“I miss our early morning wrestle, not a very happy way to start the day”
Friend of the Devil is the second “Reckless” book, the new crime fiction series by the Kurrent Kings of Krime Fiktion, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. It’s colored, as many of Phillips’s recent things have been, by Jacob Phillips, and I feel there’s some connection there. It’s published by Image, because of course it is!
It’s tempting to write: It’s a Brubillips book, of course you should buy it! and leave it at that, but I don’t shirk my responsibilities around these here parts, no sir! So let’s dive into this, shall we? Brubaker and Phillips have been cranking out these pulpy noir books for 15 or so years by now (Criminal #1 came out in 2006, but Phillips did ink some of Scene of the Crime from 1999, so there’s that), and whether they drift into superhero noir (Incognito) or sci-fi/horror noir (Fatale), they’re still very good at it, and so far, the “Reckless” books are no exception. These are books that don’t pretend to be anything but what they are, and it’s Brubillips working inside their very comfortable wheelhouse. In the first book, which took place in 1981, we meet Ethan Reckless (yes, the name is the worst thing about these books), who solves problems for people (he’s not a licensed private investigator) and who lives and works out of an old movie theater. He has an assistant, a purple-haired young lady named Anna, and he’s very good at his job but he still lives on the margins because that’s the kind of dude he is. So, obviously, this is an homage to the gritty detective shows that Brubaker watched during his formative years, the late 1970s and into the early 1980s (he was born in 1966). Not that there’s anything wrong with that!
In this book, we jump to 1985 (I don’t know if Brubaker and Phillips are just going to keep doing these until the sun explodes, but I hope they jump around in time, because that’s keen), and Ethan is doing his thing. Brubaker knows that you begin the book with a bang, so just like the first book, we begin with Ethan in a spot of trouble, and then we go back to how he got into that trouble. In this case, it’s an attractive librarian he meets when he’s researching another job, with whom he begins an affair and who wants him to find her sister. The librarian, Linh Tran, is Vietnamese, and her mother had married an American in the ’60s and brought Linh to San Diego, where she gained a step-sister, who disappeared in the late ’70s. One night while Ethan is watching a trashy movie, Linh spots her sister in the background and asks Ethan to find her. As usual, things go pear-shaped pretty quickly.
As I noted, Brubaker wants to create a simple detective story, but because he’s a good writer and because he’s looking at this era in hindsight, he can’t help making it about more than that. In this book, it’s about nostalgia and the desire to return to a more innocent state, one that might never have existed but which the characters want to recapture nevertheless. Linh’s sister, Maggie, left for Hollywood in 1976, and a few years after that disappeared, and Linh wants closure, but she also wants to rekindle their friendship, which reminds her of a golden time before adulthood intruded on their lives. Ethan is dealing with the death of his father (which he mentions in the book but which isn’t shown), and such deaths usually make people think about the “good old days,” and he’s wallowing a bit in a nostalgic self-pity. There’s also the nostalgia for simpler things, not only in our personal lives, but in the fact that we think everything was better when we were younger. Brubaker twists this, of course, because he knows that nothing has ever been simple, and Maggie’s desire for movie stardom could easily lead her down dark paths, and it does. Nostalgia for the “free love” and “inconsequential drug use” of the Seventies has a dark side, of course, because neither of those things comes without consequences, and Maggie gets into both of them. The feeling of nostalgia is also linked to the feeling of powerlessness, and Brubaker plays on that by showing how the idyllic age we remember was still filled with powerful people exploiting the powerless. Nostalgia gives us rose-colored glasses, but Brubaker doesn’t let us keep them on. In allowing the characters to dive into nostalgia, he makes it impossible for Ethan and Linh to be happy, either alone or together. There’s definitely a balm in closure, but it can also rip open old wounds. Brubaker does a nice job showing how this can mend lives, but also fracture them. It’s a deeper book than you might expect in that regard.
Phillips is wonderful as usual – at this point in his career, it’s really not about what is art is like, because you know what his art is like, it’s more about if he’s doing anything different, and the answer is … not really. He’s always used thick lines, but here, he’s varying his line weight just a bit to make Ethan look a bit more solid in this shifting moral landscape, although it’s not too revolutionary. He’s a great artist for the gritty world that Brubaker sets his stories in, and he’s so good at making these characters interact nicely with each other and with their world. There’s a scene in which Anna has to dress up so she can pretend to be working for the IRS, and while she’s simply asking Ethan how illegal it is, the two panels in which Phillips shows her in her suit and dull hair (she dyes it for the job) gives us all we need to know about her mindset, because we can just tell how uncomfortable she is, not with the illegality of it, but the stuffiness of it. Little things like this make the book a masterclass on how to tell a story visually, so while Brubaker’s script remains tight, Phillips does a lot of work showing how the characters feel about what’s going on, especially the ones who aren’t Ethan, who’s narrating the book. His son is a good colorist, and his colors are a bit more conventional than Elizabeth Breitweiser (who colored Phillips for a while), who used ragged batches of colors a bit more (Phillips does it too, but it seems a bit more restrained), but he does nicely in countering his father’s solid line with those chaotic notes of color while still remaining “inside the lines” (so to speak) in the more stolid moments. This blend of more traditional coloring (“traditional” in the digital coloring mode, because Phillips still uses shading to create dimensions, so it’s not old-school flat coloring) and the slightly more scattered colors is a nice combination, and the art looks wonderful, as you might expect.
There’s still not much to say about this comic. It’s a good, solid plot, it has more going on than we might expect, and the art is marvelous. What more do you need? If you like good comics, I’ve provided the link below (which, of course, throws a tiny bit of money our way if you use it, even if it’s not to get this book), and while you should get both volumes, you don’t have to! There’s a third volume coming out later this year, and if we’re lucky, two a year for years to come!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