Tag Archives: Sean Phillips

Ed Brubaker’s Bad Weekend etc

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, with colours by Jacob Phillips, Bad Weekend  (Image 2019)
––––––, My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies (Image 2018)

Scanning my shelves after reading Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend (blog post to come when the Book Group meets), I decided to stick with the title and read a couple of the quality comics I was given for Christmas presents (Bernhard Schlink’s The Weekend possibly to come).

These two handsome stand-alone books (‘novellas’) are spin-offs from the Criminal series of comics created between 2006 and 2012 by Ed Brubaker (writer) and Sean Phillips (art). According to Wikipedia, ‘The series is a meditation on the clichés of the crime genre while remaining realistic and believable. That description is pretty accurate for these two books.

Bad Weekend is set in the world of comic artists. The narrator is charged with being the minder for a cantankerous, sexist, drunken old man who has been invited to a convention to receive a major award – because he is also an artist of genius. The narrator has been the old man’s assistant years earlier, and has been specifically asked for by him on this occasion. It turns out (of course) that the old man is completely uninterested in the award, but wants the young man’s help in finding some priceless original artwork that has been stolen from him. Set in the 1980s and 1990s, the art has a slightly surreal noir feel to it (surreal because of the costumed convention-goers, noir because of the dark world of art theft and intrigue). There’s a nice twist at the end, which probably would have been obvious to anyone who wasn’t, like me, just along for the ride. I should add that the ride involves genuine pathos as we discover the causes of the old man’s vileness.

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies should surely win a Most Provocative Title award. It turns out that like Bad Weekend this novella has a fairly straightforward plot involving criminal intrigue. A young woman with a heavy drug habit is sent to an expensive rehab clinic, but has no intention of getting clean. She sets her sights on a handsome young man and persuades him to run away with her from the clinic and from the constraints of their lives. She is, as she says, a bad influence. But there are hints that she is much worse than that  – and these hints are realised. It’s pulp.

The present-time narrative, mostly in full colour, is intercut with the young woman’s back story in moody monochrome, in particular the way, after her mother died, possibly of an overdose, she became fascinated by singers and pop stars who were heroin users. For me, the effect was a reinstatement of parts of famous lives that have been quietly erased or glossed over (David Bowie, John Lennon, Jean-Paul Sartre), and an attention to details of lives I knew very little about (Billie Holliday, Gram Parsons). So it’s pulp, but there’s plenty of nutritious stuff there.

Ed Brubaker’s Fatale

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, colours by Dave Stewart, Fatale Book 1: Death Chases Me (Image 2012)
—- colours by Dave Stewart,  Book 2: The Devil’s Business (Image 2012)
—- 
colours by Elizabeth Breitweiser and Dave Stewart, Book 3: West of Hell (Image 2013)
—- colours by Elizabeth Breitweiser, Book 4: Pray for Rain (Image 2014)
—- colours by Elizabeth Breitweiser, Book 5: Curse the Demon (Image 2012)

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I read the Book 1 of Fatale a while back, and was unimpressed. When my son recently offered to lend me all five volumes, I decided to give it another go. I reread Book 1 to refresh my memory, and am embarrassed to say that I had almost no memory of the first reading, and this time I enjoyed it a lot. My blog post from back then describes it pretty accurately:

It’s a detective yarn combined with a Lovecraftian horror story. The telling is satisfyingly complex, shifting back and forth between two time periods and only gradually revealing the nature of the dilemmas facing the the lead characters, but laying out enough hints that when things take a turn for the bizarre there’s a sense of continuity. The artwork is consistently dramatic and serves the story well. Sex scenes are relatively tactful. Gore is over the top without being too realistic and the worst atrocities remain unseen by the reader.

This time I read on.

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As you’d guess from the covers, the Fatale of the title is preceded by a silent Femme. The central character, Jo (or sometimes Josephine, and in one context Jane) has irresistible power over men. Some she simply bends to her will, others she infatuates so that they not only desire her and forsake all others, but devote their lives to protecting her, killing or dying in the attempt.

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But not all men. It turns out that her powers have something to do with a cult whose members dress in weird monkish robes and commit ritual mass murders. The leader of the cult, sometimes known as the Bishop, wants Jo for vile purposes of his own and hunts her implacably through the decades (or maybe centuries).

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Did I say it was a detective yarn? Well, yes, that’s true of the first book. But Jo, or perhaps other women who have been cursed like her with fatal charm and at least partial immortality, has been around for a long time, so she also features in tales of mediaeval witch-hunt, a Nazi interlude, a Bonnie and Clyde yarn, and more.

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The story-telling is strong, and the art is compelling, but by the end I’d decided that horror isn’t for me. When the Bishop lays out his world view in Book 5, articulating the story’s dark metaphysics (the ‘reality’ behind the world that most people think is real), I was revolted, as I was meant to be, but I also wondered if there was any real pleasure or gain to be had from immersing oneself in someone else’s confected nightmare, however well done.

Ed Brubaker’s Fatale

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, with colours by Dave Stewart, Fatale Book 1: Death Chases Me (Image 2012)

9781607065630.jpgI enjoyed Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ The Fade Out immensely, so when I saw that this book of theirs was part of the ridiculously expensive pile of comics that one of my sons gave me as a birthday present (not so ridiculous, of course, when you realise that he would read them after me), I was pleased.

