Exploding cars, goons with guns, menacing figures who could be heroes or villains. These images are no longer the sole province of vintage paperbacks from the heyday of pulp fiction. They now adorn a slick new series of graphic novels (with some key updates) by the legendary team of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips.
“Reckless,” released in December 2020, announced the arrival of a new old-school antihero: Ethan Reckless. Set in L.A. during the early 1980s, the first novel in Brubaker and Phillips’ series features a former FBI agent whose cover as a ‘60s radical was blown in a bomb blast. Part detective, part hired thug, Ethan moves through the world with ruthless efficiency, solving problems for people at the end of their rope.
When he’s not chasing down machete-wielding drug dealers or solving the mystery of a sex cult with a Satanist twist, Ethan hangs out in a dilapidated movie theater called the El Ricardo, which, as Brubaker told me in a recent Zoom conversation, was “a tip of the hat to Lucy and Ricky.” The venue’s projectionist, a punk rocker named Anna whom Ethan caught spray-painting anarchy symbols on the theater entrance, does double duty as his assistant.
Over the course of the first three Reckless books, Ethan and Anna’s relationship deepens as they exact extrajudicial payback upon a host of villains. But in the most recent installment, April’s “The Ghost in You,” Anna takes center stage in a story all her own, solving a mystery — in a Black Flag T-shirt no less — while Ethan works on a case out of town. Brubaker was nervous about the switch — until he talked to Phillips, who reassured him. “Oh, she’s my favorite character I’ve ever drawn,” he told Brubaker. She’s the one with the purple hair and chunky glasses — not the sort of cover model you’d see in the original pulps.
The Reckless books are the kind of contemporary take on genre storytelling that only Brubaker, an influential comics creator with a deep grounding in pulp, could dream up. “Reckless is a successor to paperback heroes that gives me a chance to mine all my forgotten ’80s L.A. memories,” he said. Writing it allowed Brubaker to “escape to the past when Reagan was president and we thought the world was ending — as opposed to now when it actually feels like it might.”
It was at the end of that era, in 1987, that Brubaker began writing for comics. He has also worked in TV, most notably on the first season of “Westworld.” Brubaker wrote countless stories for DC and Marvel — he co-created the Winter Soldier character with artist Steve Epting for Marvel’s “Captain America” series — before committing to Image Comics, which features other creator-owned titles such as “The Walking Dead.” There, Brubaker and Phillips developed a string of hugely popular series and standalones, including “Fatale,” “Criminal,” “The Fade Out” and “Pulp.”
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With a slew of Eisner Awards to his name and a reputation as one of the industry’s most popular storytellers, Brubaker set out to do something new not by choice but out of necessity.
Comics are created on a tight schedule. When the pandemic hit, not only did comic book shops around the country shut down — so did the printers and distributors. It was a bleak time for the business. “Everybody in comics panicked,” Brubaker said. “How are we going to be able to keep making comics? Are all the stores going to go out of business?”
Brubaker, who divides his time between L.A. and the Central California coast, began developing a longer project. While many people were home in their pajamas watching the news and taking a sudden interest in gardening and baking, Brubaker and Phillips went to work. “We were both looking for some kind of escape,” Brubaker said, “something that we could throw ourselves into.”
Typically, graphic novels collect a series of comics with a complete narrative arc. Brubaker envisioned a series of original books inspired by the lurid detective series of the ’50s and ’60s that his father had read, including John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer and Richard Stark’s Parker. Updating them for the 21st century meant more than changing the scenery.
“I had a love-hate thing with those,” said Brubaker. “In some ways I like them and in other ways, I think they have aged really poorly.” He began to wonder what his version of a pulp hero would look like if he “got rid of all the blatant racism and sexism that are in a lot of those books.”
Brubaker mined his own background, starting with his father, who was the head of Naval Intelligence operations in the Mekong Delta during the conflict with Vietnam. Brubaker’s uncle (and namesake) Ed was a CIA operative who, the author recalls, “slept with a gun under his pillow.”
Like Ethan, Brubaker is a Navy brat whose life was constantly uprooted. For instance, he moved to the naval base at Guantanamo Bay when he was 4. “It’s really weird,” the author said. “You go to school and your best friend is just suddenly gone.” But when he arrived in San Diego, Brubaker found his people in the punk rock community; his trips to see punk shows in L.A. form the basis of the city of “Reckless.”
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The graphic novels, illustrated by Phillips and colored by Phillips’ son Jacob, bring Brubaker’s memories of those streets to life: late outings to Oki Dog, all-night sessions at Canter’s, incandescent sunsets at Venice Beach. Phillips’ loose lines and florid style evoke the smog-washed haze of the ‘80s.
With the next installment in the Reckless series, “Follow Me Down,” scheduled for October, their breakneck pace continues. What makes the collaboration even more challenging is that Phillips lives more than 5,000 miles away in England’s Lake District. Brubaker insists the distance between them motivates him to write; if he takes the day off, Phillips won’t have anything to illustrate. And Phillips doesn’t take the day off.
“I feel like I would probably write slower if Sean drew slower,” Brubaker said, “but he always needs pages. It’s a great way to stop second-guessing whatever decision I have to make.”
Although the Reckless series is a love letter to an L.A. that exists mostly in his memories, rendering it realistically required an enormous amount of research. The Phillips clan is British and L.A. has changed a lot in 40 years. Brubaker created a database with thousands of reference materials.
“Here’s what the average 7-11 looked like in 1980,” Brubaker would tell his collaborator. “ ’Here’s 10 of them.’ Things like that, because he has no reference for any of that stuff.”
Brubaker’s pulp palette laid over his punk memories render a world both familiar and strange. “I always had a romanticized view of early ‘80s L.A.,” he admitted. The romantic gloss distinguishes the Reckless books from graphic novels that revel in rubbing the readers’ noses in the grime. Brubaker’s characters are shaped by forces they struggle to comprehend and though they sometimes get close, the truth — like the memories the series is made of — remains tantalizingly out of reach.
Ruland is the author of “Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise & Fall of SST Records.”
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