Review: My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips

MyHeroesHaveAlwaysBeenJunkies-1.pngMy Heroes Have Always Been Junkies — set in the world of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ long-running Criminal opus — is a gripping, heart-rending and ultimately tragic graphic novella about Ellie, a denizen of an upscale rehab clinic, who tests the elasticity of morality in a dog-eat-dog world where the roles of hero and villain are seamlessly interchangeable and equally immaterial.

It was purely coincidence I read this right after finishing Mark Brandi’s The Rip, which also stars two drug addicts, albeit in a Melbourne setting, and in the form of prose rather than a graphic novel. The books handle the topic of addiction very differently. My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies presents the romantic idea of substance abuse as Ellie repeatedly name-drops a bunch of famous musicians who used pills and needles to (Ellie believes) fuel their imaginations and thus their capacity to create great art. Ellie doesn’t want to be rehabilitated; she’s stimulated by the idea that “drugs help you find the thing that makes you special,” even though there are occasions when the reader will wonder whether that viewpoint is starting to fracture. My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies never actually presents the darker side of addiction which is precisely where Brandi’s The Rip resides as it explores characters plummeting inexorably towards obliteration.

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies opens with Ellie standing on the beach, reeling from the fateful decision that forms the climax of the text. The narrative flashes back, detailing the events that lead to Ellie’s walk along the sand using Brubaker’s trademark storytelling method of the internal monologue. Ellie is a patient at the Infinite Horizon rehab clinic, locked in a schedule of tedious meetings with other patients only too happy to over share. The only like-minded soul in the place is a handsome young man named Skip, and the two begin a flirtatious relationship which quickly blossoms into a full-blown, but doomed romance. Everybody is someone’s fool, and while Ellie’s fondness for Skip is genuine, it’s complicated by the skeletons in her closet. The story builds toward two questions: whether Ellie and Skip will live happily ever after (which deems doubtful from the very start) and whether Ellie will accept the toxicity of her addiction.

Brubaker’s writing is greatly enhanced, not for the first time, by the artwork of his frequent collaborator Sean Phillips. Previous volumes of Criminal have been punctuated by moments of violence, but My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies is far more nuanced, and Phillips excels at the quieter moments, capturing the emotion of a scene with unparalleled clarity. Brubaker and Phillips remain an iconic duo of the contemporary comics scene.

ISBN: 9781534308466
Format: Hardcover
Number Of Pages: 72
Published: 16th October 2018
Publisher: Image Comics
Country of Publication: US

Review: Velvet, Volume 2 – The Secret Lives of Dead Men by Ed Brubaker & Steve Epting

Velvet CoverRocked by revelations about the worst night of her life (see Velvet, Volume 1: Before the Living End), super-spy Velvet Templeton returns to London to unravel the mystery behind the murder of one of ARC-7’s elite operatives. Naturally, things promptly go ballistic.

Thus far we’ve seen Velvet pivot and weave her way out of most confrontations. Before the Living End presented her as an uber-talented, though rusty from years behind a desk, ARC-7 field operative. She has demonstrated her tactical mind, expert hand-to-hand and small-arms combat, and the ability to think quickly on her feet. Like James Bond, when Velvet Templeton is faced with impossible odds, we expect her to escape. When all seems lost, we expect her to find her way, because that’s what the heroes of spy thrillers do.

The Secret Lives of Dead Men is so impressive because it plays with our expectations. As the story opens, Velvet is certain she’ll be able discover who has turned the agency against her. She has a plan, and as she sets about enacting it, readers feel confident in her ability. That is, until things go awry, slowly at first, then with a swiftness that’s impossible to rectify. Velvet’s seamless scheme suddenly reveals itself to be full of holes. Perhaps our hero isn’t quite the superstar we’d been lead to believe; or rather, it’s impossible to plan for every contingency, and Velvet’s assuredness might actually be a weakness.

The Secret Lives of Dead Men throws Velvet’s quest for answers into a tailspin, and Epting takes full advantage of the grandiose action set-pieces sprinkled throughout Brubaker’s script, while also maintaining his impeccable standards in the quieter moments. The plot is convoluted, but not opaque – Brubaker is the master of dangling plot threads while keeping them from knotting, and a sense of urgency is impressively maintained throughout these pages.

Nobody else in comics is capable of turning in a tighter-plotted and faster-paced thriller than Brubaker and Epting. Velvet continues to be a masterclass.

4 Stars Excellent

ISBN: 9781632152343
Format: Paperback (260mm x 171mm x mm)
Pages: 128
Imprint: Image Comics
Publisher: Image Comics
Publish Date: 2-Jun-2015
Country of Publication: United States

Review: The Fade Out, Volume 1 by Brubaker, Phillips and Breitweiser

The Fade Out

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ latest collaboration from Image Comics mines familiar territory in spectacular fashion. Set in 1948, The Fade Out is a sprawling and ambitious narrative focused primarily on Charlie Parish, a Hollywood writer haunted by wartime memories, who – true to form – has taken to the bottle in a bid to relieve himself of these vivid recollections, thus irreparably damaging the creative spark necessary to succeed in the business. And if that wasn’t bad enough, production on the noir film he’s working on has stalled because of the death of its up-and-coming starlet. Charlie’s alcohol-imbued mind potentially holds the key to unlocking the mystery of her death; but does he truly want to?

Sleeper, Criminal and Fatale honed Brubaker and Phillips’ partnership; The Fade Out raises their bar to an impossible level. The plot is labyrinthine, and Brubaker utilizes deft third-person narration to drive the story; clunky in the hands of less-talented writers, but perfect here. The story involves an extensive cast of characters – some recognizable faces from Hollywood’s yesteryear – and no doubt some plot threads will turn out to be red herrings. Inevitably the role of any first volume is to entice the reader to continue onto the second: that’s guaranteed, here.

