A boomerang character is one you keep returning to as: new stories arise, new incarnations are presented, or you revisit their previous adventures as comfort food. These characters are iconic, if not to the general public, then to you. They resonate. In this installment: Buffy Summers.
Buffy Anne Summers never wanted to be the chosen one. She just wanted to live her valley life as the big fish in a very small pond. Then, somewhere in the world, a vampire slayer died. As had been the case since time pre-historic, when one slayer dies another is called. Turned out that Buffy let the call go to voice-mail. How typical.
That breezy way of getting through life proved to be what made Buffy special, not just in the slayerverse but in the hearts of viewers.
Willow: There’s a Slayer handbook?
Buffy: Wait. Handbook? What handbook? How come I don’t have a handbook?
Willow: Is there a T-shirt, too? ‘Cause that would be cool…
Giles: After meeting you, Buffy, I realized that, uh, the handbook would be of no use in your case.
Buffy: Well, what do you mean it would be of no use in my case? Wha- what’s wrong with my case?
Buffy: I don’t take orders. I do things my way.
Kendra: No wonder you died.
— Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “What’s My Line? (Part 2)”
You see, Buffy wasn’t just “a” slayer, but “the” slayer. She defied death (twice). And, as her tombstone said, “She saved the world…A lot.”
It’s that sort of sticktoitiveness that creates a character the demands that attention be paid. Like the other icon heroes of lore, Buffy both embodies what it is to be just an ordinary schmo muddling their way through life, and a person who has the very best of what we’d like to think of as “character”. No matter how much her life is “the suck”, she still does what she knows to be right. She might die. Often she will not only remain anonymous but likely be spat upon for her effort. Yet she always does the right thing because the alternative is not acceptable.
But, sometimes the people around her showed character of their own:
We’re not good friends. Most of us never found the time to get to know you, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t noticed you.
We don’t talk about it much, but it’s no secret that Sunnydale High isn’t really like other high schools. A lot of weird stuff happens here. But whenever there was a problem or something creepy happened, you seemed to show up and stop it. Most of the people here have been saved by you, or helped by you, at one time or another. We’re proud to say that the class of ’99 has the lowest mortality rate of any graduating class in Sunnydale history, and we know at least part of that is because of you.
So the senior class offers its thanks and gives you, uh, this. It’s from all of us, and it has written here, “Buffy Summers, Class Protector”.
— Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “The Prom”
Though born from the mind of Joss Whedon, the image of Buffy that most people carry with them is that of Sarah Michelle Gellar. She took a role from a B-movie remembered more for its title than its content and made Joss’ vision something extraordinary. From this collaboration emerged a Buffy at odds with the destiny she never wanted but never failed to fulfill:
Buffy: Open your eyes, Mom. What to you think has been going on for the past two years? The fights, the weird occurrences…? How many times have you washed blood out of my clothing, and you still haven’t figured it out?
Joyce: Well, it stops now!
Buffy: No, it doesn’t stop! It never stops! Do you think I chose to be like this? Do you have any idea how lonely it is? How dangerous? I would love to be upstairs, watching TV; or gossiping about boys; or, God, even studying. But I have to save the world…again.
— Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Becoming (Part 2)”
Still…through the pain, dying twice, gaining a sister that had once been a mystical ball of light, and so much more…Buffy eventually learned that in order to be complete people, we have to accept what life has handed us and move on from there.
Buffy: But you’re right. I mean, I… I guess everyone’s alone. But being a slayer? There’s a burden we can’t share.
Faith: And no one else can feel it. (beat) Thank God we’re hot chicks with superpowers.
Buffy: Takes the edge off.
— Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Chosen”
Of course, Buffy ensures that the burden she and Faith have carried is shared. And now Buffy transcends media, becoming not just a television character, but a comic book heroine. Joss Whedon continued the saga of Buffy in a new comic book series: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight. Again, the fans have flocked because this is a character who will not be denied. Sure, she’s a hot chick with superpowers, but she’s also us. She’s a caryatid, struggling mightily to bear the weight of her burdens.
What the comic does, though, is evolve Buffy from being an aspect of Sarah Michelle Gellar to becoming realized separately from what the actor brought to the role. And yet, she’s still very much Buffy Summers. Whether on film, tape, bits, or colored panels on a page, this vampire slayer has become a cultural icon. When once the name “Buffy” brought forth images of a bubble-headed dilettante, now it conjures up a blonde woman with a stake in her hand fighting to save the world (again). And just as reliably as she saves the world, we return again and again to witness how she manages to do it. If that isn’t the essence of a boomerang character, then I don’t know what is.