We all know high schools are full of creepy characters. Bullies. Weirdly intense biology teachers. Vampires. Parasitic demons. You know… the usual stuff.
At least that's how things are in the word of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The cult TV phenomenon only spent three seasons of its seven-year run at Sunnydale High, but those stories of a teen girl cracking down on undead monsters remain so iconic that Dark Horse Comics continues a Buffy: The High School Years series of original graphic novels set during Season 1.
This week, writer Kel McDonald and artist Yishan Li take readers back to school with their latest entry in the sophomore year saga with Buffy: The High School Years -- Parental Parasite. The story focuses on young Buffy's relationship with her mother Joyce, who's been hypnotized by a childlike demon that craves her attention and care.
CBR spoke with McDonald about her latest foray into Joss Whedon's world, how the series can and can't fill in the gaps of the TV show and why Buffy will always be someone's high school fav.
CBR: Kel, you were a watcher of Buffy when it originally aired, but you weren't yet in high school yourself. What was it like for you to follow the series as such a formative age as a fan and creative person? Did Buffy shape your experience of what high school was supposed to be like? Did you have any kind of personal routine or ritual for watching the show as it originally came out?
Kel McDonald: To be honest, I watched far too much TV as a kid. I don’t think Buffy the Vampire Slayer gave me any ideas about high school that I wasn’t getting from other TV shows. Buffy definitely impacted me creatively, though. I always enjoyed mythology and magic stories, but Buffy taught me how important strong characters are to a story. The show shaped how I approach characters and tone. I listened to season one’s DVD’s director commentary to learn about storytelling, and it really made me think about why I like it and not just that I liked it.
I don’t remember what I did when I was 10 and season two aired, but during the last few seasons, I usually watched it alone to fully absorb the show in my bedroom on a tiny TV that only got local channels. I’m one of four siblings, and it was the only way to watch the series without being interrupted. Occasionally, my older brother and I watched it together. I think this ritual made me prefer to watch episodes solo for the first time even as an adult. I like to think about what I just watched without anyone else’s opinion informing mine. I didn’t have any friends who liked Buffy: The Vampire Slayer in high school, and I didn’t have a good internet connection. My first fandom engagement happened in college. I was very surprised to learn people didn’t like Riley!
Fast forward to your time as a comics maker. Obviously Buffy has had an influence on your work, but how did you approach the job of writing a Buffy comic when initially asked? Did you view the job as a challenge in storytelling, or was it more simple "I've got to do Buffy, and I've got to do it justice"?
It was definitely an “I’ve got to do Buffy the Vampire Slayer justice” thought process. I’m not usually driven to write about other people’s characters (like, I never wrote fan fiction as a teenager). I wouldn’t be into comics if it weren’t for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and it’s really special to me. When I was asked if I wanted to write Buffy, I answered with a big yes. I also had a great time preparing for this series by rewatching all of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.
The appeal to setting stories in the high school era of the show is as direct as it gets. Joss' original pitch was "high school as a horror story" and that's still a concept that can be reinvented again and again. Your first Buffy story definitely explored the pressures that come with school itself. With Parental Parasite it seems you're reaching out to the ways kids interact with their parents. Why was Buffy's relationship with her mom one worth mining as a metaphor?
I rewatched all of Buffy the Vampire Slayer while writing Glutton for Punishment. I wanted to make sure I got the voices right, but I noticed that Buffy’s mom is a little underused. She’s there for some subplots, but the mother-daughter relationship isn’t explored much. I found this odd because, in reality, Buffy and her mother had just moved to Sunnydale and would most likely be more connected to each other to feel comfortable.
All that said, I'm sure there are a lot of fans who want to read these books to return to that era of Buffy -- the style and the humor of the show before it became much deeper in its mythology. Were there elements of Season 1 that you looked for (whether in terms of plot point/easter eggs or general tone) that you want to pull in to this book?
Most of my favorite characters aren’t actually in the first season, which made it tough because some of the really juicy character development hasn’t happened yet. I really love Cordelia, but she isn’t very involved with the Scoobies during season one. The relationship between Buffy and Joyce is clear from the start, and that’s partly why I was drawn to Joyce for Parental Parasite. I stayed focused on details from throughout the series. For example, Joyce and Giles weren’t in the same scene together because they don’t actually meet until the "Angel" episode in the show.
When you approach writing these stories, do you think of them like episodes of the show?
The stories in the Buffy: The High School Years series are basically lost filler episodes. I tried to pick where they happen in the show. Each of the Scoobies needs to have something to do in the story that supports the theme. I let Xander take more of a backseat this time because I wrote a lot about him in the last book and I made sure to include a few Angel scenes.
Yishan Li returns to the book on art, and it seems odd to me that we never saw a more heavily manga-influenced artist on a Buffy title before now. Why is that style such a natural fit for this franchise, and what about working with Yishan has helped deepen this book creatively?
Honestly, I don’t know why it didn’t happen sooner. When Buffy: The Vampire Slayer originally aired, the manga boom was also happening. I know so many Buffy fans that also love Sailor Moon and shojo manga. I think a more cartoony or anime look fits the lighter tone of a story set in high school. Whenever I work with an artist, I ask them what they like to draw. Now, I know how Yishan likes to frame panels, and I tried to adjust my pacing and panels per page to play to her strengths as an artist.
Like I said at the start, a lot of young people have discovered Buffy in the years since it was broadcast and continue to find the original series today. What is it about the show that you think continues to draw fans to it, and how do you try and tap into that in this book?
Buffy: The Vampire Slayer is such a strong show! The series influenced so many of today's writers. The characters and their voices, in particular, are what make it stand out, and I did my best to capture that.
Buffy: The High School Years -- Parental Parasite is out this week from Dark Horse.