it’s that we only have so much space to differentiate this character and it’s taken up with Flava Flav.
Speaking of Flava Flav, this issue has a little innovation that’s a great idea poorly executed—“the Mixtape.” At the bottom of select pages, there is a song that I think you’re supposed to play for the mood of the page. There are ten songs for one issue. These are good songs from Kendrick Lamar to Mozart; in a story with a clear plot, it could have worked. I tried to listen through on a read-through and found it hard to stay with it. “Lost Queen” by Pharrell Williams works on some levels as we wonder about Roux, but the choices come too quickly to really stay with the flow. If other people find a way to enjoy this particular innovation, I’m excited for them and I’d love to hear how! The Wicked + Divine playlists, Black Canary’s band (2016), or Sex Criminals’ uses of a hilariously censored “Fat Bottom Girls” are all better uses of music with comics. The idea itself fits with Giles, but I was expecting some classic punk juxtaposed with Dr. Dre. It was an opportunity to keep us to a theme that instead scattered the theme more. And if you’re going to call it a mixtape, make it because Giles still thinks we have mixtapes. Not because you don’t know we call those “playlists” now. Right?
I’m going to give this story the benefit of the doubt. I want it to all make sense. I want this to actually be a mystery and not a mess. Because of my desire for this to work, I want to say read it. But, I’m as out of my element here as Giles. I’m troubled that a story like this comes so close to the Season 12 “End of the World” arc. My advice? Don’t listen to the mixtape. Go catch up on Seasons 8 through 11 and stay tuned to see if we all need to pretend this didn’t happen.