Looking back at Joss Whedon's Fray

Feature James Stansfield 25 Jun 2013 - 06:10

Joss Whedon seems to be concentrating on movies now, but if James had his way, he'd spend a bit more time writing comics...

Joss Whedon. Once upon a time, before he became ruler of the cinematic (Marvel) universe, a smaller, but no less enthusiastic, bunch of people loved him for creating one of arguably, the best episodic television series – Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

For the benefit of anyone reading this who doesn’t know, Buffy The Vampire Slayer ran for seven years and chronicled the life and times of Buffy Summers and her unique set of friends, battling monsters and other obstacles that life threw at them on a weekly basis. If that was news to you then I sincerely hope you are no longer reading this paragraph and are now stampeding your way to catch up on this excellent show.

Although Buffy’s televisual escapades came to an end in 2003, Joss Whedon would continue the story via the medium of comic books in 2008 with a series written by the man himself that became known as Buffy the Vampire Slayer season eight. As one would expect, Joss’ writing for the Buffy comic was as witty and fun filled as it had been for the screen. By this time though, Whedon had been writing comic book scripts for a while.

Previous to penning Buffy season eight, Whedon had completed a two year run on Marvel’s Astonishing X-Men (which was among some of the best Marvel books of the noughties) and a few Serenity off shoots. The book he cut his comic writing teeth on though, was Fray.

Told over eight issues, released between June 2001 and August 2003, Fray was the origin story of the first vampire slayer to be called since Buffy. Although the exact year it is set in was never disclosed, it was said to be approximately 200 years post Buffy. Fray’s location was known as Haddyn. It wasn’t explicitly stated but it’s thought that Haddyn was supposed to be Manhattan, a couple of centuries from now. Divided into districts known as warrens, the story took place in Versi, described by the title character as the place where “If you’re down on your luck, or looking to hide, this is the place.”

Fray’s setting conjured up memories of the mega cities that had featured in Judge Dredd – a sprawling mass of high rises, with a shanty town like existence below.

Fray began with some demon talk filling in the background that no slayer had been called in 200 years and that a being known as Urkonn was being tasked with deal with her before the watchers got to her. The slayer's name? Melaka Fray.

Joss Whedon has always had a talent for introducing his characters in the most action packed way possible. Faith was introduced by luring a vampire out of the Bronze and beating all hellmouth out of him before a staking. When we first clap eyes on Melaka Fray she is being thrown off a building, clutching an amulet and blasting a ray gun, throwing off the casual line “Bad day. Started bad. Stayed that way.” In a scene not unreminiscent of Milla Jovavich’s dive without a parachute in The Fifth Element, Fray uses a number of the flying cars below her to break her fall. The trick she tells us is to “brace yourself and make sure you land on your feet” ...as she face plants into the concrete. Whedon debuts Fray with a bang, and a nice bit of wit.

Melaka Fray as a character was a rather different breed of slayer to the ones we’d seen on TV, though you could draw similarities. In one sense she is like Buffy in that she is quite grown up by the time she learns of her true calling. Up until the time of this story she has just assumed that she was gifted in the strength and jumping department, putting these skills to use as a grabber. That’s future slang for cat burglar. With regards to look and attitude though, Fray had more in common with Faith. Her near fearless, act first, think later demeanour clearly serves her well in her chosen career path when dealing with those who take exception, though in the case of Fray it’s been born out of a need to survive in Haddyn.

Fray more than holds her own when bartering with her employer, Gunther. It might be easy to be brave though when there’s a glass floor separating you. You see, Gunther is a fish, man, sort of thing. Looking like a slightly less scrupulous version of Hellboy’s Abe Sapian, Gunther is Whedon’s first introduction in Fray of the mutants that inhabit this world, known affectionately as radies. The mutants that inhabit Haddyn also take in a group that Melaka calls “lurks”. Assumed by all to be radies that have been driven mad by a thirst for blood, we know them by another name. Vampires.

Whereas Faith exhibited some severe emotional attachment issues when she turned up in Buffy’s third season, Fray is a carer at heart, but one whom has been damaged. Melaka has a family. Her older sister Erin is a police officer so is immediately at odds with the way Mel makes her living. A tense meeting between the two in Fray’s debut issue though showed that this sibling rivalry ran a little deeper than that. Erin’s line “Last I checked, you weren’t very good at taking care of anyone” is the first time in the story we see Melaka taken down. Erin obviously regrets her choice of words. From this brief first meeting, Joss Whedon has set up a damaged sister relationship but his writing, along with the Karl Moline’s artwork during this scene conveys that there is still love between them, it’s just being masked by a veil of anger at the moment.

Mel’s maternal instinct still shines through in her relationship with Loo, a young mutant girl with one arm and a dead eye. It’s probably the most important relationship in the whole book as an incident that befalls Loo during the fifth issue becomes the kick start for the story’s final act. Loo brings out a more Buffy Summers side in the Fray character. She stands up for those who are bullied and harassed, something we saw Buffy do at Sunnydale High.

