Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips are the Dark Dynamic Duo of comics, working both in the mainstream Big Two, and with their independent creator-owned works through Image, including the new, and promising to be epic Fade Out.
Brubaker may be known in the mainstream world most recently for his writing on Captain America, and his idea of the Winter Soldier was used in the recent second Captain American movie (look for his name in the credits) and though I enjoyed the movie, his work with Cap has always been his least interesting stuff, though I know he’s proud of it. To me, Captain America was just the money-maker that allowed him to do his own creator-owned stuff, though if you want to talk about his mainstream superhero work, aside from his phenomenal work on Daredevil, his most unsung run was with Catwoman, who he transformed from a villain into a more Robin Hood-type hero, introducing some Daredevilish attitude and some noirish minor characters, though notably, Catwoman is one rare place where Brubaker allowed himself a little humor.
Brubaker has always been interested in noir culture and style, by which I mean the 40s and 50s private eye novels and movies that take place mostly at night, and in the rain, and which contain jaded protagonists who nonetheless are still good people, mostly, even though being ‘good’ doesn’t necessarily mean obeying the law, and where there’s a murky grey area between justice and vengeance. In fact, Brubaker revolutionized mainstream superhero comics by ‘mashing’ them up with noir, most notably with Daredevil, building on Frank Miller’s vision of Hornhead as edgy and dark and turning him into not just a hero who ‘fights’ but a detective who solves.
Brubaker took the concept of superheroes mashed with noir to another level with his own creations Sleeper and Incognito, in which the main characters’ superpowers are almost incidental to the main story of men going undercover into, and being caught up in, the world of crime. These remains my favorite works of his, and if Alan Moore’s Watchmen is what brought be back to comics, Brubaker convinced me to stay.
Brubaker’s work isn’t quite ‘meta’, which would be comics about comics (like, say, Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud) but rather his stories, or these particular favorites, are more about the behind-the-scenes world of people with powers, in which an understanding of ‘regular’ superhero comics helps (though I don’t think is necessary) perhaps through some kind of feeling of nostalgia, and/or maybe just a familiarity, to appreciate the basic world/concept of ‘powers’, so that one can go appreciate the next ‘level’ of storytelling. Brubaker’s texts reward the grown-up reader of comics by paying homage to the comics of his/her youth, while challenging them with actual characters that are not so black-and-white/good-or-bad as mainstream superheroes and villains were, and still are.
Not to say Brubaker’s work can’t be appreciated by new readers. In fact, I envy them because they get to jump right into really really good comics right from the get-go. Though warning: once you read Brubaker, 95% of the other comics in your local comic book shop will become uninteresting to you.
Brubaker has of course had success working with artists, most recently Steve Epting in (the great) Velvet, but his main partner-in-crime is Sean Phillips, who is just a master of grit. There’s no slickness to Phillips’ style, his hand-drawn art is all about noir: the darkness, the shadows, and more importantly the characters, with the grim facial expressions that say as much, or more, than the dialogue. You can feel the emotions swirling around behind the supposedly stoic expressions, and when the emotions do come out, in pain, fear, anger, they’re that much more powerful for being held in check in previous panels.
Also kudos to the unsung Elizabeth Breitweiser, the long time colorist for Brubaker and Phillips, who’s moody colors are the perfect complement to Phillips pencils and inks. Really, their projects are more by a power trio than a duo.
Fade Out is not the first time Brubaker and Phillips have delved into the pure noir world with no mashup. They did so with periodic installments of the Criminal series, though these new characters are not on the criminal side of the work (and whether there are ‘sides’ to crime is one of the main themes) but rather characters who seemingly inevitably get sucked into the seemy underside of Hollywood, just by becoming involved in the film business.
The main character is Charlie Parish, a screenwriter, and the rest of the cast are other members of The Biz, and in particular one movie studio in the late 40s. Most of the characters are not likeable, though some are still, interestingly, sympathetic. Parish is not ‘evil’, though he’s not good either. He’s a little scared, a little selfish, a little depressed. Meaning, human. Like us. He doesn’t really like his life much, having sold his soul (only figuratively this time, in this Brubaker story) to Hollywood. When he becomes a person-of-interest in a murder, and the cover-up to it by his employer, the interest of the story becomes, Will he finally do the right thing? And what might that ‘right’ thing be? Can he redeem himself? Is redeeming oneself in Hollywood even possible?
Unfortunately, I’m not the greatest fan of straight noir detective stories. I appreciate them, but I’m more interested when it’s mashed up with some other genre, especially superheroes, but even when Brubaker and Phillips did FATALE, which was noir mashed up with H.P. Lovecraft horror.
Is Fade Out done well? Of course. This creative team could do nothing less. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s already a movie in the works for this one, or even a tv show. If not, there should be.
I guess I prefer the more ‘fantastical’ in my comic books. I read stories about normal life too, but I think I read comics books for images and characters and worlds that can’t developed with just prose. It’s something to do with the idea developed by Grant Morrison (though he wasn’t the only one) about superheroes as mythic characters, though that may be the subject of another essay.
I do like the dark edgy side of noir though, which is why I prefer Daredevil to, say, Thor or Iron Man. Or Catwoman/Batman to Superman. I guess that’s how I see life, which seems more of an adult way of seeing the world. Unfortunately, even though artists like Brubaker and Phillips brought a sense of grown-up-ness to mainstream comics, both DC and Marvel seem to have decided that ‘dark’ is not the way they want their characters portrayed anymore (with some still notable exceptions). Geoff Johns seems to want the so-called New 52 characters to be more fun, and Marvel’s Ultimate line (which has got to be about the silliest name) seems to be the same idea. Even the ‘regular’ Daredevil now smiles and jokes.
All of this is an a appeal to younger readers, I guess. And, maybe they’re right, maybe that will lead to more sales. Or maybe it’ll drive readers like me back away (once again) from comics. Though not completely anymore. Fortunately there are now other outlets like Image Comics in which Brubaker and Phillips can create.
My review of VELVET #3 here.
My review of FATALE: Pray For Rain Vol. 4 here.