Jane Espenson: Buffy, Harmony and...Anderson Cooper?

Preview: Buffy, The Vampire Slayer #21

Preview: Buffy, The Vampire Slayer #21
Preview: Buffy, The Vampire Slayer #21
Harmony and her "perky pair"

This week’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer #21 (preview here) saw two returns: the return of Harmony to the “Season Eight” Buffyverse, as well as the return of writer Jane Espenson, one of the original writers on the Buffy television series (not to mention Producer on Battlestar Galactica and writer on Joss Whedon’s new series Dollhouse). But them together, and what did you get? Harmony Bites - an MTV reality series about the self-obsessed vampire. Well, at least a story about Harmony landing a reality series on MTV.

Although, that’s selling the issue a little short – gently, there was a huge change in the issue for the entire series and world that the Slayers live in. We spoke with Espenson about the issue, her goals with Harmony’s story, a new Slayer, and…Anderson Cooper?

Yeah – Anderson Cooper.

Newsarama: Jane, we’ve spoken with Joss a couple of times about the comic series, and he described these single-issue story issues set prior for the coming big arc as a chance for him to bring in his friends to write stories about the stuff that they like. Is that how it worked out with you?

Jane Espenson: Well, I was given the choice of what I wanted to write – either a longer arc, or something more limited, and I had other things going on, and find comic book writing very hard – very challenging and very time consuming, so I asked for a one-shot. But the story was very much picked for me by Joss, but picked with an awareness of what I like to write – it’s exactly what I would’ve requested. Harmony gets a reality show? Holy crap! That’s for me.

So it’s hard to remember that I didn’t pick that story, because it’s so exactly what I would have picked.

NRAMA: You’ve worked with Harmony before, during your time on Buffy, right?

JE: Yes. Harmony was featured a lot in an episode I wrote called “Harsh Light of Day,” where we revealed that Harmony was Spike’s new girlfriend - so yeah, I’ve gotten to write her before, and she’s a favorite of mine.

NRAMA: What’s the appeal of the character for you? Obviously – putting her into a reality show fits perfectly – she’s that type of character that you tend to see on MTV’s reality series, but what’s the appeal to you as a creator to play with her?

JE: Extreme characters are fun, and they’re always fun to write, and Harmony was always an extreme character. As portrayed by Mercedes [McNab], she had this wonderful and unexpected poignancy where you feel for her instinctively, and you realize that a lot what you first perceived as arrogance from her is sheltering some insecurity, and she becomes more and more interesting. So I already saw that in her, and then, the idea of a character who gets their validation from public opinion – that’s wonderful, hilarious, sad…it’s got all those great layers of emotion just built all into it right from the very beginning.

I consciously picked that first image of her trying to get into a nightclub – it’s a goal that’s hard to praise. It’s hard to praise someone who’s desperate wish in that moment is to get into a nightclub. But – it’s also a desperate wish. As much as it’s not the highest calling possible, you start out with a character that wants something – that wants to fit into that Hollywood world, and is a hard enough worker and good enough thinker that she finds a way in. That interests me. It’s like a quest – it’s a modest quest, but quests are always interesting. It’s actually more interesting if it’s a goal that’s a little harder to identify. We’re seeing someone strive to reach what they want, which is always interesting, and the fact that we don’t agree with what they want works against that in a really neat way.

NRAMA: When you said that you only had the time to commit to one issue, and Joss then had the story for you, how did that come across? Was it more of a throwback to your shared TV days, where the ideas came top-down-ish?

JE: It was a little like the TV show in that you were often assigned a story that way: “this week you’re writing the next one, and it’s about this.” That was often how the shows were assigned, but the shows was broken as a group, with Joss leading it. So often, every important beat in the story came from Joss’ brain and was dictated specifically, which is what gave that show that beautiful uniformity of vision.

But the comics – I was given a lot more individual freedom. I was told: Harmony has a reality show, the point of this issue is that we see public opinion about Slayers and demons turn. It’s the start of a turn where humanity no longer sees Slayers as necessarily the good guys and vampires as the bad guys. That’s pretty much what I was given, and I was very much given the freedom to come up with all the details to come up with the details of Harmony’s life, her show, how it would all lay out – very much on my own. I think if I had done stuff Joss didn’t like, he would have stepped in and given more explicit notes, but he really never did – this was very much out of my head, other than the main concept, and I’m really, really proud of it because of that. There are a lot of choices in there that I got to make on my own that I think turned out well.

NRAMA: Was the new Slayer in the issue your creation as well?

JE: Yes – the idea of picking a specific Slayer and her background, that was form me.

