A Stake to the Heart (2004) Fabian Nicieza, Titan Books, £8.99, trdpbk, 104pp, ISBN 1-840-23880-1
This probably is not the best graphic novel to read if you are coming to the Buffy comics for the first time. It is a collection of the last four issues of a five-year run of monthly Buffy comics, as I found out on a note on the last page. This means it has got quite a few references to previous comics (there is a three paragraph section of 'What has gone before' to absorb at the front) and there are also a lot of references to the actual TV series. I would suggest that you have really got to know the show to get the most (or perhaps much) out of this graphic novel.
The story is set in a Retro-active continuity (to coin a phrase!) as it features the character of Buffy's sister Dawn, who only turned up in Season Five of the show but, through some mystical gubbins, was always then supposed to have existed before that point (if you follow this?). The story ends with Buffy's arrival in Sunnydale ready for Season One of the TV show, and the novel has rather a lot of brief appearances of Buffy characters putting them into their 'starting positions'. As well as Dawn, appearances are made by Angel, Whistler, Wolfram & Hart, Lila, Giles, Xander, Willow, Cordelia, Harmony and even Principal Flutie! And most of these appearances are just fan-pleasing details, like seeing Giles get his job as Sunnydale High's librarian, and have nothing to do with the main plot.
Which brings me to my second point: do not read this novel if you are after spirited high-jinks and action-adventure as you might expect from the majority of the TV episodes. This is a study of the effect on Buffy of her parents separating, and the different types of depression (given form as malignancy demons) that afflict her. Each of the four chapters concentrates on one particular demon, (Deceit, Guilt, Abandonment & Trepidation) and it does not make for light reading, particularly in one sitting (I am glad it was a nice morning with the sun shining when I read it). A five page feature at the back of the novel gives a fascinating insight into the ideas that went into giving these emotions corporeal form and, as much of the symbolism was wasted on me on my initial reading, is for my money the best feature in the book.
The artwork is a bit of a mix. Some short sections have been painted, and look fantastic, but the majority is a cartoonier comic-book style, which is generally fine but suffers in comparison. The likenesses of Buffy & Dawn are generally very good, but a lot of the other characters look strangely unfinished or different, particularly Whistler and Angel. This may be an attempt to make them seem shadowy figures, but if you know what David Boreanaz looks like it doesn't really work. On a couple of occasions he looked more like the waxy model head of Arnold Schwarzenegger that you see in the first Terminator film.
So, to sum up; probably not the best place to start reading the Buffy graphic novels/comics as it is the end of the run. Not a light, fun read either, but if you know your Buffy, or have read the preceding issues, and you don't mind a little darkness, this is an intelligent, thought-provoking read. Just make sure you've planned something fun to do after you've read it!
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