Buffy Won't Die

by Catherine Curan
Portfolio.com, 07/08/2008

The Vampire Slayer has been off the air for five years, but she lives on—profitably—in comic books and compilations. Is a total resurrection next?

When Evan Narcisse found out last year that his favorite defunct TV series would rise again as a comic book, he feared Buffy the Vampire Slayer was attempting a feat beyond even its butt-kicking heroine's supernatural strength.

There was reason to worry. First, there was Buffy burnout, felt by viewers and creator Joss Whedon alike when the show's seven-year run ended in the spring of 2003. What's more, a Buffy resurrection effort meant that Whedon and publisher Dark Horse Comics would be in unprecedented territory: reviving a dormant mass-media heroine in the narrower medium of comic books.

"Nothing is worse than, if you are a genre fan, having a property you hold near and dear be mauled at the hands of the person who originated it," says Narcisse, 35, an entertainment writer and devoted Buffy fan who lives in New York.

But Whedon created Buffy to confound expectations—the pretty, petite young blond kills monsters instead of falling prey. The Buffy brand is not only back—it has become a consistent bestseller in comic books and trade paperback compilations during an overall soft year for comics sales. Striking while the Slayer is hot, Dark Horse will launch Buffy Ouija boards in September. Whedon, meanwhile, will mingle discussions of the comic series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8, with a publicity push for his new TV show Dollhouse (starring Buffy alum Eliza Dushku), at the San Diego Comic-Con geekfest later this month.

"It's double branding: a branded character like Buffy with Joss, who in the comic market built such credibility that he himself is a brand," says Mike Richardson, publisher of Portland, Oregon-based Dark Horse.

Privately held Dark Horse does not release per-title revenues, but Buffy editor Scott Allie says some of the first 15 issues of season eight have sold 150,000 copies at $2.99 a pop—small versus the TV series' several million viewers, but big for today's comics industry. Buffy's revival has also outsized implications for both Dark Horse and Whedon.

The No. 3 player in comics behind Marvel and DC, with an estimated $35 million in annual sales, Dark Horse needed a steady winner. Buffy bested Marvel's Hulk in May to become the No. 1 trade paperback—despite blockbuster publicity around the summer Hulk film—and is routinely outselling long-running DC Superman titles at stores such as Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff in Concord, California.

For Whedon, Buffy reaffirms his hitmaking capabilities as he tries to return to TV this fall, allows him to squeeze more revenue out of his most popular creation, and burnishes the spinoff potential for an animated show, a film, more Buffy merchandise, and perhaps even additional books.

Now that Buffy's back, however, the trick will be maintaining Joss' focus and not dispatching the Slayer to fight on too many new fronts. Whedon's working on the rest of the 40-issue Season 8, and a planned shorter season nine, but Allie will need to keep Whedon involved with Buffy once Dollhouse debuts. Critics and viewers carped that the television series Buffy suffered after Whedon created the spinoff Angel in 1999 and Firefly in 2002. (In the past several months he has also launched comic-book series based on the shows.)

"A lot of people in the entertainment business feel like they need to spread out intellectual property in as many mediums as possible, but that's difficult to pull off," says Narcisse, who rates Season 8 a hit. "I just want one iteration of this fictional universe that's good."

Plus, should Buffy try to leap again beyond the Whedon-Dark Horse comics, she has a troubled history to overcome. The character was born in a less-than-blockbuster 1992 film that cost $7 million to make and grossed $16.6 million, according to Box Office Mojo. Previous Dark Horse Buffy comics created without Whedon, meanwhile, sold so poorly that Flying Colors Comics owner Joe Field ranked it in the bottom 25 percent of titles.

Speculation about a new film heated up recently when the Buffy cast reunited for a TV festival in March. But unlike Sex and the City: The Movie, where all four lead actresses wanted to revive the show on the big screen, Buffy hinges on Sarah Michelle Gellar, who plays the title role. She's moved on to other movie roles, and doesn't appear to hanker for a return, telling Moviehole.net last November: "I have to be honest. That thought really scares me." Even if Whedon, Gellar, and the rest of Buffy's cast agreed to reunite for a movie, Whedon has a lackluster track record turning his TV shows into films. The film adaptation of his show Firefly had a budget of $39 million but grossed just about that in theaters.

It might not be worth the risk of putting a stake through Buffy's heart.