Page 45 Review by Stephen
Not only do the wealth of extras contain Brubaker story notes and Sean Phillips process pieces, but also... hold on and youll see. This whopper collects:
1. The original graphic novel MY HEROES HAVE ALWAYS BEEN JUNKIES
2. The first four issues of the most recent CRIMINAL series (the second and third issues later formed BAD WEEKEND; the first and fourth were included in CRUEL SUMMER).
3. CRIMINAL VOL 7: WRONG TIME, WRONG PLACE but whose stories are here expanded to include all the mock letter pages that were originally released with the magazine formats of the constituent issues.
1. MY HEROES HAVE ALWAYS BEEN JUNKIES:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
- Stevie Smith, Not Waving But Drowning,1957
Hey, I never said I had a drug problem...
Thats everyone elses opinion.
- Ellie on the cover, to eighteen-year-old handsome lad Skip, inside.
Inside a palatial, five-grand-a-week rehab clinic, to be precise, with colonnades and balustrades, encircling protective wings, poplars and locked gates.
To herself: And I sure as hell am not planning on getting sober.
Thats a lot of money to throw away without any intention of detoxifying. So whats Ellie really up to, and why did she scope out every other patients private files the night that she was admitted?
A few years ago, Sean Phillips Ed Brubakers creative partner on the emphatically noir CRIMINAL, FATALE, THE FADE OUT and KILL OR BE KILLED asked Ed to write him a romance comic. Sean: And this is as close as he could get.
Previous efforts havent been promising for the protagonists involved. Romance in comics rarely ends well in any event, but FATALE proved particularly problematic for the men caught blinking in Josephines cursed headlights, while the whole crux of CRIMINAL: LAST OF THE INNOCENT was one mans attempt to reverse his wrong romantic turning at the crossroads of life by running over his wife... metaphorically speaking.
But this is indeed, on the surface at least, a strikingly different beast, so Sean Phillips has shifted gears accordingly, and startlingly, away from the twilight world of long shadows and motive-masking, half-lit faces to spot-blacks for some clothing, but otherwise crisp lines and clear forms. These are left open for Jake to dapple and daub with sprays of light blue, silky cream, pinks and admittedly bruised purple. I love that the walls have almost been sponged.
Is it just an affectation of innocence? Surprisingly, predominantly, no its the evocation of a youthful innocence retained against all odds.
The first surface we encounter is the cover. I could be wrong but it bears a striking resemblance to Andy Warhols Shot Blue Marilyn, 1964, only less lurid. That was rendered after her death, and innocent the image is not. Here all the knowing guile is gone, replaced by wide-open eyes, the face-on portrait bathed under watery waves of light although it is still quite the poker-face, no?
Young Ellies not lost, but she is perhaps rudderless, without an anchor, parental, guardian or otherwise.
Inside the combined effect of clean line and colour, as well as Ellies hair, smacks to me of 1970s fashion advertising and romance comics, as evoked / referenced so often by Posy Simmonds (LITERARY LIFE, TAMARA DREWE, GEMMA BOVERY and especially the relevant, pastiche passages of the MRS WEBERS OMNIBUS). Innocence, once more.
All this in unexpected and clever contrast to the central theme of drug dependency: thats what theyre all holed up in rehab for after her all, and Ellie heroes have indeed always been junkies, including Van Gogh. As they drive off into a sunset (of course they do at least, halfway through) theres a page dedicated to the artists perceptions as enhanced by absinthe and digitalis, and Jake Phillips earns every penny that I hope youll throw their way in the most arresting, full-colour, Vincent Van flourish.
So yes, you may perhaps have spied a few preview pages before now and believe youve caught Ellie and Skip, thrown together and on the run from a society which simply doesnt understand their mutual intoxication and drug-addled ways, then taken Ed and Sean at their word that this is a traditional romance / crime combo. And there is romance in being outside the law all the romance in the world in setting yourself contra mundum.
However, however, this is Ed Brubaker.
