The way he describes them, comics writer Ed Brubaker’s early years border on idyllic. The first time he mentions “Gitmo,” however, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’ve misheard him. He clarifies that, indeed, many of his happiest memories of the era were spent doing kids’ stuff around the American military base in Cuba that decades later house one of the most country’s most notorious prisons.
As a navy brat, Brubaker’s early years were often spent on the move, but it was on Guantanamo Bay, at age eight, that his love affair with comics began in earnest. “I would go and buy Captain America comics at the PX (Post Exchange) and watch Marvel cartoons from the 1960s on the one station we had, which I didn’t realize weren’t brand new cartoons,” Brubaker tells Publishers Weekly.
Those formative memories made their way onto the comics page late last year, with the arrival of his first Reckless graphic novel, the first book in an ongoing series of standalone graphic novels by Brubaker and artist Sean Philips that are being published by Image Comics. In Friend of the Devil, the second volume in the series out now, Brubaker offers a deeper dive into the elements of his own personal history that informed the creation of the series’ protagonist and titular anti-hero, Ethan Reckless.
“Navy brats (or any military brats) don’t grow up with the same small group of friends like most kids do,” Brubaker writes in the afterword of Friend of the Devil, “because they move every few years, and even when they make a friend, that kid could be leaving in a month when their dad gets reassigned. One day you go to school and find out they moved to Germany or Tokyo over the weekend. That’s life ... you’re kind of a perpetual outsider, but you get to see a lot of different parts of the world, and a lot of different kinds of people, very early in life.”
The author and his protagonist’s respective paths diverge sharply from there. A grizzled former-undercover FBI agent, Ethan Reckless spends his days surfing, laying low in a condemned movie theater and (somewhat reluctantly) working as a for-hire private detective. After a childhood on the move, Brubaker’s own travels brought him to Seattle amid a booming 1990s alternative comics scene, alongside such artists as Tom Hart, Megan Kelso and Jason Lutes.
Brubaker flirted with autobiography in the 1995 series Lowlife, which he wrote and drew, before moving to crime stories for the long-running anthology series, Dark Horse Presents. The writer had works published by Alternative Comics and authored The Fall, a graphic novel illustrated by Lutes. Brubaker also penned a number of books for DC Comics' celebrated (now defunct) non-superhero imprint, Vertigo, including Scene of the Crime, a gritty four-issue miniseries about a private investigator, drawn and inked by future collaborators, Michael Lark and Sean Philips. In 2000, he signed a contract with DC and jumped in with both feet by taking the reins of Batman.
“A lot of friends of mine coming from alternative comics tried it out and it just didn't work out for them,” the writer explains about writing for the iconic superhero. “I think part of it is that I always considered it still my real work. I didn't think of it as me slumming.”
In 2004, Brubaker joined the opposing team, as a writer for Marvel, where he was reunited with Captain America. The writer delivered some of the era’s most iconic superhero arcs, including, most notably, the death of Captain America and the long-awaited return of sidekick, Bucky Barnes.
Brubaker’s work had a wide-ranging impact, not only on the comics world, but also the nascent Marvel Cinematic Universe, a multi-billion-dollar machine that took hold three years later, with the first Iron Man film. In a recent newsletter, the writer laid bare his personal feelings about the Disney+ MCU series, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which is based on his revival of the Bucky Barnes character.
“Work-for-hire work is what it is,” he says. “Also, I have a great life as a writer and much of it is because of Cap and the Winter Soldier bringing so many readers to my other work.” Ultimately, he says his time with the genre had simply run its course. “I was having a lot more fun with it. But with all things, you just hit a point – I’m a 50-something year-old man now. I don’t rush out to see every superhero movie on opening day now. “
In 2016, he joined the writing staff for acclaimed HBO series, Westworld. Three years later, he teamed with Drive director, Nicolas Winding Refn, for the 10-part Amazon mini-series, Too Old to Die Young. Brubaker once again embraced his love of crime fiction.
Even at the height of his superhero days, the writer never strayed too far from the genre, as his partnership with Phillips continued to blossom. In 2006, the duo created Criminal for the Marvel Imprint, Icon. The series (now published by Image) went on to win two Eisner awards. The Brubaker/Phillips partnership has since grown into one of the industry’s most fruitful, including the books Incognito, Fatale, The Fadeout and last year’s western mashup, Pulp.
Initially planned for a May 2020 release, the original graphic novel went to press as the pandemic arrived with full force in the U.S. shutting down comics shop distribution. Among the countless uncertainties in the wake of Covid-19’s arrival was the fate of comics retailers in general as well as the single-issue comics periodical. So Brubaker and Phillips embarked on another original graphic novel. And once again, the team returned to Image Comics as part of a deal that allows the writer and artist to release the books they want, in the format they chose.
“That freedom has let me and Sean really take risks and experiment with different packages and lengths of graphic novels,” Brubaker says, citing graphic novels My Heroes Have Always been Junkies, which won the 2019 Eisner Award for Best Graphic Novel, and Pulp, which was published in 2020. “Over the past few years we've done a few novellas, just because we wanted to do these standalone books, and as it turned out they hit really big with our audience. That's been our guidepost since we signed at Image, just trying to make the kind of books we wish already existed, and bending the market to support them.
For Reckless, the team found inspiration in the stories of hardboiled pulp heroes of the 1970s. It was the late artist Darwin Cooke’s graphic adaptations of Richard Stark’s (real name: Donald Westlake) long-running Parker books that planted the seeds. Brubaker will be the first writer outside of Parker’s creator to write an original story starring the professional thief, in the forthcoming volume, Richard Stark's Parker: The Martini Edition (IDW, September), that serves as a tribute to both Westlake and Cooke (who died in 2008 and 2016, respectively).
Like any great pulp series, the Reckless books work both as one long story, or as standalone volumes a reader can pickup with little broader context. Ethan makes a grim first impression in the first volume, appearing with a bloody hatchet in-hand, in a sequence that belies what is ultimately a far more positive presence than in most of the Brubaker/Phillips books. In the first book, Ethan finds himself untangling stories from his own past when a former flame reemerges in his life.
Set in 1985 – four years after its predecessor – the new book in the series, Friend of the Devil, finds its hardboiled hero fed up with the excesses of the Reagan era, tangling with skinheads and reluctantly taking on a case tied to a beautiful missing woman and a Satanic b-movie.
Like Ethan’s professional life, the Brubaker/Phillips partnership is defined, in part, by a kind of restlessness that perpetually finds the pair embarking on new projects. But the writer happily explained that they’ve struck a rich new vein with the new series that they plan to mine for a while.
“We’re really enjoying the Reckless books right now,” Brubaker says. “I really thought we’d do three or four of them and do a break to do something else, but we’re both so into it. I’m already deep into the third book and Sean is already starting to draw it. I was talking to a friend of mine and bouncing ideas off of her, and suddenly I had the idea for the fourth book.”