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CR Sunday Interview: Ed Brubaker
posted June 7, 2011
 

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Writer Ed Brubaker's latest cycle of Criminal comes from a very personal place. That The Last Of The Innocent goes straight to the almost blissfully non-personal in one of the more memorable story twists in a long while proves to be a huge surprise, but that fails to generate half the astonishment that breaks out across your face as you realize how well Brubaker's left turn manages to serve a haunting story about nostalgia and regret and the limits of self-knowledge. It's loose, confident work. It's my fondest wish that the slightly elliptical, not exactly spoiler-free manner in which Brubaker and I talk about his narrative choices in what follows won't ruin those surprises -- bookmark this and come back if you want to be certain -- but from my point of view the primary instances of fun and skill on display in the new comic book aren't in the conceptual realm as much as in the execution. I hope that any number of you might give this one a try if you're in a comics store this week; I thought it was really fun. Although it may go without saying at this point, artist Sean Phillips and colorist Val Staples provide first-rate work to match Brubaker, tiny samplings of which you'll glimpse below.

I've known Ed Brubaker for about 15 years now, and always have fun talking to him. Although this is a rare chance for me to talk to a top-level mainstream comics creator focusing on a single work in a timely fashion, the Seattle-based writer was nice enough to take a couple of questions about his work's more general place in the North American industry and those abroad, as well as indulge me on something I'd noticed about his Captain America run. Thanks, Ed. -- Tom Spurgeon

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imageTOM SPURGEON: The first thing that came to mind when I was reading the new comic is that there's such an obvious satirical hook to what you're doing. You've introduced material that could naturally lead someone to think that it's there to be satirized, or at least discussed. Was that your intention? Or was that just how you chose to get at this particular story?

ED BRUBAKER: It's kind of a mish-mash of things. I'm doing a lot of different things all at one time with this. The satirical elements... a lot of this is obviously inspired by comics of the '50s and '60s, and for me part of that is MAD Magazine and Trump. Old Kurtzman stuff. There's a lot of Kurtzman and Johnny Craig in here, buried amongst everything. The title of the story is a riff on Seduction Of The Innocent. I wanted to do a lot of things all at once, even though it's fairly short, only four issues long. I wanted to try a crime story that addressed the idea of nostalgia, that used the language of comics and the history of comics as part of telling the story. So there was definitely a conscious thought that there should be satire in it.

SPURGEON: Let me ask you about nostalgia, then. Some of the support material in this comic book suggests that you think comics may be uniquely suited to discuss the issue of nostalgia. Is that a fair assessment?

BRUBAKER: I don't know. I guess to some degree. When The Comics Journal started out it was called The Nostalgia Journal. [Spurgeon laughs] I don't know. For me, it was because I grew up probably like you did, surrounded by comics. And in my mind, when I want to think about my childhood I pick up an Archie comic. Or a Richie Rich. For me, that's part of being able to be transported back to your past.

After my Dad died, it was Halloween last year, right when the Christmas season was heating up. So there were all these Charlie Brown specials, these Rankin-Bass specials on TV. For the first time in years, I watched all of them. And I would actually get kind of fucked up about them while I was watching them, I guess because when my Dad died I had this sudden sense of how much time had passed since then. It crashed down on me. That's kind of where this story came from.

Also, part of the decision to do this comic the way we did is I'm sick of so many comic books coming out seeming like pitches for a movie or a TV show. I wanted to do something, and I guess this taps back into my alternative comics roots, that was just a comic for its own sake. There's no possibility that this story could ever be anything but a comic book. It wouldn't even make sense if it's not a comic book. It's like what Alan Moore said about Watchmen. Ultimately he was not interested in it being adapted to movies or TV because part of what Watchmen is about is about comic books. It's about the conventions of comics. That's a little bit of the inspiration to how I wanted to approach writing it, at least. I wanted to use those one-page gag comics as transition scenes, stuff like that.

SPURGEON: There are two ways that people tend to discuss nostalgia in comic books. One is what you just described, comics as this devastating personal trigger for memories of a time and a place. The other is that comics, particularly those that are these kind of classic low-culture items, not made with a lot of self awareness, can be more reflective of the times in which they were made than more popular items because there's no filter there, no meaningful attempt to process a universal point of view. Do you think the new Criminal story deals with nostalgia in that second way?