Fray’s first meeting with her watcher doesn’t go to well. He comes to her with the usual watcher message – “You are the chosen one etc” but then rather than taking her under his wing and advising her on all things vampire while cleaning his glasses, he sets himself on fire. Despite this gentleman’s fiery departure, Whedon did furnish the book with a watcher style character in the goat/demon form of Urkonn.

Urkonn is a cross between Rupert Giles and Mr Spock, with a face like Norman Bates’ mother. It’s only really to be expected then that when Fray finds him waiting for her in her apartment at the beginning of issue two that she acts in a rather inhospitable manner. Act first, think later, self preservation.

Urkonn is a great addition to Fray. He deals in logic and his actions are motivated by what happens to him. After their introductory ruckus, he matter of factly tells Melaka that he pushed her through a wall because she hurt him and he got angry. Whedon writes some priceless banter between Urkonn and Fray throughout the books eight issues. Issue two deals mainly with Urkonn trying in vain to persuade Melaka of her true calling and that the ones she calls lurks are more dangerous than she knows.

Still a little sceptically, Maleka learns from Urkonn the legend of the slayer. Issue three of Fray was an interesting one for fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Published in August 2001 when Buffy was in between its fifth and sixth seasons, so when Buffy in the storylines was technically dead, Whedon dropped a few hints as to what the eventual end to Buffy may be. During a history lesson which included the first slayer, Urkonn tells Fray that demons and magic were banished from “this earthly dimension” by an unnamed slayer, whose fate remains a mystery. Although this didn’t really match up with the way in which Buffy saw out season seven (and then there was the comic books continuation), it was tantalising tease dropped into Fray, and one which cemented the book into the Buffy universe.

All the while Whedon was drip feeding us Maleka Fray’s history. Issue three revealed that she had a brother, as well as some more of the black and white flashbacks to a younger Fray and the incident that Erin refers to in the debut issue, the one which affronted Mel so much. In turns out that Maleka is different from every other slayer to be called. Her brother was her twin. Harth fell victim to a vampire attack when Mel took him out on a grab, though she had no idea at the time just what the creature that attacked them was.

The vampires in Fray can’t really be said to be Whedon’s best. Without wanting to give anything away about the obligatory big bad for anyone reading this who may want to subsequently check the book out, the only real stand out vamp is Icarus, the one who attacked Mel and Harth and now serves a higher power. Icarus is a tough son of a bitch. With scalp tattoos and a neat, pointy goatee, Icarus is a pretty unique vampire for Whedon. He doesn’t have the eternal good looks of Angel or Spike and although Whedon gives us little of his history, we know he’s not to be trifled with. It’s a shame in the end that Icarus goes out with a bit of whimper.

In the spirit of keeping this piece at least a bit spoiler free, I shall refrain from spelling out the plot for the second half of Fray’s run. Whedon kept the pace fast and the pressure on his new heroine until the very end of what was essentially the characters season one. Melaka’s journey from grabber to fully fledged vampire slayer is not a pretty one and takes in it’s victims of both sides of good and evil. Along the way Fray is reconciled, betrayed and avenged leading to the full creation of a unique addition to Whedon’s slayer roster.

Joss Whedon paid a great attention to detail when creating the world of Fray. His script included new vernacular for money (sil), bullshit (toy), vampires (lurks) and Police (laws). He furnished it with its own distinct feel but with the snappy character exchanges we knew and loved from his TV shows. The overall story arc being crammed into eight issues also gave Fray a pace that the average season of Buffy lacked. Let’s face it, there were some weeks on Buffy when nothing contributed to the season storyline.

That said, it became clear during Fray’s last two issues that Whedon’s mind was elsewhere. After a slightly delayed issue six, Fray fans had to wait thirteen months for the next instalment. By the time the finale hit comic shops in August 2003, Buffy on TV was done and dusted. It’s clear that with steering Buffy’s final season to shore, Whedon didn’t have as much time to devote to Fray. The trademark wit was still there in the final couple of issues but the story came to a rather hurried and flat conclusion. It wasn’t quite the spectacular send off that fans of the book had hoped for.

Whedon shouldn’t gain all the credit for what made most of Fray such a captivating book. Artist Karl Moline’s work painted a vivid future scape with characters that had razor sharp features. His single page images were often memorable, the one which opens the final issue showing Fray curled somewhere in a fetal position, symbolizing her birth as a real slayer, was fantastic. He also expertly conveyed all the action beats in the book too from the one on one fisticuffs to the scale of the final battle. This, combined with Andy Owens inking, made reading Fray a joy for the eyes.

Joss Whedon has long claimed that Fray isn’t done. Subsequently the character has appeared in the Tales of the Slayers book and in an arc for the Buffy the Vampire Slayer season nine comic. That one saw her meet and take on Buffy Summers herself. Given the current workload that Whedon must now find himself with, it’s difficult to envisage that another solo Fray run will see the light of day anytime soon.

It’d be a shame if the character were never to return. Melaka Fray is one of Joss’ finest character creations and the future setting gives any new stories featuring her, a great deal of possibilities. There probably aren’t as many folk clamouring for Fray 2 as there are Avengers 2 but we’re here. Based on this book, it’ll be worth the wait.

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