Dark Horse didn't have much doubt about how well its "Buffy" comics would sell. Rather than tiptoeing into the waters, the company released its first graphic novel when the regular title was only up to its second issue. Throughout the "BTVS Classic" period, it released two single-story graphic novels (which I'll review here), plus tons of other miniseries, one-shots and short stories (but those are for another post), in addition to the ongoing "Buffy" and "Angel" series.
Dan Brereton's "The Dust Waltz" (October 1998) is the first graphic novel. It's the length of three issues, and as with the early installments in the ongoing series, it's set in Season 3. Specifically, it takes place – like too many "Buffy" comics and novels – between "Revelations" (3.7) and "Lovers Walk" (3.8). In an introduction, Brereton writes about his love of "Buffy," and I don't doubt him, but "The Dust Waltz" is characterized by the hesitancy that also marks Andi Watson's work, although Brereton (who also co-wrote "The Origin") is more in tune with the rhythms of the Slayer-verse.
Rich and dynamic art by Hector Gomez (pencils) and Sandu Florea (inks) are the biggest appeal of a solid but ultimately forgettable book, where our heroes have to stop a vampire from summoning a demon from the Hellmouth. The most interesting element is that the lead vampire, Lilith, and some of her cohorts are referred to as "old ones," a term that would later apply to the nearly invincible Illyria on "Angel." These old ones aren't as strong, though; Buffy stakes one and follows with a quip about getting dust in her hair. Admittedly, the dramatic pause followed by a "Boom!" when the vamp explodes gives credence to its ancient status.
It's also interesting that Giles' niece, Jane, appears in "The Dust Waltz," marking a rare appearance of one of his relatives in "Buffy" lore. With her overalls, short black hair and freckles, she's nicely designed, and of course Xander has a thing for her (even though he's still with Cordy at this time). I assumed the gang would handle her like Owen in "Never Kill a Boy on the First Date" (1.5), scrambling to keep her out of the loop. But for some reason, they don't censor themselves, and at any rate, Jane is unfazed by learning the supernatural world is real. I have to admit to some surprise that she doesn't turn out to be a demon who took over Jane's body; I admire Brereton's restraint on that point.
The other single-story graphic novel, "Ring of Fire" (August 2000), came out when Dark Horse was getting serious about producing work that could proudly stand next to what we were seeing on TV. Set during the Angelus period of Season 2, it could have been – if not for the cost of special effects – a TV episode. Douglas Petrie, who joined the TV writing staff in Season 3, shows flawless knowledge of "Buffy" lore and gives us a story that not only fits with the continuity, but also doesn't feel shoehorned in.
A distraught Giles thinks about resurrecting Jenny (he summons her spirit, which asks him not to go through with it). When he chews out Willow and Xander for raising Buffy from the dead in Season 6, we could assume he knows it's a bad idea from his younger magic-using days, but "Ring of Fire" shows us his memories are fresher. He has a "dark Giles" relapse, telling an opponent to "Call me Ripper" in his coolest line this side of "I'd like to test that theory" from "Two to Go" (6.21), also penned by Petrie. As "Ring of Fire" ends with Buffy seeking assurance that Giles will be at her side in the coming fight, this is a meatier reprise of a thread from the loaded episode "Passion" (2.17).
A twist finds Buffy detained by men in black from "the bureau," although not the FBI. The same organization that recruited Marcie in "Out of Mind, Out of Sight" (1.11)? A precursor to Season 4's Initiative? No on both counts, because these MIBs are actually demons. Maybe answers are forthcoming in another story, but Buffy doesn't have to deal with them for long thanks to a rescue from Kendra.
I was surprised by the other Slayer's appearance ("That right! She's still around during this timeframe," I realized), but immediately it made sense. I always felt like Kendra's Season 2 appearances were limited by the budget or Bianca Lawson's availability, and that she should've been more consistently involved in the fight against Angelus, Spike and Drusilla. "Ring of Fire" rectifies this, and Petrie also writes her as having more confidence than in her debut (2.9-10, "What's My Line, Parts 1 and 2"), making for a smooth transition to her next appearance in "Becoming, Part 1" (2.21). She flatly rejects Xander's offer of a date, rather than being flustered by him.
Dru's brief betrayal of Spike and Angelus further marks Petrie's bold storytelling, yet – come to think of it – the backstabbing totally fits with her character.
Cementing "Ring of Fire's" status as a "Buffy" comic classic is the art by Ryan Sook, who inks and colors his own pencils, and who counts Petrie and Joss Whedon as admirers. I wouldn't rank him No. 1 for likenesses overall – everyone looks either dour or kind of nutty, but that works perfectly for Angelus and Giles at this point (and for his "Spike and Dru" comics).
However, Sook is hard to beat in terms of lighting and mood. For example, there's a panel of Angelus spying on Giles in a graveyard that is flawless, and it gets a payoff when Giles knows Angel is there. Because Angelus is so well hidden in the bushes in Sook's drawing, we appreciate Giles' skill set. I also gained an appreciation for his layout choices thanks to samples and a write-up by editor Scott Allie in the back of the graphic novel.
I wouldn't want Sook to draw every "Buffy" story, but he's the ideal choice for grim entries such as this one.