BRUBAKER: Definitely. That's where the Dr. Wertham stuff comes in a little bit. It's a reason why the story takes place in the '60s, '70s and '80s. That's when I was growing up reading comics. That's part of it. The idea of nostalgia and looking back at the past... everything I write is kind of about things from the past. In my crime fiction, at least: "This thing happened in the past. It's going to fuck up so-and-so." I just had this crazy idea to process all of this grief and emotion I was feeling in a Patricia Highsmith-like kind of story. And using all of these things that had influenced my work to tell the story.

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SPURGEON: There's a basic shift early on in the story, a shift in settings where the lead character travels from the big city to the small town. I think an underrated strength of your writing is your very specific sense of place. What made you want to use this classic big city/small town shift here? And what is it about the small-town setting that appeals to you?

BRUBAKER: The small town is the innocence of youth. That's how we look back at the '70s now. I think back on the '70s and I don't remember the lines at the gas station and how awful it was. I don't think about Watergate. I think about how awesome it was to live in the suburbs, and to be able to ride your bike to the 7/11, and be unsupervised all day.

The Sesame Streets that are out on DVD now, the early seasons? They have a big warning that they're not intended to be viewed by children. In one of the first episodes of Sesame Street there's a little girl crying on the street corner. Sesame Street was my idea of what the city looked like. Sesame Street might as well have been Harlem. There's this little white girl crying on the street corner. This elderly black man comes up and says, "What's wrong, little girl?" And she says, "I'm lost. I don't know how to get home." He says, "Well, here. Why don't you come home with me? My wife will make you some cookies and we'll find your mommy." And she does. "Because people are friendly." Now in the era of Stranger Danger that would not be able to be shown on TV in a kids program. It would be more like, "Remember your mace, so you can spray the old black man when he tries to walk you home." [laughter]

SPURGEON: You're very quick in the story to subvert that small town image. You show two of the kid characters smoking a lot of dope, you show some punks in the diner. You're kind of taking that classic set-up out at its knees. Was it important for what you were doing to establish that level of doubt about the basic metaphor there?

BRUBAKER: Sure. That for me was the personal stuff. That was my teenage years. The characters are analogs for various comics characters that we all grew up reading to some degree, but really they're all based on me and things that happened to me growing up. But that's also part of the "If these kids grow up reading comics, they're going to do drugs and commit crimes" aspect of it. That sort of Dr. Wertham idea. When these kids were five years old, they were reading Crime Does Not Pay and seeing the injury to the eye motif and girls strung out on drugs. There will be an image in a later issue that's sort of a tribute to that Shock SuspenStories, where the guy's tweaking on heroin. He's got the monkey on his back on the cover -- remember that Feldstein cover?

SPURGEON: Yeah. [laughter]

BRUBAKER: That was part of it. It's kind of -- I hate to use the word because I've never actually listened to one -- but it's kind of a mash-up: two different things at the same time. Adding that seedier underside, that somehow seemed like the right thing to do. As much as I've intellectually thought about every aspect of this story, sometimes I'm just sitting there and writing and something happens and you're like, "Oh, that makes sense. Okay."

SPURGEON: The major death that happens in the first issue. The characters seems disassociated from it a bit -- it doesn't seem like it informs the story as much as some of the other stuff that's going on, but at the same time it informs everything.

BRUBAKER: It's his reason for coming home. That's really what it is. The father being sick is the reason to go from the city to the small town and start thinking about your childhood. That's where it sprung from. Part of it also is I think the main character is kind of unformed. He's a blank slate. He doesn't know how to feel about anything.

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SPURGEON: The storytelling choice to depict the flashbacks in a different style, this kind of old-fashioned comics look, can you talk about making that choice? Because I think there would be a worry that you might be over-selling the point [Brubaker laughs] with this radical shift. I don't think that was the result, but I would imagine that this might have come up as a potential danger when you decided to do that. Sean Phillips is such a talented artist I would also imagine you would have multiple ways to approach those scenes visually. So why hit that particular point so strongly?

