Comics Writer Ed Brubaker Talks Crime, Drugs, Maps, and Growing Up

If Ed Brubaker is getting tired by now, he isn’t showing it. Twenty-three years after he first teamed up with artist Sean Phillips (on an out-of-continuity Batman noir story called Gotham Noir), the comic writer has been around the block more than few times.

He found breakout success with his six-year stint writing (and briefly killing) Marvel’s Captain America; co-authored the critically beloved cop drama-by-way-of-DC-Comics series Gotham Central; achieved more breakout success with a six-year stint on Marvel’s Captain America (with one dead protagonist and one resurrected sidekick to show for it); moved for a time into TV scripting as a part of the writer’s room on HBO’s Westworld; and, maybe more than anything else, became a pioneer in successful, sustained creator-owned sales outside the purview of the Big Two superhero publishers.

Call it a matter of creative harmony. The key unifying factor to the past two decades of Brubaker’s career has been the steady presence of Phillips as artist, co-author, and preternaturally in-sync collaborator. After solid early feedback on their Batman work, the team entered the awareness of fandom at large as the braintrust behind Wildstorm’s Sleeper. But their real key juncture was the launch of 2007’s Criminal, a creator-owned crime anthology series that gave them leave to unapologetically lurk in the shadows of the noir films and musty pulp paperbacks that had always been the source of their inspiration.

That opened the door to a series of crime-themed, pulp-flavored collaborations that have wound their way through various series, lead characters, publishers, and formats in the decade and a half since then. With their transition wholly into original graphic novels beginning in 2020—a separation from the monthly grind of periodical comics that may or may not be a canary in the coal mine of the comics industry—Brubaker and Phillips did the unthinkable for mainstream comic creators: turned their backs on the traditional direct market and lived to tell the tale. Brubaker likes to joke that he’ll know he’s made it when his comics are sold at airport bookstores. He and Phillips are coming perilously close. Wince at the term if you will (and Brubaker does), but Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips are a brand.

Their latest book, Where the Body Was, is both of a piece with their earlier works, and something grippingly, beautifully new. A spin on the old, and largely forgotten, series of mapback books published by Dell Books in the 1940s (which, as their name implies, were set entirely within the bounds of a map printed with a key on the book’s cover), it’s both a mystery revolving around a dead body and a runaway teen, and an autobiographical reminiscence of misspent California youth in the 1980s. It’s about drugs, and crime, death, and affairs, yes—but it’s also about growing up, and learning what you can control, what you can’t, and which of the two matters more.

As for Brubaker? He and Phillips are already onto the next book. And the one after that. And the Amazon-produced adaptation of Criminal lately given the go-ahead. And speaking for myself, it’s hard to imagine complaining one bit. Brubaker took the time to sit down with io9 to talk about his new book, crime, maps, California sunshine, and the wisdom of growing up.

Zach Rabiroff, io9: I hope you won’t mind if I start with an editorial statement. Because I’ve read, I think, every comic that you and Sean Phillips have done together, and I have to say that I think this is the best thing you’ve ever done together. So I guess what I want to ask is, did you feel like you had done something special with this?

Ed Brubaker: I think everything we do is the best thing we’ve done, generally. Looking back, sometimes I go, “Oh, that one was better than that one,” because we do a couple of books every year at this point. And I realize that everybody has different favorite ones, but for me, this was something that was really unlike anything we’ve done before, but also still felt like us. I felt like that was a real achievement. I’d been trying to find a way to write about love and all its different aspects and facets, and how it changes inside of us over time.

io9: That’s actually something you’ve been talking about for quite a while. I think it was around the turn of the millennium you first said that you wanted to do a romance book if there was a market for it. And it feels like there’s more to that here than I’ve seen in any other of your work since then.

Brubaker: Yeah, Chip Zdarsky laughed at me when I showed him the cover to the book [showing the outline of a dead body]. He said, “This is a great cover, but this book has got the most amount of romance and sex in it of anything that you guys have ever done, and you have a dead man on the cover.”

io9: Do you think that’s just because your and Sean’s brand at this point meant there’s got to be a murder?

Brubaker: No, it started with the dead body on the street. That was always part of it. It was just that as I was populating my notebook with the stories of all the different characters, I realized that this was going to end up being more of a romance comic than anything, because it’s all these different characters at these different points in their lives, encountering each other on the same street. And to me, it was the closest I could get to trying to wrap my words around the way loss feels, or love feels, or just living on this planet and growing older. A really small epic that took place on one street, basically.

io9: Was that the genesis, that you wanted to have this contained setting of the one street, and you built it from there?

