“So, basically, my exam worries have really been put in perspective.”
Most students only have to cope with overdue homework, crushes, or balancing their extracurricular activities. But the students at Barrett High School must contend with a mysterious force capturing and turning their peers into zombies!
Between partying, searching for their school records, and trying to save long-held friendships, these students must find a way to expose the culprit and put an end to their undead plans.
Man of Action
Written in 2003, How to Save the World: A Beginner’s Guide (HTSTW) is a quirky misadventure filled to the brim with dry humour and pop culture references.
Exercising both “homage to and parody of B-grade teen supernatural horror movies”, Owen Heitmann combines and subverts cinematic clichés to explore themes of friendship and forgiveness in an over-exaggerated and cartoonish style.
The artwork of HTSTW especially demonstrates Heitmann’s skill for action sequences. He regularly uses panelling to his advantage when characters are fighting or sleuthing, and occasionally has characters escape the borders of their panels to assist in enlivening the black-and-white art style.
The pacing and story are strongest during these action sequences, where Heitmann utilizes dynamic movement to offset the dialogue and breathe life into otherwise static images.
Profusion of Allusion
The comic’s blurb promises “pop cultural references up the wazoo”, of which it delivers. However, as with any media content which references pop culture, there is the inevitable fact that it will age very quickly.
In the 17 years since HTSTW’s release in 2003, pop culture has evolved multiple times over and the concept of what constitutes mainstream comedy has also shifted to match popular opinion and taste. Thus, the constant allusion in HTSTW often causes the humour to fall flat. This problem will inevitably get worse over time.
Why? The comic’s intended audience of high schoolers will remain the same, but the references will become increasingly more obscure. This does not detract from the enjoyability of the comic if these references are understood, but it limits the potential audience.
Blink and You’ll Miss It
The narrative twist of HTSTW also has the potential to weaken the comic’s pacing and emotional journey, since it is highly dependent on a very minute detail. Heitmann requires readers to remember the surname of one of the main protagonists for the entirety of the work’s 48 pages.
Admittedly not an arduous task, but this surname is never mentioned in dialogue and is only featured twice: in the cast list on the inside cover and in a note on page 1. The whole plot of the comic revolves around this twist and consequently the narrative payoff can be easily undercut if this information was forgotten or not originally noticed.
Moreover, putting this twist only one page after the emotional climax of the comic strongly detracts from the emotional weight of the previous panels and cheapens the character development up to that point.
There are a few moments where this surname could have been mentioned to subtly reiterate its importance, such as when Mr King is calling the roll for Physics class, but unfortunately, these opportunities were not taken.
The Quality of Equality?
While the comic is in part a parody of B-grade films, and as such will feature a somewhat caricaturised cast, this appears to be more prevalent in the female characters.
Kate has barely any lines beyond those establishing her as a troublemaker or to recap exposition. Stacey is portrayed as a bullied nerd who treasures her school records more than the lives of her peers.
In contrast, Chester and Lucas have moments of real character development and exploration. They even subvert the cliché of male friends being incapable of admitting their feelings to each other.
The female cast are also noticeably absent from the main action, appearing to be stuck in a stereotypical and outdated female role which relegates them to the background, whilst the male cast break social norms.
The lack of equal investment by Heitmann in developing his male and female cast, in conjunction with the previously stated narrative and allusion problems, detracts from the impact of the whole story and the ability for audiences to become invested in the characters.
Fate of the World
Overall, HTSTW is a well-drawn comic with appealing action sequences and a style well suited to its narrative content. However, it is let down by an overabundance of dated pop culture references, a precarious plot twist, and a caricatured female cast.
These latter points can largely be linked to the comic striving to be both a homage and parody simultaneously. By attempting to both subvert and uphold clichés, the comic’s tone becomes unbalanced to its detriment.
How to Save the World: A Beginner’s Guide can be purchased via Amplified Press at
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