BRUBAKER: Sean started out drawing young adult comics for girls magazines. That's part of his history in comics, that he used to draw in this really cute, clear-line style. I guess I was trying to do something that would appeal to me, basically. I thought it would be cool to do a story where all the flashbacks were drawn in an Archie or Millie The Model style. He didn't really go quite as far as I wanted him to at first, but then I really liked the way he did that, and Val colored it so it had a warm, faded look to it. I don't know. Maybe it is a little too blunt, a little too on the nose. I wanted people to see that metaphor pretty clearly, I guess. Hopefully, it won't be the wrong decision. [laughs]

SPURGEON: I liked it, I just wondered if the directness of it might have been a concern.

BRUBAKER: I started this one right after we finished the second Incognito story, and within that story were a bunch of places where I had done a bunch of analogous things, put in Easter eggs like you see in a videogame, where you have Tony Montana's address on a mailbox or something. I had done a bunch of stuff like that. I guess it's a very Alan Moore thing to do, to add these layers. In some weird way, this one feels like a really, really long MAD Magazine story. [laughter] If MAD Magazine was actually Crime SuspenStories. [laughs]

SPURGEON: The Harvey Kurtzman and company stories with which you share some subject matter here are some of the meanest stories those guys ever did. They went knives out after that stuff.

BRUBAKER: And they were being read by like six-year-olds. [laughter] That's the thing, too. I had never written a story -- I know Yojimbo is a riff on Red Harvest and Fistful Of Dollars is a riff on Yojimbo, but I had never done a story where I was creating characters that were loosely analogous to characters from comics history. I just realized, there's a bit of Philip José Farmer influence to this, too, actually -- he's the godfather of analog characters. But as I got more into doing it, I needed to make sure they were characters that stood on their own. So a reader like you and me, who grew up reading comics, they'll go, "Oh, so and so is actually so and so." But if you don't, hopefully you'll still get as much out of the comic. My wife didn't grow up reading comics, and got none of the references, but she thought the flashbacks worked as a way of showing how we think of our childhoods, which was a relief. It's good to have a non-comics person looking at this stuff.

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SPURGEON: Were you surprised at all while writing this comic -- I know I was surprised while reading it, as it dawned on me what you were doing -- how eerily well those characters work in a crime story?

BRUBAKER: GOD, yes. [laughter] But it's all right there. The love triangle, the guy who's clearly an addict... wait until you see the stuff in issues #3 and #4.

It's a lot of fun to do something like this. I was surprised by how much fun it was. I was surprised at the same time that it was more personal than the shit I did when I was doing loose autobiography. I'm writing about stuff that means more to me, I think, than the stuff I was writing about in Lowlife, in some ways.

SPURGEON: Now is that due to the skill you have now as a writer? Or is it maybe the distance that you have from those times in your life?

BRUBAKER: It might be a little bit of both. I'm definitely a more accomplished comic book writer than I was 15-20 years ago. I've written a lot more; I feel I have a much better grasp of the language and of the medium. But also, yeah, I'm a full-grown adult. I think when your parents start dying is when finally have to accept you're a grown-up. There's no one's house you can go stay at if things fall apart. [laughter]

Part of it probably has to do with that I've spent a lot of time writing superhero comics. Anything I can do with Sean is a much more personal outlet. As much as I enjoy the stuff that I do, getting to do something that is exactly what you want it to be that gets printed all over the world is pretty awesome. I never get editorial mandates from Marvel about stuff. I'm lucky. I'm sure there are people who are told, "Your story has to include Hawkman." Or whatever. Well, probably not at Marvel.

SPURGEON: That would be an extraordinary note to get from Marvel. [Brubaker laughs]

BRUBAKER: I'm pretty much been given free rein on Captain America and Daredevil and all the stuff I've written for them to do whatever I do because they like what I do. Still, I know what I'm doing. I know the superhero comic has to have a fight in it. I know there has to be a bad guy. I know that at the end of the day, the problem will not be solved by talking about it but will be solved by two people punching each other in the face. Although I have gotten away with letting the bad guys win a lot of the time, which is more true, I think.

