Talking Comics with Tim | Hopeless Savages Roundtable

If you look at the number of talented creators that worked on writer Jen Van Meter's Hopeless Savages (Oni Press), it's an amazing collection of people. To mark Oni's release in late 2010 of Hopeless Savages Greatest Hits: 2000-2010 (which collects all of the Hopeless Savages material released as of 2010) as well as the fact that the series will return with new material in 2011, I was able to compile an email roundtable discussion with many of Van Meter's collaborators. Thanks to an immense amount of help from Van Meter and Oni's Cory Casoni, I garnered insight from editor Jamie S. Rich (with his trademark wit), as well as several of the artists involved, namely Ross Campbell, Christine Norrie and Bryan Lee O'Malley. Did I mention there's going to be new Hopeless Savages stories in 2011? I just wanted to make sure I did--and, to also note, the artist for the new stories, Meredith McClaren, was also kind enough to participate in this roundtable.

Tim O’Shea: As evidenced by this 2002 interview, Hopeless Savages was fortunate to have a great many talented artists work on the book, but sometimes those artists got busy elsewhere. As you said back in 2002: "With Christine Norrie embroiled in her own miniseries, we kind of are back to square one .... Sort of like how Chynna drew the first short story, but then BLUE MONDAY prevented her from doing the miniseries. But, we've found an amazing artist to take over. Bryan O'Malley is new to most people, but he's really got a handle on the medium. His work really captures the innocence and insecurity of adolescence." What do you remember most about this confluence at talent (and juggling the variety of creative talent involved in the project)?

Jamie S. Rich: Well, at the time, it wasn't like we knew that this Irish kid O'Malley (who isn't really Irish) would end up being the creator of Scott Pilgrim, so it didn't feel all that monumental. It just felt like the most natural choice to be making. James had been showing Joe Nozemack and I Bryan's webcomics, but none of the stories had quite clicked with us yet, but the style he was showing us was right in line with everything else we had been doing on the series. Who knew what that would get started?

In fact, it was only with this new book that it occurred to me how many future superstars worked on this book in the early part of their careers. When Greatest Hits debuted at NYCC, Natalie Nourigat was sitting behind my table in Artist's Alley oohing and ahhing over seeing early Bryan and then Ross Campbell, and of course Becky Cloonan and Vera Brosgol were in that one-shot James edited, and I realized all of those people have gone on to be pretty incredible talents. It's crazy when you add it all up. Chynna [Clugston Flores] had illustrated the first ever Hopeless Savages story, and I think the idea of having the flashbacks was just to keep her involved. That first series, with Christine doing most of the book, and then contributions from Chynna and Andi Watson, I think we were just intending to stack the deck to get the book off the ground. At that point Hopeless Savages was the quintessential Oni book. It definitely represented my tastes, and to this day all four of those people--including Jen--are heavily associated with my editorial tenure.

In a way, people can look at Hopeless Savages as the Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic that might have been. Folks forget I hired both Jen and Andi to write Buffy when the book was starting at Dark Horse, and it's a little known fact that had I gotten my way, Chynna would have drawn them. She did some pretty awesome samples, but you try getting in a time machine and convincing someone back in 1998 that "manga style" is the way to go.

O’Shea: From an editor's standpoint, what was it about the series initial concept and execution that made the story click so effectively with readers?

Rich: Well, again, with all those artists, the initial aesthetic reaction was undeniable. That first cover Andi did, which was just Zero standing in front of a Union Jack background, was adorable and it had an iconic feel. It always reminded me of the Beat girl, the logo for the band known over here in the States as the English Beat. At cons, it was always the display people wanted to buy.

Once there was that hook, I can only guess people liked the characters, they related to the unique voice that Jen gave them, and the family dynamic meant there was something inviting about it. I say I can only guess, because frankly, if I knew for sure what made people buy any given book, I'd be a millionaire. (Though, had they listened to what I was saying about manga style, I'd have made someone else a millionaire!) Editorially, I could only judge books based on whether or not I liked them and hope that comics readers would see what I saw. You know, if they weren't stupid. (Kidding!)

O’Shea: Back in early 2000s, webcomics while not in their infancy, were still not as common then. Can you recall why online strips were developed with the Hopeless Savages?

