The Criminal Mind: A Birthday Tribute To Ed Brubaker
Born November 17, 1966, Ed Brubaker has worked on iconic characters such as Batman, Catwoman, Daredevil, and Captain America, typically resulting in long, fan-favorite and highly-acclaimed runs. His creator-owned works, particularly his many collaborations with artist Sean Phillips, are held in even higher regard, usually reaping in awards by the handful. Having lent his voice to a modern resurgence of crime, noir, and espionage stories, Ed Brubaker has always let his dark heart lead the way.
A Navy brat who lived on several military bases, including an extended period at Guantanamo Bay, Ed Brubaker started in the comics industry in the early '90s as a cartoonist. Among his early works are Purgatory USA and Lowlife, which brought Brubaker some notoriety for the dark subject matter and a cartooning style somewhere between Chester Brown and Gilbert Hernandez. Near the end of the decade, Detour and At The Seams fed Brubaker's reputation as a cartoonist of note.
But even in the pupal stage of his career, it looked like Brubaker would find the most success as a writer. With friend Eric Shanower on art, Brubaker wrote the three-part An Accidental Death, a murder mystery partly inspired by his youth on Guantanamo Bay. It brought the pair an Eisner nomination in 1993, the first of many accolades to come. Brubaker followed that up as the writer of The Fall with artist and Berlin genius Jason Lutes, and in 1995 wrote his first mainstream one-shot for DC Vertigo with Prez: Smells Like Teen President, again with Shanower on art.
Although his early stories ran the gamut from slice-of-life and black comedy to satire and fantasy, it seemed apparent relatively quickly that where Brubaker most seemed at home was in crime. In 1999 he made his biggest breakthrough on Scene of the Crime with Michael Lark and Sean Phillips on art. A Generation X noir that drew equal inspiration from Raymond Chandler and wasted twentysomething malaise, the emotionally jarring series earned Brubaker two more Eisner nominations and catapulted him into the next phase of his career.
When Brubaker entered superhero comics, his predilection for dark crime stories made him a perfect fit for the world of the Batman. His work on Batman, Detective Comics, backup stories, anthologies, and one-shots Gotham Noir and the superb The Man Who Laughs helped define the shape of the iconic character in the early 2000s. But his best Batman-related work rarely features the Dark Knight himself.
In 2001, Brubaker paired with legendary artist Darwyn Cooke for a backup series in Detective Comics featuring Golden Age detective Slam Bradley's attempts to locate Selina Kyle. The resulting "Slam Bradley: Trail of the Catwoman" is dark, funny, kitschy, elegant, violent, and top-to-bottom exceptional. For the few months it was around, it was buzz of the Batman world and it naturally led into a Catwoman solo title that initially featured Cooke on art, and successfully reinvented the character with a new look, a new philosophy, and riotously good comics.
He followed up on Catwoman with a book so great it could stop a riot. After collaborating with Greg Rucka on the "Officer Down" Batman event, Brubaker and Rucka kicked around the idea of a police procedural starring Gotham City cops. Brubaker, Rucka, and artist Michael Lark debuted Gotham Central almost a year later to stunning acclaim. Although Gotham Central never sold as well as a book of its caliber should, its most ardent fans --- including many professionals --- consider its in-depth reporting of law enforcement in Gotham City to be a major highlight of the period.
Brubaker went into crime-related areas again with Sleeper teaming with Sean Phillips for their most extensive collaboration to date. It seems almost forgotten now, but Sleeper represents a major transition in Brubaker's career. In the story of an undercover agent posing as an operative in a super-villain crime ring, Brubaker and Phillips seemed to fuse several genres into one. It's a crime story, a cop story, an espionage story, a superhero story, a science fiction story, noir, and most importantly, painfully nihilistic.
Life truly has no meaning in Ed Brubaker's greatest stories. It just is, and it is rarely generous. It provides little triumph. Heroes typically have victories; their stories end on high notes. In Brubaker's best, there are no real victories to be had. Just survival, and sometimes not even that.
When Brubaker transitioned to Marvel in 2004, he arrived with thunder at his heels. In his long stint with the publisher, he contributed extended runs to Daredevil (again with Lark) Uncanny X-Men, and as co-writer on The Immortal Iron Fist, as well as several one-shots and acclaimed limited series like Books of Doom and The Marvels Project.
It was also with Marvel that Brubaker began his next great collaboration with Sean Phillips, Criminal. A street-level modern noir filled with death and heartbreak, in the first volume of Criminal, Brubaker and Phillips stepped into the next phase of their collective career in earnest. Since then the pair have released reams of brilliant material that is consistently short-listed for the best of the year, every year.
Criminal provides a detailed, lived-in perspective of the underside, and the view is often bleak. Even the titles of the various arcs seem to stir up feelings of resignation to a meaningless world --- Coward, Lawless, Sinners, Dead and the Dying, Bad Night, Last of the Innocent. Criminal is raw, desperate, and reasonably comparable to crime fiction greats in comics, films, and novels. It is all-time.
Not satisfied with "all-time," Brubaker and Phillips have collaborated on several projects across a wide span of genres within their collective worldview. Fatale is bone-chilling Lovecraftian horror. Incognito is a throwback to pulp heroes and mob movies. Kill Or Be Killed is crystal-meth-insane. And The Fade Out, a sinking post-war drama about the corruption of the American institutions of Hollywood and government, might be the best comic the duo have made so far.
But Brubaker will forever be known as the man who killed Captain America. In his Marvel debut, Brubaker teamed with superstar action-realist Steve Epting to inaugurate a new era for the star-spangled avenger. And it was electrifying from the start.
The new Captain America seemed to synthesize all the best previous versions into one: Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's raucous anti-fascist; Steve Englehart and Sal Buscema's politically betrayed veteran; Jim Steranko's weary cold warrior. Immediately an "unwritten rule" --- Bucky stays dead! --- was broken, as James "Buchanan" Barnes was reborn as the Winter Soldier. Red Skull and the villains won over and over. The Marvel Universe's living representation of the American Dream was assassinated on the cold marble steps of a courthouse.
Brubaker remained on Captain America from 2005 to 2012, from the final term of George W. Bush to the first of Barack Obama. And in those turbulent years, there was frequently a comforting echo in the pages of Brubaker's Captain America, some reflection of the political earthquakes and upheavals always knocking us around. And even though Steve Rogers returns to life in one of the best superhero revival stories of all time, when it all ended in 2012, it still didn't feel like Captain America had actually won anything.
As in many Ed Brubaker stories, he just made it through. He survived.