So it's late, but here we are, and recent developments in Season 9 might have motivated some readers to look back at this arc and study it for further significance. I don't have a conception-related conclusion, but I'm excited to show you what I found, and I hope you enjoy it.
Essentially, there are a lot of similarities between the "Twilight" arc and a single issue of Sandman, a surrealist/horror comic from the 80's and 90's by Neil Gaiman.
Those are the first two pages, just to establish setting for the Sandman story. It doesn't have much in common with Buffy at this point, but you might note that the central event for the two main characters in both is discussed by others in the world who were affected by it, as shall be seen:
Now let me jump to the story being told in the desert (the comic has an alternating narration, of course, but I'm trimming out a lot of it).
This is one of the pages I couldn't get to scan clearly. The text in the first panel reads, "And in that city there ruled a queen. She was called Nada." The text in the third panel reads, "And she ruled wisely, and she ruled well, and when she said, do this, then it was done."
So here we have Buffy. During Season 8 she isn't being pressured by anyone to take a husband, but aside from that, the profile fits. She's the queen of her Slayers, and her leadership is never questioned because the truth is there is no one better for the role. She's alone, yes: it's an inevitable consequence of being without equal.
And then, enter the equal. This page interests me doubly because I can see it applying to two instances in Buffy's life, and both are encounters with Angel. Like Nada's stranger, Angel first appears as a dark, silent figure of mystery, and it's implied through later character development that he enjoys and cultivates that part of his identity. ("Tall Pale and Interestin'" is a nice chuckle-worthy label that comes up in Sandman and applies to both of these broody boys.) Buffy instantly wants to find out who he is; Angel won't allow it. There's even a brazen employment of the idea of "love at first sight", so ridiculed by critics even when it appears in a fantasy setting. Nada and her beau have a leg up here: their story is ancient and lyrical, and we don't go into it expecting less than magic. Buffy and Angel are two actors on a budgeted set, and nobody will ever say that his eyes are stars in pools of deep water.
But all that is in the past, anyway. We're talking about Season 8. Reread that last page, and this time, think of the stranger as an enemy. He's trespassing in a sacred city. His very presence is a threat. He knows who Nada/Buffy is; she doesn't know who he is. He steals her heart - taken literally, really gross. In short, he's Twilight.
Of course, this being Nada/Buffy, she takes matters into her own hands. She tries to find the stranger, using all of the resources of her kingdom. It's fruitless at first, but then:
The text in the second panel reads "So, this is no man, no god, but something else. Forget him, Nada. Find a breathing man, made of blood and bone and flesh and skin. This other can never be yours."
Ouch. Putting aside how accurately that describes Angel as a vampire, a lot just happened here. On one hand, Nada just found out that she and her stranger can never be together. On the other, she just found out that he was kind to a little bird. We don't see her reaction to that, but personally, now I love him a hundred times more, don't you?
It's the little bird that helps her reach her destination, by giving her a fire-berry that's said to take one to the side of one's true love. She falls asleep and her spirit goes walking through the dreamworld.
The text in the first panel below reads, "She walked up to the house, and went in to it. The guardians let her pass, because they could feel the flaming berry inside her."
So the stranger gains a name and a frightening identity, just like Twilight, and, wow. There's a literal unmasking in both comics. I had actually forgotten that.
Nada gets away from the dreamworld by coughing up the fire-berry and awakening, but the Dreamlord follows her and asks, "Why did you hunt me? Why do you flee me?"
It took me a while to choose a panel/page from Season 8 for this one, because the more I looked for a direct parallel, the more I felt like it was the entirety of Issue #33. Take a look at this:
Buffy has searched unsuccessfully for Angel; more recently, she hunted Twilight. Unexpectedly finding both in the same man, she begins by fighting him, but it quickly becomes clear that she isn't doing him any harm and the fight is pointless except as a way to console herself. She is fleeing him, or rather, fleeing the truth of her feelings for him and the disaster that they promise, just as Nada did. Both Angel and Kai'ckul keep pushing the angle that their love - their destiny - is the most important thing. Buffy/Nada has done something extraordinary and pure, and by that very act unwittingly proven herself worthy of a godlike being who wants her power joined to his.
No more dying does sound like quite an offer - and all she has to do is say yes to the man she loves and bask in their happiness forever. In a way, it's no wonder he can't understand why she's resisting. She has a human perspective that he lacks, but he's also offering to elevate her beyond humanity so that perspective would no longer trouble her. Why would she want to be human? Who could answer that, besides a human?
