CRIMINAL Activities – Why Ed Brubaker Had To Leave Mainstream Comics (For Now)

Sean Phillips Ed Brubaker
Ed Brubaker is a name I use with reverence, and also when I to provide a false identity to the police (sorry, Ed). Brubaker has generated a lot of good will within the comics industry, mainly because he’s really fucken good. He first really appeared on a lot of people’s radars, including mine, back when he started writing Batman and Catwoman for DC Comics, but he’d been working in the industry for more than a decade before that.

Kicking through the indie comics scene, Brubaker found success (and future collaborators) when he started to get his crime-groove on, with books like Scene of the Crime and The Fall.

The thing that got me so jazzed, though, was his run on Batman (followed by a stint on Detective Comics). He wrote that book like a fucken crime comic. This was noir, it was bleak, it was espionage-y, it was cool, and above all else – it felt like, well, Batman, y’know? Brubes (please don’t hurt me for calling you that, Mr. Brubes – I have a starving family on Second Life to feed) also got cracking on the series that would really get him some much deserved attention – Catwoman – which was just so insanely cool and innovative, and had some of the best art I’ve seen in a mainstream superhero comic pretty much ever (let’s see – Darwyn Cooke, Michael Allred, Cameron Stewart… wow).

But, as good as those titles were, for me, the series that really fluffed my ovaries, was his run on Gotham Central with Greg Rucka and Michael Lark. This was a police procedural about the Gotham PD, and it was stunning. Brubaker alternated arcs with Rucka, on the human police department who had to try and get shit done while Batman was punching the Joker in the face. It was bliss. Basically Homicide in Gotham, and in my mind remains one of the best books of that decade.

After his runs at DC and some detours to Wildstorm, Brubaker made his way across to Marvel, and worked on the book that would define the next stage of his career – Captain America, which was heavy on the espionage and intrigue. I am possibly a philistine for admitting this, but I just never really got into it – it was fine, sure, but it was just a title that I never really got into. So sue me – wait, really, you’re going to sue me? You want my name? It’s Ed Brubaker.

While there, Brubaker also did some ace work on Daredevil, doing a bang-up job on the thankless task of following-up Brian Michael Bendis’ classic run on the title, and also launching one of my favourites, Immortal Iron Fist, with Matt Fraction.

He was pretty much at the top of his game, could have his pick on what he wanted, and he’s just announced that he’s walking away from it, in order to work on more creator-owned work, and also to pursue some sweet Hollywood dollars.

When this news broke last week, it was met with a mixture of responses – many of them concern. But fret not, gentle reader – see, this is better for us all.

While Brubes was working on the above mentioned titles, infusing them all with his crime fiction-tinged tastes, he was also doing one better, and creating his own crime comics. Brubey and Sean Phillips (or “Philby,” as he’d probably prefer we didn’t call him) had been plugging away on some independent work for the last six years, which has resulted in Criminal, Incognito and most recently, Fatale.

Criminal was Brubes and Philby’s attempt at doing a straight-up noir crime comic, rather than previous work, which had smuggled those elements into more superhero-y work. Criminal seemed like a book aimed directly and very specifically at me. Luckily, that wasn’t the case, and they sold more than one issue. Criminal was dirty, sad, exciting and so very, very cool. It really felt like the filter had been taken off Brubaker and Phillips – not that their other work wasn’t good, these guys are pros, and put their all into their work-for-hire – but Criminal managed to capture lightening in a bottle, and was the perfect distillation of their voices. They keep coming back to Criminal, offering new arcs in between working on other creator-owned series together.

Now, while this is great as a reader, it’s also great for the creators – work-for-hire, while paying creators better than it has historically, doesn’t give creators rights to the characters they create, they’re still basically just generating money for the parent corporations. With creator-owned work, though, they’re creating a legacy – something that, fail or succeed, is entirely on them. It’s a gamble, but it’s one that guys need to play. Recently, Robert Kirkman and Brian K. Vaughn have both taken to the soap box to urge creators to make their own stuff once they’ve established themselves a bit, and it’s heartening to see that more and more creators are doing just that.

Sure, I love Batman as much as the next guy – heck – the Batman Illustrated Introduction to Masturbation got me through high school. But there’s only so much that can be said with those characters – I want something new. I want something exciting. Something personal to these creators. That’s what gets me really excited. It’s time that writing about angsty mutants in fetish-suits was no longer considered the pinnacle of one’s career.

And that’s what Criminal is – and it’s fucken brilliant. I want these new comics – I don’t want the same stories told over and over again. I know a lot of readers will just read anything with Wolverine in it, or whatever, and companies base their publishing on that fact – but that business model isn’t sustainable in this new publishing landscape. With sales diminishing, publishers are taking the exact wrong lessons, and just putting out fifty more Wolverine Fucks Batman titles each month, only to panic when their brief sales spikes settle again and again and the market becomes fatigued. You gotta do the brave thing and try something new. That is the future. You will never bring in new readers by doing the same tired old thing, you will never stop being the joke of media platforms until you stop prioritising giving me Emma Frost-related boners, and start growing up as a medium, Comics. And you desperately need new readers.

Guys like Brubaker and Phillips are doing their bit for that – hell, I’ve leant my gorgeous Criminal hardcover to a bunch of people who would never have read comics before, and they all asked me if there were other comics like this, and I said yes. But I didn’t give them Batman or Just Black Widow’s Ass For 22-Pages to read – I gave them Greg Rucka’s Stumptown, Brubes & Philby’s Fatale and Darwyn Cooke’s Parker books.

As readers, we’re getting better material and ensuring the survival of the medium that, while frustrating as all hell, is one we love. And the creators can express themselves and get a larger cut of however big the pie they make is.

So, I’m super excited that Brubaker is leaving mainstream comics (for now, at least: no shame in taking those paycheques). No matter how much I loved his runs on Catwoman and Gotham Central, it’s the future I’m interested in. And the future is in the independents. Keep knocking my socks off, sir!

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