Rich: We were trying to drive people to our website and also think of new ways to promote the material we had coming up. I think it evolved out of the original ad campaign we did for Blue Monday. Chynna drew three or four one-page strips that we rotated through our books for a couple of months, and folks really responded to that. They were ads that weren't ads. The next progression was to try to create some kind of ad content for the web that would be similar. I'd have to check the dates to see if we were promoting a specific Hopeless book at the time, but even if we weren't, it was in line with how we had already promoted the book. I am pretty sure both color shorts were in our Oni Summer Specials prior to the release of the first series, so we were pushing the content and giving people as much as we could to clue them in to what the book was like. We were also putting a lot of first issues online then as printable PDFs, which was seen as a little bit crazy.

O’Shea: Can you single out the Hopeless Savage family member that from your perspective evolved the most or in the most surprising way?

Rich: I think Rat, actually. If I could ask Jen to write one story, it would be to focus on Rat for a series. He returns to the family in the first story arc, that's basically what it's about, but he's not really back to his own self by Ground Zero or even in Too Much. He went from being the loudest kid to going through his rebellion of trying to be normal, and now, I don't know if he's quite sure of where he is--which is not what I would have expected. I'd have thought he'd come back as really loud an obnoxious in Series Two, and I'd like to see the next stage, of him rediscovering himself.

I'd also encourage her to write a Love the Way You Love crossover. There's already a connection. Most readers never realized where Chester Melville came from.... (Self-promotion!)

O’Shea: This new collection is mostly b&w but also collects the full color stories. For me, I thinks the stories are more in their element in black and white? What do you think?

Rich: I am not sure it matters. I think the black-and-white maybe overshadows the color stories just due to the nature of creating a black-and-white comic. I think that, in some ways, most cartoonists are best in black-and-white, probably because they are forced to put everything into the illustration. There is no added step, no extra hands, it's just them, the paper, and the ink. Naturally, there are a million examples of projects where the synergy is as strong throughout--you look at something like Joe the Barbarian and how Sean Murphy, by his own admission, inks for black-and-white and then you see the magic Dave Stewart can create even with that obstacle, and my whole theory is shot to hell. Maybe it's the old Siskel & Ebert theory, though, that color distracts. I think it was when they talked about It's a Wonderful Life being colorized, and how they pointed out that no one cares about the color of George Bailey's suit, that's not what you should be pondering when he is contemplating jumping off the bridge. Orson Welles said similar things. Black-and-white comics can spark your imagination more by inspiring you to fill in the rainbow on your own.

But I'm digressing. Point is, I don't think there are many stories that inherently require black-and-white--well, except maybe something like You Have Killed Me. (Self-promotion!) I think maybe people are just used to Hopeless Savages that way because that's how it mostly has been.

O’Shea: What was the most enjoyable aspect of getting the Hopeless Savages assignment?

Ross Campbell: Getting my foot in the door with something that was actually fun. That was my first professional comics thing ever, so that was big by itself, but then it being something fun to draw with characters I actually felt like drawing, after hearing horror stories of people having to draw the most boring stuff, I really lucked out.

Christine Norrie: It was my first major comics gig!  Up till then, I'd done little shorts here and there for Action Girl and Disney Adventures, but nothing over six pages.  I really enjoyed getting to see my art narrative expand with the page count.  Plus, it intro'd me to Jamie, Jen VM, Chynna, Andi, and the Oni crew.  Jen gave me so much freedom to create images from her words and Jamie was a great sounding board for any ideas I had.

Bryan Lee O'Malley: Hopeless Savages was the first comic work I ever did that was longer than one issue, so it was a real challenge from top to bottom. I was sort of bouncing ideas off of James that fall (2001) and he was showing them to Jamie. Jamie probably hated all the ideas but figured he could use me for his own purposes. This was really kind of him, since I was a lousy artist, totally inexperienced, constantly late and a major pain in the ass to work with.

Meredith McClaren: Easily everything about it.  I love talking to everyone involved in the series, and the characters are so endearing.

Not to mention being amongst such esteemed artistic ranks.  It wasn't until I read through the entire collection that I realized how many artists I've long admired have had a hand in Hopeless Savages.  To be there with them is deeply humbling and I'm eager to see how I fare.

