In the decades writer Ed Brubaker has partnered with illustrator Sean Phillips, they’ve never created a private eye, despite their shared love for the crime genre and the PI sub-genre in particular. That’s about to change with the December release of RECKLESS, the first in a series of original graphic novels set in the wild world of 1980s Los Angeles, and starring recalcitrant hero Ethan Reckless, who comes face to face with a ghost from his own, radical student past.
Brubaker and Phillips, along with colorist Jacob Phillips, are known for their dark, noir takes on the world—whether it’s the period piece The Fade-Out, the vigilante justice of Kill or Be Killed, or the gritty anthology series Criminal, the team have made a name for themselves exploring the dark corners of the criminal underworld to great acclaim, sales, and prestige.
So what do you do next?
You create a good guy…?
I sat down with Brubaker to talk about the new series, why the team decided to go straight to the collected, graphic novel format, and what readers can expect to see in the first volume of Reckless, out Dec. 16 from Image Comics.
ALEX SEGURA: Ed, can you talk a bit about RECKLESS? You and Sean have tackled the dark side of humanity in various ways, but I know you also love characters like Lew Archer—heroes that have to stick their hands in the muck. What made RECKLESS the next thing you wanted to tackle after your recent work with Sean, like PULP, BAD WEEKEND, CRUEL SUMMER, and KILL OR BE KILLED?
ED BRUBAKER: RECKLESS is a modern (or maybe post-modern?) take on the classic paperback series characters from the 60s and 70s that I grew up seeing my dad read, with all the lurid covers that promised so much. I had been toying with the idea for a while, thinking of how to approach it, who the character would be, why anyone would care, etc… but it was always back-burnered, because I really wanted to do it as a series of books, not comics then collected into books.
But then the pandemic hit, and during the first lockdown I started reading a bunch of my favorite old pulp series characters, and it was like this great escape from real life. Like, it was sort of nostalgic, because I was escaping into the past, but it was also just a great way to spend the evening, after looking at too much news.
At that same time, Sean was drawing the PARKER story I wrote as a tribute to Donald Westlake and Darwyn Cooke, for the big hardback IDW is doing next year. So I’d been looking at all of Darwyn’s Parker adaptations, and feeling jealous again of what he’d accomplished with those—from the format to the design to the actual drawing, they’re just such great objects.
And all of that made me start thinking about this idea again—our version of a pulp hero. And pretty soon I was filling up a notebook. I knew right away I wanted to set the books in the past, so Ethan (our hero) is part of the same period when these kinds of books were everywhere, but I wanted to bring a more modern sensibility to it. Use it as a way to talk about that era from our point of view.
Also, I wanted to have some fun, and give that same feeling of escape to our readers that I was getting right then from an old Lew Archer novel, or a Travis McGee book. I’d been reading series character pulp novels on and off for my whole life, so I knew all the aspects of the genre that would be fun to play around with—the base of operations, the support network, what does Ethan drive? In our case, he operates out of an old abandoned movie theater and his assistant is a teenage punk rock girl, and he drives a Dodge Van from the 70s. Because that’s what I’d do if I was him, live in my own movie theater and keep the whole world out. Only go out into it to make some trouble once in a while.
And of course, he’s got a fucked up backstory, which I won’t reveal much of here, but the book begins when someone from his old Weather Underground days reaches out, looking for help… so that gives you a bit of an idea. It’s the early 80s now, the 60s are definitely over, and the world it left behind feels doomed.
AS: The pandemic has derailed, well, everything. I’m curious about your move from serialized, monthly comics to having this series be fully-OGN, meaning graphic novels aimed at the book market. Was that a result of the pandemic, or something you think you would’ve done anyway?
EB: Honestly, I don’t know. I wanted us to do longer original graphic novels, for sure, I’d felt that desire for a few years at least. And we’d done two graphic novellas—MY HEROES HAVE ALWAYS BEEN JUNKIES and PULP—which were both really big sellers, but I don’t know if we’d have decided to go right to a book twice that length if not for the pandemic.
When the market shut down, we had no idea how long it would be down, so I just figured we’d start working on a graphic novel and then when the market was back up, we’d have most of a book done. So it was kind of like “we don’t know what to do, but we can’t stop working… hey, let’s do a bigger graphic novel.” And then it just find of all fell into place. And I figured, this kind of character, a kind of part-Private Eye, part repo man, part trouble-maker, that was a character that would appeal to both comic readers and the mainstream book market.
The crazy part was realizing that because we had so much lead time, we could put out three of these books in one year. I was reading about how the first three Travis McGee books came out just a few months apart from each other, and I thought… we could do that. Since we’re switching away from monthly comics to graphic novels, lets try and keep them on a tight schedule, so our readers don’t have to wait a year for the next one. So far we’re on track and it hasn’t killed us, but we’re both back in lockdown where we live, so that’s been good for productivity, I guess.
AS: Let’s talk a bit about some of the PI series you love—what were some of the characters you were drawn to? You’ve said before you love icons like Lew Archer—so, how does RECKLESS fit into that, or flip some of the tropes?
