Page 45 Review by Stephen
"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...
"That's everyone else's opinion."
- Ellie o eighteen-year-old 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."
That's a lot of money to throw away without any intention of detoxifying. So what's Ellie really up to, and why did she scope out every other patient's private files the night that she was admitted? Also, what sly revelation further down the line makes this completely self-contained, original graphic novel an official addition to the CRIMINAL series?
A few years ago, Sean Phillips - Ed Brubaker's 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 haven't 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 Josephine's headlights, while the whole crux of CRIMINAL: LAST OF THE INNOCENT was one man's 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 - it's 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 Warhol's '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 Ellie's 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 Ellie's 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 WEBER'S OMNIBUS). Innocence, once more.
All this in unexpected and clever contrast to the central theme of drug dependency: that's what they're all holed up in rehab for after her all, and Ellie's heroes have indeed always been junkies, including Van Gogh. As they drive off into a sunset (of course they do - at least, halfway through) there's a page dedicated to the artist's perceptions as enhanced by absinthe and digitalis, and Jake Phillips earns every penny that I hope you'll 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 you've caught Ellie and Skip, thrown together and on the run from a society which simply doesn't 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, she's more than a little perturbed to find herself falling for him. Also, as I've suggested, she's more interested in romanticising her own past and all the soulful singer-songwriters whom her dead junkie mum once worshipped. It's her rebellious inheritance, if you like. Ellie's not above singing their praises, either, in group therapy, extolling the virtues of that which everyone else is in there to quit.
"It's 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... It's 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. She's 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, he's a teenager, a virtual synonym for rebellion, and Ellie knows precisely what she is doing, twitching that particular, fly-adorned, hook-hidden line.
She's going to cite Lou Reed and David Bowie in a moment, isn't 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 can't say I blame him - it wouldn't have been us who'd have to suffer the subsequent withdrawals - but a world without 'Hunky Dory' or 'Scary Monsters' doesn't really bear dreaming about.
Anyway, in stark contrast to the feathered, sky-bright colours of blue and yellow and pinks which radiate Ellie's 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 mum's favourite albums was recorded by Billie Holiday who was arrested in a hospital bed for possessing narcotics, and died handcuffed, under police guard, after they'd forced the doctors to stop giving her methadone. Holiday's 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 you'd be forgiven for thinking that both you and Ellie were finally going to be forced wide awake by a brutal memory to puncture Ellie's 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?
It's all there if you read carefully enough, early on, only to resurface a little later.
"It's 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 that's why it sounds so true.
"But anyway, my troubles aren't the kind that melt away.
"They're the kind that follow you.
"Even over the rainbow."