Brubaker: Yeah, I’ve been wanting to do something for a long time where we could have a map on either the back cover—like those old Dell mapback books— or what we ended up doing, which is that the endpapers of the hardback are the two-page map of the street. I always really wanted to do something like that: graphically, I love stuff like that. It’s got this weird, nostalgic feel, even though it’s nostalgic for the ‘30s and the ‘40s. But that was where it started—the idea of doing a book that was really a bunch of different overlapping stories that all took place in the same place.

And the inspirations for it were more literary. There are a lot of comics that have done stuff like that before; short stories that Chris Ware and Dan Clowes have done, stuff like that. But I was really coming off of reading a bunch of Tom Perrotta, and watching a bunch of old movies from the ‘90s. And it was a very indie film kind of thing to do, to have like a bunch of different stories that were overlapping.

io9: I think it was Robert Altman who really made that a ‘90s movie thing.

Brubaker: Yeah, totally. When I was explaining to my wife what the book was going to be, she said, “Oh, that sounds like Short Cuts, which is funny because in my mind, I was thinking, “It’ll be kind of like all these different people who lived on this street during this one summer.” And when I first started thinking of it, I thought, “Well, what if someone’s interviewing all of them?” Then I just decided to get rid of the interviewer and have them talking directly to us, and I thought to myself, “Oh, that’s a thing I can do because it’s comics.” And break the fourth wall, and jump around in time, and watch them get older—just really use the language of comics.

io9: Those interviews are something that I wanted to mention to you, because there’s this paradoxical way that it actually seems more personal because you have multiple voices speaking directly to the reader. I’m not sure if you got that same sense.

Brubaker: Definitely. I mean, every character in any book by any author is some part of the author, or the author taking some part of themselves and blending it with something they’re making up, or something that happened to a friend. Subconsciously, you’re always writing about yourself, I think. So, yeah, this is an incredibly personal work. And there were parts of it that were hard to write because they just almost felt too much like—Larry Charles gave an interview recently about how he had a falling-out with Larry David at some point. And he said something along the lines of, “Loss is a thing that you learn to deal with in life if you’re lucky enough to.” One of the things I really wanted to do with this story is have people at different ages: the little girl is 12 years old, and Tommy and Karina are 18 or 17 years old. Palmer’s in his early 30s. Everybody’s slightly at a different place in their life. I wanted to show that, to try and go through the full spectrum of the world through these small characters in this little nowhere town, this nowhere street.

io9: Did you feel like it was constricting to be working within this limited setting? Were you trying to raise the net a little bit higher for yourself to see if you could work within that challenge?

Brubaker: It was definitely a challenge, but it was more fun than anything else to me. The biggest stumbling block was that I filled up a whole notebook in two days with all the stories of the different characters. Then it was really about how to weave their stories around each other and in what sequence. In my mind, when I was first jotting everything down, I thought the dead body would appear sometime during the first third of the book, but it turned up in the last third [instead]. Stuff shifts. It was a joy to write it.

I’d actually want to do another really contained thing like that at some point. I would love to do something that all took place in a motel in the middle of nowhere. It felt almost freeing to be able to jump around from character to character.

io9: I guess that’s also the appeal of the country house mystery, or the cozy mystery genres, because it focuses on the characters, in some ways, by necessity.

Brubaker: I can’t remember which one it’s called. I think it’s Appointment with Death. It’s the Poirot movie Peter Ustinov did after Death on the Nile. And his recounting of where everybody was during the crime is something that is burned into my brain from childhood. I love stuff like that. I think that’s why the book is a crime story. Everybody in the book is either a criminal or a child superhero. So I feel like it is still a crime book, but really, it’s more influenced by experimental fiction, trying to do something where the story felt bigger than what you were actually seeing.

io9: It certainly has the feel of something that’s autobiographical to some extent. I’m not sure how true that is.

Brubaker: Some bits of it are close to things that really happened. The Tommy and Karina characters are loosely based on me as a youth, and an old girlfriend of mine.

io9: There are some echoes of the stuff you did in Lowlife [an early Brubaker series based on his own youth] back in the day.