David Milch said, when he created Deadwood, that part of Deadwood was wanting to exorcise -- I think he worked on Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, and he thought it was bullshit that every week they were solving crimes when in the real world people were always getting away with it. He wanted to do something about crime the way crime really is, where crime is corruption and crime is behind everything. It's much more about what's really going on in our country right now, where Bill Clinton deregulates the media and now we have seven companies that basically own America. Sometimes when I'm writing a superhero story I wonder if they really have to punch each other in the face. Is that really going to solve anything? I feel the same way sometimes when I watch episodes of Law & Order. I'm like, "Yeah, right. You found the sex offender and now everything is fine." TV is big on closure, but I think closure is horseshit in real life. I'm still haunted by stuff I did in my teen years when I think about it too much.

SPURGEON: The notion of doing work that engages a different part of your brain... do you have a decidedly different process when working on more personal projects? When you work on something like Criminal, is there more room for you to let the story breathe, to let it go where it might take you, as opposed to using that skilled part of your brain that really nails down the structure and form of a work?

BRUBAKER: I always write pretty detailed outlines for everything. I write my Marvel stuff technically the same way I write Criminal or Incognito -- pretty detailed scene-by-scene outlines.

Sometimes I follow the gist of the outline more than the outline. If I need a page for a scene, I might take a page from another scene. If a page occurs to me while writing, I may put it in and take out another one. I'm kind of instinctive. I've always turned down talking to people about writing. I don't know anything about writing. I just know how I write. I feel I don't actually know the rules. Sometimes I have to look up something like the three-act structure. I know I write that way, but I'm not certain what it is. I never went to college. I have good spelling because my Mom was a teacher before I was born, and she taught me the alphabet before I started kindergarten.

I always know the end. There are only a couple of times where I haven't known the end.

I may be more freewheeling on the Marvel stuff, actually. Sometimes I'll end an issue with no idea how I'm going to get out of that for the next issue. That's kind of the fun of doing it, and I feel if you're not doing that every once in a while than your readers are going to be able to predict where you work is going.

imageSPURGEON: There was a moment in this issue of Criminal that I really liked where the lead character described his attraction to his wife as her living an elevated life, that she just lived in a different place than he did. I thought that was a really evocative, telling moment. I wondered even if that's potentially the flipside of nostalgia, this ability to project the unknown onto someone or something the same way we might imprint the past?

BRUBAKER: Don't you remember that feeling when you're 15 years old and you meet that girl that transferred to your school that has a slight accent? Or worse, some guy from France or Italy, and he can be just like, "In my country, we breathe air" and suddenly every girl is falling for this guy? There's something otherworldly there, and all you know is your little sheltered life. For me this was a really honest way of showing how if you were the most popular kid in the 8th grade and this rich family moved to town with this super hot daughter... we'll find out a lot more about how they first got together and how Riley dumped Lizzie for Felix next issue. For me that just felt like an honest thing.

SPURGEON: Did the last Criminal book just win a festival prize in France?

BRUBAKER: Yes. We just won best graphic novel at the Noir Festival in Lyon.

imageSPURGEON: How has it done overseas?

BRUBAKER: Pretty good. All the books have come out... the next Incognito is about to come out, but all five Criminals are out in France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Brazil at this point. Maybe a couple of other markets, too. We do pretty well. We don't do as well as we'd like to. American comics don't do as well in the European markets as I think they would do if they were European originals. My foreign publishers seem to be really happy with them. They keep wanting to do them and keep giving me contracts to do them.

SPURGEON: I know you as a pretty involved and informed steward of your work. How's it going with Criminal generally? Are you happy with the way the series has done domestically as well? Are things better than they were at the start? I remember back at the start of Criminal you had some real concerns about the structure of the market and certain glass ceilings you might encounter.

BRUBAKER: Mostly it's going really well. With Criminal, we got to a point around issue nine or ten where the first trade had come out and was doing well but the single issues had started to slip the way most series do as they continue on. I also think it took a few years of the book coming out in its various forms for people to realize it was going to stick around. It really seems to have developed a pretty hardcore fanbase. Our orders for this new one were pretty much identical, or even a little bit up, from where our last one was. With the market doing as poorly as it is on everything, I was pleasantly surprised by that. I was expecting to sell three or four thousand less than we had, and I was going to be really disappointed.

