Brubaking Bad: Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips Reading List
The crime genre of comic books came into existence in the 1940s and became extremely popular after the decline in interest of superhero comics post WWII. Due to the Comics Code Authority imposed in 1954, the amount and type of crime used in comic books was severely limited which caused the death of the genre. In the last 25 years or so, there has been a resurgence of the genre with a large variety of amazing creators making their mark and bringing life back to a genre that had been dead years ago.
Two creators that have been at the forefront of the crime/noir crime genre with their own patented style are: Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. The duo began their partnership, along with Michael Lark, on a book called Scene of the Crime, originally published 1999 by Vertigo. This is written by Ed Brubaker, pencils by Michael Lark, Inks by Sean Phillips and Lark, and colors by James Sinclair. Looking back at this limited series from a current perspective, while the series is very solid it was early in the careers of all involved and it is a bit rough around the edges.
The premise of the book is that private investigator, Jack Herriman is hired to track down a missing person in the San Francisco area and we follow along as Jack goes through twists and turns on his journey to uncover the whereabouts of Maggie Jordan. Art is much brighter than what we’ve seen from Lark or Phillips in years after, pencils also being a bit rougher, although I’m sure purposely. The story does not have the noir/pulp feel that collaborations between Brubaker and Phillips are known for, instead it has a much more modern approach that really reminds me of a title from Greg Rucka, Stumptown. It is definitely a solid series that warrants a read, especially when one considers the state of crime comics at the time. Brian Michael Bendis, a friend of Ed Brubaker, had been also working on some crime oriented stories, i.e. AKA Goldfish, Jinx, but besides a few titles here and there, there was not much being published in the crime fiction/noir genre.
The first entry into the strictly Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips collaboration was Sleeper, initially published in 2003 by DC comics under the Wildstorm banner. The series exists in the Wildstorm universe and is actually a spinoff from the Point Blank limited series that followed the Wildcats character, Grifter and John Lynch from Gen13. The actual Sleeper title follows Holden Carver, an operative placed in deep undercover in a criminal organization that is led by Tao. Holden is placed undercover by his mentor, John Lynch after Holden is given powers after an encounter with an alien artifact. This is the first collaborative title that introduced a lot of the noir themes the duo are known for. A reluctant hero, the femme fatale, and a general supporting cast of morally ambiguous characters. I would say one of the most important facets of the noir genre, besides being dark and gritty and in perpetual rain, is that the none of the characters are ever these perfect examples of humanity, characters like Steve Rogers or Clark Kent, instead the characters are always fractured, multi layered people whose personality characteristics stem from some kind of trauma from years ago. An approach that arguably is more realistic than found in a typical super hero story from Marvel or DC comics. One of my favorite recurring story elements that Brubaker throws in here is the origin story, the supporting cast of criminals take turns as the issues go on giving their version of their “origin story,” which is a bit of dig to the origin stories from superheroes but done in a semi humorous way, and is also interesting to see from the perspective of a criminal.
Following Sleeper, Brubaker and Phillips released what is probably their most critically acclaimed series to date, Criminal. Initially published in 2006 by the Icon imprint from Marvel Comics. The series is similar to that of Frank Miller’s Sin City in that multiple short stories exist in the same universe but are not necessarily set in chronological order. These frees up worries of continuity as characters that may have died in one story are free to appear in others. The first story is titles Coward, a 5 issue story arc that follows Leopold Patterson, referred to as Leo throughout, who happens to be the son of a very well known and respected pickpocket/criminal. The story has more of a heist feel as Leo is approached by crooked cops to steal police evidence with a high value, of course nothing is as simple as it seems and Leo is forced to do what he does best, survive. The Coward storyline was followed up by Lawless, a story that follows Tracy Lawless. Originally a native to Central City, he went to serve in US Army to help his younger brother not be sent to juvie, he returns after hearing that his younger brother Ricky was killed 9 months earlier while working with a crew of criminals. This story is more of a revenge tale as Tracy returns to his home town in hopes to find his brothers killer and get his revenge. Again we see the similar elements as Leo and Tracy are much more complicated character than they may appear initially. Leo comes off as a coward to others but we find that its not cowardice, its his fear of unleashing what he has inside of him and losing control. It’s also worth noting that none of the stories presented within the Criminal series have a good or bad ending, as the plot progresses twists and turns appear and nothing as simple as its first presented and by the end of the tale the characters find themselves in state they never thought they’d find. Tracy was set on revenge but learns after all his efforts that revenge may not really exist, not in a place like Central City. These two storylines make up what is considered to be “volume 1” of Criminal which ended in late 2007.