While Ellie may be romancing 18-year-old Skip in the clinic, shes more than a little perturbed to find herself falling for him. Also, as Ive suggested, shes more interested in romanticising her own past and all the soulful singer-songwriters whom her dead junkie mum once worshipped. Its her rebellious inheritance, if you like. Ellies not above singing their praises, either, in group therapy, extolling the virtues of that which everyone else is in there to quit.
Its like Keith Richards said... The worst thing you can say about heroin will still make somebody want to try it... I mean, talking about dope just makes you want to do it... Its like a worm in your brain. And it seems like being sober is just constantly talking about all the times you got high. So how stupid is that?
Group leader Mitch is getting ruffled, but Ellie is just getting started. Shes on a roll.
And why do we automatically assume that getting clean is this great thing?
What if drugs help you find the thing that makes you special?
I do love the way in which young, be-quiffed Skip is enjoying these iconoclastic moments, with quiet, corner-mouthed smiles to himself. Hey, hes a teenager, a virtual synonym for rebellion, and Ellie knows precisely what she is doing, twitching that particular, fly-adorned, hook-hidden line.
Shes going to cite Lou Reed and David Bowie in a moment, isnt she? I remember an interview with Bowie some 35 years ago in which he refused to apologise for the promise that he would never again put take such elephantine quantities of horse simply to create another Scary Monsters album. And I cant say I blame him it wouldnt have been us whod have to suffer the subsequent withdrawals but a world without Hunky Dory or Scary Monsters doesnt really bear dreaming about.
Anyway, in stark contrast to the feathered, sky-bright colours of blue and yellow and pinks which radiate Ellies seemingly unclouded optimism, her recollections are framed in funereal black and shaded in a grey which we associate with the past. There she laments the fate of the recording artists featured on a mix-tape her mum made for her dad who was languishing in prison. They were every one of them drug addicts. One of her mums favourite albums was recorded by Billie Holiday who was arrested in a hospital bed for possessing narcotics, and died handcuffed, under police guard, after theyd forced the doctors to stop giving her methadone. Holidays own dad had fared little better, having been refused treatment at a Whites Only hospital. The link between them was the song Strange Fruit, and mum would listen to Billie Holiday while staring out of at the rain, when Ellie was four-years-old.
That was the year I learned what a junkie was.
And youd be forgiven for thinking that both you and Ellie were finally going to be forced wide awake by a brutal memory to puncture Ellies almost determined dreamlike reverie, but instead you are treated to yet another rose-tinted spectacle of almost supernatural beauty.
So what did Sean Phillips mean, by this was as close as he could get?
Where is the come-down, the crash, the fatal flaw which almost always propels the protagonists in noir to fuck things up for themselves, good and proper?
Its all there if you read carefully enough, early on, only to resurface a little later.
Its a dream, living like this... But I start to think, why do dreams have to end?
I hear Judie Garland in my head, singing about a faraway land, where troubles melt like lemon drops... and bluebirds fly.
Judy was caught in the pull between downers and amphetamines as she sang that, of course. Maybe thats why it sounds so true.
But anyway, my troubles arent the kind that melt away.
Theyre the kind that follow you.
Even over the rainbow.
2a. BAD WEEKEND:
Please see BAD WEEKEND for my review otherwise this wouldnt all fit into the product page.
2b. CRIMINAL VOL 2 #1:
He had to admit, the kid had surprised him. Impressed him, even.
Maybe those three months in juvie had done his son some good after all, Teeg thought...
Teeg Lawless: father-figure extraordinaire!
Hes straight out of county jail (again) after son Rickys sprung for the bail with a stolen diamond necklace.
Apples / trees, trees / apples: learned behaviour, innit?
Thing is, the necklace was stolen before Ricky nicked it, and the original thief he pilfered it from is not someone to be messed with. Certainly not someone you kick the crap out of, so there will be repercussions both for Teeg and more immediately for teenage Ricky: broken bones of his own, courtesy of his clearly doting daddy.
Loyalty and betrayal is a theme that runs like a sorry, impure seam right through this filthy underworld rock face. Teeg isnt so oblivious that he cant catch himself in the act of romantic betrayal and feel a pang of guilt, but self-awareness doesnt necessarily determine self-guidance, and hes in for a shock when he discovers that he himself has been betrayed for years. Honour amongst thieves...? Do me one!