I'm always hoping that we do better. When we did the very first issue of Incognito a couple of years ago, it sold through the roof. That was like, "I wonder if I can bring all these people back to Criminal." At this point, within the first year our trades sell a bit more than our single issues. But I still need the single-issue sales to keep the whole thing going, those are what pay for the creation of the stories. I get asked by readers sometimes about just going to graphic novels and not doing the single issues, but economically it just wouldn't work, since there's no big company backing these books, it's just me paying Sean and Val every issue. Also, I think our trades do so well because about ten times a year we have new issues coming out, keeping whatever buzz we have going. Still, though, we did that big deluxe hardback and I thought we'd be lucky to sell two or three thousand copies. But we keep going back to press on that thing. We're up to about 15,000 units on a $50 hardback. And all of that work is available elsewhere, except for the bonuses.

SPURGEON: Now is that a different fan buying that one?

BRUBAKER: I think it's going to our hardcore audience. I've seen a lot of them in Hollywood. When I'm in meeting rooms, there are a lot of people with their Criminal hardbacks. I personally know a director who has bought at least ten copies just because he loves the book and wants to give it out to people. I probably sell ten to twenty percent of my print runs in Hollywood. [laughter]

I never thought I'd be as successful as I am in mainstream comics, or in comics at all. I'm from alternative comics where you'd be jumping up and down if you sold 5000 units. It's fun to be doing a book at Marvel that is so different than everything else. It's an adult comic, it's a crime comic, there's no fantastic element whatsoever. And I have enough of a readership through my alternative comics and my mainstream comics to build up a core audience. I know from talking to editors in the literary field that they would love to have books that sell as well as the Criminal books do. So I feel pretty lucky on that level.

That said, I'd love to sell ten thousand more every issue.

imageSPURGEON: Can I ask you a question about your work on Captain America? There's going to be some news for you on that front in the coming months, based on a new series tied a bit more directly into story events that would makes sense to a fan of the movie, and we won't talk again until well after these things happen.

BRUBAKER: No, sure.

SPURGEON: Here's the thing. I was curious enough to go look: I think you've recently doubled up Steve Englehart.

BRUBAKER: [laughs] Yeah. I don't think I'm going to break Mark Gruenwald's record, but I may be the second-longest run on Captain America so far. I'd have to check, I remember JM DeMatteis had a long run.

SPURGEON: I wondered if it's different to have this kind of long relationship with a character, with a series like that.

BRUBAKER: There's been times over the years where it's felt like work. But mostly it's been fun. I've taken ownership of these characters. The Winter Soldier, Bucky Barnes, I'm basically the only person to write Bucky Barnes since Stan Lee. He's basically my character at this point. That's great.

I was able to walk into Marvel at a time when they would be willing to bring Bucky back. That was my only idea: "I want to bring Bucky buck." [laughs] That's been my idea since I was 10 years old when I found out there was no issue #99 of Captain America where Bucky gets blown up by Baron Zemo. I was furious. "That's not in continuity!" [Spurgeon laughs] Picture the ten-year-old kid at Comic-Con looking for back issues. "I have the issue where Gwen Stacy dies; there must be an issue where Bucky dies."

I decided it didn't happen and I could bring him back. And to actually do that, a sort of serious version of that, and have it be a new Marvel character... there are Winter Soldier toys. I have a bunch of them. There are statues. This is a character that Steve Epting and I created from the ashes of Bucky Barnes and he's now the most popular new Marvel character since Deadpool.

He'll probably be in cartoons one day. That's neat.

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* Criminal: The Last Of The Innocent #1, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips and Val Staples, ICON, comic book, out the week of May 29, 2011.

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* photo provided by the creator
* the cover to the first issue of the new series, to be four comics in length
* the small town setting
* two panels from one of the work's big stylistic shifts
* I just really, really like this panel
* a panel being discussed
* one of the covers from the Delcourt presentation of Criminal
* coming soon to a cartoon near you
* another random panel I liked quite a bit from Criminal: The Last Of The Innocent #1

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