Brubaker: Yeah. There’s no exact dialogue or anything like that. The conversation about The Twilight Zone that’s such a pivotal thing in the book was really a conversation that I had with some total stranger in a parking lot while we were waiting for drugs once, and never saw that person ever again. You take bits and pieces of things that are happening in your life. It definitely was a little bit of a callback to my early days, like the Lowlife years when I first started publishing back in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s.

And that’s part of what the book is about, I think. How as you get older, you end up feeling more nostalgic about your past and looking back at it, and how you can eventually get to a place where you can let go of that a little bit. That’s part of Tommy’s journey, to learn to live in his present and appreciate it instead of always looking back.

io9: And it’s also about the question of whether you can understand anything that happened in your past, right?

Brubaker: Yeah. It’s that famous John Lennon quote about “life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” The older you get, the more true that feels. It’s like, “ How do you make God laugh? Make a plan?” The nature of life. Palmer is trying to control his life. So he doesn’t end up getting very much of one.

io9: Because you do a lot of crime stories with Sean, so much of what both of you do is focused on one particular character through their specific narrative viewpoint over the course of a whole graphic novel. Was it strange for either of you to be working with so many different viewpoints and so many different visual styles for characters?

Brubaker: No, I don’t think so, because I gave Sean the list of characters and all their descriptions. And then my wife made a rough sketch of the neighborhood so Sean could design the neighborhood and make a digital map of it. He hired somebody to help him make a 3D digital map of the whole neighborhood because he wanted to make sure all the houses were in the right place in the backgrounds. When people were walking on the sidewalk, you knew exactly where they were.

It was funny: I sent Sean the map and he was starting to design it, and then he found somebody—an architect or somebody—to help him do the whole thing. He would just move the map around in the backgrounds: whenever I got the pages, I could see exactly where all the houses were. He had to do a lot of the inks and stuff, a lot of detail work, and adding all the trees and everything. But in general, the layout of the street was right there. I think it was a lot of fun for both of us to do.

We’ve done a few things here and there where we’ll jump around between different characters. Each book is a different character, really. But each arc tends to focus on one central character that we’re sticking with for some extended period of time. We’ve done The Fade Out where every chapter focused on a different character, but there was a smaller cast to revolve between. And in “Cruel Summer”, every chapter was a different character, but the story kept moving forward. So it really jumped between character and character.

But those were still plot-driven, like a murder mystery or crime thriller. You can sense the moving plot through each chapter. Whereas some chapters in [Where the Body Was] are just somebody standing there talking to you about a guy. It felt a lot more experimental on that storytelling level. I don’t know if we’ve ever done a thing before where somebody stood there and broke the fourth wall and talked directly to the camera. When I first started doing comics, it was something that I did very commonly, because as far back as the old comic strips around the turn of the 20th century, they’ve had characters just walking and talking. Like, half of Peanuts is just different characters walking and talking out loud to the reader. So it felt like a real comic book kind of thing to do. And I felt, partly because we’re having such a run of success with our career right now, as far as our transition from single issues into only doing graphic novels—it felt like, let’s take advantage of our position to try to do something risky and a little bit weird and a little bit hard to describe.

I’ve said, “It’s kind of like reading a podcast.” It’s like, imagine your favorite true crime podcast, but it’s a graphic novel and it’s really just about love, actually. And I love the technique of having the characters talk directly to the reader and break the fourth wall, in particular. It punctures what we don’t even think about as a ridiculous convention of fictional narrative in the first place: why is this person talking to you? We never question it. But once we actually recognize that they are talking to us, we see that’s always just been a convention. It’s really weird. In the early days of fiction, for hundreds of years, a lot of writers had trouble wrapping their head around the fact that you can just write a story. That’s why there are all these epistolary novels.

io9: Yeah, Daniel Defoe would do stuff like, “I found this journal that had been lost for 50 years, and here’s the story the person told.”

Brubaker: I still do it. I do it with the Reckless books. I did the exact same thing, but now it’s literary tradition. It was only in the 19th and 20th centuries that people just started writing without worrying about who’s telling this story and questioning, “when is he writing this down?” And the answer can be, “Well, he didn’t.” It’s a major shift in literature. You’re hearing his story. He may be dead by the end of it. Now we’re okay with finding out at the end of a story that the main character was dead the whole time, because of Sunset Boulevard. Until then, people would have rioted in the streets. Nobody reads Dracula, really, because we’ve seen all the movies and we know the story. Dracula is a bunch of diary entries and letters and shit. It’s super boring.

io9: Well, I don’t see how a novel with a cowboy vampire hunter can be totally boring.

