The Best Bad Influences

Drumhellar and Broad City

by Matthew Derman

27 February 2014

Drumhellar's main character, Drum, and one of Broad City's two leads, Ilana, are both what could and would normally be considered bad influences—they push their friends to do dangerous things for the sake of excitement or discovery.

There aren’t a lot of obvious parallels or connections between Image Comics’ new book Drumhellar and Comedy Central’s new show Broad City. The former is a psychedelic fantasy mystery, starring a man who uses the visions he sees while hallucinating on various substances to try and make the world a better place; the latter is a goofy-yet-grounded comedy about two young women trying to define themselves as adults while still having some childlike fun. The two series have different mediums, sensibilities, aesthetics, genres, and missions. Yet in their characters can be found a common spirit, an attitude both series share that supports adventure and positivity in similar ways.

Drumhellar’s main character, Drum, and one of Broad City’s two leads, Ilana, are both what could and would normally be considered bad influences—they push their friends to do dangerous things for the sake of excitement or discovery, often leading to trouble big and/or small. They could be grating characters, then, what with manipulating things to get their way, ignoring the needs of others, and generally refusing to grow up or be responsible. But both Drum and Ilana have a core good-heartedness, a fundamental desire for everyone to be happy and get what they want all the time, which makes it easy to forgive their flaws in favor of applauding their best features. They may not always go in the safest, smartest directions, but they always pick interesting routes, and they do so with the best of intentions. When they screw up, they wish they’d done better, and in the end all they’re after is to enjoy themselves and have the rest of the world do the same. That goal and the earnestness with which they chase it are what make Drum and Ilana endearing rather than annoying.

Drum is a bit of a wanderer, letting his hallucinogen-induced visions lead him, trusting in them to take him wherever he needs to be. In his own mind, and perhaps in reality, Drum is particularly adept at interpreting these visions, reading the signs they provide and acting accordingly. How much of that is true insight, how much is coincidence, and how much, if any, is just Drum’s perpetual delusion isn’t always clear, but he does manage to get himself mixed up in some pretty crazy stuff. Dinosaur ghosts, the restless spirits of unjustly slain friends trying to find proof of a soul in the entrails of cows, and a radio DJ who ages backwards physically while remaining an adult in mind are just the three wackiest items on a long list of bizarre events and characters with which Drum gets involved. Why? Because he wants to help, to put the dinosaur ghosts to rest and assist in the search for bovine souls and stop the DJ from disappearing entirely. Drum believes he has the skills and the inside information to give everybody what they’re after, to be the Wizard of his personal Oz. More often than not, he’s right, at least in the four issues that have been published so far.

Ilana, though she has a fixed address, is also known to wander, at least mentally. When something bores or bothers her, she tends to jump to the next subject, breezing past any moments that don’t entertain and delight. To her, those are just the things you have to survive in order to get back to the parts of life worth living: friends, parties, sex, drugs, etc. Not just fun-loving, Ilana is fun-worshipping, prioritizing a good time above all else. She has a job but refuses to work, not solely out of laziness, but because for Ilana, it is play that has value, and work that’s a waste of time, a distraction from what matters. A daylong attempt to do her own taxes becomes a series of hangout sessions with various friends in various locations that ends with all of her tax paperwork completely destroyed. Not only does Ilana not mind, she barely notices, and ends up throwing the papers in the garbage half-accidentally. She already got what she wanted out of “doing her own taxes,” namely a day’s worth of amusement, so actually finishing the process serves no purpose. Getting a refund or obeying the law are the furthest things from her mind, because who cares about any of that heavy, serious, stressful noise? The point of any activity is to have fun, so anytime she does is a success.

In Drum’s single-minded pursuit of new magical beings in need, and Ilana’s equally focused hunt for fun, they both end up pulling others into their efforts. Drum is constantly accompanied by Harold, a not-clearly-defined supernatural entity who used to be Drum’s human assistant before “the incident,” but is now floating purple energy in the shape of a bear/cat/raccoon/similar small animal. Harold does seem to enjoy himself as Drum’s sidekick, and the two of them have a nice chemistry, a classic buddy relationship where they challenge and support one another in equal turn. At the same time, it’s highly likely and heavily implied that Drum had a hand in whatever happened to make Harold into the ethereal creature he is now, unable to touch or feel or be even seen or heard by very many people other than Drum. And as Drum himself points out, once Harold was stuck in that state, he didn’t have a lot of options as far as the rest of his life. Hanging with Drum all the time may be fun for Harold, but it’s also a position he’s more or less trapped in because of Drum’s messing in forces greater than himself.

