THIS REVIEW OF ‘MY HEROES HAVE ALWAYS BEEN JUNKIES’ IS SPOILER-FREE.
by Brendan Hodgdon. In a collaboration now spanning almost twenty years, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have become as close to a sure thing as you can find in comics. Their voices and instincts mesh on a primal level, and the resulting stories often seem almost effortless in their craft. They’ve now reached a phase in their collaboration where every new project involves some sort of risk, some effort to expand their preexisting creative language. In the case of My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies, this means producing their first original graphic novel, and the result is one of the best books I’ve read this year.
This latest effort in post-modern pulp follows an addict named Ellie, confined to a rehab facility where she gets mixed up with a fellow patient named Skip and pushes him through a series of increasingly bad decisions. In creating Ellie, Brubaker and Phillips are riffing on classic femme fatale tropes, something that has been a hallmark in their prior work. But between Brubaker’s bitter first-person narration, and Phillips’ subtle illustration, they imbue Ellie with a great degree of internal life, and undercut the usual cold-blooded vibe on which such archetypes are built. Ellie’s self-loathing and romanticized view of addiction give her specificity, and drive home the fact that she is ultimately just as hapless as Skip, no matter how much more proactive she tries to be about it.
It’s good that Ellie is such a thoughtfully-considered character, as much of the book is a loosely-constructed study where the drama stems primarily from understanding where Ellie is coming from, and what motivates her. This is where the choice to make Junkies an OGN instead of a miniseries comes in handy. Without having to cram in equal amounts of plot, action and theme into specifically-sized individual chapters, Brubaker and Phillips are able to take their time to really explore Ellie’s state of mind and circumstances in detail. The entire first half of the book functions more as an amorphous, loosely-structured tone poem than anything else, slowly seeding the plot components for the back half amidst flashbacks and extended dialogue exchanges. This is actually where the book is at its best, before the genre elements kick in and we move towards the more traditional pulp beats.
A big part of what makes all of this so successful is how well Brubaker and Phillips capture the tragedy of addiction and the mentality surrounding it. The musings about junkies and how they related to their addictions, and about the desperate justification for their using, adds an extra layer of resonance and despair to the story. (It all fees particularly meaningful now, as the opioid crisis currently ravaging much of the country reinforces the idea of numbing the lousiness of reality with drugs.) This blends very naturally with the typical tragic notes at the heart of most noir stories, with which Brubaker and Phillips are well-acquainted by now. When you also consider the youth of the characters, it only makes the tale even sadder.
As sad as this story is though, it is presented in quite the beautiful package, thanks not just to Sean Phillips but also to Jacob Phillips, the colorist. Just as Elizabeth Breitweiser helped to break away from the usual Brubaker/Phillips aesthetic when she colored Kill or Be Killed, Jacob Phillips here gives Junkies its own particular energy. The washed-out pastels of the present and the solid gray and black flashbacks juxtapose nicely and match the tone of both settings, and play into the context of each rather well. This, in conjunction with Sean Phillips’ talent for providing character-actor identity to every face, makes it incredibly easy to immerse yourself in Junkies’ world, and in the hazy desperation of Ellie and Skip.
When you crack open a new Brubaker/Phillips yarn, you generally know what you’re gonna get: violence, vulgarity, sex, and crime. Crackling dialogue and bruising art. But these two old narrative pugilists keep finding new ways to land their punches, and My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies is yet another quality evolution of their shared style. That this fresh approach also perfectly suits and supports the particular story it’s been chosen for is not the least bit surprising, nor is the raw emotionality that drives the whole thing. My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies is a sharp, intense read, one that you’ll burn through quick and keep thinking about long after the back cover flaps shut.
Written by Ed Brubaker.
Art & Letters by Sean Phillips.
Colors by Jacob Phillips.
9 out of 10