By Mark Peters
Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. The Hernandez Brothers. Wendy and Richard Pini. Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams. Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie.
Any list of the best teams in the history of comics would be incomplete without writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips, whose long, shared resume includes noir classics such as Sleeper, Criminal, Incognito, Fatale, The Fade Out, and the recently concluded Kill Or Be Killed. The latest addition to their impressive oeuvre is a graphic novel that takes place in the shared Criminal world: My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies.
Brubaker describes the OGN as “a story about a teen girl who romanticizes drug addiction as one of her filters to view the world. Our hero Ellie is drawn to tragic figures in pop culture and history who were addicts, because of her own tragic childhood. But it's also a crime story about a teenage girl falling in love at a rehab clinic and how she got there and how she plots her escape.”
In writing Junkies, Brubaker describes the genesis as partly personal. “Some of it I'm sure comes from my own childhood, going to my mother's AA meetings from the time I was nine or 10 years old, and my own lifelong obsessions and observations about art and pop culture heroes and self-destructive habits that so many people fall prey to.”
Brubaker says he was inspired by “a laundry list of famous addicts,” including David Bowie, John Coltrane, William S. Burroughs, Billie Holiday, Oscar Wilde, and others. “I wanted to write a crime story that somehow touched on that strange and dark side of pop culture at the same time, and Ellie and her story gave me a perfect way in.”
The work stands on its own, but longtime fans of Criminal—a series of graphic novels started in 2006 and spans six volumes and two one-shots—will notice some Easter eggs. Brubaker describes Criminal’s network of street-level sleazeballs and lost souls as “a very elastic world for us to tell stories in. Once we did Last of the Innocent [a noir-soaked take on the Archie Comics archetypes], I knew we could tell any kind of crime story I wanted to within that world. Now it's sort of become like how Elmore Leonard's books all have weird little overlaps. It doesn't affect the story, but it's fun. Something about it feels very right and yet very comic book-y at the same time.”
The project also scratches a particular creative itch for Phillips, who adds, “A couple of years ago, I mentioned to Ed that I'd like to do a modern romance comic. I spent the first 10 years or so of my career drawing stories for UK weekly anthology comics aimed at young girls. Stories about Victorian orphans and evil stepmothers, gymnasts and ballerinas, and schoolgirl soap operas. I thought it would be cool to use that drawing style I used then in a new romance comic. And Junkies is as close to romance as Ed could get!”
Speaking of romance, it’s hard not to think of the duo’s long-term artistic partnership as a metaphorical marriage. Brubaker has made the comparison himself, saying of his collaborator since 2001, “I communicate with Sean more than anyone other than my wife, probably, but we've only been in the same place four or five times in all the time we've worked together.” They make the most of those times, according to Phillips: “We meet up at cons every few years and spend an intensive week or so together planning our world domination.”
Just like a marriage, a creative partnership can go stale if the two parties become complacent. That hasn’t been an issue for this team. “As for our evolution, I think what makes it work for me is that we both like trying new things,” Brubaker says, “and we both keep trying to do it better. I never sit down and go, ‘okay, this will be easy.’ It's always about, what will make this different or better, or what haven't we done? What will push Sean to try a different layout, and what will he draw that makes me go—‘oh, maybe we should lean more into that’?”
That constant creative pushing was evident in the most recent Brubaker/Phillips collaboration, Kill Or Be Killed. Brubaker and Phillips took an idea common to comics—a disturbed white man killing criminal scum, ho hum—and turned it into one of the most psychologically complex and narratively unpredictable comics in years. KOBK opens up new arenas for the duo in terms of plot and page design. The narrator made more time jumps than an episode of Westworld (a show Brubaker wrote for in its debut season), and the use of splash pages with narration cascading down the page gave this comic a distinctive feel among Brubaker/Phillips creations. In Junkies, one obvious new ingredient for the team is the evocative coloring of Phillips and his son, Jacob, which is a contrast to frequent collaborator and colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser.
“I’ve colored my own work in the past, including painting a few hundred pages for 2000 AD and Vertigo and Dark Horse,” Phillips says. “Those have all been short projects where I could find the time to do the color, and that was the plan here. For this project, I had a very particular coloring style in mind, so it seemed like a good idea to color it myself.”
Phillips’ colors add a new wrinkle to the veteran team’s comics, and you can expect many more new wrinkles in the future given their level of trust. Brubaker adores “the artistic freedom that comes with really knowing your collaborator and what they can do. With knowing when you write a page that they're going to get what you're going for in the script. With me and Sean, it's practically shorthand at this point. And this allows me to write anything I feel really excited about.”
After Junkies, Brubaker and Phillips will debut a new comic in the same golden-age-of-cinema world as The Fade Out. They keep on keeping on, like a contemporary, crime-focused version of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, only with a far better relationship and the pleasure of owning their many creations. For Phillips, this once-in-a-lifetime partnership seemed built to last from the start.
“It was early on that it all clicked into place,” Phillips says. “I was a fan of Ed's work before we started working together, and it was a thrill to get to work with him. We'd both been independently thinking about doing our own stuff, something we could own and control, so it seemed like a good idea to do it together with Criminal. And now it would be weird to work with another writer, so I guess we'll just carry on forever.”
My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips Debuts on October 10, 2018.