Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have been on a roll for the past ten years. Their collaborations in comics have always been moody and atmospheric, exploring the dark souls and troubled psyches of broken individuals trying to scrape together a few shards of happiness in a world made of broken glass. Despite all of their books falling into the noir genre, each successive book they produce feels fresh and exciting.
Currently, they’re working on their latest depraved tale Kill or Be Killed, showing one man’s desperate attempt to live while critiquing traditional vigilante tales. Brubaker himself is a supervising producer on the new hit show Westworld, adding his strong writing to the fourth episode of the series. It seems fitting enough that I took some time now to run through their collaborations together and highlight which ones are worth your big bucks and which ones are worth avoiding.
– Scene of the Crime: This one is kind of a cheat since Phillips didn’t pencil the book. Instead, he only provides inks to Michael Lark’s renderings of Brubaker’s most traditional noir tale. A struggling private investigator, the nephew of one of the most famous crime scene photographers on the west coast, gets pulled into a straightforward missing persons case that quickly leads him to the dark depths of humanity.
Again, this isn’t Brubaker and Phillips at their most innovative, but it still is a strong showcase for Brubaker’s crime writing. The narrative, while being akin to a dime a dozen detective tales, still flows with tense storytelling and hard-boiled dialogue. It earned several Eisner Award nominations when it was released and still holds up over ten years after publication. Anyone who is a fan of Brubaker and Phillips’ work owes it to themselves to check out this early work. But as a first read, it can leave you wanting more.
– Sleeper: The first series to really showcase what Brubaker and Phillips are capable of. Sleeper follows the story of Holden Carver, a double agent inside a criminal organization run by the genetically-enhanced TAO, as he tries to bring down TAO’s empire from the inside. When Lynch, the only man who knows Carver’s true allegiance, is shot and falls into a coma, Carver wrestles with having to protect himself from both friend and foe – since everyone is now trying to bring him down.
Sleeper is an early showcase of Brubaker and Phillips at the top of their games. Phillips’ artwork is especially moody here, rendering both tropical islands and back alley dives in the same shadowed, grungy world. However, it is arguably the hardest book to just pick up and read. In order to follow what happened to Lynch (a key element at the climax of the series), readers need to read the prequel series Point Blank, as well as familiarize themselves with the now-defunct Wildstorm Universe (where this story takes place). A compelling story, but one that requires a lot of extra reading to fully appreciate.
– Criminal: What Brubaker and Phillips are best known for. Criminal follows the interlocking stories of (you guessed it) criminals as they work to find some modicum of contentment any way they can. That’s really all there is you need to know.
Each collection of stories varies in tone and style. The first collection, Coward, is a traditional story of a “job gone wrong,” while the following story Lawless is a slow-burn revenge thriller. Each story ranges wildly, from a cartoonist’s creations coming alive inside his head to a gritty deconstruction of the Archie Comics characters to a tale of lost innocence in kids, with each tale expanding out the world these two creators have made together. Even better is the ability to read any story you want without prior knowledge of the previous ones, similar to other anthology series. Arguably the best place for new readers to get a sense of what Brubaker and Phillips can do together.
– Incognito: In a way, this is the low point of the Brubaker-Phillips oeuvre (but that’s just my opinion). The two books in this series follow Zack Overkill, a former supervillian and all around terrible person, as he enters Witness Protection after turning over evidence against the Black Death, a supremely powerful villain. Now living his life in a drug-induced low to regulate his powers, Zack begins to venture out into the night once again to seek the thrills his humdrum life had been missing.
Incognito, and it’s sequel book Bad Influences, stand as an example of a world that Brubaker never fully realized. The story is compelling, playing on tropes from classic science fiction stories from the Fifties, but never fully reaches the heights his other books do. Phillips’ art is, as always, immaculately rendered, but the coloring feels odd when phosphorescent greens and purples mix with the subtle blues and reds Phillips is known for. Ending on a cliffhanger, the series hasn’t been concluded and isn’t likely to be anytime soon. But with a movie in the works, perhaps readers will see more sooner rather than later.
– Fatale: The strangest of all of Brubaker and Phillips’ collaborations. Fatale follows two narratives; Nicolas Lash’s journey to discover the truth about a mysterious woman named Josephine after she saves him from several mysterious goons looking to kill him, and Josephine’s twisting tale through the highs and lows of the twentieth century. For Josephine isn’t all she appears to be, and neither are the men – the monsters – chasing her.
Fatale follows the blueprint the creators have set down in their previous books, but adds in a layer of Lovecraftian horror to the mix. Each arc follows a new storyline in Josephine’s life, checking in with Nicolas at intermittent points until their stories collide in the final tale. The series weaves many disparate elements together – from a reinterpretation of the femme fatale archetype to a time-spanning, twisting mystery to exploring the nature between man and monster – into a dense story that feels unlike anything being produced today. Fans of Lost should definitely check out this one.
– The Fade Out: Arguable the pinnacle of Brubaker and Phillips’ collaborations together. This series returns to a more traditional storyline – an actress is killed in 1940’s Hollywood, and the writer of the film she worked on must solve her murder – but adds in almost a dozen flawed and tragic characters and a web of deceit and lies would put most mystery writers to shame.
This is the book that Brubaker and Phillips got as close to being perfect as any story can be. The narrative switches perspectives from issue to issue and allows Brubaker to flesh out the secondary characters just as much as he does for our unreliable protagonist, Charlie. The series also benefits from multiple re-readings as character motivations and histories reveal themselves in practically every line of dialogue spoken. Phillips also brings a glamour to the “Golden Age of Hollywood” with his drawings. The settings feel lived in and unique, filled with shadow and relishing the spotlight at the same time. Anyone looking for a compelling murder mystery after reading Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train would do well to give this series a read.
While the narratives and trappings may change from story to story, each one of the books that Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips create together follow certain, unwavering points. Deeply flawed characters. A mystery to solve. A compromised, unhappy ending. As long as those are there, then the product will always yield something worth reading by these two.