In early 2008, Criminal returned with two more storylines, The Dead and Dying and Bad Night. Here Brubaker starts experimenting with structure as The Dead and Dying storyline is composed of three standalone issues that follow different characters, the first issue follows Jake Brown, a prizefighter and son of Clevon Brown who was the right hand man of Walter Hyde. We also see Sebastian Hyde, son of Walter Hyde, who happens to be a childhood friend of Jake Brown. Here we establish how the Hyde family, who make appearances throughout the various storylines, gained control of Central City and also meet the main character in the third issue, Danica, who happens to be the femme fatale that gets in between these two childhood friends. The second issue follows Teegar Lawless in 1972 as he returns to Central city after serving in the US Army in the Vietnam war. Teegar Lawless is the father of the Tracy Lawless, the central character of the second storyline, Lawless, who happened to have been murdered by Tommy Patterson, father of Leo Patterson who is the central character of the first story line, Coward. It’s really amazing how well Brubaker is able to create these storylines that are seemingly unrelated and take place in different times but actually flesh out this universe that he has created. All three central character fall into the same noir characterization, none really falling into a villain or hero role. It’s really just tragedy and hardship that force them to live a life they didn’t really intend. In the case of Jake Brown, he’s a prize fighter hoping to leave the criminal world behind but is forced back into it after tragic events and his loyalty to old family ties.
Bad Night, is a 4 issue story that follows Jacob, the artist behind the Frank Kafka PI comic newstrips that appear in the first two Criminal storylines. He suffers from insomnia and one unfortunate night he runs into a couple who get into a violent argument at the diner where he goes to when he cant sleep. Iris, the stories femme fatale takes off and Jacob goes after her to help. He does but unfortunately is dragged into Iris and her boyfriends scheme to impersonate an FBI agent. This story is actually very different from the previous ones and actually is more of a thriller than a noir crime tale. There are twists and turns in the situation between Jacob, Iris, and Danny and later Detective Starr is introduced who apparently has been on the hunt for Iris and Danny and further complicates the situation. This is the first story from Brubaker and Phillips where I really had no idea what was going to come next, although some of the characters fell into the same noir archetypes, there was some ambiguity in the characterization that made it really hard to predict the outcome. This was one of the most surprising stories to come from these series.
Shortly after Criminal was set aside for a short hiatus in November of 2008, Brubaker and Phillips released another series, Incognito published by the Icon imprint from Marvel Comics in December of 2008. The initial volume composed of 6 issues and later was followed up by another run of 5 issues in 2010 that took place after the events of volume 1. Although this is technically a crime series, this takes more influence from pulp magazines that were popular in the late 1890s and into the 1940’s. The universe this series inhabits is full of the bombastic exaggerated characters the pulp genre was known for, with super powered individuals who fall into the villain and hero archetypes and have existed since the early 19th century. This is also a particularly interesting story as the protagonist is put into the witness protection program after he is seemingly crossed by his employer, The Black Death. From my experience with superhero titles from various publishers, this is not something that has been explored very much. Generally in series that come from either DC or Marvel Comics, villains seem to come and go from imprisonment and consequences seem to go by the wayside in an effort to perpetuate the ongoing nature of superhero series. Here we see a super powered individual, Zack Overkill, try to reintegrate into society as an ordinary individual. It is also worth noting that there is also a very large tonal shift from the initial issues to the later issues, as the first couple of issues deal with Zack dealing with his ordinary life in an office setting and later deal with him regaining his powers. After realizing that he has regained his powers, that are being repressed by his parole officer via drugs, after experimenting with illegal narcotics, he fights the urge to return to his old criminal ways and instead uses his powers to help people. One of the only few noir themes that this does fall into, Zack begins to fall into the role of the reluctant hero with a dark past. As he begins to search for situation in where he can step in and help people, and also use his powers, his presence is revealed to The Black Death which leads to a series of events the pieces of Zack’s history and true origin are revealed which causes the series to quickly delve into the pulp style. In my opinion, although this ends up being a very entertaining story, Incognito ultimately fails to bring the great depth in both plot and characterization that other efforts by this duo succeed in, due to the nature of the pulp influence.
