So here enters Jacob "Jay" the misanthropic teenager who gets beat up during lunch and spends all his free time alone in an arcade. Enter metaphor for disconnection to real society through escapist technological entertainment. Jay is a loner with a capital "L" who just wants to feel something, anything. So how does he get his thrills? He offers himself up as food for the local vamps of Nowheresville, New Hampshire. How could this plan ever go wrong?
The one shining light in his life is his friend Alex, who he slowly starts to realize he likes more than a friend after a sexy dream where...she bites him. Is he sensing a darkness inside her specifically or just associating his thrills of being bitten with the sexual thrill of attraction? Sex and death becoming interchanged. He asks out Alex for a date the next day - things are finally starting to look up. Maybe he'll have a life. Maybe he'll find connection.
Maybe not. Finally starting to feel a connection to life, a connection to Alex, he turns down the vamps who expect to get a little bitey action from him. He doesn't need the thrill, not tonight. The problem with his plan - you don't say no to a bunch of hungry vamps during a blizzard where you're their only food source. They beat him to within an inch of his life and as that life is slipping away...
May, the new girl in town, appears in the nick of time and turns him into a vampire. It would have been a "waste" to let him die. And in this transformation, Jay finally feels the thrill because he is "the thrill" In his own words "Ahhh! I'm alive!" He's finally alive through being undead. His unlife is remarkably similar to his life - he hangs at the arcade, he still lives with his mom though he's moved to the basement, all with the added bonus of the thrill of bloodlust. The rush from drinking down life. Oh, and the scary nonchalance as he contemplates killing his mom so that he can have the house all to himself.
He continues his routine of unlife, going to the arcade to mindlessly pass the time only to meet up with a frantically upset Alex. He's been missing for days with no word, not to mention he forgot about their date. May comes onto the scene to amp up the threesome's tension, revealing that she and now Jay are vampires. Alex freaks and then Alex slays. May is dead and Jay is pissed, attacking Alex for being a "slayer" when May had never hurt anyone (as long as you don't count turning Jay into a soulless monster, that is, and feeding off the living like a rotten parasite). Enraged, Jay attacks Alex, drinking her down to the point of death only to realize he doesn't want her to be truly gone and turns her. He wants her to "come with [him]. Live with [him] forever."
His life has finally begun through being undead. The thrill of vampirism has filled the vacuum of his empty existence. He felt nothing while he was alive whilst having a soul, now he feels nothing without a soul, nothing but the thrill of power, of thirst and the (sexual) satiation from feeding. It's a disturbing look at the consequences of a detached life in this modern era, where you can become so numb, so disconnected that you'd actively desire to become a monster just to feel anything. Harkens back to Buffy in Season 6, who just wanted to get "the fire back" and sought it destructively with Spike, and Angel in AtS Season 2 who just "wan[ted] to feel something besides the cold". The villain of the piece isn't May, Sebastien or even Jay. Though I want to hate him for taking Alex's life.
The villain is disconnection. And it's the same villain that's been chomping at Buffy's heels all season.
"Connection. Why can't I feel it?" - Buffy A Beautiful Sunset
So this issue won't be going down as my favorite, but I still enjoyed it immensely. It didn't have the exciting thrill (heh, imagine that? theme!) of pacing that normally comes with a BUFFY comic and of course we're reading about original characters so it lacks the familiarity of the other issues. That feeling of sliding into your comfort zone when you see Buffy quipping with Xander just isn't here. I suspect another reason this issue is going to be found lackluster is directly related to the tone and POV of the piece (both of which are thematically vital to the story) - Jacob is disconnected, emo, out of touch and depressing. And there is no clear person to root for here because we're looking at the world through his eyes, his warped and disconnected POV. And we don't like the way he sees the world. It's supposed to disturb you, make you uncomfortable and unclean. It makes you feel run down and a bit lost.
Artwise, I really enjoyed the dream panels. If you're going to do nudity in a comic, do it like that please (looks at Dez in Aftermath judgingly). Here it's evocative, sexy and shows insight into the character. It's as much a part of the character as it is a part of the greater metaphor of the story.
This issue finally (about time!) depicted the world's reaction to vampires going public in Season 8 in more specific detail and illustrated the struggle between vampires and slayers over humanity. What's the deciding factor in this battle? Connection.
I enjoyed Living Doll more (how could I not with my beloved characters to latch onto and the snappy dialogue by Petrie?) but thematically? Tales > Living Doll. Frankly, I haven't enjoyed the message of an issue so much since Harmonic Divergence.
As I reread the issue a second time, I connected more to Jacob and his predicament. I do wonder if it might be difficult for some readers who've never experienced this debilitating ennui. I imagine many won't have sympathy for him. But all I can say is read BtVS' Tales of the Vampires like you're capable of being that disconnected, emo teenager who gets lost to the world. And see how tragically wrong it can all go.
I enjoyed this issue a lot. And even more importantly, I keep enjoying it the more I think about it and peel back the layers.
Note: I'm also running the usual Q&A with Dark Horse editor Scott Allie here if anyone would like to participate.