A more reluctant ally in Drum’s quest to improve existence is Padma, a naturopath with whom Drum has a romantic history. Once quite enamored of Drum, Padma has now known him long enough to see his less appealing qualities, his unreliability and emotional isolation. He may be a great help to strangers with crazy problems, but more normal, human relationships elude him, and Padma’s been burned before (literally…Harold set her house on fire). When Drum rolls back into Padma’s life, in search of plants because he recently lost all of his drugs in a bet, she pushes back at first, trying to dismiss him and send him away. Her protests bounce off of him, because he’s not interested in things that run counter to his visions and the places they take him. So he sticks around despite Padma’s initial reaction, and the longer he does so, the more she softens to the idea, until eventually she’s actively helping him. Like with Harold, it’s not an altogether unpleasant experience for Padma, following Drum into the insanity, but it’s also not what she would’ve chosen for herself. Drum’s presence and persistence are enough to change the course of her life, however temporarily.

If Ilana has a Harold, it’s her best friend Abbi, but their dynamic isn’t quite the same. Ilana and Abbi are equals in every sense, partners through and through. Ilana is just a little more energized and bold where Abbi is cautious, so Ilana is usually the one leading the charge into the unknown/risky situations, sometimes alone but, as often as possible, with Abbi by her side. They always make it out alive and they always have some amount of fun, but there are also a lot of close calls, stressful situations, and sometimes-devastating failures. Abbi’s life is certainly more exciting and colorful for having Ilana in it, exposing Abbi with a certain degree of forcefulness to things she probably wouldn’t experience on her own. But things are also a lot more chaotic with Ilana in the picture, because she’s an agent of chaos, a part she plays knowingly and with great relish.

Another character who gets swept up in Ilana’s freewheeling ways is Lincoln, her friend casual sex partner who would rather be in a committed relationship with her. Ilana’s not even considering monogamy, and Lincoln knows it, yet he holds out hope that he can sway her, and in the meantime he submits to the purely physical relationship she’s after. He appreciates what he can get, because he likes to be with her in any capacity; they get along and have a natural ease with one another, so all their time is quality time. But while he may like the current situation, it’s not what Lincoln truly wants. It’s what Ilana wants, and her unbending will makes it so.

Whether they like it or not, the people closest to Drum and Ilana are inevitably affected by their reckless confidence and overwhelming drive. But because that drive is fueled by a desire to bring good and fun into existence, and because both Drum and Ilana do succeed at what they’re each trying to do, the folks who get tangled up in it look past the downside and focus on the benefits of having such wild cards around. And Drum and Ilana are both quite honest about their shortcomings, able to recognize when they’ve made a mistake or acted selfishly. It doesn’t stop them from doing it again, because recognizing a character flaw is not the same as being able to fix it, but they admit they’re far from perfect. They just believe in their personal philosophies strongly enough to keep going the way they always have in spite of whatever problems they know they might create. Drum is devoted to his visions, Ilana to her good times, and whatever prices they or even their friends might pay are worth it in the long run.

Is that a good message, that we should pursue our own desires no matter the cons or what it might to do those around us? Probably not, but I think that’s the wrong takeaway from Drum and Ilana, the wrong part of their commonality to focus on. The reason they can behave the way they do while remaining compelling, genuinely likable, sympathetic protagonists is that the things they chase after are so wholly positive, and they themselves are beacons of positivity. Drum and Ilana exist in worlds too different from our own to apply their bullheaded attitudes directly to real life and expect the same results. What should rub off on the audience, though, and what I personally look up to in these characters, is their unrelenting optimism, their belief that, even if they ruin things at first, they can and will make it better. There’s always another hallucination to provide answers, another wild night out somewhere in the city, another chance to add some good to the world. Drum and Ilana may go to extreme measures to achieve this, but they get to because they’re fictional. Taken down a notch or two and mixed in with a bit more flexibility, their firmly positive outlooks are something to strive for. Nobody gets anywhere worthwhile without running into some obstacles, and what Drumhellar and Broad City remind us is that those obstacles don’t have to have to be walls, they can just be minor speed bumps, depending on how you choose to travel.

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