Clueless: Senior Year‘s Amber Benson & Sarah Kuhn Continue the Gen-X Classic in Comics

Comics Features Amber Benson & Sarah Kuhn
Clueless: Senior Year‘s Amber Benson & Sarah Kuhn Continue the Gen-X Classic in Comics

cluelesscover.jpgClueless devotees and other ensemble-y challenged readers have long pondered what happened to Amy Heckerling’s charming trio of Beverly Hills teens—Cher, Dionne and Tai. The 1995 cult-classic film channelled Jane Austin’s novel Emma into a Gen-X touchstone, buoyed by Alicia Silverstone, Brittany Murphy and a Paul Rudd who still looks perfectly preserved 20-plus years later. Revolving around high-school junior Cher, it still maintains the timeless ability to transport anyone to the uncertain, ditzy haze of youth, where tomorrow waits with a litany of expectations. The characters straddle the line between trust-fund drones and adorable, introspective every-teens, willing to not only make-over their wardrobes, but to also refresh their ambitions and perspectives.

Following in the legacy of Fight Club, Big Trouble in Little China and other cult favorites, Clueless: Senior Year continues the founding work’s narrative via sequential art. The graphic-novel continuation arrives today courtesy Buffy the Vampire Slayer actress and comic scribe Amber Benson and Heroine Complex author Sarah Kuhn, who aptly nail the ‘90s As Ifs and coming-of-age heart found in the source material. Siobhan Keenan provides soft, elegant pencils complemented by Shan Murphy’s subtle color palette. Paste exchanged emails with Kuhn and Benson to discuss their process for guiding the next phase of Cher’s life and where they see the Clueless universe expanding.
Paste: You address this in the backmatter, but the 1995 film is a loose adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. Did any other literary influences motivate your comic continuation?

Sarah Kuhn: We had the idea early on to bring in some of the central themes from Austen’s other works—we’re both huge fans of Austen and modern spins on Austen, like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and (obviously!) Clueless. So, you may pick up some hints of Pride and Prejudice in Dionne’s story, Sense and Sensibility in Tai’s and sort of a mash-up of Northanger Abbey and Emma in Cher’s. A lot of those bigger ideas—overcoming your initial judgment of someone or figuring out what you want and going for it or finding yourself and your way in the world—still resonate today. And both Austen’s stories and many of the modern spins on them have great friendships and sisterhoods between women, which we wanted to have here, too.

Amber Benson: Like Sarah said, we definitely gave a tip of the hat to the Austen pantheon, but we felt like subtlety was the name of the game. Paying homage to Austen’s incredibly layered female relationships—be they true friends, siblings, enemies or frenemies—was really important to us. Especially because Amy Heckerling did such a brilliant job of incorporating that into Clueless in the first place.

Paste: Our culture’s current late-‘80s/early-‘90s obsession aside, what makes Amy Heckerling’s tale resonate more than 20 years later?

Kuhn: Well, first of all, Amy Heckerling is a genius—her writing and the way she digs into characters and creates a total mood really stands the test of time in a beautiful way. And the idea of being a young woman at an important crossroads in life and making mistakes and figuring out who you want to be is something people can still relate to—she and Alicia Silverstone just nailed that. Cher is an iconic character, down to the way she enunciates, “As if.”

Benson: I second that. Amy Heckerling really is a genius. Not only did she capture what it means to be a young woman searching for identity—and making lots of mistakes and learning from those mistakes along the way—but she makes you laugh out loud while she’s doing it. That takes skill and wit beyond…because making someone laugh is really frickin’ hard.

Clueless: Senior Year Interior Art by Siobhan Keenan & Shan Murphy

Paste: Did anything surprise you about these character or films upon revisiting them? What were the biggest challenges in continuing their stories?

Kuhn: That it all still holds up so well—I don’t need nostalgia glasses to enjoy it, it is still that good! I was also surprised that I still wanted almost every piece of clothing featured: yellow tartan, giant hats, chokers, baby doll dresses, bring it! For me, there were two main challenges. One was that I love both Heckerling and Austen so much as writers, I felt a lot of pressure—like, can we even do them justice? But I think once we got into the groove of it and heard those familiar character voices in our heads, it just became pure joy. I mean, we’re getting to come up with new stories for Cher, Dionne and Tai?! How cool is that?

The other challenge was we wanted to make sure we were starting from where the film ended and taking into account all the character growth Cher and co. have gone through. We didn’t want to just reset them to square one. So, we had to constantly ask ourselves: where are they now? Definitely in a different place than the start of the movie.

Benson: The first time I rewatched the movie, I was totally blown away by how smart and biting the humor is. The jokes hold up decades later—which is a rare feat—and only gives credence to the Amy Heckerling “genius” label. As we started outlining the story, we knew we very much wanted to keep that intelligence and biting wit intact. That, in itself, was a big challenge. We also wanted to make this an ensemble story, really digging into and unpacking what makes Cher, Dionn and Tai unique and multi-dimensional. Obviously, the ‘90s slang is an important part of getting the Clueless “vibe,” but a real challenge for me, personally, was not letting the slang do the heavy lifting, which was really hard. But, luckily, Sarah was there to keep me on the straight and narrow. She has a real ear for the nuances of Clueless speak, which was super helpful whenever I would get stuck!

Kuhn: Amber and I worked so well together—we’ve been friends for a long time, but we’ve never worked together like this before and we had so, so much fun. Amber is great at visualizing pages in a really cinematic way, which was so key here—and our artist, Siobhan Keenan, took that ball and just ran with it so awesomely. She and Shan Murphy, our colorist, really brought the world to life in such a beautiful way. It was a fantastic collaboration all around.

Paste: I enjoyed how Cher, Dionne and Tai took a trip to rural Ohio to explore Tai’s farming youth. If you pursued another comic, are there any other characters you’d like to expand in the same manner?

Kuhn: You know, I have always wondered about Summer—who is seen very briefly here, but it’s really just a cameo. As an Asian girl, I totally zeroed in on her in the movie, because she was the cool Asian girl in Cher and Dionne’s crew, she’s present and visible and wearing cool clothes, but we never learned much about her beyond that. And Nicole Bilderback, the actress who played her, was also one of the Toros in Bring It On, a character named Whitney. Basically, I am obsessed with both Summer and Nicole Bilderback, so if anyone ever wants to do a Secret Life of Summer one-shot, please call me.

Benson: I LOVE Nicole Bilderback! She is awesome. Summer one-shot please, Sarah!

Clueless: Senior Year Interior Art by Siobhan Keenan & Shan Murphy

Paste: In the first film, Cher completes a cycle of self-realization—some closure on her bildungsroman. We saw her continue that search in this book for who she is. What issues do you think she’d face in college and beyond? What threads intrigue you at this point?

Kuhn: I like to think Cher is out there continuing to learn more about herself and being awesomely sunny, confident and ferociously motivated while doing so. I love the idea of her in college, finding new projects to pursue (and of course, new outfits). I think what I’d be most intrigued to learn is what career she decided to pursue—she’s mulling over quite a few options in the book and to see her out there taking on whatever workplace she’s decided on would really be something.

Benson: I would be curious to see if Cher follows in her dad’s footsteps and, if so, I’d love to see Cher in a lawyer/detective/mystery series. I think it would be super funny and everyone would look amazing. Plus, every villain would get a free makeover before Cher sends them down the river.

Kuhn: Oh my god, that would be amazing. Okay, Summer one-shot and Cher’s Detective Adventures. Those are the two things on our wish list.

Clueless: Senior Year Interior Art by Siobhan Keenan & Shan Murphy

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