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: Black Magick Vol. 1 – Awakening by Greg Rucka and Nicola Scott

9781632156754Part police procedural, part supernatural thriller, the first volume of Greg Rucka and Nicola Scott’s Black Magick is a standout on every level — possibly the best work of their careers — and will leave readers eagerly waiting the follow-up.

Rowan Black is a detective with the Portsmouth Police Department — and a practicing witch. Not the type that dons a black hat and flies on a broomstick; no, contemporary witchcraft is a tad subtler than that. Still, Rowan has always struggled to keep both aspects of her life separate, and when she becomes the target of a mysterious organisation with a keen interest in the supernatural, everything she holds dear comes under threat.

Nicola Scott’s art is the true highlight of Black Magick — which takes nothing away from Rucka’s script, his characterisations, or the overarching plot, all of which are truly stellar — it’s just … wow. Superlatives are reserved for work like this. Scott utilises a unique grey wash, with only slight traces of colour, to great effect; and her panels are hyper-detailed, and her pages effectively constructed, to make this a real pleasure to read. It’s hyperbolic sure, but there’s no question: these pages confirm Nicola Scott’s status as the best artist working in comics.

A gripping page-turner from beginning to end, Rucka and Scott’s first instalment in their “witch noir” series is an absolute blast. They might not have created a new genre, but they sure as hell have redefined it. Forgive the pun, but Black Magick is absolutely spellbinding, and one of the best things I’ve read all year.


ISBN: 9781632156754
Format: Paperback
Pages: 128
Imprint: Image Comics
Publisher: Image Comics
Publish Date: 3-May-2016
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Southern Bastards, Volume 2 – Gridiron by Jason Aaron and Jason Latour

Southern Bastards Vol 2 coverThe first volume of Jason Aaron and Jason Latour’s Southern Bastards (There Was a Man) introduced us to the seedy, corrupted Craw County and its most feared resident, Euless Boss, who quite literally took matters into his own hands when returning resident Earl Tubb started brewing trouble. When Tubb stumbled back into town and witnessed the sheer brutality of Boss’s reign, he tried to take matters into his own hands and deal with the trouble head on. That decision had fatal consequences, and demonstrated the unabashed sadism of the town’s high school football coach. But such savagery isn’t implanted in a man’s psychosis from birth; it needs to be cultivated and fine-tuned; sharpened like a stick, ready to stab. Southern Bastards, Volume 2: Gridiron delves into Coach’s Boss past and explores the troubles that played him as a young boy; how a warped love of football turned him into the monster we know he’ll become.

While my interest in football (unless it’s of the round ball variety) is infinitesimal, I can appreciate a man’s love of sport, particularly that of a school senior, who mightn’t have the natural talent to guarantee a college scholarship, but has the guts and determination to overcome that lack of guile. Young Euless Boss is mocked from his very first try-out. Quite simply, he’s not very good, but his body is a weapon, and he is willing and very able to throw it around for the benefit of the team – not that anyone’s thankful for it. Boss has clearly had a tough childhood; a criminal father, no friends, no real aspirations beyond success on the football field. It would appear he’s on the fast-track to nowhere; fate has signed, sealed and delivered his beginning, middle, and end. But Euless Boss doesn’t know when he’s beaten. Losing’s never been an option.

Jason Aaron doesn’t make Boss a sympathetic character – having witnessed his actions in There Was a Man, that would be impossible – but he does mould this beast into something that is at least recognizable; a tangible facsimile of mankind at its worst. Gridiron is comprised of several key character moments, some outrageous but the majority are subtle, and Jason Latour illustrates these with style, utilizing a red colour palette to absolute perfection. His characters are ugly, which is apt for the landscape, and his storytelling ability panel-to-panel is top notch. By design it’s not pretty to look at, but the workmanship is of the highest quality.

Southern Bastards, Volume 2: Gridiron maintains the quality of the series’ first volume and adds essential context to its grand antagonist. With it out of the way, Aaron and Latour are free to explore the consequences of Boss’s actions at the end of Volume 1. It’s going to be bloody. It’s going to be great.