The hiatus between Incognito volume 1 and volume 2 occurred so that Brubaker and Phillips could go and work on the third volume of the Criminal series. This volume arguably includes the best and most critically acclaimed story, The Last of the Innocent. Big fans of Ed Brubaker should be familiar with his love of the Archie comics and should not be completely surprised by his use of the style within this story. While it may be a bit jarring at first, here Brubaker uses Archie comics styled panels whenever we flashback to the central characters childhood, Riley Richards. Ultimately what Brubaker accomplished in doing so is show the innocence, or perceived, in Riley’s early memories of his small town upbringing with his childhood friends. At first we are to identify with Riley, feel sorry for him and understand how tortured he is in the “perfect” life he created for himself. But slowly Brubaker masterfully removes the veil and we see that maybe those fond clean memories of his upbringing weren’t as innocent as he remembered. It’s amazing how he can create a story that falls into cliché archetypes but somehow add a new perspective and make the entire thing seem new. The plot in The Last of the Innocent isn’t anything new, Riley was the small town hero that married the perfect girl, got the perfect job and setup a great life in the big city. Of course he realizes that what he always wanted didn’t actually turn out to be as great as he had hoped and succumbs to all the great temptations the city life has to offer. He also finds himself obsessed with his fond memories of the past and so he crafts a complex scheme to try and escape his current life and shift back to the path he could have taken had he stayed in his small home town. The difference here though, is that it’s so easy to identify with Riley’s disenchantment with his current life and his nostalgia for what could have been. It’s something that I’m sure most of us feel, we recall great memories from our childhood, high school and college years and remember the hopeful enthusiasm we possessed back then but because of the way the veil is slowly lifted from the flashbacks and show that those fond memories of Riley’s weren’t quite as innocent as he remembered, it’s really hard not to think about our memories and think were those times really that great, or do I just think they were? It’s definitely a story that should leave you thinking for days to come and for that it’s probably Brubaker and Phillip’s best work to date.
The duo’s latest and probably best selling series was introduced in 2012; Fatale, published by Image comics. Currently being published on a monthly basis and on issue #17 as of this writing. This series is a huge departure from previous series for a few reasons. First, the central character is actually the femme fatale, Josephine, and secondly while the previous series were structured in volumes, seasons or a series of collected stories as in Criminal, this is an ongoing. While there are shifts in setting and tone, the changes happen organically and without a pause we’ve seen in the other series. Also, this is a mix of a horror pulp style and the noir themes that we’ve seen in the other series, and the result is fantastic. The story jumps around in timelines and in perspective as Jo is shown to have a supernatural effect on men who are uncontrollably drawn to her and so some arcs deal with events through their perspective. The beginning of the series starts off with a great mystery as the focus is not on Jo and follows Nicolas Lash in the current timeline, who stumbles on a mystery after his godfather, Dominic Raines, passes away and leaves an unpublished manuscript behind. We also flashback to 1956 as Hank Raines begins to get tangled in a love triangle between him, Jo and a crooked cop. The plot begins to gravitate more and more toward the horror influences as it goes along. Where cults and the origins of Jo’s supernatural effects on men start being explained and result in some scenes that are definitely more graphic than we’ve seen in the duo’s previous series. With issue #12, standalone issues are introduced as we begin to explore events that occurred in various timelines, this would actually be a great jumping on point for any readers out there who may want to begin reading Fatale without starting at issue 1.