O’Shea: Hopeless Savages was a unique situation for an artist, as there was typically a flashback artist, a chapter artist and the main story artist. Did you enjoy seeing how the other artists rendered the characters or did you actively avoided looking at the other artists' work for fear of it influencing your approach?

Campbell: I'd already read the first two volumes of the series so I knew the characters, and when I was brought to cover for Christine on Too Much Hopeless Savages issue #4 (I think that was the one), I studied her stuff and made it a point to draw more like her so the look wouldn't seem so jarring. I guess other than that I didn't pay much attention to how the other artists were doing it, and plus I was doing the flashbacks so I had a little more leeway with the designs there.

Norrie: I loved looking everybody’s work as it came in!  I know that Jen's very selective about the artists, she likes to play to their strengths/sensibilities to enhance the characters, so seeing Chynna draw Nikki was very cool, or Bryan doing Zero's romance just seemed really appropriate.  I didn't feel the artists and their take on HS was an influence... and if it was, it would be because they uniquely embellished an aspect that served well.  Chynna's Dirk was untouchable to me, I felt that he would always be in a tee-shirt and jeans forever, so I never changed that.  And although I loved everyone's take on Arsenal, I felt she was more mine... such a complex, multi-faceted character that we would always add and subtract from her be it wardrobe, demeanor, etc.

O'Malley: I was a huge fan of Chynna and Andi and I think I was new to Jen and Christine. Working with all of them was like a beautiful dream, and some of my favourite subjects were high school, rock chicks, dudes with glasses, romance, the suburbs, etc., so it was all perfect on paper. In practice it was very, very hard. Drawing comics is tough, especially for an inexperienced kid, and stacking up against the likes of Watson and Clugston was more and more horrifying as I went on and continued fucking everything up. The year 2002 was not so much like attending comics college as it was like being the new dishwasher in the comics restaurant. It was overwhelming. I was used to noodling around with character sketches and story ideas, and actually taking that to 90-some pages of execution was pretty different.

When I flip through the book, especially the first issue I did, every page feels like it took a month of work. I was overthinking everything, drawing too much, putting in too much stuff, and then butchering it all with the inks.

O’Shea: Who was your favorite character to work with in the stories?

Campbell: Definitely Arsenal, and I also liked drawing Zero as a little kid in the flashbacks I did.

Norrie: I don't know, it kept changing over time.  On one sequence I'd feel certain that Twitch was my fav, then Zero, then Arsenal another time.  I'm fond of the characters that are based on people we actually know.  Weej is Scott Nybakken, a mutual friend who's in DC Comics Collected Editions Dept.  And ohhh, of course, Dusted Bunnies.  You know, Emma is the coolest... she needs her own series.

O'Malley: There are a ton of main characters (what, seven family members, a pile of significant others, teachers, students, band members, TV crew). That led to some really difficult stuff, like dining room scenes where every panel description included actions for 6+ characters. But I guess I like pain, because I always put a lot of characters and crowd scenes in Scott Pilgrim.

O’Shea: Do you feel working on Hopeless Savages had an influence on the stories you would go on to write and develop, or were there other lessons you took away from the experience, not necessarily influence per se?

Campbell: I don't think there was much influence on my writing or on my own characters, no, my stuff's pretty different from Jen's, but I think there was more of a spiritual influence or something, Hopeless Savages was like my trial by fire. It's totally different drawing your own comics on your own time than drawing one that you know is going to be published and that other people are counting on you to do it, Hopeless Savages was my first "holy moly, this is the real deal!!!" experience. I think that's worth a lot.

Norrie: I sort of see HS as the first band you started and you barely know how to play an instrument let alone write songs.  I didn't go to art school, I'd only done anthology shorts, and I happened to fall in with this cool crowd who were supportive as I learned how to arrange together panels and lettering and all of that.  One of my big personal laments is that I learned to play guitar a couple years ago and I'm ashamed that I totally faked Zero making chords.

O'Malley: This book was done long before I discovered photo reference (for, like, houses and cars) and rulers (for straight lines other than panel borders), so it's pretty painful to look at.