4 Stars Excellent

ISBN: 9781632152695
Format: Paperback (260mm x 171mm x mm)
Pages: 128
Imprint: Image Comics
Publisher: Image Comics
Publish Date: 12-May-2015
Country of Publication: United States

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 United States of Murder Inc. Vol. 1: Truth by Bendis and Oeming

United States of Murder IncThe Eisner Award-winning team behind the mega-hit Powers have reunited for The United States of Murder Inc., an ultra-violent alternate history crime story in which the five families of organized crime never lost their stranglehold on the United States. The nation is effectively split down the middle, and co-exist uneasily, a brittle truce between both sides. Expectations were naturally astronomically high for Bendis and Oeming’s new series, and the first volume of The United States of Murder Inc., Truth, delivers in spades.

Truth opens with Valentine Gallo becoming a ‘made man’ of the Bonavese family. Following a decadent celebration – booze, women, and whatever else we weren’t privy to off-panel – Valentine is handed his first task. He is to deliver a package – a seemingly innocuous briefcase – to a United States senator at The Ambassador hotel in Washington D.C. Of course, in fiction there is no such thing as an innocuous briefcase…

Indeed, moments after he steps out the door, a fireball erupts from The Ambassador, reducing the building to rubble. The uneasy truce that has existed between the United States Government and its corrupt opposite is suddenly under threat. Now both sides want Valentine to pay. His only ally is the trigger-happy hitwoman, Jagger Rose, who demonstrates an alarming propensity for killing Valentine’s friends.  But following an earth-shattering revelation from his mother, the newly made man finds it increasingly difficult to separate friend from foe.

The dialogue crackles, as we’ve come to expect from a Bendis scribed comic; but more than, the plot zips along at a fantastic pace. At times, especially in his late-Avengers work, I felt Bendis occasionally treaded water – six issue story arcs could be reduced to four or five – but there is no sign of that here. In The United States of Murder Inc. he packs each chapter with new characters, locations, and reveals; and Oeming renders them with dynamism only he is capable of. Truth is violent and bloody, but Oeming’s artwork – about as far away from realistic as you can get – ensures these moments are palatable rather than gratuitous.

The first volume of The United States of Murder Inc. sets up an incredibly vibrant world, and ends with the kind of cliffhanger that’ll make the long wait for its next installment excruciating.

Review: Lazarus Vol. 3 – Conclave by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark

Lazarus Volume 3Conclave is the third volume in Greg Rucka and Michael Lark’s sci-fi epic Lazarus, and the series continues to fire on all cylinders, seamlessly blending fascinating world-building with character development, and a labyrinth plot. There’s been a resurgence of science fiction in recent years – Black Science, Copperhead, Saga, to name just a few – but Lazarus is in a class of its own.

For those who came in late, Lazarus takes place on a world divided by wealth rather than political or geographical boundaries. Sixteen families control various locations; some are allied, others have uneasy alliances, while some function with outright hostility. Those who provide a service for a family are protected and ‘lifted’ to the status of Serf, which guarantees them, and their loved ones, a level of comfort and care unattainable for the rest of the population, who are left to fend for themselves: thus their designation, Waste.

Forever is the genetically engineered protector of the Carlyle family – their Lazarus – who, following events in the series’ first two volumes, is beginning to question her familial alliance, and at an inopportune time, too, as the first conclave between the world’s 16 families has been called in order to repair the seemingly irrevocable conflict between the Family Carlyle and the Family Hock. The families meet on the luxurious Triton One, where negotiations quickly descend into violence, and Forever is forced into undesirable action against a fellow Lazarus. In the past, that wouldn’t be a problem: she is the Family Carlyle’s sword, it is her duty to fulfil her father’s wishes. But does Forever still believe in the veracity of her obligation?

Rucka and Lark are again in fine form. One quickly runs out of superlatives in this reviewing business, but these creators deserve them. Rucka’s an expert at removing all exposition and letting his artist portray what needs to be, and Lark never disappoints. Conclave is yet another display of their brilliant partnership. However long Lazarus lasts, it won’t be long enough. I want this team together for the long haul.

Maintaining its nuanced approach, Lazarus, Vol. 3: Conclave maintains the series’ momentum. I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you haven’t jumped aboard the Lazarus train, you need to. We’ll be talking about it for the next few decades as it secures placements in umpteen “Best Of” lists. Don’t miss out.

