Patreon Preview Week : “Reckless” By Ed Brubaker And Sean Phillips

I did this last year, so I’m doing it again : in an effort to gin up interest in my Patreon site, I’m posting a selection of reviews that ran on there originally with the brazen goal being to get you, dear reader, to part with a buck (or more, if you wish) per month so that yours truly can find some level of intellectual justification for the sheer amount of time I put into cranking out so much comics criticism. Really, anything helps and is much appreciated. Next up : proof that I don’t ignore the comics mainstream entirely, as I take a look at the first volume in the new graphic novel series from the fan-favorite creative team of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips —

Here’s the deal : the crime comics “dream team” of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have been at it for so damn long now — over two decades, in fact — that they’re bound miss on occasion. The problem for me as a reader and as a critic, though, is that they had a pretty long string of misses going before finally hitting again with their most recent run of Criminal (in particular the two-issue yarn collected as Bad Weekend, which featured a clear Gil Kane stand-in up to even more underhanded shit than the real Gil Kane was sometimes known to be) and, especially, the pulp-western-New Deal thriller PULP, which for my money may be the high-water mark of their collaboration to date.  So, after a long dry spell, 2018-2019 saw the pair, in my humble estimation, back on a real roll.

You know what they say, though — nothing lasts forever.  And while eschewing the single-issue rat race in favor of going directly to self-contained-but-interconnected graphic novels with the adventures of their newest character, Ethan Reckless (hey, don’t laugh — the serial-novel heroes he’s loosely based on such as Remo “The Destroyer” Williams and, even more absurdly, Mark “The Penetrator” Hardin, are exponentially more ludicrous) makes pretty good sense in the post-COVID comics marketplace,  unfortunately too much on offer in his debut story, Reckless, simply doesn’t. That’s my queue to tell you that small but crucial “spoilers” follow —

The nuts and bolts of Ethan’s “character Bible” are interesting enough : former ’70s Weather Underground-style radical injured in a bomb blast that gives him amnesia, dulls his pain receptors, and fucks up his overall emotional processing and affect goes even further underground as an off-the-books private dick is a cool enough conceptual framework for these seasoned hands to craft some fun noir-ish stories around, and the early-’80s LA setting is pretty much pitch-perfect for the kinds of things they’re obviously itching to do. The added wrinkle that Ethan was, in actuality, an FBI CONITELPRO cop secretly out to bust his friends works, too — not because it makes him more likeable, but because it makes him decidedly less so : I mean, good pulp protagonists are almost always morally conflicted, right? The problem arises not from the fact that he’s an asshole, but from the fact that he’s a self-pitying one.

I don’t hold it against Brubaker for starting this new series out with the most obvious story choice of all — old flame from Ethan’s radical days comes back, is in trouble, needs protection from a bad dude, etc. — and again, I’m intrigued that lack of normal emotive ability on the part of our erstwhile “hero” is one of his defining traits. What I do hold against our scribe, though, is a running internal monologue on Ethan’s part throughout that is tinged with remorse not so much for the people he fucked over, but for himself. Rainy, his ex, isn’t even a “character” as much as she is a symbol of all that Ethan had and subsequently lost, and inserting himself into her dilemma, while ostensibly a way to make things right, actually isn’t even that for him in any appreciable way, rather it’s a self-administered test to see if he can still feel anything at all — other than, of course, regret that he can’t feel anything. It’s all pretty frustrating because, again, the sort of character they want this guy to be — and that, in fairness, he may still develop into down the road — seems like he might be a pretty memorable one. But he comes off here as the kind of dude you’ll be happy to forget as surely as he forgets parts of himself.
There are some issues with the pacing of the story, as well — Brubaker delivers his biggest shock twist before even the halfway point, then lays off the gas with any others until serving up a rather customary-for-this-sort-of-thing volley of them at the end, but seems to forget that they each successive one should, ideally, be more impactful that the one that preceded it — but all of that pales in comparison with the folly of trying to make a tough-guy action hero out of the most woe-is-me guy in comics since Ditko’s Peter Parker. And he was supposed to be that way. Ethan Reckless, by contrast, is supposed to be flat, unresponsive, uncaring — but instead comes off as self-absorbed to the point that even his more altruistic moves are open to the “what’s in it for him?” question.  Consequently, when he earns a bit of an emotional respite, maybe even some sense of inner peace, in the book’s final pages, it feels entirely unearned.
I definitely give Phillips credit for pulling his weight, though, and ditto for his son/colorist, Jacob. Projects like The Fade Out and Kill Or Be Killed featured art that leaned far too heavily on photo referencing for my tastes, but here, while Phillips has obviously done his requisite period-setting research, he’s doing mainly free-hand drawing again, and injecting everyone with a fair degree of visual personality that I wish the script lived up to, and the overly-saturated color palette drapes everything in a highly appropriate thick, almost oppressive, California haze. Reckless looks great, then — and I’m sure the series pitch read great — but at $25 per volume, Brubaker’s gonna have to come to grips with how to really write this character pretty quickly before it becomes difficult for readers to justify such a large expenditure three or four times in the next year, as their publishing plan calls for. I guess I remain cautiously optimistic — but damn, how about that? I can’t for the life of me remember why.

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2 thoughts on “Patreon Preview Week : “Reckless” By Ed Brubaker And Sean Phillips

    1. Ryan C. (fourcolorapocalypse)

      I guess the second volume of this series just came out, I suppose I should check it out before too long.


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