NRAMA: I thought it was interesting to see in the story that you were “selling” the idea that the Slayers weren’t necessarily the good guys, because from the new Slayer’s point of view, this group wanted to control her in much the same way her former gang did…

JE: Yeah – I like when both sides have a valid case. It’s always struck me that the point of slaying is to even the balance between the dark and the light – it’s not to wipe out the darkness. So you already – given that, you have justification for some ambivalence about the role of the Slayers. Then if you start going into “how dark is the darkness?” – I was happy to bring back Clem, because he was a demon that we met before, and we know that he’s not evil, although you could probably make a case that the eating kittens thing is a little bit evil. Maybe that’s all he digests though…but how evil is evil? Does it mean that you’re evil if you just genetically happen to be a demon? That’s never been established as true – there are demons who are not so evil. And this organization that’s taken it upon themselves to decide what’s best for humanity…

You can see how a case could be made that the Slayer organization is shady and shadowy and suspect, and could easily be up to no good. And I like that – it’s not that humanity’s being duped. There are arguments to be had.

NRAMA: There are arguments to be had, but at the same time, and I’m guessing that this came from you in the story as well, that you did get a couple of pointed commentaries about the media in there, about how, on issues such as this, the media can manipulate us, and raise questions when there may not be any, ultimately. Especially, you showed Anderson Cooper leading the questioning charge against the Slayers…I’m not sure if he’s going to be as big a fan of yours anymore…

JE: Well, I don’t have any reason to think that Anderson Cooper is currently a fan of mine…[laughs]

NRAMA: Hey, he has watched Living Lohan

JE: Yeah – he is a fan of reality TV, so I would like to think that someone might point this issue out to him. [laughs] I think he might enjoy Harmony Bites, but I have no reason to think that he’s a fan of my shows, but who knows…many people are.

But I actually picked Anderson Cooper because he is believable. He is credible, and if you hear Anderson Coooper saying, “What is this shadowy organization?” it’s not Rush Limbaugh saying it. Anderson Cooper is someone we tend to think of as credible and reasonable. So I picked him as a sign of reasonability, not of gullibility. I want us to say, “Oh, smart people are saying, ‘What’s up with these Slayers?’” So Anderson, you can take it as a compliment.

NRAMA: Given that you work with Joss a lot, and have to get set up on this comic – in your view, how big was this issue in terms of the larger storyline? It did have the feel of one of those old Buffy episodes where everything you know was turned on its ear, and now, the good guys are wearing the black hats and the bad guys are wearing the white hats…

JE: Yeah – well, the second part to the story of how I told Joss how I only wanted to write a one-issue story was that he called me later on and asked me to write this five issue Oz arc and I agreed to do that, and have turned in the first of the five issues. So I do know where things are going, primarily because I ended up getting more involved in it than I had intended to, and I’m really glad I did.

So I know what’s coming up, and I know how big this development will turn out to be in the scheme of things. Yes, it was pivotal, and I like how, as you said, it’s deceptively pivotal. It plays like it’s not a big deal, and then you realize, “Oh wait – that’s kind of huge. That’s all of humanity starting to shift around and say, ‘Wait – who have we been rooting for?’” I really like that it was not done with a big thunderclap, but the way life really turns – one day, say a given President has a really high approval ratings, and then, you hit critical mass and public opinion almost overnight, turns, and the world changes. It happens so subtly and quickly, and you tend not to take it seriously, but all of a sudden, you notice that the world has turned.

NRAMA: The story does leave you with the feeling, after you close the issue of “Wait a minute…what just happened here?”

JE: I’m so glad you think it played that way. That was totally what I wanted – I wanted the feel of, “It’s fun and games, it’s fun and games…wait a minute…”

NRAMA: Finally – you said that you’re writing the Oz arc coming up, but still, you’re involved with so many comic book-able properties, with your time at Battlestar Galactica and now back with Joss at Dollhouse…beyond this Buffy arc have you thought about doing more? Perhaps in Dollhouse and explore some new directions?

JE: I’m very busy with all of the other stuff, but if Joss decides that there are comic books to be done in the Dollhouse world, sign me up. The experience of writing the Harmony comic followed up by the first of the Oz ones that I’ve done has really own me over to comic books in a way that my earlier experience didn’t. I’m finally gaining a little bit of confidence in the medium. It’s so hard to do, and it’s so much like directing, and I always thought that it didn’t play to my strengths – that I’m much more about eh words and the dialogue. Comic books – boy, I love ‘em, but it’s hard to get a lot of dialogue in there. You just don’t have that much room - literally.

I always felt very hindered by that, and I’m finally feeling like I’m getting the rhythm of that and an instinct of how much fits on a page, and I’m trying to figure out how to fit physical humor on to the page, which I was always really hesitant to do – I was always unsure what could be captured in a drawing and what couldn’t. A simple gesture that you know would be comedic say - it’s a gesture…you start to think that’s not something that would be captured in the “snapshot” of a panel…or would it? I’m starting to feel a lot more like I know what I’m doing, so I would jump into any comic book project that Joss wanted me to tackle, I’m there. I hope I get to do more comics – I’m having fun with it in a way that I haven’t before.

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