Timing: BtVS, Season Eight. During or short while after "Safe."
Warning: The bigger spoilers will be written in black text. Simply highlight to read. As this is a review, there will be some minor "spoilers" sprinkled throughout the text that don't warrant being hidden. If you have not read the issue and don't want to know anything about the plot, don't read this. Spoilers for previous issues will obviously not be covered.
REVIEW: After the impressive #24, Buffy: Season Eight continues to bounce back from its slump with this installment, the conclusion of the standalone Predators vs. Prey arc. It's been a mostly shaky ride, with issues that were never outright bad (though #21 comes very close, especially in hindsight) but never really good either. All of them except these most recent two have had major problems, whether in the story structure, themes, or even things like consistency and art. I'll get down the the art business later, but what veteran Buffy writer Doug Petrie offers up here is easily the best of the arc. It's still not as solid as the majority of the issues that made up the longer arcs, but it does bring the story closer to where it should be at this point.
One of the major Season Eight subplots gets resolved in this book. The curse that Kenny the thricewise put upon Dawn has been met with mixed fan reaction, but I definitely enjoyed it. There is a lot about the whole "we have no budget limitations, let's go all out" mindset that I'm not so keen on, but turning Dawn into a giant and then a centaur was pretty damn cool. Joss and co. were able to do what Buffy used to do and turn the character's internal feelings into a metaphor (albeit an obvious one, which isn't unlike Joss's best metaphors); they also showed the mind state of the characters through their reactions to Dawn. Buffy's distance, Xander's closeness, and Willow's desire to be a mother figure to Dawn are made all the more powerful by her situation. But I'm getting a bit off track here. The point is that I enjoyed the Dawn subplot, and am glad that, as Season Eight shifts into high gear, that plot gets resolved. We get one more transformation before Petrie wraps up the plot neatly, and it's definitely a fun twist. As you might have guessed from the cover and title, Dawn gets turned into a doll. Small, fragile, easy to lose. I like it.
The issue starts with a basic problem. Dawn is lost, and Buffy and Xander don't know how to find her. There is a quick and pretty useless subplot where Buffy has to stop Judas Cradle (random power player vamp) and his gang before she can find Dawn. This can only be here for one of two reasons; one, to tie it into the whole "vampires in public" thing this arc has had going on, or two, to try to show us (again) how Buffy is neglecting Dawn. If it's the former, it could have been shown to us through dialogue without taking up page space and making the resolution feel rushed. If it's the latter, it shouldn't have been there at all, because a) we already know that all the way back from #1 and b) they take an entire page and a half out to show vampires getting pwned and then Buffy saying "That went well. Let's find Dawn." At least that is the only major flaw of the issue. The rest is pretty great, actually. Seeing Buffy discover Dawn's transformation by following her footprints was clever, and the confrontation with the weird guy who was making living dolls and protecting Dawn was as intriguing as it was morally ambiguous. The guy seems to be helping these dolls by keeping them captive, which is as cute and snuggy as it is dark and creepy.
Aside from the entertaining standalone plot, we've got two major things going on. Buffy and Dawn reconnecting after the whole "Buffy is ignoring Dawn's suffering" thing. It does happen rather quickly, but the conversation is well written enough to let it go. It's certainly not as jolting as the whole "Hey Angel, it's Kate, haven't seen you in a while, want a church?" thing, so don't think that. From a dialogue standpoint, it's totally natural. I'm just bitter that the wasted Judas Cradle page didn't go toward fleshing that conversation out a bit and making it less easy for Buffy. On the plus side, Buffy's response to Dawn really shows how their relationship has changed and, in many ways, stayed the same in a post-Chosen world.
Best part about the issue is (SPOILER:) Kenny the thricewise. We've been waiting a long time to see him, and his character design and reasons for doing what he did made me sort of love the guy. That bit is wrapped up really nicely. So much so that, as plot devicey as the character could have been, I really wish he comes back again.
And oh the Veronica Mars references.
In the end, definitely the best of the arc. It definitely got better as it went along, with #21 being by far the worst. I'm glad its over, I'm glad at least some of the subplots got wrapped up or commented on (the Simone thing really should have finished in #23), and I'm glad that the status quo of the Scoobies has somewhat returned. More than anything, I'm ready to see what Jane Espenson does with the Retreat arc. I was really let down by her word with Harmonic Divergence, but she definitely redeemed herself by writing the best episode of the first season of Dollhouse. I have faith she can restore Buffy: Season Eight to the fantastic story it should be at this point.
Art: Oh Jeanty. He used to be the best at these wide shots, squeezing in both character detail and these beautiful landscapes. But his work here seems so sketchy. The close bits are still fine, though not as strikingly wonderful as they once were. I can feel his struggle with the characters leaving, and he's slowly slipping into a comfort level which isn't helping the book at all. It's still really pretty throughout, but there are no really striking panels here, which is unfortunate. One panel in particular here should have been an eye-catcher, but... I don't know. He's had a lot of breaks recently too, with Moline taking over for an entire arc, and being given two extra months to breath with Richards doing #24 and #26 being pushed back to July. I hope he steps his game up soon, because as nice as his work is as a whole, I'm not good with the idea that his art used to be way better than it is now.
Covers: Jo Chen has been on a damn role recently. She gave her best Buffy likeness with #23, rivaled the greatness of her Faith/Giles #7 cover with #24, took it to the Volume One TPB level of EPIC with her cover to #26, and with this, easily one of her best covers yet, she pays homage to the painted romance novel covers... by having Dawn kiss the monstrously ugly thricewise. Inappropriate, gross, hilarious, and kinda sweet, it perfectly captures the essence of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Jeanty's cover also pays homage, but this one to another Buffy cover. Specifically, Jo Chen's #4. In a clever role reversal, he has regular sized Buffy holding a teensy Dawn doll. It's pretty straight forward and a little boring, but it's his technical best since #22. I can dig it.
Characters We Know: Dawn, Buffy, Xander, Leah, Rowena, Andrew, Willow,