Nada flees again, even attempting to take her own virginity so Kai'ckul won't want her, but he continues to pursue in a page I'll leave out because the panel of Nada standing with a bloody rock in her hand frankly disturbs me. He catches up to her...
The text in the first panel reads, "You know I am now no virgin?" "...She said, expecting him to leave her be."
...Hey, we needed this to lighten up a little. Come on, you laughed.
Anyway, the sex between our two sets of lovers is a really big deal, and not in an altogether good way.
Nada knows who's to blame. Buffy knows, too:
This is around the place where the differences between the two comics become more interesting than the similarities. Although the women both use the words "what we did" to describe the cause of the destruction, it's not quite that direct. Nature itself is rising up in a reaction to the union. But the sun razes Nada's city in retaliation for "something that was not meant to be" happening. In Season 8, we've been told repeatedly that the end of the world, and Buffy and Angel's ascension, is meant to be. They're acting in accordance with a greater plan, while Nada and Kai'ckul are in opposition to one.
And yet, it's Kai'ckul that won't back down from the relationship and its consequences, and Angel who yields to Buffy and follows her out of their paradise. The love itself is not the issue for the woman of either couple; she doesn't even feel ashamed of her feelings for her man, only mindful of the duty that transcends them. She's a leader, and she can't even begin to put her own desires first.
The text reads, "Then she released his hand, and before he knew what she was about, Nada threw herself off the mountaintop, and her body was dashed to death on the rocks below."
Buffy's trial doesn't end when she abandons Twilight, and Nada's trial doesn't end with her suicide. The Dreamlord ignores her guilt and grief and turns his courtship into a severe threat.
In contrast, Buffy is left to focus on her own battle, but she also doesn't seem to be dealing with any guilt or grief until Giles is killed and she destroys the Seed. Is this her personal defenses at work, putting emotions aside until she can examine them, or does it show that she truly didn't think that she and Angel could have prevented Twilight's attack on their world? Whose agency is stronger – Nada's, for breaking the natural law by making love to the wrong man, or Buffy's, for breaking the natural law by letting go of the right one? Could either of them have done any differently, either before the relationship reached the point of intercourse or after the consequences became apparent?
If it's not clear already, I want to say that I'm not comparing these two series to discredit or mock Season 8 and the Twilight plot. I'm not defending it, either; issues #33-35 had some of the worst dialogue and characterization in the Whedonverse, and the mythology surrounding it was a mess. But I actually felt more inclined to enjoy it after I found these parallels to Sandman, and that made me want to share and try to explain.
Many consumers of speculative fiction seek novelty in all stories: give us something we haven't seen before. I say, no, give me something old and enduring, and make me see it in a new way. When Season 8 was coming out, it was very, very difficult for me to see Buffy having sex in space with Angel and interpret it as anything but. It still is, but now I have a frame of reference. This isn't just about a character; it's about choosing to be human and understanding the sacrifices that come with it.
The very end of “Tales in the Sand” is possibly my favorite page in comics.
...I hope you didn't think that I meant it would have any answers to complete the connection to Buffy. If anything, this is a motherload of more questions, but that's very much the point. I can almost see the author grinning over this page as he must have twenty-three years ago (“I'm So Meta, Even This Acronym”). I can't read it without thinking, “But I'm a woman! I'm entitled to hear the other version of the story!” Then I remember that Neil Gaiman is a man, so he couldn't have included it if he wanted to. And once your train of thought gets there, you have to wrestle it back down to come to grips with the fact that these are fictional characters and there is no woman's story.
Or is there? That's another major theme of Season 8 and “Tales in the Sand” that hasn't had a lot of attention: the question “Whose story is it?” At first glance it seems obvious that the protagonist is Buffy or Nada, because we see it through her eyes, but that leaves out a lot of context. Angel has starred in his own series for years, and Kai'ckul is the title character in a very long and epic run of comics – from the perspective of the males' own titles, Buffy and Nada are nothing more than ex-girlfriends. It almost appears that the women have transcended their own status as secondary characters to take control of the narration away from the demigods.
All of this is right and beautiful as it applies to Sandman, which is, before anything else, a story about stories. That's why it's a masterpiece and why it's so dearly loved by people who care about fiction. I don't universally recommend it, and if I've sparked your interest feel free to ask me why, but if I want to celebrate human imagination, this is my guidebook.
Buffy doesn't offer the same thing, but she's part of the celebration. Nothing she does is ever that simple. Nothing she does can be explained that easily. Put her in a room with another character just as complex, and the story begins. Put her in a complex universe, and, well, the universe explodes.
Whose story is it?