Brubaker: It’s not boring, but the structure of it is part of epistolary novels that just used to be a thing. Even with Dumas and others, there was always this sense that someone was actually telling you the story. We lost that in the 20th century at some point. We stopped worrying about that so much.

io9: With that in mind, process-wise, did you build this story from the characters and the voices outward, or did you have in mind where it was going to go in terms of the mystery about the death?

Brubaker: Oh, yeah. I had everything mapped out. I wrote down everybody’s stories. Figuring out how some of the stories overlapped was something that I figured out as I was working on it a little bit. I pretty much knew who all the main characters were: there were a couple of characters I had jotted down in my notebook but didn’t end up using or having room for. The main thrust of the book—the Palmer story and his affair with his neighbor—started out as a thing I was working on a long time ago that just didn’t feel like enough of a story. It was loosely based on a thing back in the late ‘80s, I think, or early ‘90s: my stepdad, who’s long passed away now, was a therapist, and one of the partners in his practice got arrested for trying to trick one of his patients into murdering [the therapist’s] wife during a divorce proceeding. And he was going to frame the patient and say that he was obsessed with them or something, and that he’d murdered his wife. That was like a story I’d always been sitting on as, “someday I’m going to use that in something.”

It’s just so weird when you have an actual two degrees of separation from a murder plot; when you realize people in real life do occasionally think, “It’d be cheaper to just have this person killed.” You’re like, “Holy shit.” The idea of it being somebody who’s a therapist, who’s listening to other people’s stuff and thinking about the mind all the time: that’s interesting, because putting yourself beyond morality is something that you can see a therapist doing. Like Leopold and Loeb, “Oh, I can do this thing and let myself not feel guilt. “It seems like the kind of thought experiment a shrink might have.

io9: Is that one of the appeals of a crime story to you, that sense what can put somebody beyond a normal sense of morality?

Brubaker: I guess. I don’t know. I think it’s probably because when I was a teenager, I was a drug addict and a criminal, and I came out of that to become a big noir and comics nerd. I mean, I was already a comics nerd, but when I started writing crime fiction, it helped me find a link between something that felt more personal and self-expressive, and something that also had an exciting story to tell. I love being able to blend things that really matter to me into a genre story that is compelling. I think genre can talk about our world in a more effective and subtle way sometimes than straight fiction can.

io9: Why do you think that is?

Brubaker: Everything’s a little bit more interesting when there’s a murder mystery going on.

Look at the book Pulp that Sean and I did three or four years ago. It’s about two old cowboys fighting Nazis in 1939 New York City: an ex-Pinkerton and an ex-outlaw who are still alive as old men taking on the Nazi Bund. You could do a story just about that night at the Garden, and the Nazi Bund in New York in the ‘30s. You could get that same stuff into just a really straight story about what was really happening back then. Or you could do a story where some cowboys rob some Nazis and get in a big shootout. It still has all the same context. And if you didn’t know about the Nazi Bund and what they were doing in 1939 New York, you could still read Pulp and walk out of it feeling like you learned something, but you also got a rollicking good time, too.

It heightens the drama and the emotion—there’s literally a gun to your head.

It’s something I noticed when I first started reading mysteries. When I was working on Castro Street at this little used bookstore, reading old mysteries and stuff, an author came in—this Latino gay mystery writer who was also a lawyer. He wrote a series of books about a gay lawyer in San Francisco who was also Latino. It said a lot about the Mexican community in San Francisco and the gay community in San Francisco. It highlighted something I hadn’t seen anybody have the guts to write about, but something that I’d seen firsthand in the neighborhood, having lived and worked in that area for years: there was a split amongst the community—this is in the ‘90s. It was a really weird political divide that you couldn’t totally explain to an outsider: a lot of people would feel very uncomfortable trying to write about it.

But here in his crime novel, this guy wrote about the split in the gay activist community between AIDS activists who didn’t have HIV, and AIDS activists who did.