The first five pages which I have for you here attest to Brubakers ability to flip with agility between two individuals perspectives with mutually mounting tension, and the old mans broken short-term memory is masterfully, painfully evoked to render him in our eyes all the more vulnerable to Rickys guile. This could also be construed an act of betrayal on the elderly and infirm regardless of the mistaken identity.
Phillips Sr. pulls a neat stroke of his own in his depiction of Sharon, the ex-wife of Teeg Lawlesss ex-partner-in-crime: shes glamorous enough on the first page, but on closer inspection and intoxication her face droops and her hooded eyes sag into the bags beneath them. She perks up again shortly, though...
The colouring throughout by Phillips Jr. is particularly striking, being expressionistic, fiery, bruised, bloody, battered, dirty and suitably stained. On the pages I describe immediately above, as the bourbons consumed, its as if someones spilled claret across them.
There are crimes within crimes as youd expect for a title with this depth and complexity, but for much lengthier analysis of Brubaker and Phillips work, please see the series referred to above, plus their FATALE and THE FADE OUT.
3. CRIMINAL VOL 7: WRONG TIME, WRONG PLACE:
"I wasn't done reading that yet, you fat fuck..."
If you don't want to sneeze tea all over your keyboard then either remove the keyboard to a safe distance before reading that page... or try going dry for ten minutes.
A perfectly representative, accessible and self-contained introduction to the twilight world of CRIMINAL in which we finally get to meet Teeg Lawless, the often referred-to father of Tracy.
He's not the smartest con in the can having landed there - whilst en route to collect what would have been some considerable cold cash from an armoured-car stick-up - over a simple failure to appear in traffic court. He stopped off for a beer then beat up a biker who didn't press charges but, yeah, Teeg got sent down instead for a failure to appear in traffic court.
So he's stuck on the inside, instead of keeping his commitment to Sebastian Hyde - whom you do not want to piss off - to eliminate a councilman who's blocking a construction contract which Hyde's set his heart on. And Teeg's trying to keep his head down, he surely is, by reading the latest instalment of ZANGAR, THE SAVAGE. But he doesn't half get interrupted every five fucking seconds.
Which is a funny thing to ask a criminal.
Seems there's a price on Teeg's head and Hyde swears it ain't him but he won't offer protection, neither. Almost immediately they're coming at Lawless from all directions - in the canteen, the laundry room and showers - and Teeg is trapped in there with them. It's relentless. So what, as they say, is actually up?
I wish every comicbook artist would make reading as easy, fluid, accessible and addictive as Sean: monologue or dialogue across the top, with the image below. Also, there's an immediate sense of time and place: I love Teeg's hair.
As ever Brubaker has something to say about human behaviour - not rash generalisations but specific tendencies or patterns within individuals. With Teeg, it's that this sort of structure in the slammer or army actually serves him quite well. Too much freedom gives him too many choices and too many opportunities to choose wrong. He really is Mr Bad Decision.
As to ZANGAR, THE SAVAGE, Phillips provides a dozen or so pages emulating the magazine-sized black and white barbarian adventures printed on paper so low-grade that they'd yellow and brown before you'd get them back home. I can only imagine how much easier it has been to apply computer-generated zip-a-tone than it used to be using a scalpel.
I warn you right now that Phillips has pulled no punches and that the art is as battered and brutal as the inmates themselves, and you will find within the dreaded Injury-To-Eye (And Almost Everything Else) Motif over and over again.
Still, he hadn't finished reading that, you fat fuck...
So we come to the second instalment - the 10th Anniversary Special.
How was your childhood?
"It's easier to be a fictional character.
"How sad is that?"
Not as sad as the ending, as an almost unheard of act of kindness in twelve-year-old Tracy Lawless' bleak young life is flushed down the pan, along with all its potential. Out of fear.
Looked at from another angle, however, it is perhaps the one ray of hope that young Tracy might turn out okay against all nature-and-nurture odds, because it's not for himself that he fears. It's for a local girl who's befriended him on the streets of a small town where, as a stranger, he sticks out like a sore thumb even whilst under an alias.