It’s a detective yarn combined with a Lovecraftian horror story. The telling is satisfyingly complex, shifting back and forth between two time periods and only gradually revealing the nature of the dilemmas facing the the lead characters, but laying out enough hints that when things take a turn for the bizarre there’s a sense of continuity. The artwork is consistently dramatic and serves the story well. Sex scenes are relatively tactful. Gore is over the top without being too realistic and the worst atrocity remains unseen by the reader. This is the first of five volumes (consisting of the first 5 of 24 comics), and does a great job of setting up the story, rounding out its own arc, and signalling a number of clear questions yet to be answered.

But my response was pretty meh. I guess horror’s just not my thing. The poet Martin Johnston once said that Lovecraft was a terrible writer but he gave you great nightmares. Sadly, I don’t expect even the nightmares from this.

Ed Brubaker’s Fade Out ends

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, with colours by Elizabeth Breitweiser, The Fade Out, Act Three (Image 2016)

1632156296There’s a lot of old Hollywood anti-Communism around just now. On Thursday night I saw Jay Roach’s Trumbo at the movies. On Friday night we had a family birthday outing to the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! On Saturday I read this birthday-present comic, the final ‘Act’ ofFade Out. All three deal with the House Un-American Activities Committee’s attack on Hollywood writers in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Trumbo tells the story of Dalton Trumbo, probably the most famous of the black-listed authors. It’s not a documentary, but it’s firmly rooted in history, challenging our complacency with an implied warning that national security has been used in the recent past as a figleaf to cover authoritarian measures in a nominally democratic country, and no doubt will be again. That is to say, maybe it’s a bit pedestrian, but it’s serious about its subject. The Coen Brothers, by contrast, take the Communist scare as one more trope to play with in their fabulously stylish sandpit: they hold the anti-Communist fantasies up to ridicule by creating a literal version of them, but any suggestion that the beast that bore them is on heat again must come from the audience. The Fade Out lies somewhere between the two: a tremendously stylish homage to period Hollywood, but the Hollywood of film noir was already angry about injustice, and also deeply, grimly pessimistic about it. Not only is the anti-Communist scare a key element, but there is also the political corruption, sexual scandal, blackmail and violence that dark Hollywood fiction thrives on.

In this ‘Act’, the many threads of the story are tied off: the truly evil are at least privately unmasked and are punished in secret or escape scot free; one suspected villain turns out to be something other; there is tragedy, betrayal and a satisfactorily grim conclusion (think Jake Gittes’ final line, ‘It’s Chinatown,’ in Chinatown).

I don’t have anything more to add to my comments on Acts One and Two, but maybe I can slip in a couple of frames to demonstrate that the book passes theBechdel–Wallace test (just), and also to demonstrate that it inhabits the same world as Trumbo, in which Hedda Hopper (played by Helen Mirren going over the top) is a dedicated reactionary, and Hail, Caesar!, in which twin gossip columnists (played by Tilda Swinton even more so) likewise feed the anti-Communist frenzy. Dotty, on the phone here, works in publicity spinning stories about actors, and is paradoxically the most honest character in the story.

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Ed Brubaker’s Fade Out

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, with colours by Elizabeth Breitweiser, The Fade Out
Act One
 (Image 2015)
– Act Two 
(Image 2015)

1632151715I’ve no sooner decided that superhero comics bore me than the universe, mediated through the generosity of my sons, sends me an apparently endless stream of comics in other genres: investigative journalism, space opera, fairytale epic, domestic comedy, and now Hollywood noir.

It’s 1948. Our narrator, Charlie Parrish, is a Hollywood writer. Traumatised by his experience in World War Two he can’t write a thing, but he keeps his job by secretly taking dictation from his friend Gil, who has been blacklisted by the House Unamerican Activities Committee and so can’t get any work in his own name.

1632154471A beautiful woman is murdered in the first couple of pages, and the crime scene is altered to make it look like suicide. Charlie sets out to investigate and uncovers as much corruption, secretiveness and deranged viciousness as Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade could ever have wished for. He also gets beaten up quite a bit and gets involved with the beautiful woman who has replaced the murder victim in the film they’re all makng. He and Gil have a difficult relationship, not helped by Gil’s alcohol intake and his tendency to want to speak truth to power without regard for the consequences. Some real characters appear: Clark Gable knows Charlie from his war days, and Dashiell (‘Sam’) Hammett gives advice on how to flush out a murderer.

The plot is still thickening at the end of Act Two. Trails have been laid that may lead to interesting places – for example, will we be given the details of Charlie’s war experiences? I can’t find any information about how many more Acts are to come. Act Three is due out next month, and then who knows?

Brubaker and Phillips have been a team for more than 16 years, and the work feels seamless. Elizabeth Breitweiser’s colouring deserves a mention for its wonderfully evocative moodiness. The shadowy details of Hollywood behind the scenes may be a little hard for my ageing eyes to make out when I’m reading at night, but it’s worth the effort. Here’s a page I’ve lifted from the Image website:

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The books, each a compilation of four original comics, are beautifully done. There’s none of the generational lossiness or iffy registration that bedevils comics from a couple of decades back, and the four original covers reproduced up the back of each book are stunning.