Exclusive: The Dream of the 90s Is Alive in New Clueless Comic Book – Vanity Fair
In 1995, Amy Heckerling took Hollywood by surprise when her improbable idea of transplanting Jane Austen’s Emma to the moneyed world of Beverly Hills became first a box-office sleeper hit, then a bonafide cult classic. The story of a spoiled, well-intentioned busybody not only helped launch the careers of Paul Rudd and Alicia Silverstone but made a very real impact on the language of an entire decade. The high-school-set world of Clueless and the adventures of Cher and her friends Dionne and Tai were so instantly iconic that they inspired a TV show that ran for three seasons—and now, more than 20 years later, a brand-new comic book written by Amber Benson (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Witches of Echo Park) and Sarah Kuhn (Heroine Complex) with drawings by Siobhan Keenan and cover art from Natacha Bustos.
The world of Clueless has stuck around far longer than perhaps even Heckerling ever imagined. Cher’s speech during a high school debate scene even made the social-media rounds earlier this year as a surprisingly cogent reaction to Donald Trump’s travel ban.
But that’s the enduring lesson of Clueless. Cher is easy to dismiss—but she and her friends have hidden depths, and through them Heckerling perfectly captured an out-of-the-mouths-of-total-babes vibe that continues to captivate audiences. Cher, Dionne, Tai, and their friends will return in comic form to grapple with the drama of senior year and the looming question of what comes next.
The new book hails from Boom! comics, the publisher behind a run of successful titles that appeal to all demographics but lean especially toward a younger, female audience. Titles like Lumberjanes, Adventure Time, and Six Gun Gorilla have garnered the publisher critical acclaim, strong sales, and awards. The follow-up to Clueless, in all its 90s, slang-filled glory, will go on sale in August. Benson and Kuhn, who both came of age around the same time as Cher, spoke with VF.com about the enduring feminist legacy of Cher Horowitz and the surprisingly academic research it took to resurrect the Heckerling’s world on the page.
V.F. Hollywood: Why do you think Cher Horowitz and Emma Woodhouse are such enduringly beloved figures?
Amber Benson: [Cher] is flawed and she fails, and instead of just quitting when she fails, she actually learns. Every person in Clueless—and in Emma—they have something to impart to her. The Tai character teaches Cher to relax; she learns to enjoy her life a little more. That’s a beautiful thing, and I think as a woman, you can identify with that—because we’re told to be perfect all the time, and to take somebody who looks perfect and has kind of a perfect life and go, “You know, I’m not perfect. I fail, I make mistakes, but I learn from them.”
Sarah Kuhn: I think a lot of times, there’s a burden placed on female characters, especially female protagonists, to be perfect. I know that Amber and I both like writing female protagonists who mess up a lot, because we mess up a lot. The fact that both Cher and Emma do mess up and are flawed and messy, that’s very appealing as both a writer and a reader.
As hard as it may be for the three of us in this conversation to admit, any story set in the 90s is now basically a period piece. What challenges did you find writing a 90s-set story, either from a language or technology perspective?
Benson: The hardest part of working on the project for me has been trying to make everybody sound authentic without being trite. And we’re really, really lucky—we have an amazing editor in Shannon [Watters], who sent us this U.C.L.A. slang book that has all of this amazing 90s slang in it. I use that like a bible, and I can recite it verbatim now. I think Sarah and I had some sort of struggle with this, trying to make it sound real and not like a cartoonish version of the 90s.
Kuhn: One of the things people love about Clueless is its really distinctive voice. There are these key catchphrases people remember from that movie, and I think it would be very boring to write a follow-up to Clueless and just keep going to those same five phrases over and over again. This paper Shannon sent us is actually from the U.C.L.A. linguistics department and tracks all these terms that I guess “the kids” were using back then.
Benson: We were the kids!
How has it been for your artist, Siobhan Keenan, to take on the iconic looks and fashion of Clueless? That yellow plaid suit!
Kuhn: To be honest, we haven’t worked with her much yet. I’m a big fan of her art. She draws fantastic fashion and has this kind of great, I guess, animation and motion and a sort of vibrancy to her that I think pairs really well with Clueless.
Benson: We’re on the same page as Shannon and everybody at Boom! because we really wanted a woman to draw Clueless. We wanted another woman on board who was also a big fan of the movie and really “got” the world.
Kuhn: Amy Heckerling is such a genius, and she brought such a distinctive female voice to the idea of Emma and modernizing those characters and giving it her own spin. I think it’s important that we have such a great female creative team on this.
For readers who aren’t familiar with Lumberjanes or Boom!’s other titles, what is it about this publisher that drew you to this project?