There was a different mystery novel that I was reading that pointed out how minority communities are much more forgiving of their politicians because they want representation so badly. They’ll reelect Marion Barry even after he’s been sent to prison because he is a voice for them. It’s things like that, which I think you can write about in genre and seem less didactic. It’s just part of the world of the story that you’re telling. It goes back as far as [Dashiell] Hammett. Hammett was hugely influential on Hemingway and Fitzgerald, who didn’t write crime fiction. And I think Hammett’s work is, in a lot of ways, more fun to read than Hemingway’s work.

That’s always my thing; I want to entertain people, but it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing thing. The sheep’s clothing is the crime story, I guess. And the wolf is the real meaning of the story, which I often don’t even know when I’m writing it. Until I got to the end of Where the Body Was, I didn’t realize how much of it was about loss and aging. Those are things that are on my mind a lot more these days.

io9: Was it a story you think you could have done when you were younger, or is this the kind of thing where you have to be at this point in your career?

Brubaker: It had to be at this point in my career, and this point in my life, and at this point in the world, I guess. We’re always writing something reacting to our lives and our world. This is definitely not a book I could have written at 25 or 30.

io9: You and Sean have had quite a number of years of collaboration And I’m wondering what your process together looks like at this point.

Brubaker: We work exactly the same as we have for 20 years. It’s a very steady collaboration. I don’t know if there’s anybody else in comics who’s ever really done what we do for this long.

io9: I was thinking about that. Whether I could even picture any other writer or artist collaborations of this length.

Brubaker: I think Stan [Lee] and Jack [Kirby] did more comics than us, but they did it over a shorter period of time; they only worked together for about 10 years. We’re 20 years into it, and we’ve got something like 40 books in print. We’re working on the Criminal TV show now. And at the point that the show comes out, we’ll have 11 Criminal graphic novels in print, not including the deluxe hardbacks. So yeah, we’re an incredibly prolific team. And I think part of it is that we trust each other. If I send Sean six or eight pages of a chapter, he’ll just keep working forward, knowing that I’m going to be there with the next chapter before he’s done. And we have such a steady track record of producing books that I think both of us just really trust each other at this point.

io9: I take it there’s no temptation that’s developed at this point to explore other partners.

Brubaker: Why? Who’s better than Sean? I email with Sean every day, and I get pages from him almost every day. It’s just a great working relationship. It’s like a director and a DP, or a director and an actor, or a writer and a director. You’ve got a good thing going.

But the real barometer of success for me underneath all of it has been, do I get to keep doing this? When we first started out doing Criminal, it was self-financed by me from my royalties for killing Captain America. I was paying Sean and our colorist to do the book, because at that point, there was no market for what we wanted to do in comics. Now, 20 years in, I look at it and think, “Wow, how lucky that I’ve been able to spend most of my career doing what I wanted to do.”

io9: You’ve certainly established a brand together, which can’t have been easy.

Brubaker: It’s funny, because our publisher tells us that a lot of the younger people coming up to him are just starting to publish, and say that Sean and I are doing what they want to do. We’re like the goalpost now. It’s really flattering, obviously; it’s an indication that a lot of those people are reading our books, but what we do is just put our heads down and keep producing material. Neither of us really waste a lot of time on social media or the Internet; we pretty much just do our books and we work steadily.

The first few years of Criminal were not a successful thing. We had to really fight to get that book known and to build a market for it. We just kept producing the material in the face of apathy or adversity, sometimes in a market that really didn’t want crime comics at all.

io9: So where do you go next?

Brubaker: I never want to try and do something that feels exactly like whatever we did before. Even the Reckless books feel slightly different from each other because their plots are different and they take place in different years. The next thing is really it’s hard to describe. It’s kind of like a Satanic Panic neo-noir. It takes place in modern times.

io9: Right, because Satanic Panic can mean any time in 20-year cycles, so take your pick.

Brubaker: It’s about a woman who was part of the Satanic Panic of the ‘80s as a child who is grown up now in our modern world. It’s kind of a weird horror-thriller noir story about the Satanic Panic. It’s called Houses of the Unholy. Sean said it’s the weirdest thing we’ve ever done. So take that for what you will.

I know what the next book we’re going to do after that one is because I’m a few days away from finishing the last pages of that one. After that, we’ll probably do some more Criminal stuff, because I’ve got two or three ideas for different Criminal books that I’ve been wanting to do. We’ll keep trying to keep ourselves entertained, and hopefully entertain our readership, too.

Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about the future of Doctor Who.

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