Since 1999 Sean Phillips and Ed Brubaker have worked together on six different projects, all of which garnered significant critical acclaim and reader popularity. Each a master of their own craft, together they form one of the most distinct storytelling voices in all of comics. When I go to my local comics shop and flip through my pull list, the inevitable Phillips/Brubaker book just feels different in my hands. It’s like it came from another time, now out of print but still pristine and new. Maybe that’s because most of their books carry the weight of the past, histories on top of histories ploughing into the present.
It started with DC/Wildstorm’s Sleeper (though Phillips did provide inks over Michael Lark art on Brubaker’s Scene Of The Crime previously), a new-millennium, neo-noir take on the Wildstorm imprint. It followed the story of one Holden Carver, an agent of a superhero/spy agency dubbed “International Operations” set to infiltrate a criminal cabal stemming from Alan Moore’s run on WildC.A.T.s. The limited series also referenced many other characters and concepts of the Wildstorm universe, eventually leading to the line-wide crossover “Coup d’Etat”. Even in this first (full) collaboration, the chemistry between Phillips and Brubaker oozed off the panels. Carver was like Steve McQueen stuck in a John Huston flick laced with superpowers. The colors were cold and dark, the inks shadowed. It rained a lot, cigarette smoke permeated the pages.
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If Sleeper didn’t cement the duo as one of the more exciting tandems in modern comics, surely their next collaboration did (multiple Eisner Awards say so). This time creator-owned, Criminal debuted on Marvel’s Icon Comics in 2006 to much deserved fanfare and acclaim. Brubaker had been building a strong following from mainstream, superhero readers with his (surprise) crime-riddled take on Daredevil, and Phillips had already made a name for himself with Marvel readers rendering Marvel Zombies with local zombie pusher Robert Kirkman. Criminal was really cool to look at, it was familiar but wholly new, but most importantly it was intelligent; it respected the reader. It embraced the tropes of film noir’s “classic period” while embracing the modern crime genre: Leo Patterson looked like a mix between Harvey Keitel’s “Mr. White” and Glenn Ford in the Rita Hayworth vehicle Gilda (1946). It meditated on violence, consequences, legacies… somewhat of a precursor to the late ought’s crown jewel of basic cable Breaking Bad. It established Brubaker and Phillips’ now signature style: almost post-neo-noir, timeless. It’s shadow cast far over the landscape of comics, influencing creators of many genres and publishers.
After two completed volumes of Criminal, Icon released the pair’s superhero-tinged noir in late 2008 titled Incognito. Incognito revolved around a former member of a supervillain society existing in the Witness Protection Program after testifying against his former employer “The Black Death”. It served as Sean and Ed’s love letter to the original pulp heroes of comic books, told in their own method of course. The series also began the theme of a fascinating Jess Nevins article in the back of each issue, spotlighting a different genre character or theme. Nevins discussed characters like Doc Savage and The Shadow… Incognito itself featured Savage and Shadow analogues. The book was certainly more fun than Criminal, and served as a nice break from the realism of it. Phillips really came into his own on this book. His art was always phenomenal, but with Incognito he was able to finally experiment and play with the drawn and painted style he had refined over the years.
After diving back into the world of petty thieves and broken noses in Criminal, the duo moved to Image Comics for the release of Fatale. Image had become known for pushing creator-owns hard, giving writers and artists the freedom they often fought so hard for under the Big-Two. They would need it for Fatale, a bizarre genre-piece melding their take on noir with Lovecraftian dipped horror. Fatale #24 hit the shelves this summer, wrapping up the entire series (Phillips and Brubaker’s longest continuous stretch to date). The protagonist – if there was one – was a woman the fellas of Criminal would have run into had they been paying attention to anything but cash. Josephine, she was trouble… in that classic femme fatale way yes, but also in a far more terrifying way. She was seemingly immortal, existing since sometime around The Great Depression. Her entire life a Call Of Cthulhu-esque cult has been tracking her for purposes unknown but surely horrific. Again, the team plays with a new genre (with noir embedded, naturally) with gusto, paying tribute to the established motifs while experimenting with form, technique, and themes. Brubaker’s penchant for histories was on full display, Jo lending herself well. Phillips would follow suit, even going so far as to render a fairy-tale like prologue in a flat, seventeenth century art style for the final issue. Fatale received multiple Eisner Awards nominations and ushered in a new era for Phillips and Brubaker, who signed a creator-owned contract with Image shortly thereafter.
They have already put that contract to good use with the debut of Image’s The Fade Out, going back to the roots of their tone: the noir. In a meta-take on genre, Ed and Sean have set The Fade Out in the shady Hollywood hills of the 1940’s, focusing on a film studio specializing in… you guessed in, first wave film-noir. Early reviews of the comic have been stellar; it’s looking like we have another brilliantly conceived and executed Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips comic on our hands. And with the tandem being given the keys to create their own proverbial sandboxes to go and play in, fans of genre comics and comics in general have plenty of good material to look forward to as they continue to release familiar but experimental work unlike anything else on the stands. This is definitely a once in a lifetime writer/artist combination, we are lucky to have them.
Go and read Ricky’s review of The Fade Out #2 now.