"I'm not supposed to be doing this. 'Mike Johnson' isn't supposed to have fun.
"And he doesn't get to make friends. Friends get remembered."
Oh dear. We've already discovered what happens to those might remember Tracy. Brubaker deliberately sets this up on the very first pages so that it informs everything else that follows, throwing a terrible pall over anyone who comes near the boy.
This includes Lana, one of the individuals that Tracy's Dad is out searching for. Because of this looming threat one fears, rightly or wrongly, that Tracy may have doomed the smiling shop assistant simply by identifying her. Tracy himself recognises this almost immediately afterwards. It's not exactly a Judas moment, but it's certainly made all the more poignant by their mutual, momentary affection which elicits the other act of kindness and their eyes light up. So it might as well have been a kiss.
Mike Johnson, by the way, is that fictional identity Tracy is forced to adopt whenever he's travelling on the run with his career-criminal dad. He shouldn't have been roaming the streets, he should have stayed safely shut away in the motel reading the comic which his father Teeg stole for him (which is nice), but Teeg hadn't come back in the evening nor in the morning, and that's pretty much par for the course. The boy's got to eat.
What follows is a rough scrap of a friendship scraped from the car crash of Tracy's neglected childhood before he witnesses that which a twelve-year-old son never should.
There's a telling line early on from Tracy, referring to himself being taught to drive his dad's getaway car last year as "just a kid" as if he considers himself an adult now. But he's neither one thing nor the other: he's not his father's adult accomplice because he's not been let in on what the mission is; yet if he's still a child what on earth is he doing behind the wheel and changing number plates? What is he doing - worst of all - understanding his father's fucked up priorities?
Sean draws the boy all droopy-mouthed and saggy-shouldered - weighted and weary beyond his years, far from care-free and truly troll-like. His eyes would be scathing if they could summon the energy but they are instead so heavy, so sceptical, expecting nothing. Which is just as well. It's what makes the brief burst of reignited hope and rekindled vivacity in the shop with Lana so unexpected and arresting. The boy can actually smile - he can beam! - if engaged with at all.
But that's as nothing to the central panel in a single page which is one of the finest I've seen in comics. It is the epitome of wide-eyed, awe-struck enchantment as Tracy's face comes electrically alive, spellbound by the DEADLY HANDS OF comic which straddles the same worlds he does between adult and child.
"This comic is weird...
"It kind of reminds me of the ones my dad gets some times...
"But those have naked ladies and stuff in them.
"And this one, you just feel like it's about to have naked ladies all the time.
"Like it's a comic for kids pretending to be a comic for grown-ups."
Of course it is. It's a mischievous tribute to a Marvel Comics combo of SHANG-CHI, MASTER OF KUNG-FU and WEREWOLF BY NIGHT (very seventies indeed, Daddio!), pages of which are paraded in front of you in all their tanned, aged-paper glory by Sean Phillips in immaculate impressions of expressionist Paul Gulacy the for sub-lunar werewolf sequences and of the far more conservative Sal Buscema inked by the likes of Mike Esposito when the angst-ridden protagonist reverts to puny Peter-Parker-like form. It's all in the eyebrows.
I like what Breitweiser's done with both the daytime and evening colours here: it's something completely different to FATALE or THE FADE OUT for this is set is in such a small town that it's virtually deserted after dark. There are no fancy-schmancy multicoloured neon bar signs projecting onto the street: in the evening the only monochromatic glow comes from the few sickly sodium lights and they don't light anything up properly. In the daytime the colours may be muted and mundane but they do at least look relatively healthy and safe by contrast.
I don't know whether Brubaker of Phillips decided which comics would be racked in the grocery store's spinners but whichever it was we evidently shared similar summer holiday experiences.
Speaking of similar summer holiday experiences, hats off to both for the kids' visit to the second-hand bookshop - the only place you'd find old comics back then. Phillips has almost beaten Bernie Wrightson at his own game for internal clutter. I could feel the binding of every single book on those shelves, but of course Tracy's not interested.
"I'm just looking for comics."
We're all just looking for comics.