EB: Yeah, Lew Archer is probably my all-time favorite PI character, and I think a lot of those books still hold up. Macdonald was writing about his own life and struggles and passions through those mysteries, and you can really feel a kind of resonance in all the later books. They feel similar, but it’s like you’re following ripples, watching this writer struggle with his own past. My dad loved Travis McGee and Spenser, and of course James Bond. But he also loved Le Carre, and knew those were closer to the real spy game (he was in Naval Intel). When I decided to finally do a deep dive into the McGee books recently, I was shocked to see how just in-your-face sexist they are. Like they’re way ahead of the curve on talking about the environment, but oh my god, so far behind on the treatment of women. Especially in the early books. But leaving that aside, the simplicity of the structure of those McGee books is pretty admirable. You can see the mark they left on the genre, and they add up to something more than any one book, which is kind of the point of series fiction.
When I first started reading mysteries, it was after I’d been a big noir fiction reader. I got to Jim Thompson before I got to Hammett. It was when I was working at this bookstore on Castro St. that I started just reading mysteries at the front counter all the time. A lot of the stuff I read then made me fall in love with the genre, like Marcia Muller’s books, and Bill Pronzini, or Joseph Hansen’s books, or Chester Himes. But I was reading anything I could get my hands on in the genre at the time, so one night a friend of mine saw me reading some really trashy mystery and he shook his head and grabbed The Galton Case off the shelves and made me read that. From that point on, I was pretty much hooked on Ross Macdonald’s books.
But I don’t think Ethan Reckless fits into that mold, of a Lew Archer. He’s more of a cross between a good guy and a criminal. Like everything I love rolled into one character. He’s definitely more of a troublemaker, and more violent when he needs to be, than most classic PIs. That’s where he links back to those paperback originals—that and his last name. They weren’t Sherlock Holmes, they caused trouble and then managed to get out alive at the end. Ethan is like the smarter version of that, in a more real world, but one that still breaks out into horrifying violence sometimes.
The other way it plays with the genre, though, is that the books all take place years apart from each other. Like, I always figured if you were a real detective, you’d mostly work boring cases, and only on rare occasions would something really dangerous happen. And that way, I can use each book to examine that time in our world, and watch Ethan grow older. He’s clearly writing from modern times and I think that changes the whole tone of the narrative. It’s a guy telling you stories, and veering off on tangents as he does.
AS: With RECKLESS and FRIDAY, which we talked about recently, you’re challenging some of the norms of comic book distribution—but I know you guys have a strong readership with traditional comic shop buyers. So was the idea to try and tap into a new readership while still retaining your base? Curious to hear more about your strategy with both series.
EB: I mean, honestly, we’ll sell more copies of RECKLESS in comic shops than anywhere, comic shops have really built our readership, but I always think of the general mainstream audience with our books, too. And I think for sure RECKLESS is our most mainstream market-friendly thing ever, because it’s a genre you see on all the racks at the airport book stores. But it’s also something you don’t see much of in comics, this kind of series, so it stands out on the shelves there, too. But yeah, the hope is for that crossover outreach. Putting it out a few weeks before Xmas was definitely a plan. Like RECKLESS is that perfect gift for your father who doesn’t read comics but loves a thriller or a mystery.
And FRIDAY, the main reason we’re doing it on PanelSyndicate.com is that that’s Marcos’s platform. So it allows us to serialize it a chapter at a time, as we make what will be a big graphic novel that will sell in comics shops and book stores. But again, it’s something you could easily see in the YA graphic novel section of a book store, as well as the front table at your local comic shop. I think that’s been the slow evolution of my comics work, honestly, to create things that make sense in both markets. Because I love comic stores, and I think they’ve helped keep print alive the last twenty years or so, but I always want to see my stuff in book stores too. It’s just that long slow outreach process, getting there.
AS: That makes a lot of sense. What can you tease about this first book in the series and what’s to come?
EB: RECKLESS is a bit of the origin book. It’s about a woman from the past reaching out for help, and Ethan having to face his own dark secrets, his own betrayals, and what happened to him back in the early 70s. It’s also a portrait of early ’80s Southern California, down to there even being pages that are essentially driving directions.
By the end of the book, hopefully your heart is breaking a bit for Ethan and you want to see what he gets up to next… and you can find out in April, when the next book comes out, FRIEND OF THE DEVIL, which takes place in 1985 and is about the occult underworld and Hollywood.
AS: You’ve worked with Sean Phillips and, more recently, his son, colorist Jacob Phillips, for a while now. What’s that comfort level like, and how have they evolved over the years you guys have created comics?
EB: Oh god, with Sean it’s been over 20 years now, I think. Yeah, it’s a very good collaborative relationship. He never wants to know what’s coming next, so he’s always the first reader, and he always makes whatever I write look good, even when I make him draw car crashes or parties with fifty people milling around. It’s always about the storytelling, and we mesh really well. I’m always trying to not overwrite, to let him tell more of the story, but that’s the endless struggle, of how best to drag the reader through the pages.
With me and Sean, we both like doing different things, and we’re always trying to push ourselves. We have been doing this for a long time, but I always feel like we’re still just trying to get better and figure out how to tell the story in a more effective way. We never let any of our successes get in our heads, because by the time they’re out, we’re deep into the next book.
And now with Jake coloring the books, it’s been kind of amazing. You can watch him get better and try new things with every project so far. He started out posing for photos for reference, all the kids in our early comics were Jake in disguise, in some way, and now he’s doing his own comics and coloring ours. I’m now worried he’s gonna get too big for us soon.