Buffy the vampire slayer & Why Buffy matters: The art of Buffy the vampire slayer & Reading Angel: The tv spin-off with a soul

Anne Billson,
Buffy the vampire slayer.
London: British Film Institute, 2005.
ISBN: 1 8445 7089 4, 192pp, £9 (pb).
(Review copy supplied by BFI publications)

Rhonda Wilcox,
Why Buffy matters: The art of Buffy the vampire slayer.
London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2005.
ISBN: 1 8451 1029 3, 256pp, £12.99 (pb).
(Review copy supplied by I.B. Tauris)

Stacey Abbott,
Reading Angel: The tv spin-off with a soul.
London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2005.
ISBN: 1 8504 3839 0, 256pp, £10.99 (pb).
(Review copy supplied by I.B. Tauris)

What, one wonders, was the British Film Institute thinking of when it commissioned Anne Billson to produce what is described on the cover as a “critical reading” of Buffy the vampire slayer for their TV classics series? Let me try that another way. Just who were they thinking of in terms of the projected audience? Billson, blurbed as a “film critic” who has written a novel about vampires and now “lives in Paris, France”, may well have fulfilled her brief admirably. However, as someone who takes their television scholarship seriously, I can’t help feeing disappointed by this slim volume when compared with the depth of analysis accorded to film in the comparable BFI Film Classics and Modern Classics series. Television comes off as the poor relation here.

Let me start as I always do with the bibliography. Of all the extensive scholarly literature now produced on the series, Billson references only one book, Slayer slang: A Buffy the vampire lexicon by Michael Adams (2003). The only direct reference she makes to this text is to source a quote by one of the writers of Buffy, Jane Espenson, although it clearly informs her brief discussion of “Buffyspeak”. The only other books on Buffy listed are the popular Watchers guides which are a useful but hardly critical accompaniments to the series as a whole.

What Billson does provide is a lively and engaged personal essay about Buffy the vampire slayer which spends the first sixteen pages describing the author’s post-war television experience in search of a female action hero. Chapter 2 begins with a brief biography of creator Joss Whedon, before embarking on a select history of the vampire in film, culminating in a discussion of the 1992 film version of Buffy the vampire slayer directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui with a screenplay by Whedon.

The next seven chapters follow a similar structure. Each opens with an account of what happens in the particular season under examination, before embarking on a discussion of specific characters or themes, without reference to any of the extensive scholarship which already exists on these topics. This commentary is supported by a raft of quotations from the show’s creators which is one of the strengths of this volume, although all of the quotes come from the DVD commentaries and/or already published interviews.

Billson writes well in an engaging and accessible voice, but the book as a whole never rises above the level of the kind of extended review one might find in a quality newspaper or literary journal. And, it must be admitted, Billson’s take on Buffy falls short of Clive James’ scintillating but brief essays on The sopranos or The west wingfor the Times Literary Supplement which appear to be the model of TV criticism adopted here (James 2005).

So what, one wonders again, is the point of this book? Most fans of Buffy don’t need another book by another fan celebrating what is good about the series, however lavishly illustrated. Fans already do that for themselves on their web sites and blogs. Part of the pleasure of fandom is performing one’s fannish behaviours for oneself and others already in the know. Which is why I doubt that this would work as a book for the non-Buffy fan, since such books are more usually of value to the person who is already well familiar with the object of study.

What would have been useful is the kind of introductory text about Buffy by a single author which opened the series up for analysis by making reference to the many and varied debates which have circulated around Buffyas a whole. As a teacher of television, I would have welcomed such a text, but sadly this is not that book, and I’m still puzzled by its intention.

Not at all puzzling is Why Buffy matters: The art of Buffy the vampire slayer which is clearly intended for both the scholar-fan (the academic fan of the series), and the fan-scholar (the non academic fan who has become a scholar of the series) – as Matt Hills has characterised the imagined binaries of fandom scholarship (Hills 2002).

With David Lavery, Rhonda Wilcox first demonstrated her scholar fandom as co-editor of the essay collectionFighting the forces: What’s at stake in Buffy the vampire slayer (2003). Together Wilcox and Lavery also co-editSlayage: The online international journal of Buffy studies (www.slayage.tv) which at time of writing (November 2006) has just launched its twenty-second edition on the topic of “Buffy and aesthetics”. The duo are affectionately known within scholar fan circles as “the mother and the father” of Buffy studies (although they are not married to each other), since they have played such a pivotal role in engendering critical analysis of the series across the globe. At which point I should declare my allegiance here since I am on the editorial board ofSlayage and thanked by Wilcox in the acknowledgements of Why Buffy matters, having read the manuscript prior to publication.

All twelve chapters in the Wilcox volume are edited versions of papers delivered at a range of conferences in the US, Canada, Australia, Ireland and the UK dating from 2002. The first six deal with broad patterns in the series including the nature of the hero’s journey (the work of Joseph Campbell is revealed to be central to Whedon’s overarching narrative structures); whilst the second half of the book discusses specific episodes in microscopic detail, without ever losing focus in terms of the series as a whole.