The art alternates stylistically depending on the situation, and it’s a wonder to behold. Few, if any, illustrators operating today guarantee the clean and precise storytelling of Phillips’. He’s truly in a class of his own, and is wonderfully aided by the colours of Betty Breitweiser. Together, they capture the feel of late-1940’s Hollywood exactly as I imagine it.

The Fade Out reaffirms Brubaker and Phillips’ status as the numro uno creative team in comics. For crime and mystery readers, it’s an absolute must.

Review: Criminal, Volume 1 -Coward by Brubaker and Phillips

Criminal CowardEd Brubaker and Sean Phillips’s Criminal is a delightfully unpretentious crime series: it unabashedly embraces its noir roots, unembroidered by cheap theatrics or anomalous twists. Its various volumes, now published by Image for the first time in redesigned editions, are imbued with its creators’ regard for the genre, and represent the pinnacle of their respective careers. Coward is our entry into this dark, rain-drenched, graffiti-daubed world; professional thief Leo is our guide.

Leo is a criminal who knows when to walk away – or run, in the worst case scenario – from a job. And because of his proclivity for caution – his determination to survive – Leo has been dubbed a coward. And he’s okay with that – mostly. Because ultimately, he’s still here, while many of his friends are not. So now, five years after his last big heist went terribly awry, Leo works alone, pulling small jobs; enough to get by financially, and support his father-figure’s drug habit. It’s not a happy life, but he’s living, and for Leo, that’s enough. Of course, things soon change when figures from Leo’s past return, bringing him back into the fold: a big job with a massive payoff, surely too good to be true. But Leo should’ve trusted his reservations and walked away. Because there’s nobody you can trust less than a cop on the take; especially one with nothing to lose.

Coward reads like a Parker novel (although Leo isn’t quite as menacing as Richard Stark’s protagonist) – fast-paced, populated with a menacing cast, and punctuated with moments of brutal violence; vicious, but not gratuitous. Brubaker, Phillips, and Val Staples on colours, are operating at their zenith, demonstrating harmony on the coloured page. There is no better crime comic than Criminal; there are few better crime stories than Coward, period.

Image Comics
9781632151704

Review: Velvet, Volume 1 – Before the Living End by Ed Brubaker & Steve Epting

Velvet Before the Living EndBesides her most recent incarnation in Skyfall, the Miss Moneypenny who has existed in more than 60 years of James Bond continuity has been entirely deskbound; a pining secretary, who absorbed 007’s innuendo and traded witticisms with the licensed-to-kill agent. For the most part, the character has been entirely disposable, save for the occasional stinging rejoinder at Bond’s expense; moments to saviour, for they were few and far between. But what if there was more to Moneypenny than the insipid qualities she routinely brandished? Skyfall opened the door to an alternative take on the secretary, and we’ll see where that goes in the franchise’s next installment – but Ed Brunaker and Steve Epting latch onto that notion and run with it full throttle. The result, this first volume of their monthly comic series Velvet, titled BEFORE THE LIVING END, is a fantastic spy-thriller, with shades of Ian Fleming’s inimitable protagonist, but stands comfortably apart on its own pedestal.

The creative partnership of Brubaker and Epting resonates in comics. Together, the writer and artist redefined Captain America, and their long run on the title has become definitive; for the foreseeable future, every creator’s take on the shield-wielding patriot will be paralleled to theirs. But VELVET allows Brubaker and Epting to break from the confines of corporate characters – there’s no holding back. Storytelling choices, both artistic and regarding script, are executed in magnificent tandem. The plot unravels with the deftness of a John le Carré novel, but punctuated with the adrenaline-fueled bursts of a Robert Ludlum or Matthew Reilly thriller, while Brubaker keeps the dialog succinct, his trademark noir vibe permeating the necessary exposition. Epting’s artwork has never looked better, his layouts carefully considered, allowing for a seamless reading experience. Character interactions are embellished with incredibly detail; emotions play across their faces with unparalleled finesse. And the action is choreographed to perfection, whether it’s hand-to-hand combat or a 007-esque car chase scene, you won’t find better execution elsewhere in comics.

BEFORE THE LIVING END throws all the elements of a successful spy story into the mix, but it never feels overtly derivative, beyond the connotations Brubaker and Epting purposefully highlight.  Set in 1973 (but with plenty of flashbacks) Velvet Templeton is an ex field agent (or “X-Operative”) turned personal assistant to the Director of the clandestine agency ARC-7. When one of the agency’s top X-Operative is killed in Paris, Velvet sits in on the debrief, and decides to personally investigate the murder – which ends up seeing her marked as the killer and a traitor. Velvet flip-flops from inactive to active in the space of twenty pages, and BEFORE THE LIVING END is propelled by her determination to find out who set her up and murdered her fellow agent.

Velvet is not the young buxom blonde one might associate with a super-spy heroine. For one thing, she’s older than that stereotype suggests – closer to her forties than her twenties – and she’s not infallible. Despite the theatrics – and there are many – Velvet is a normal-bodied agent, out of touch, and slower than she once was. As the story flits from present to past, the changes in her body and mind are demonstrated through Epting’s art. Velvet remains beautiful throughout, but the slight changes highlights the attention to detail this creative team has taken with this project.

VELVET is a fantastic new series from Image Comics, and merely the foundation of something brilliant from Brubaker and Epting. This volume’s finale has me waiting with baited breath for the next; in the interim, I guarantee I’ll enjoy more than a few re-reads of BEFORE THE LIVING END.