By Vernon Miles
What do you remember from high school? Do you remember a paralyzing crush on the rebellious girl in chemistry who was way out your league? Or maybe you remember avoiding the jerks who cornered you in the parking lot, or sneaking out to the party of a friend-of-a-friend whose parents were vacationing.
Do you remember having to beat your friends with a baseball bat to excise the incorporeal little green men possessing their bodies? No?
Maybe things are a little different for every-kid Andy in Burnouts, a new comic series written by Dennis Culver and drawn by Geoffo about a group of teenage delinquents who recognize an alien invasion only when they’re under the “influence.”
“I've always loved stories where there's a hidden unseen world just under the surface of things,” Culver explains. “I also love stories set in high schools. Mean Girls, Brick, She's All That... Seriously: all of them. So coupling those ideas together with some of my own high school experiences brought me to the high concept of Burnouts being something like They Live meets Freaks and Geeks.”
But while Roddy Piper in They Live is a scrappy action hero, Burnouts’ protagonist, Andy, is the furthest thing from that macho extreme. Andy spends most of his day playing video games with his best friends and worrying about what colleges will accept him. But Andy also fears that he’s not living life to its fullest—that all of his academic toil and obsession is robbing him of the abandon and enjoyment only a teenager can fully appreciate. But when he gets invited to an unchaperoned party, Andy sees a chance to change course.
The reticent teen tries to ingratiate himself with the cool kids, but one joint hit sends his life spiralling out of control, far beyond spins and Dorito cravings. Andy suddenly sees some unexpected and uninvited party guests: glowing green aliens possessing the bodies of his fellow partiers. This revelation immediately follows a bigger surprise: the titular Burnouts—a group of low-performing, frequently altered peers that Andy trips into—are a vigilante group that can also see the emerald invaders… and violently beat them out of strangers.
Artist Geoffo says that as soon as he heard the pitch, he felt a connection to Andy. The project also gave him a chance to visualize exotic alien designs invading mundane settings like high schools and house parties. That balance between those two extremes—the surreal and the common—gives the new ongoing comic its unique flavor.
“Andy is me when I was in junior high and high school: quiet, good relationship with his parents, and not looking for trouble,” Geoffo elaborates. “Just wanting to read comics, watch movies, and draw. I definitely didn’t want to get drunk or party hard (even if that stuff was a little tempting)... I always tried to be with the cool kids, the people who smoked and such, except that I didn't smoke at all and barely drank! So, like Andy, I was the outsider among the ‘cool’ kids.”
The cool kids in Burnouts are aliens in their own right. They’re a group of rebellious kids with a bad reputation; they talk back to their teachers and clash with police officers after disturbing the public. For Andy, they’re everything he’s been afraid to be.
“I was definitely friends with all the burnout kids, but not actually a burnout,” Culver says. “They tended to like the same music I did and were into comics, so any port in a storm basically. A lot of the characters in the book are amalgams of people I knew.”
While Burnouts sports a stylized, almost cartoonish aesthetic, Geoffo says he worked to ensure the wayward teens all resembled real-world high school kids, rather than young superheroes. “What I know for sure was that I didn't want them to look like a boy band with perfect sculpted bodies,” Geoffo says. “They are not Captain America, Falcon, or Black Widow. I wanted the [two brothers] to share some common shapes. They have the same nose, the same eyes, same color hair and skin. Then I did different shapes for the face and the body. Same for Andy—he has the nose and face shape of his mother but the eyebrows of his father.”
One of the artist’s key influences for this direction came from Scalped, Jason Aaron and R.M. Guéra's Native American reservation crime epic, where family resemblance makes the world feel more genuine. “In the story, the main character (Dashiell) meets his mother, then, later on, his father. I was struck by how Guéra used the same shapes to emphasize the likeness. Like in real life! Except that I don't see that often in comics,” Geoffo says.
This realism throws Burnouts’ humans in stark contrast with their alien enemies. The invaders may look familiar, and Culver says he deliberately went for the iconic “little grey men” look, but with a more exotic, jellyfish-like body. “All things that are both appealing and also very creepy.”
“At first, I was a bit surprised Dennis wanted to go for that classic alien look, but once Dennis told me about the stoner culture behind it [the alien head is an icon for potheads], I realized it's awesome for our book!” Geoffo says. “I have always been fascinated by the way jellyfish move, with the random moves of the tentacles, so I was really happy to put that movement in Burnouts.”
“Unseen world” and “high school” stories also share a heightened camaraderie between the protagonists—whether they’re ostracized underdogs or sci-fi refugees, each group banding together in the face of seemingly impossible odds. The scales of these two story templates may be superficially different, but the core of unconventional families united by circumstance fuels affection for these characters.
“[The Burnouts are] definitely family,” Geoffo says. “If they can bother each other, throw someone in the dirt for fun, they will—but then they will also pick them up.”
But this dynamic also erects hurdles between Andy and this group. He’s straight-laced, especially compared to the perpetually wasted Burnout crew. He’s solely tied to them through their shared visions of encroaching extraterrestrials, but for all intents and purposes, they’re strangers. Culver says one of his priorities for the story was making sure Andy, and the readers, get to know the characters organically. In the middle of these fantastic circumstances, that grounded high-school alienation makes the alien-bashing stoner vigilantes feel so much more human.
“The way I've been approaching the backstory of the various characters is the same way you learned about your friends in school,” Culver says. “Or at least how I did. No one sat around and explained anything. You'd catch glimpses of your buddy's life if you went over to their house or, more realistically, when something bad happened. Trouble can be very instructive, so we're going to learn a lot about this crew. The Burnouts are family, and that makes it all the harder for our main character, Andy, to join them. They have a rhythm and trust with each other that Andy has to catch up with.”
Burnouts #1 is available in comic shops.