There are, understandably given the nature of the book’s origin, certain kinds of repetitions. For example, Wilcox frequently begins an essay with a claim for taking the series seriously, often referring to the work and career of Charles Dickens on whom she wrote her doctoral dissertation. Dickens, it transpires, just happens to be Whedon’s favourite novelist. There is a book within a book here, since it is manifestly clear that Wilcox can find many parallels between the two writers’ work, not simply in terms of characters, themes and onomastic codes, but also in terms of narrative strategies and story-telling.

As a Professor of English, Wilcox’s literary references are many and varied, including a very convincing extended comparison of T.S Eliot’s poem, The wasteland, and the fourth season dream sequence episode of Buffy entitled “Restless”. Popular culture references also abound, including a ‘nice’ discussion of the similarities in structure and theme between the Harry Potter books and Buffy.

Wilcox is not, however, limited to thinking about Buffy in terms of literary antecedents and analogies. What also begins to emerge, especially in the analysis of specific episodes, is a strong sense of television as a particular sonic and visual form. In this regard, her critical engagement with the episodes which ‘do things’ with sound (“Hush”, “The body”, and the musical episode “Once more with feeling”) are particularly innovative and illuminating.

For example, take the final chapter in the book, entitled “Singing and dancing and burning and dying: Once more with textual feeling”, devoted to the aforementioned musical episode. It opens with a relevant quote about spontaneous combustion from Dickens’ Bleak house, and another from Jane Feuer’s The Hollywood musical(1993). The essay goes on to include references to Judy Garland, Maurice Chevalier, Leonard Bernstein, Simon and Garfunkel, and Stephen Sondheim whilst engaging in a close analysis of the specific ‘numbers’ and how they unfold within the structure of the episode and their relationship to the narrative structure, character development and themes of the series as a whole.

The episode, the chapter, and the book thus close with a kiss (that of Spike and Buffy) and an acknowledgement of the life affirming nature of a show which insists it is “all connected – the singing, and dancing, and burning and dying”. Just how much Buffy matters to Wilcox, scholar fans and fan scholars is thus made abundantly clear in a text which demonstrates just how good television criticism can be when it is informed by deep scholarship and a close attention to the text.

Scholarship is also on display in another I.B Tauris collection of essays, this time devoted to Angel, “the TV spin-off with a soul” as the subtitle tells us. What’s interesting here is the diversity of scholarship on display as students and academics and other fan-scholars from a range of disciplines and backgrounds each bring their own particular expertise to bear on Angel, the TV series also written by Whedon which spun off from Buffy after Season 3.

Two contributors have a background in music (Halfyard and Mills), two are from law faculties (Sutherland and Swan), one (Upstone) is researching the spatial politics of the postcolonial novel and not unsurprisingly writes about the portrayal of hybridity and otherness in the postmodern city of Los Angeles as it is represented in the series.

Also of particular interest is Phil Colvin’s chapter which discusses how industrial constraints affected the development of the series over its five seasons as it struggled to perform in the ratings, especially after lead-in series Buffy moved from the Warner Brothers Network to the United Paramount Network (UPN) at the end ofAngel‘s second season.

Even more intriguing is Tammy Kinsey’s discussion of the ways in which Angel employs many of the techniques common to experimental film and abstract art in its story-telling strategies. Stan Brakhage is quoted at length before Kinsey turns her attention to a close reading of particular episodes in which these experimental moments occur.

In other words, this is a diverse and interesting collection of essays, some of which are inevitably much stronger than others. However, editor Stacey Abbott’s contributions are particularly fine and well justify her case thatAngel deserves to be considered as a series in its own right, not simply as an extension of Buffy. As Wilcox and Lavery note in their afterword, “the work of investigating Angel has just begun”.

It is thus evident from these I.B Tauris books, and the extensive bibliography maintained by Alysa Hornick for the Slayage website, that the TV series Buffy and Angel have been instrumental in stimulating an extensive range of scholarship about these series in particular and television in general. Students, academics and fans across the globe and from very different backgrounds, have thus begun to take television seriously as an object of study, not simply as a form of entertainment. One can only hope the British Film Institute is taking note.

Sue Turnbull
La Trobe University, Australia.


Adams, Michael, Slayer Slang: A Buffy the vampire lexicon, Oxford University Press, 2003.

Feuer, Jane, The Hollywood musical, 2nd ed. Basingstoke: British Film Institute, 1998.

Golden, Christopher and Nancy Holder, Buffy the vampire slayer: The watchers guide, New York Pocket Books 1998.

Hills, Matt, Fan cultures, London: Routledge, 2002.

James, Clive, The meaning of recognition, new essays 2001-2005. London: Picador, 2005.