Soupy Leaves Home: a masterpiece of YA graphic storytelling, about hobos on the open road
In Soupy Leaves Home, writer Cecil Castellucci and artist Jose Pimienta expand the borders of young adult graphic novels, telling a moving, inspiring tale of Depression-era hobos, identity, gender, suspicion, solidarity, and the complicated business of being true to yourself while living up to your obligations to others.
I write about Castelucci's work all the time, for good reason: the former punk star is also a beloved YA novelist, picture book creator, prolific comics creator, and even a librettist whose next opera is about hockey and features an actual, on-stage zamboni machine (I am not making this up).
But even in a career spanning so many modes, genres and forms, Soupy is a standout. It's the story of a young girl who, after a savage beating from her father and a victim-blaming from her grandmother, cuts her hair, puts on boys' clothes and takes to the rails with the hobos who crisscrossed America during the Great Depression.
Living as a boy, she befriends a kind and wise old hobo, Ramshackle, and christens herself Soupy, and begins to learn the ways of the open country and the fraternity of walkaway dropouts, who have their own courts, secret runic languages, folk music, social conventions, and lore.
Castellucci and Pimienti do wonderful work with this rich and textured history, showing us a representative sample that proves they know a lot more than they're carefull choosing to show off.
Against that backdrop, we have the adventures of Soupy and Ramshackle, who they both know to be mortally ill, though neither will speak of it (of course, that's not their only secret -- there's the matter of Soupy's true gender, name and history). The secrets loom up between them, even as they forge a friendship that goes beyond mutual aid and into a tender and profound caring.
Ramshackle is a wonderful character, an iconoclastic dreamer who can spin a hobo's luxury out of any hardship, make magic out of junk, dream of better worlds and bring them to life with his words. Under his tutelage, Soupy finds her own inner strength and comes of age.
As the pair move from hobo jungle to hobo jungle, they keep running into Professor, a scarred and ostracized hobo with a reputation for stealing, but who Ramshackle insists should be judged on his own merits, not on his reputation. The intertwined questions of Ramshackle and Soupy's secrets and the Professor's guilt or innocence are the engine of the story, and they bring it to such a sweet and satisfying conclusion that I finished the book with sad/happy tears in my eyes. What a fine thing this book is.
Soupy Leaves Home [Cecil Castellucci, Jose Pimienta and Nate Piekos/Dark Horse]
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