‘Buffy’ goes back to ‘The High School Years’ to hook young readers (Comic book reviews)

 

After making my list of the top “Buffy” 20 episodes for the 20th anniversary, I had a hankering to go back to the time when 12 of those episodes take place: The high school years of Seasons 1-3. Luckily, Dark Horse launched “Buffy: The High School Years” with two comics last year, and with more forthcoming. Both Faith Erin Hicks’ “Freaks & Geeks” (no relation to the TV show of that name) and Kel McDonald’s “Glutton for Punishment” are set during Season 1, so we’re talking about stories with a depth on par with “Witch” or “I Robot, You Jane” – although even a bit shallower than that.

Through the years, the “Buffy” franchise hasn’t gone out of its way to attract new fans; it just lets people find the episodes. So I believe this is the first “Buffy” project not aimed at established fans of the show. The target audience seems to be the youngest possible “Buffy” fans, who would enjoy the most basic elements of the most basic Monster of the Week episodes in the first season, and need to be eased into the deeper stuff. These 78-page comics – smaller in height and width than a standard comic but bigger than a digest – don’t reinvent “Buffy” as a kiddie title, but they do stick with the simplest high school themes and don’t venture a mere step beyond them.

Buffy, Xander, Willow and Giles are in character, and suitably quippy – but refreshingly NOT to the five-quips-and-references-per-panel extremes of the main series, which is now in Season 11. The authors struggle to find themes not already explored; in both issues, Buffy deals with being tired in class after a night of slaying. While the problem of teens being forced to attend school when it’d be healthier if they slept longer is worth illuminating, it’s not dramatically fascinating.

“Freaks’ ” villains are a quartet of recently-turned-but-still-nerdy vampires (like a mix between the vampire wannabes in “Lie to Me” and Season 6’s Trio) who decide they’ll get coolness points if they kill the Slayer. “Glutton” features a shifty substitute teacher (see also “Teacher’s Pet”) who turns into a giant tiger and forces the best students in the home economics class to cook for him. Naturally, Xander cheats by bringing in store-bought pastries and ends up a captive.

I would’ve preferred more TV-real likenesses, but Yishan Li’s Manga-lite stylings are cute. The fashions are appropriately Season 1-ish, and “The High School Years” avoids two pitfalls that sometimes befell other “Buffy” comics through the years. First, the references (what there are, anyway) are time-appropriate. The only one that feels off is when one of the new vamps says she ordered a book of spells off eBay; the online auction company didn’t get its name until later in 1997, but at least it’s close. Second, Dawn is not in the series, as she shouldn’t be, since she doesn’t exist yet.

Even though it spends a lot of time on things that should be boring – such as Willow and Buffy trying to bake cookies – “The High School Years” is easy to like and easy to breeze through thanks to the authors’ sense of how the Scoobies talk. For example, Xander quips that the home ec teacher has gone missing because “the Hellmouth didn’t like her cooking,” and the gang gradually realizes Xander’s joke is a likely theory of what happened. With all of the flavor but little of the nutrition of Season 1, these comics make me want to re-read the earliest comics and novels, which – if memory serves – are meatier than this. On the other hand, there’s nothing un-“Buffy” about these books, which is refreshing in this day and age when so much stuff is unnecessarily reinvented.

Click here for an index of all of John’s “Buffy” and “Angel” reviews.

comments

I’m a fan of your ‘Star Wars’ book reviews and was pleasantly surprised to see you did ‘Buffy’ comics to. I hope you don’t mind a comment on an older post!

I had wondered about these titles so thank you for providing info on them. I do wonder if there is all that much room in Season One though to squeeze in new stories – I always assumed that Buffy transferred into Sunnydale half way through the academic year in early 1997.

# Posted By Ross Nolan | 8/20/17 7:10 PM
John Hansen's GravatarThanks for reading! Off the top of my head, I think Buffy attends Sunnydale for her entire sophomore year, even though the TV season ran from March to May. But now you have me wondering. I think there is room for more stories in Season 1. If memory serves, Dark Horse’s original run of Buffy comics, which bridged the turn of the century, focused more on Season 3 and beyond. Same with the books. So in that sense, Season 1 might be the best time for more stories. I think I’m going to do a re-read of those old comics and books soon.
# Posted By John Hansen | 8/20/17 8:12 PM

Ross Nolan's GravatarThanks for the quick reply! 🙂

I think the Season One timeline gets a bit wobbly, especially in retrospect. Joyce calls Buffy a 16 year old girl in ‘The Harvest’, Buffy turns 17 in ‘Surprise’ in January 1998 and her headstone in ‘The Gift’ gives her birth year as 1981, so based on that the earliest Season One can really start is late January 1997, immediately after Buffy’s birthday. ‘Halloween’ in Season Two also seems to imply this is the first Halloween Buffy has spent with Xander and Willow so even if we waive the birthday thing it seems unlikely she was at Sunnydale before November.

Buffy also says she’s been “been slaying vampires for over a year” in ‘The Witch’ which also suggest a 1997 date for Season One… although just to confuse things further the same episode has a ‘Cheerleader Tryouts 1996’ banner.

# Posted By Ross Nolan | 8/26/17 9:48 PM
John Hansen's GravatarGood point about the “firsts” in Season 2, such as her first Sunnydale Halloween. So it sounds like a preponderance of the evidence has Season 1’s episodes taking place in more or less real time, from March to May 1997. The cheerleader banner seems to be an outlier. We could chalk that up to the school using the old banner due to budget cuts, perhaps. It’s interesting to note that Buffy missed half of a school year. Considering that she was kicked out of Hemery after a dance in her freshman year (as per the canonical “The Origin,” which reworks the movie script), and that she’s then a sophomore in March 1997, it seems like she’d have to take summer school in 1997, but she doesn’t. It also raises the question of why she wasn’t in school in the Fall of 1996, or at least home-schooled or doing schoolwork at home. I suppose it’s possible she was keeping up with coursework at home, and it’s simply never mentioned. That would explain how she is a full-fledged sophomore.
# Posted By John Hansen | 8/27/17 6:03 PM

Ross Nolan's GravatarWe do know Buffy spent a couple of weeks in a mental hospital before reaching Sunnydale (per ‘Normal Again’) so she might not have been in a fit emotional/mental state for a school interview (or at least Joyce and Hank thought so.) Also didn’t she run off with Pike for a while or is that non-canon? At least that would eat up some time!

Maybe Buffy spent Autumn (or Fall to you Americans 🙂 ) with Joyce and Hank trying and failing to get her back into Hemry, then shopping around for schools that will accept the girl who burned down a gym full of ‘asbestos’, then finally getting into Sunnydale High. That still leaves a bit of a gap I admit, though I like your idea of her being homeschooled for a while.

# Posted By Ross Nolan | 8/29/17 11:57 AM
John Hansen's GravatarWhat you say makes sense. Good point about “Normal Again.” Yes, her time with Pike in Las Vegas is as canon as anything else, as far as I’m concerned. I remember there was a “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” book set post-Season-1, and if I recall, Buffy was NOT taking summer school in that book, so that suggests she took some schooling, somehow, in the Fall of 1996. But it wouldn’t necessarily have to be IN a school, nor over the time period of a school semester. The timeline will all come back to me once I start re-reading the comics and books. I figure unless something is directly contradicted by the TV show or the Season-8-and-beyond comics, it can be canon.
# Posted By John Hansen | 8/29/17 2:24 PM