In the Reckless series of graphic novels, written by Ed Brubaker and illustrated by Sean Phillips, a principled—if unorthodox—private eye looks back on his career as a “trouble-maker for hire.” In the latest book, Friend of the Devil, Ethan Reckless investigates the disappearance of a missing woman and, in the process, exposes a seedy and sinister side of Hollywood. The longtime collaborators spoke to PW about their inspirations for the series, developing character across multiple story arcs, and working together but separately.
As you describe, the Reckless books are standalone graphic novels, but they are connected by way of the protagonist who appears in each installment. Can you talk about some of your models for creating this kind of series—driven by a particular guiding character but with stories that stand independently of one another?
Brubaker: We're just doing what other writers have been doing for hundreds of years, from Sherlock Holmes to Miss Marple right up to Jack Reacher, really. Each book tells a complete story, and you come back to see what the next case is or what trouble the heroes are going to get into. But this kind of mainstream character-based fiction is not something that's really been done much in the graphic novel field (although the Punisher is obviously a riff on the Executioner but he's in a superhero universe), so I have to keep reminding people the first book doesn't end in a cliffhanger or anything like that, and that they each tell a full story.
How would you describe Ethan Reckless to readers who might be starting the series with Friend of the Devil?
Brubaker: Ethan is one part private eye, one part repo man, and one part wrecking ball, basically. He's from a military family, raised in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and was an undercover hippie for the FBI in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s before his life got blown up. Now (the books take place in the ‘80s) he's a surf bum in Venice Beach who lives and works out of an old movie theater a client paid him with. And he only takes cases that are interesting to him, or appeal to his sense of justice, regardless of how much money is being offered.
How do you go about creating the atmosphere of a vintage crime story in your work?
Brubaker: The specific idea for the Reckless books sprang from the ‘60s and ‘70s pulp paperback era, with those lurid painted covers that promised so much. I wanted to try our hand at that kind of recurring pulp hero character. I also wanted to lean into the pulp somewhat and let the violence be a bit more over-the-top. Above all, it was about trying to have more fun and create a character that would live through the times I grew up in, as this kind of troublemaker for hire.
I just try to recreate the era the story takes place in as well as we can. So far, a lot of what’s in the books I do remember living through, so we’re able to add a kind of hindsight to it. Ethan is also narrating the books from closer to our time, an old man looking back at his dangerous life as a pulp hero.
Phillips: Research! Period or modern stories make no difference to me. If it's not set in the U.K., I have to do a lot of picture research no matter the time period. The past (and the U.S.) is a foreign country to me.
Do you find that your books draw a crossover audience—for example, mystery readers who don’t generally pick up graphic novels?
Brubaker: I think so, yeah, but it feels like it builds the more books we do. And now, with putting out original graphic novels, I'm getting a lot more feedback from newer readers discovering our stuff. Which is always so great to hear, especially since we have like 25 books in print.
Phillips: Well, my dad doesn't read comics, but he'll read mine. Does that count?
Can you tell me a bit about how you first came to work together?
Brubaker: Sean was the inker on my first mini-series for DC/Vertigo back in 1999, then a year later an editor suggested him for a period piece Batman one-shot I'd written called Gotham Noir. After that, we did the Sleeper series for DC/Wildstorm, and then in 2006, we created Criminal together, and we've basically been working together nonstop ever since. So about 21 years as a team, overall.
In what ways does the Reckless series differ from your other books?
Brubaker: Ethan may break the law sometimes, and have his own idea of justice, but at the end of the day, he's a good guy. That may be a first for us. We usually do comics about the bad guys, even if they're the "good" bad guys. But most of our books explore the moral shades of grey that most of us deal with in life. Ethan deals with a lot of grey areas, but he's solving crimes, too. He's trying to make the world better for other people, even if it's just a little bit.
What’s your creative process like? Do you work closely or enjoy more autonomy?
Brubaker: It's basically the same as it's always been. Sean wants to know as little as possible about the story, so he's the first reader. I write the script in chapters now, but I used to send them to him in batches of pages, and Sean draws and letters them as we're working. So I'm still writing the script as he's drawing the pages.
Sometimes he'll show me some pencils, but back in the old days he didn't even really do pencils. He'd just do the roughest sketches ever, and do all the final art in pen and brush on the page.
Phillips: Ed writes the words and I draw the pictures, and we leave each other alone to get on with our jobs.
Ed, does Sean’s art ever inspire you to tweak the text in a different direction?
Brubaker: Yeah, of course. Sometimes I realize whatever text is there is unnecessary, that the art is doing everything for me. Or sometimes an image or a cover painting might inspire me to think of a new scene for a character. But I always spend about a week with the book when it's all drawn and lettered, going over it and trimming things or changing the text to make it smoother. I worry about the rhythm of the beats on the page a lot, the words and the pictures and how they flow together. I spend a lot of time on that.
Of all the characters you have created, do you each have a favorite?
Brubaker: That's a hard one. Usually it's whoever I'm writing at the time, I think. Ethan Reckless is definitely in my top three, if I had to pick.
Phillips: It's usually the supporting characters I like more, probably because I don't get tired of drawing them. Definitely Anna from the Reckless books at the moment.
Sean, am I correct that your son is currently coloring the Criminal series? How does it feel to work alongside a family member?
Phillips: Yes, Jacob has been coloring my work for a few years, since My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies, through Criminal, and now Reckless. Luckily for him, he lives in another city, so I’m not physically looking over his shoulder telling him what to do. Apart from the Junkies book where I had a particular coloring style in mind, I've left him alone to do whatever he wants with the colors and have never been disappointed. He draws comics too, currently a series called That Texas Blood, so hopefully that doesn't become so successful he stops coloring my work! Ed and I have always been very fortunate with our colorists, but I'm in no hurry to have to find another.
Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips's Friend of the Devil hits shelves on May 4. Also available by Brubaker & Phillips:
Reckless; Pulp; Cruel Summer; Bad Weekend; My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies; Criminal Vol. 1-7; The Fade Out, Kill or Be Killed Vol. 1-4; Fatale Vol. 1-5; Scene of the Crime; and more from Image Comics.