Buffy: The High School Years—Freaks & Geeks

Dark Horse has been consistently publishing Buffy The Vampire Slayer comics since the early days of the TV series, and once the show went off the air, the publisher took on the responsibility of keeping the Buffy mythos alive. The ongoing Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season Ten comic is a book for diehard fans, and like the TV series, it continues to change as the characters grow up. But with the 20th anniversary of the TV show coming next year, the Buffy franchise is getting ready to ride the nostalgia wave, which means a return to the classic version of Buffy in the comics.

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Buffy: The High School Years—Freaks & Geeks (Dark Horse) is the first volume in a new YA graphic novel series telling lost tales from Buffy’s time at Sunnydale High, beginning with a story focusing on her budding friendships with Xander Harris and Willow Rosenberg in season one. Cartoonist Faith Erin Hicks has done fantastic work exploring teenage emotions in fantastic settings with her creator-owned work on The Adventures Of Superhero Girl and The Nameless City, and that talent makes her a great choice to write about Buffy’s adolescent troubles. Hicks has a firm handle on the Whedonspeak of the TV series but doesn’t go overboard with stylizing the dialogue, and she understands that the success of a Buffy monster depends on the strength of the metaphor underneath it.

Freaks & Geeks explores class differences inside the high school community via Buffy’s showdown with a new vampire desperate to be considered cool. This vampire doesn’t have the physical prowess to take down the slayer, but she’s a teenage girl who knows just the right emotional buttons to push to weaken her opponent, preoccupying Buffy’s mind with worries that her new friendships aren’t as strong as they appear. Buffy’s status as a former popular girl plays a big part in the conflict of Hick’s story, and she’s trying to figure out where her place is in school and her circle of friends now that she’s had to start a new life weighed down by slayer obligations.

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Yishan Li’s manga-influenced artwork brings a youthful energy to Hicks’ script, and she does strong work capturing likenesses in her more animated interpretations of the character. The art looks a lot like Buffy The Vampire Slayer by way of The Legend Of Korra, and it’s an aesthetic that lends itself to big character expressions and sharp action sequences. Colorist Rod Espinosa (with assists from Tony Galvan) uses his palettes to differentiate between the various aspects of Buffy’s life, incorporating a variety of intense colors for the more fantastic elements of the story while keeping his palette lighter and more relaxed for the grounded scenes involving Buffy dealing with her personal issues at home and school.

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Like those first episodes of the TV show, this graphic novel is a clever, if unsubtle, take on themes of adolescent alienation and identity formation, standing alone as its own engaging piece of YA fiction. Teen readers don’t need to have seen Buffy The Vampire Slayer to get pulled into her adventure, and it’s very possible that this new series will spawn some new Buffy fans. [Oliver Sava]


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With the arrival of Civil War II, Carol Danvers is serving a more prominent role in the Marvel continuity than ever before, and without the steady hand of the writer that made her most famous. When Kelly Sue DeConnick left the series, her shoes were filled by Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters, showrunners for the recently canceled Agent Carter show. In Captain Marvel #5 (Marvel), we find Carol and Alpha Flight, Canada’s premiere superheroes and crew of the Alpha Space Station, right in the middle of a battle with an alien spacecraft. The book cold opens with the characters trading fire with an unseen enemy—definitely not an easy starting point for someone picking up the issue in anticipation of the next one, which is advertised as the start of Carol’s involvement in Civil War II.

Series artist Kris Anka is joined for #5 by Felipe Smith, whom he worked with on All-New Ghost Rider, which Smith also wrote. They’re a great team—both strong artists in their own right—and the issue is absolutely stunning. Colorist Matt Wilson is one of the best in the business, making Anka and Smith’s art pop off the page with saturated reds and neon yellow-greens. Anka is a master at character and costume design, so while the visuals of the space station and the alien ship are interesting, the book is really driven by the people. He’s the first artist to consistently draw Carol thick with muscle and physically imposing, not to mention always with short hair. The character absolutely benefits from his skill and attention.

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Most of Carol’s female team members suffer from an interchangeability problem, defined more by hair color and costume than differentiated features. This is made doubly obvious because Puck and Sasquatch are the main male characters, visually distinct without effort, and triply obvious because there’s not much to differentiate the women in terms of personality in this issue. Pick a favorite science fiction TV show and you’ll see familiar elements in this book, from the visuals to the abruptly scientific plans that oscillate between too much and not enough explanation. That’s no surprise, given Butters and Fazekas’ area of expertise.

The weakness isn’t the writing or the art—though the latter is doing more than its fair share and it’s disappointing to see Carol requiring a man to save her from herself. The issue is that Carol continues to be an uneven, unreliable narrator of her own story. The character’s popularity continues to be a cult of personality around creators, and the weakness of Carol’s personality itself makes the book less than enjoyable. She’s fallen even deeper into the trap of confusing a “strong female character” for one that embodies traditionally male strengths and behaviors. On top of that, she displays the worst of the stereotypes about Air Force pilots. Adrenaline junkies make bad leaders and worse friends, and it’s hard to believe anyone would follow her to lunch after the blatant disregard she shows for the safety and desires of her teammates, let alone into a second Civil War. [Caitlin Rosberg]

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The third in a series of biographies of intellectual titans, Einstein (Nobrow Press) by Corinne Maier and Anne Simon covers the life and times of the eponymous author of the theories of relativity. The text doesn’t attempt to tackle the entirety of Einstein’s life, though it does focus on a number of key themes—his love life, his family, his genius, and his pacifism. The year 1905, the scientist’s annus mirabilis, is the foundation on which these themes rest. This is for the best, as the book avoids becoming bogged down in unnecessary and irrelevant biographical details.