Review: Copperhead – Volume 1 by Jay Faerber and Scott Godlewski

Copperhead Volume 1Imagine Justified set in a Star Wars-esque galaxy: that’s Copperhead in a nutshell. But if derivative comparisons aren’t your thing, let me save you some time: Jay Faerber and Scott Godlewski’s new science fiction series is brilliant. It’s brimming with imagination, has a colourful cast of characters, features plenty of action, but essentially, packs plenty of heart. At a time when Image Comics is constantly redefining comics’ Gold-Standard, Copperhead is up there with the very best the medium has to offer.

Single mother Clara Bronson is the new sheriff of a rundown mining town – Copperhead – on the edge of a backwater planet. Before she’s had a chance to settle in and placate her resentful deputy, she’s thrown into her first case: the massacre of an entire family, and the theft of their most prized possession. And as an increasing number of suspects enter the fray, her son, Zeke, finds himself in the crosshairs of a potential killer…

The imagery in Copperhead is stunning. Scott Godlewski and Ron Riley team up to perfectly render the world’s desolate landscape, and clearly had fun creating the assortment of alien creatures and technology displayed on these pages. They employ fantastic use of negative space, and the action is dynamically and brutally captured. Faerber has maintained his uncanny knack of locating talented artists just waiting for the right ‘breakout’ project. Copperhead is certainly Godlewski’s.

Copperhead: Volume 1 hints at a wider universe and its history without delving into too many specifics. This is serial fiction, after all; information will be teased out gradually as Copperhead continues. Like its characters, there’s depth to this world; we don’t know the extent of it, but it feels like a living, breathing galaxy, with a backstory we’re not yet privy to. And speaking of backstory, Clara’s is shrouded in mystery, too; what events from her past have landed her this deadbeat assignment? Where’s her ex-husband? And why is she so protective of Zeke, to the extent he’s not allowed outside their home without her? These are all mysteries waiting to be revealed.

And when they are revealed, I’ll be there, guaranteed. Copperhead: Volume 1 has hooked me in for the long haul.

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

Review: Starlight by Millar and Parlov

StarlightStarlight is an action-packed throwback to the cosmic swashbuckling adventures of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, but with its own unique twist.

Forty years ago, United States Air Force pilot Duke McQueen was inadvertently transported to the world of Tantalus, which is suffering under vicious tyrannical rule. Taking matters into his own hands, he single-handedly rescued the planet from its dictator, Typhon, thereby cementing himself in their lore: an eternal legend in their eyes. Duke returned home, a hero in the eyes of millions – but considered a delusional chump to people back home. Unfortunately our planet doesn’t receive intergalactic media transmissions…

Only his wife believes his stories, but at the very start of Starlight she has recently passed away, leaving Duke alone, with nothing but his fading memories, and two aloof sons. Writer Mark Millar and artist Gorlan Parlov excel at highlighting Duke’s insolation, and his status as the punchline for cruel ‘senile old man’ jokes. It’s impossible not to feel sympathy for this unrecognised hero, who doesn’t demand adulation for his exploits: just respect.

Then a rocket ship lands on his front lawn, and a twelve year old boy from Tantalus calls Duke back into action. Turns out he didn’t save the faraway planet of Tantalus when he disposed of Typhon – instead, he left their world free for the taking. But does Duke still have it in him, forty years later, to be the hero the planet needs?

Mark Millar has always excelled at those ultra-cool action-packed moments, but sometimes they’ve come at the detriment of the narrative: all flash, no meat on the story’s bones. With Starlight he takes a different approach, with a tighter focus on character, while still allowing room for those iconic moments, which are spectacularly rendered by Parlov, whose work here eclipses even that of Fury: Max. Duke McQueen is a brilliant protagonist: the archetypal fear-nothing-in-the-face-of-danger tough guy, whose only weakness is his inner turmoil, and his disenchantment with life back home. He’s backed up by some fun secondary characters, and ludicrous villains, who are just begging to be punched in the jaw.

Starlight is just fun. It’s a light-hearted space adventure story with plenty of heart. Bring on the sequel.