Anyone who knows me at all knows I am not particularly musical. It’s not just that I can’t play an instrument or carry much of a tune. I don’t even have much of an ear for music. My iPod, at any given time, has about a dozen songs on it — ones that would make any sophisticated music fan blanche, I’m sure — that I listen to relentlessly and may rotate every few weeks. I buy a new song here or there, but my diehard CD collection consists of about two dozen albums, almost all by two or three different artists. I think I had one piano lesson as a child before begging my parents to just let me go back to my colored pencils and Bristol board. I just don’t get music the way I get more visual media. I never really have.
Looking back, many of the kids with whom I became close friends used music as an escape much the way I used comic books. If you grow up feeling different from your peers, or even your family, having something to take you out of that world — and into one where being different means being powerful and admired — is almost critical to make it through. It’s why I imagine so many of the most popular super-hero comics star teams. Outsiders, who sometimes might otherwise be hated or feared, band together to not only attempt something greater than themselves, but also to form a new family that accepts their uniqueness, even celebrates it. Occasionally, that team has been a blood-related family at the start (as is the case of Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four), but most of the time, it is in strangers that the lonely or orphaned hero finds camaraderie and acceptance. Like forming a band with those other kids no one seems to want to hang around, comic book creators relentlessly imagine families not-so nuclear to grant characters and readers validation of their worth, oddities aside.
That non-nuclear families so pervade the comic book genre makes Hopeless Savages that much more unique for its own outsider status. Published in multiple mini-series by Oni Press and recently collected in a Greatest Hits edition, Hopeless Savages recounts the life of a punk rock couple, Dirk Hopeless and Nikki Savage, who left groupies and concerts behind for the white picket fence dream to have a family out in the suburbs. Far from losing themselves in the conformity of Middle America, the Hopeless-Savages have raised four extraordinary children, in every sense of that word. Named by their parents to forever remind them of their origins, Rat Bastard, Arsenal Fierce, Twitch Strummer, and Skank Zero Hopeless-Savage are unquestionably chips off their parents’ old block — cultural outsiders who didn’t have to look very far at all to find their accepting clan.
Rather than deliver a fairy tale existence for the entire family, however, series creator and writer Jen Van Meter goes to great lengths to make each child’s individuality a clear and central focus for the narrative. Eldest daughter Arsenal is a dojo master and martial arts expert from a family that urges peaceful, non-violent resolution whenever possible to conflict. Youngest son Twitch adheres to Mod style and subculture, a sharp departure from his parents’ dedication to the tenets of punk, but a distinction far more germane than his homosexuality. Eldest son Rat took the greatest leap away from his family’s standards in abandoning his hard-core punk style after receiving a teenage broken heart. Restyling himself to adopt the corporate fast track, Rat (calling himself Dave, after his father’s given name) is found at the beginning of the series after ten years away, working for a Starbucks-like coffee conglomerate. While Rat returns to the family dynamic in an urgent adventure to save his parents’ lives, he never quite goes back to his outrageous childhood self. In a house where everyone else is so sure of her or himself, Rat is still searching for his genuine identity, still trying to be comfortable in his own skin.
But it is around youngest daughter Zero that Van Meter’s story most steadily revolves, as the aspiring punk musician evolves from little girl to young woman. At the beginning of the series, Zero is a brash, determined child who speaks her mind unapologetically and gets in way over her head on a regular basis, particularly when her parents go missing in an apparent kidnapping. Of the entire family, Zero takes Rat’s departure most personally, only reluctantly including him in the search for Dirk and Nikki. She takes her parents’ legacy seriously, so much so as to brand Rat a traitor for choosing to leave behind the family name and business. Even so, Zero is the fiercest defender of Rat’s honor, even years later, in confronting the girl that broke his heart. Most like her mother in exuberant temper and sharp wit, Zero is intensely protective, even at a young age, of the life her mother left Nebraska to acquire.
Zero’s maturation into her own person in high school is no less tumultuous than normal, despite her one-track desire to follow in her mother’s footsteps. First true love hits hard in the form of Ginger Kincaid, another social outcast, but this time of the science nerd variety. The road to Zero and Ginger’s relationship is a mighty bumpy one, as a series of minor teenage misdeeds — and one serious offense in punching a boy at school for inferring too much from her given name — leads to extensive grounding at the hands of her overprotective mom. Drawn in the adolescent style now made famous by his Scott Pilgrim series, second series artist Bryan Lee O’Malley captures so perfectly the pains to which Zero and Ginger go through to finally align their stars.
Hopeless Savages is uniquely blessed by many different artists, yet the differences never feel arbitrary — much like those of the family members themselves. Original series artist Christine Norrie may feel like the definitive penciller for a family somewhat rough around the edges, but other contributors (such as Conan and Batman artist Becky Cloonan and Anya’s Ghost creator Vera Brosgol) bring an almost mandatory eclecticism to the book. This is in some ways how I imagine an album must get assembled from multiple songs: each one has its own unique beat, but reflect a novel, yet important, aspect of the overall score.
The cast of Hopeless Savages is no different, each bringing his or her own individuality to the mix. How the story as whole comes together, though, is what lifts the readers’ spirits and inspires a great escape. Jen Van Meter has crafted a family we’d all want to join, but one that also ultimately leads us to look at our own — blood-born or made — and appreciate and admire the differences within. Not every family may stand out from those around them the way this punk rock tribe may, but it’s hard not to want to get yours to try after sharing their world for a little while.
Matt Santori-Griffith owns one business suit, three pairs of shoes, and over 15,000 comic books. He works a day job as an art director for several non-profit organizations, but spends his dark nights and weekends fighting the good fight on Twitter.com in the guise of @FotoCub. He has not yet saved the world, but isn’t giving up quite yet.