LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - Aristotle. Nietzsche. Buffy?

The blond heroine of the campy TV series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," as well as other works by creator Joss Whedon, is the focus of a three-day academic conference that began yesterday at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark. The show starring Sarah Michelle Gellar won cult fame and critical praise during its seven seasons on The WB and UPN networks.

Since it ended, the series has spawned enough academic books on the philosophy surrounding the roles of friendship and feminism to fill a 15-foot-wide bookshelf at the college, said Kevin Durand, an associate professor of philosophy.

"It has staying power," Durand said. "It's like I tell my students in philosophy a lot of times: We're not so much about necessarily finding all the answers as wanting to ask better questions. 'Buffy,' I think, does that. 'Buffy' never really leaves you with nice, pat answers. You have even more questions than when you started."

Durand said more than 90 academic papers will be discussed at the conference. He expects about 150 people to attend and discuss the vampire slayer and Whedon's other works, including the TV series "Firefly" and "Angel." Another point of discussion will be a lesser-known part of Whedon's work - his screenplay for the hit animated film "Toy Story."

Among the papers: "Buffy and Feminism," "Buffy and Identity," "Gender Stereotypes and the Image of Domesticity in 'Firefly,' " " 'Firefly:' The Illusive Safety of Big Damn Heroes" and a Durand favorite by a British scholar, "Hero's Journey, Heroine's Return: Buffy, Eurydice and the Orpheus Myth."

"That one just sounds cool," he said.

Durand, who contributed an academic paper at each of the two previous Buffy conferences, often focuses on how power plays into the "Buffy" series. He said much of the heroine's strength came from others and her willingness to work with friends in her fight against creatures of the night. *