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The rebooted Buffy comic is trying to redeem Xander

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How a Problematic Fave became a Big Bad

xander as a vampire in Buffy the Vampire Slayer #16 Image: Boom Studios

The history of Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics stretches back nearly as far as the TV show itself, and last year, the property reached a fundamental comic book milestone: Like the Avengers, Justice League, and Sonic before it, Buffy got a reboot.

After switching publishers from Dark Horse to Boom Studios, the current Buffy the Vampire Slayer series — written by Jordie Bellaire, with a rotating guest cast of artists — dragged Sunnydale into the age of smartphones and social media. But the era isn’t the only thing that’s changed: Over the course of 16 issues, plus a handful of spin-offs and its first big crossover, this new Buffy has reworked and reimagined many familiar elements from the show, from Willow’s sexuality to Buffy’s relationship with Angel.

But the comic’s biggest change comes in the form of Alexander Lavelle Harris, otherwise known as Xander. Bellaire and team have tackled the character’s toxicity head-on, exploring the darker aspects of the character and, in the latest issues, revealed him as the series’ newest Big Bad.

Rising from the dead

Xander’s narration box in Buffy the Vampire Slayer #1
Xander’s narration
Image: Boom Studios

In a way, much of the new Buffy the Vampire Slayer book has been Xander’s story. He gets the very first word of the series, thanks to a neat little narrative switcheroo in issue #1. Caption boxes that seem to be providing Buffy’s inner monologue take on a very different meaning when, at the end of the issue, they’re revealed as online posts being written by Xander.

Since then, he’s the character who has undergone the most change. Including at least one death — but when does that ever need to be the end of someone’s story in Buffy?

The first arc pulled Xander tragically into the orbit of Drusilla and Spike, who wanted him to join their massage circle of sun-averse goths. The second focused on the Scoobies’ attempts to literally save his soul, with Willow giving up half of her own to turn Xander into a half-vampire daywalker. “Hellmouth”, the aforementioned crossover event, climaxed with Xander losing that soul and seemingly dying.

Xander’s sacrifice
A sacrifice
Image: Boom Studios

The most recent arc, “Ring of Fire”, has gradually hinted at his return, and in the recent issue #16, Xander pulled an Angelus, taunting the Scooby Gang and likely killing Jenny Calendar, mirroring one of the show’s most infamous moments.

As with a lot of the comic’s changes, there’s an element of remix here. It takes the role Angel played in the show’s second season, combines it with the fate of Xander’s friend Jesse in the very first episode, and applies that to Xander instead. But vitally, it’s not just change for the sake of change.

Two decades after those stories were originally told, Xander’s arc in these comics reads like an attempt to wrestle with the character’s past.

The complicated legacy of Xander Harris

When Buffy first aired, around the turn of the millennium, it was held up as a feminist triumph for genre TV. It’s still a great watch today, even if those claims don’t entirely hold up. A lot of the moments that don’t sit right involve Xander Harris.

For all of Joss Whedon’s “strong female character” schtick, Buffy’s feminist critiques were always most on-point when they were examining masculinity. From heroes to villains, the show examined a lot of modes of masculinity, interrogating the toxicity of not only manly men but the types of guys who’d be more likely to position themselves as losers. It’s why the Trio, a team of nerds who decide to become supervillains, their crimes quickly escalating from wacky heists to the murders of two women, are the best Big Bad the show ever had. Jonathan, Andrew and Warren demonstrated just how dangerous the archetype Buffy had invented with Xander — the kind of guy who’d self-deprecatingly describe himself as a “beta” — could actually be. But when it came to the man himself, the show always had something of a blind spot.

xander being an asshole
Kind of a dick
Image: Boom Studios

As a fellow Alex, and the character I used to run around the playground as, Xander means a lot to me. And he can be great, especially in the hands of writers like Jane Espenson (who wrote the definitive verdict on adult Xander, “The Replacement”). But there are a lot of caveats you have to acknowledge: The entitlement to Buffy’s (unrequited) love he constantly expresses in the early seasons; the obsession with proving he’s an equal to his female friends and partners, who are literally witches and demons and preordained demon-hunting superheroes; and most of all, his treatment and judgement of those women, especially when it comes to the topic of sex.

Xander is pretty much the definition of a Problematic Fave. And that’s fine — culture doesn’t need to be perfect for us to love it, we just need to acknowledge those flaws. As an adaptation and reimagining of this imperfect source material, the comics reboot seems determined to do exactly that.

Can Xander be saved?

There’s a lot of affection in how Bellaire writes Xander. She quickly nails his voice, dialling up the Whedonese – verbed nouns, pop-cultural references, mangled syntax – further than any other character. And his arc has a lot of touching moments, especially in his friendship with Willow. When he sacrifices himself for her, it’s not to prove anything to her or himself. He does it simply because it’s the right thing to do.

The voice of the Xander who narrates the first issue, though, feels like Bellaire extrapolating from the character’s more troubling aspects to see where he’d fit today. It’s never clear where on the internet he’s posting these thoughts, but you can probably take a good guess. When he says things like “Girls don’t even have to try to be likable” or, while watching his friend kiss her girlfriend, “I get this sense that I’m not good enough”, it’s hard not to think of boys radicalized by the darker corners of the web, of “nice guys” and “friendzones” and the poisoned word “incel.”

xander on the attack
Xander goes full Big Bad
Image: Boom Studios

The story never demonises Xander (at least, not until he’s a literal demon). It makes it pretty clear that he is genuinely lonely, and it’s easy to feel for him, but he seems to place the blame for that loneliness in the wrong place: on his friends for not understanding and for getting on with their own lives, rather than because he’s keeping his feelings inside. It’s a reminder that toxic masculinity hurts everyone, including men.

Later, when Xander is trapped between human and vampire form, his squishy-browed self shows this “dark side” to Buffy and Willow for the first time. And, honestly, it’s pretty banal – comments about lusting after his friends and fantasies of threesomes. The kind of thing he would have joked about on TV, with a dark edge exposed.

This version of Xander is at his kindest when sharing a soul with Willow. He’s suddenly able to express his emotions, be grateful for his friends and supportive of Willow and even Buffy’s romantic ventures. When Sunnydale’s men go all sweaty and veiny in “Hellmouth,” under the influence of a spell that brings out all that deep-ingrained patriarchal ugliness, Xander is the last one to succumb. It’s the love of his friends, as ever, which saves him.

Whether that’s still the case now that the character has gone full Big Bad, and he can be brought back from actual outright villainy, remains to be seen. But if anyone can redeem the character, Jordie Bellaire has demonstrated that it’s probably her.