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Narrated by Einstein himself and punctuated with humorous and gorgeously illustrated splash pages—including one of him skateboarding around a Möbius strip—Einstein begins at its subject’s birth, and opens with an insightful notation: “Actually, I was just profoundly curious.” This exigence of genius serves as the lodestar for the narrative of Einstein’s life, and Simon and Maier get at something profoundly understated about the nature of genius. Throughout their rendering of Einstein’s life, they are careful not to portray him as someone preternaturally gifted or superhumanly intelligent. They revel in Einstein’s failure—his inability to graduate school, his difficulty finding work, his lack of interest in Greek, biology, and chemistry, his apathy toward most disciplines of mathematics. They even go so far as to include a scene where Einstein must ask his friend to teach him the necessary mathematics to expound on his already-published theories of relativity. Albert Einstein is someone who is simply fascinated by certain things and pursues that curiosity further than others might. That curiosity yields questions and those questions yield insight.

Simon and Maier render Einstein as deeply human, flawed, and relatable. This makes for a compelling and insightful biography, but the work doesn’t stop there. Simon, drawing in a style reminiscent of the Peabody’s Improbable History vignettes, lends the work a light, jovial tone, which elevates the sometimes dreary subject matter. A scene where a near-disastrous boating trip ends in the moon transmuting itself into Hitler’s face would not play as well without her accessible, loose stylings. The single-page illustrations that serve as routine interstices wouldn’t play well either, which would be unfortunate, as those loudly colored pages are the best thing in the book. Pithy, funny, and often beautiful, they work well as an extension of the light and decidedly un-serious aesthetic of the text. That said, Simon is also a master of density: many of the book’s pages operate on a 12-panel grid, and many of the panels are loaded with visual detail and copious amounts of text. In her thin, vivacious style, Simon is able to tell her and Maier’s story with rapidity, clarity, and incredible detail. A more rigid or realist aesthetic may not have been able to accommodate that density so well, and Einstein succeeds with a blissful marriage of the right subject matter to the right pair of authors. [Shea Hennum]

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No comic book anthology defined the first decade of this century quite like Kramers Ergot. The first four volumes were self-published by Sammy Harkham through his Avodah Press beginning in 2000, but it wasn’t until the fourth volume in 2003 that the series made its full impact. Kramers #4 was released in time for 2003’s MoCCA Festival and was an overnight sensation—a thick blue brick of a book corralling some of the most exciting and interesting cartooning talent of the era between two covers. That volume was reprinted twice more before the decade was out. Kramers then landed at the now-defunct Buenaventura Press, with a stop off at the also now-defunct PictureBox. Finally, with volume #9, the venerable series lands at (the not yet defunct) Fantagraphics, still edited by Sammy Harkham and still featuring fresh material from some of the best cartoonists currently working.

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The problem arises, if one can even call it a problem, with the word “venerable.” It’s been 13 years since Kramers #4 blew the lid off MoCCA, eight since Kramers #7 split the comics community in half by being a $125 art object, and even four since the subdued launch of the oft-overlooked Kramers #8. Kramers Ergot #9 arrives in 2016 via Fantagraphics, an inevitable move that also signifies that the anthology has become, for better and for worse, an institution.

The inimitable Al Columbia

To be fair, Kramers #9 is pretty fantastic just in terms of the quality of the work included. Harkham doesn’t do a volume of Kramers every year, so when it does arrive it comes loaded for bear. Certainly the book features sterling contributions from many people you probably recognize as being “relevant” in art comics: Gabrielle Bell, Renée French, Michael DeForge, John Pham, Dash Shaw, Kim Deitch, Johnny Negron, Ben Jones, and Archer Prewitt, to name just a few. Although, as such a wide variety of contributors might imply, not every feature will be to every reader’s taste, considering the sheer overwhelming mass of different styles and approach. From Bell’s deadpan autobiographical work to Anya Davidson’s fantastic historical drama of early Christian Rome, to Jerry Moriarty’s lush sequential paintings of everyday urban life rubbing shoulders with Trevor Alixopulos’ dirtbag sex stories, there is a multitude of comics here. The overall quality is such that even the less interesting features are buoyed by their close proximity to so many excellent cartoonists. Just the presence of two perfect Al Columbia illustrations practically lifts the entire book into the stratosphere.

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A “Flesh” painting by Jerry Moriarty (Flesh is the name of the cat)

All the same, in 2016 Kramers Ergot lacks a clear-cut rationale other than the self-evident mission statement of compiling a vast range of disparate cartoonists between two covers. Comparing any anthology to Kramers #4 is a fool’s errand, because that’s one of the greatest comics anthologies that has ever been published. But it was so well-received because it was putting some genuinely transcendent work by a variety of genuinely new creators all in one place, a jolt of adrenalin that came about at the precise moment when comics culture seemed to be waking up from a grumbly post-millennial slumber. Kramers #9 could be far and away the anthology of the year and it would still suffer from comparison with its older siblings. If it returns it will need to offer something more than general excellence—in order to live up to the example of its precedents, it must levitate off the shelf. [Tim O’Neil]