Christine Norrie and her sister inked the third issue / chapter, since I was way behind (and fucking it up — I doubt Jamie would contest that). I think I learned a lot from seeing how they inked my lines. In general, a lot of my ideas about how to write and draw grew out of experiences good and bad on this book.

Rich: I would contest what we define as "fucking up.: No one was unhappy with the work Bryan was doing, and I think he held true to form as far as what we had seen with untested cartoonists doing a steady four-issue gig. He grew issue to issue, and was quite skilled by the time he dug himself out of the morass. It was only the schedule he was destroying. At the time, we worked so close to the bone as far as finishing the work and getting it out, it was crazy. As a young publisher, it was primarily a cash flow issue. We couldn't afford to dole out the pittance we were giving our people and then sit on the work and wait for the money to come back. It takes a while to build out that routine, probably something that Oni is only super comfortable with these days, and largely thanks to Bryan's books.

In retrospect, every one of these series was an absolute scheduling nightmare. I forgot that the Norrie girls bailed Bryan out, as that's a rather surprising cavalry. Like calling in the Human Torch to put out a fire. Hopeless Savages had a habit of making everyone go off the rails--except for Andi Watson, but he's British and has that whole steadfast Colonel Blimp thing going on. I guess we were our own version of Hopeless-Savage family, in a way, totally dysfunctional but yet each piece was absolutely vital to making it work precisely because everyone was so unique. Given Bryan's output in the years since, I am more than happy to say the guy completely turned it around and surprised the hell out of me with his dedication and work ethic. He and Ross both got out of this training camp alive and have never done like a book a year since, never flagging. Chynna and Christine, too, even if they've been doing other things, I don't want to suggest they've been living a life of luxury eating bon bons or anything. Well, maybe Christine. She's like Thai royalty or something.

O’Shea: Looking at the collection of stories now, years after you worked on it, are you surprised how the stories hold together or come across to you now (compared to then)? Given that some of you are now parents yourselves or have experienced life changes of other kinds?

Campbell: I haven't looked at the comic again, actually, haha. I didn't even really flip through the new collected book, I did a quick look and everyone else's work on it is great (I really dig that old Bryan O'Malley art!), and I definitely like the volume 1 and 2 stuff I didn't work on, but I hate looking at my old art so I haven't given it a read at all. Even though Jen wrote it and Christine drew the bulk of the volume 3 arc I was a part of, I don't like going back and reading stuff I worked on, especially stuff I did so long ago. On the other hand, now you kinda got me curious so maybe I'll go give it a look, ha.

Norrie: It's a strange trip to go back and look at earlier work.  With this, I'm sort of taken aback at how bloody awful my work is.  But, then I'll wistfully admire little bits and pieces, like Zero's "film" pages or the Hong Kong scenes, and wish I could recreate that same verve now.  And, I drew so much personal stuff in there!  The homes are based on where I was living at the time, t-shirts (and Zero's leopard creepers!) were from my own teen years collection, and a few characters were neighbors or co-workers, etc.

Most of all, Jen's series speaks to me now on a whole new level since I've got a kid of my own and we're unconventional as hell.  She's six years old and a lot like Zero, she digs The Clash, Blondie, and The Killers, has a guitar, and makes up her own words like "earlers" for ears and "clombing" which is to cling/climb, as in 'We totally clombed the trees for hours in Maine..."   So, I'm terribly excited to see the next volume of HS and see what the family and characters are up to these days.

O'Malley: Having just gone through a bunch of press and TV stuff, I'm curious to see how I'd feel about it now, but I can't look at my 2002-era art long enough to read the story.

O’Shea: Also, Meredith had you read Hopeless Savages before garnering this assignment?

McClaren: Yes.  I started out of order though.

Ground Zero hit me at the time in high school when I was beginning to look past manga and towards Western born comics.  It was the right book at the right time and I've had it on the periphery ever since.

O’Shea: After getting to know the characters, what are you most looking forward to drawing?

McClaren: From what has been shared as far as each character's story goes, there's a lot in book 4 to look forward to.  I'm particularly drawn to Zero and Rat, because their journeys are so often driven by identity discovery; but there are other aspects of the story that I already know will be hugely exciting for me.

And, if I'm lucky, I'll get to draw a fight or two as well.

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