Friday, January 8, 2016

Recommended Reading for 1/8: Hopeless Savages: Break

I first met the Hopeless-Savage family because of a girl. I met her, and we went out on a date to a comic shop, an auspicious beginning to something that wound up not really going anywhere, and as we were browsing, she asked if I had ever read Hopeless Savages, and my response was, "What's Hopeless Savages?" Shocked and appalled, she grabbed the first trade of the series, tossed it onto her stack, and bought it for me so I would read it. The relationship with the girl ended, but my relationship with the Hopeless-Savages continues to this day, and near year's end last year, after a break of about a decade, they're back, and it's like they never left,

For those of you who, once like me, don't know about Hopeless Savages, the comic is published by Oni Press and created by Jen Van Meter, whose praises I have sung before in regards to her work on Dr. Mirage for Valiant. It's the story of the family of two 70s era punk icons, Dirk Hopeless and Nikki Savage, who got out of the scene and decided to raise a family. Their four children, Rat Bastard, Arsenal Fierce, Twitch Strummer, and Skank Zero, as well as the kids' significant others and friends, round out the cast of the book, and it is at its heart a book about family,and what we do for and with those we love.

Break, the new book in the series, takes place a few years after the end of the previous volume. Zero, the youngest of the Hopeless-Savage kids and often narrator of the comics, has gone off to college, and as Spring Break approaches, things aren't too great. Her roommate is uber-sorority pledge girl, she hasn't heard from her boyfriend, Ginger, all semester, and she just needs to get away, and is hoping a two week tour with her friends/her band, the Dusted Bunnies, are what will clear the cobwebs out, so to speak.

The spine of the story is Zero and the Dusted Bunnies'  tour, and the rivalry that brews between them and another band, but there are a series of interludes throughout showing exactly what the rest of the family, as well as Ginger, are up to; Nikki touring again, Dirk going to visit an old bandmate on his deathbed, Rat trying to really find his place in the world, Arsenal and her boyfriend, Claude, dealing with their new twins, and Twitch and his boyfriend, Henry, on a miserable tour playing on an orchestra for an ice show.

While the cast is massive, with all the Hopeless-Savages, plus their significant other, plus the Dusted Bunnies, plus Zero's nemesis band, Minnie Turbine & the Portable Generators, none of the characters get lost in the shuffle. There is even room for other characters to make memorable appearances, like Stink Keane, Dirk's old bandmate who is dying from years of over-doing it on the drugs and partying, and the mysterious professor, Sarasavi Wulliwulli-Filbert, who seemingly miraculously comes to the Dusted Bunnies rescue on a couple of occasions. Doctor WooWoo is one of those side characters who absolutely demands attention every time she pops up on the page, and I hope that we get to see more of her and Zero's relationship in future volumes.

These lively and lifelike characters are what makes Hopeless Savages such an incredible comic, Van Meter has a distinct voice and attitude for each of the family and all their friends, and they each read so distinctly. More than that, she knows how to craft a story that tugs to the heartstrings without ever being maudlin or seeming forced. The story that jumped out at me this volume, that really had me from page one, was Nikki's. Out on tour, she has an accident that breaks her leg, one that will require surgery. But Nikki's a recovering drug addict, so she is afraid what the pain medication required will do, and doesn't want to call Dirk, so instead calls Rat, her eldest. The interaction, as Nikki talks about what she's afraid of, in painful and beautifully written.

The balance between that intensity and the humor that is also deeply a part of Hopeless Savages is maintained perfectly as well. While you have Nikki struggling with her addiction and Dirk dealing with the passing of his friend, Twitch just really wants to get out of his lousy contract, and the only way to do that is to get arrested, and to paraphrase the old show biz aphorism, he can't seem to get arrested in this town. His story intersects with Arsenal's sort of classic, "We're in over our head," parenting story, which is a charming aside from all the intensity of the other plots.

I know I said that Zero's story is the spine of the book, and I've talked about the other plots more than hers, and partially that's because Zero is maybe the farthest from my personal experience now. I'm an old fogy after all, who never toured with my band on an old van. But there's things in her story, about friendship, that are universal. And the stuff going on with the war between the Bunnies and the Generators, both its origins and what is going on behind the scenes, is cleverly laid out by Van Meter, in a way that, when the big reveal happens towards the end of the book, it all makes perfect sense.

There are two artists in this volume, with Meredith McClaren providing the art for the main story, and Christine Norrie on the flashbacks to Dirk and Nikki's punk rock past, McClaren's style is loose and exaggerated, with wild, huge eyes, and a heavy manga influence. Dynamic is the best adjective I have for her style, as every page, ever panel, every character in those panels, seems to be in almost constant motion, which is tricky to do in a medium based on still images. The way she draws music, with the lyrics hovering and moving around the panel took me off guard at first, but as the book progressed, I found it a refreshing way to represent music in comics, one of the medium's few true failings in the hands of many artists. Christine Norrie has been working on Hopeless Savages since the beginning of the series, and her more realistic style contrasts strongly with McClaren's. But because these are flashbacks, the two styles compliment each other, rather than being jarred seeing the same characters at the same time looking so different.

Oh, and one more important aside. Zero speaks in her very own self designed slang, which can be daunting when you start reading it. But if you've ever read A Clockwork Orange, for example, you know that when you're immersed in a new way of speaking, your brain quickly assimilates the new lingo. Starting the book off with Zero just talking to the school therapist allows her to talk for a long enough time that you're able to get into her slang, which is a great insight into her character.

Hopeless Savages is a story about family, music, adventure, and love. It's charming, funny, heartwarming, and has just enough punk rock left to have an edge. After its long hiatus, Break is a great return to the characters, and a perfect place to start if you've never read the book before, and w welcome return for those of us who have,

Hopeless Savages: Break is available at better comic shops everywhere, and easily orderable if your shop doesn't have it. And if you love it, you can pick up Hopeless Savages Greatest Hits Volume 1, which contains all the previous Hopeless Savages story in one volume.

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