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Exploring a Reckless Vision of Los Angeles, with Ed Brubaker


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Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips are no strangers to comics and noir, blending both primal elements of story into everything they do—whether it’s mainstream superhero work or their more recent, and more personal, forays into creator-owned, character-driven crime comics. Brubaker and Phillips have worked together so long they’ve become synonymous, a pair of names that complete each other, building a legendary reputation with series like Criminal, Fatale, Kill or be Killed, Incognito, Bad Weekend, and more. 

Their latest collaboration, while still firmly entrenched in the dark corners of graphic novel crime, marks a departure of sorts. Instead of releasing their stories via monthly, comic shop-focused “floppy” comic book installments that would later be bound and collected as trade paperbacks for the book trade, the creators have pivoted to doing a series of original graphic novels. Complete, done-in-one stories that present a complete adventure, but also serve as part of a bigger, ongoing series. It’s a love letter to classic private eye fiction, steeped in Brubaker’s vision of a Los Angeles that no longer exists, with a flawed and complex protagonist, all masterfully illustrated by Phillips, with colors by his son, Jacob Phillips. The end result, Reckless, has proven to be a smashing success for the creators and its publisher, indie comics company, Image Comics—in terms of sales, acclaim, and general buzz. The series follows sort-of private eye Ethan Reckless, a modern synthesis of classic pulp detectives like Philip Marlowe, Easy Rawlins, and Matthew Scudder with a wholly modern and knowing twist. 

Click to view slideshow.

The fourth installment in the series, The Ghost in You, hit recently from Image, building on narratives and concepts established earlier in the series, but also presenting the kind of story new fans can digest on their own—not an easy feat, and one that only the best serialized crime stories can pull off. I sat down with Brubaker to talk about the origins of the series, what he and Phillips hope to accomplish, and why readers should check out The Ghost in You.

The idea to create the Reckless saga as a series of original graphic novels—book-bound comics that are longer and usually in hardback—as opposed to the duo’s tried and true monthly comics output was one that came to Brubaker as the world shuddered during the early days of the pandemic.

“During those first weeks of lockdown, the entire comics industry shut down. We had been about to launch a new monthly comic, and suddenly those didn’t exist anymore,” Brubaker said. “So I scrambled to think of something Sean and I could work on, anyway. I didn’t want to just sit around and see what the future would bring us. But at that point it really did seem possible that the comics market would go away, so we decided to start working on a graphic novel, figuring if the worst came, we could sell it on Kickstarter or something. And it gave us a way to escape the pandemic doom at the same time.”

As he pondered what to do next, Brubaker found himself finding comfort in classic P.I. fiction, including the work of Ross Macdonald, Robert B. Parker, and more. That, in turn, nudged him in the creative direction he’d been looking for.

“I’d been going back to some old favorites in those early weeks of the lockdown—Lew Archer, Parker, Travis McGee—and I thought it might be fun to see what our version of an old time paperback pulp hero would be,” Brubaker said “So I started jotting down ideas, and it was like I’d been secretly planning to write these books for a long time and didn’t realize it.”

Like the best P.I. fiction, the Reckless books present a story only Brubaker could tell, in terms of setting and time.

“I loved going back to that era—the 60s thru the gritty 80s—so that Ethan Reckless feels—and the books look—like he’s a forgotten remnant of that period of pulp fiction, but since it’s written from a modern perspective, that, I think, brings something else to it,” Brubaker said. “A kind of weight of the future looking back.”

Reckless himself is the protagonist, but the series’ setting of Los Angeles ranks a close second in terms of importance. The idea of doing a series of graphic novels set in different times in Brubaker’s adopted hometown of L.A. was too tempting to ignore, the writer notes.

“One of my favorite things about comics, graphic novels, whatever you want to call them, is that it costs the same to do a period piece (or a sci-fi) as it does to do something that takes place in modern times. It’s just about research and trying to get it right. For the Reckless books, I’ve been trying to recreate my kind of ‘dream LA’ from my childhood,” Brubaker said. “I didn’t grow up in Los Angeles, but we visited it a lot in the 70s and 80s, and I was always Hollywood obsessed, because my uncle was a once-famous screenwriter—he wrote Crossfire, On the Beach, and The Wild One, among many others. So in making these books, I’m also trying to showcase forgotten or lost places in LA that meant something to me growing up. Like pieces of the LA punk scene, or cool old restaurants, or the way Venice used to feel—cheaper and more dangerous, but with lots more roller skaters.”

Brubaker had a clear vision of how he wanted these iterations of Los Angeles to look, and that involved some brainstorming with the books’ artistic team of Sean and Jacob Phillips.

“At first I had to explain to Sean and Jake that California wasn’t always as dried out as it is now. I wanted this LA to have the dreamy qualities of something like a Malick film, with rich colors and deep blue skies,” Brubaker said. “I want it to feel like a distant memory from our youth, the way we picture it in our minds.”

The series, from a story perspective, doesn’t shy away from shedding a light on the city’s darker, deadlier corners, spending time on parts of its history that many would prefer to see swept under the rug.

“I try to touch on some of the darker parts of LA history in each of the books, too. Things like CIA drug-running, and killer cults of the 70s, skinheads, police gangs, the urban land battles that helped make South LA what it came to be in the 80s,” Brubaker said. “And in the new book in the series, I got to use bits and pieces of famous LA murder houses and urban legends, and blend them into our own twisted version.”

The Ghost in You, the latest installment in the Reckless series, shifts focus slightly—from Ethan to his plucky assistant.

“This is the fourth book we’ve put out in this series—each book tells its own complete story—and one of the things I love so much about detective series is the side characters—the partners and assistants, the irregulars,” Brubaker said. “And with each book in the Reckless series, we’ve learned more and more about Anna, Ethan’s assistant—and projectionist at the movie theater they work out of. After so much of the third book was about their long and strange friendship, it felt like the best next move was to let Anna tackle a case all on her own, so we could spend a lot more time with her, and learn more of her history and what drives her.

So this time Ethan is out of town on a case up in post-’89 earthquake San Francisco, and while he’s gone Anna meets one of her childhood heroes, ex-horror host Evilina, who has a problem with the Hollywood Hills mansion she just inherited. Which is a famous LA murder house. It was really great to devote a whole book to Anna, and see her smarts and struggles as she worked the case, and how the case brings her wandering mother back into her life.”

Like most great stories, the characters within the Reckless series have started moving and breathing on their own, making Brubaker and Phillips chroniclers of three-dimensional people that are as close to real as fictional characters can be.

“I have to say, as a writer I’m finding great joy in just watching Ethan and Anna move through their lives in this past version of LA. They feel like as real to me as my actual old friends, in some ways,” Brubaker said. “I guess they’re emotionally real, since they represent that feeling—the way time is fleeting and your life is made up of little moments with good friends when you look back at it. I find a certain comfort and warmth in writing about them, seeing them grow over those course of these books.

I think the last chapter of GHOST IN YOU is maybe my favorite thing I’ve ever written, and it’s so small and human, but also not small at all.”

***

Reckless: A Ghost in You is out now from Image Comics. 

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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