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.