Benson: Lumberjanes changed the playing field. It shows that, number one, girls read comics. Girls love comics, and instead of this world where everything is all superheroes all the time, Boom! has carved out a niche for interesting stories about marginalized characters. Girls want to read stories about girls. They’re interested, and they are going to buy the comics if you create for them. Boom! is tapping into all of that, so I’m super excited to be working with them. Working with Shannon is awesome, because she is such a fan of Clueless and didn’t want to make it a vacuous “Oh how cute, a little cartoon of Clueless!” We’re trying to continue the legacy that Amy Heckerling created.
Kuhn: I was lucky enough to grow up as a big comics kid. My brother and I were really into Archie and the X-men; there was no line between superheroes and non. But I grew up in the geek world, and I can see how comics can be super intimidating for a new reader. I think that Boom! has done a great job of bringing out a lot of books where you can just jump in. You don’t need a thousand years of continuity; you don’t need to buy a thousand more books. I really agree with what Amber said about prizing girls’ voices and prizing female characters and female creators as well.
Amber: I know you’re going to be forced to tell this story a thousand times, but I think you have to tell me your Clueless audition story. What role were you up for?
Benson: I was working on a movie called Bye Bye Love, and the production office shared space with the casting people for Clueless. At the time, it was called As If. The casting people were like, “Hey, you’re here all the time wandering around. Would you like to come in and read for for the role of Tai?” I met with Amy Heckerling and auditioned, and it was really nice. But I actually knew Brittany Murphy, and I was like, “Well if I don’t get it, I hope Brittany gets it.” If you lose a great part to somebody, it has to be somebody wonderful, Brittany was one of my favorite people, actually. But yeah, I went in and auditioned for Tai, and now I’m working with Sarah on Clueless. I feel like, finally, I’ve completed the circle of Clueless life.
As someone who grew up in the 90s and as a fan of Amber’s work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I feel like there’s a difference between the Clueless-era “Girl Power” of the 90s and the feminist movement now—as there should be; it’s been decades. But it almost feels like it was less of a struggle then to assert a female narrative. Now it feels like everything is a political statement; back then, it could just be “this is Cher” and “here is Buffy.” Are we regressing in some way? Or has the fight for female-fronted stories just been taken to a new level?
Kuhn: I think what we’re seeing a lot now is a loud, angry pushback whenever you want to have something fronted by a character who isn’t a white, straight, cis male. What I kind of always hope that pushback is, is them realizing that white, straight, and male is no longer what a hero automatically looks like. I hope it’s the angry death rattle of people who don’t think we should have things like female Ghostbusters and female-fronted comics and Rey in Star Wars. As a woman of color, I’ve never really felt like I have a character at the front of something who looks like me without it being a political statement. Sometimes I feel like just by existing, I’m some sort of political statement.
Benson: Just from the Buffy perspective: Buffy was under the radar. No one had any expectations for it. They were allowed to just sort of do what they wanted to do. And I feel like that was what was happening in general in the 90s and the 2000s. Everything was done surreptitiously. “Oh yeah, we’re doing this and it’s got a lady in it, so we don’t have much expectation for it. We’re just going to quietly do it over there while they put all their money and attention into the big tentpole thing with the white guys.” And I think that was what sort of what was happening for a very long time. All this stuff was kinda being done under the radar, and then it would be successful and they could point and go, “Look! We did this thing, isn’t this awesome? Girl Power!”
What’s changed, though, is that you have all these people now who are working in the industry who are female or female-identifying or are P.O.C., and they’re starting to run things. It’s not just a bunch of white guys making decisions anymore. Everyone’s really scared of that, but the climate has changed. Everyone is pushing to have somebody who represents them put into the mainstream in a way that wasn’t happening before. Companies are actually putting money behind these projects, and putting press behind these projects. They’re not left to find their audience on their own; they’re being aggressively marketed. To me, that’s the difference, and that’s why there’s all this pushback. If it was just done under the radar, no one pays attention until it’s successful, and then no one says anything because it’s successful.
Kuhn: Clueless was also a sleeper hit, right? I don’t think it was expected to be the phenomenon that it was.
It was also, I think, in the acceptable realm of what girls are allowed to do in movies—which is a fun, bubbly comedy. But the Clueless narrative broke through the gender line in that it not only appealed to girls but also carried this interesting and important feminist message of “You can can love clothes and care about what your hair looks like, and still be a very interesting and compelling and complex female character.”
Benson: There’s no right way to be female or female-identifying. You can love clothes or you cannot love clothes. You can be a stay-at-home mom or you can have a career. You can do both. You can choose to have kids you can choose to not have kids. That’s the beauty of Clueless.