The Reckless Series by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

I first noticed Ed Brubaker during his Captain America period, when he and artist Steve Epting resurrected Bucky Barnes and transformed him into the wildly popular Winter Soldier.  Never had the Red Skull been more menacing, and the overall espionage vibe the two generated for Cap and company changed the game.  Then came Velvet, a complete stunner, and I felt that perhaps only Greg Rucka could step up so mightily at pursuing comic genres beyond capes and horror.  Little did I know that Ed Brubaker also had been working with another artist, Sean Phillips, to produce superior crime comics.  This discovery, then, was when I stepped up from Brubaker admirer to all-out fanboy.

Brubaker and Phillips first collaborated on Scene of the Crime (1999), a Vertigo series, before tackling Gotham Noir.  The hits would keep coming with, in no order, Sleeper, Kill or Be Killed, My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies, Fatale, Cruel Summer, The Fade Out, Pulp, and Criminal.  Not since the pre-code days of EC has crime been so popular in comics, thanks largely to Brubaker and Phillips.  December 2020: the pair releases the first of what to date has become a five-volume series, each published in hardcopy format, a title that celebrates every aspect of noir fiction, whether televised or printed, that pushes the form to its limits.  December 2020 found readers struggling through a pandemic but receiving great distraction from their woes with Reckless starring Ethan Reckless – broken, hellbent, and at times flatly out of control.  For me, this was love at first sight.

In his novel Still Life with Woodpecker, Tom Robbins has his central character, Woodpecker, differentiate between criminals and outlaws: “The difference between a criminal and an outlaw is that while criminals frequently are victims, outlaws never are. Indeed, the first step toward becoming a true outlaw is the refusal to be victimized.”  Ethan Reckless is no victim, but the criminals he faces are, thanks to him.  Once an undercover FBI agent, Reckless had been playing the role of underground hippie, infiltrating a 1960s counter-culture group none too shy about planting bombs.  One goes off, leaving Reckless with a facial scar and, although Brubaker never says so out loud, traumatic brain injury, since Reckless often describes his feelings as buried deep since the accident.  Fast forward to the 1980s, the decade in which each of the five volumes takes place, and we find Reckless living in the El Ricardo theater, taking odd jobs that involve finding people, settling debts, unlicensed private-investigation, and often closing matters with a baseball bat, an ax, a shotgun, his fists, whatever’s handy.  He’s enamored with justice, but his rules are his own.  Work? When needed.  Surfing?  You bet.  Hello, Mr. Outlaw.

If you’re thinking about John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, you’re not far off.  McGee lives in a houseboat, The Busted Flush, an idiosyncratic abode, sure, and the El Ricardo certainly is an amplification of that trope.  And McGee takes odd jobs, very odd jobs, exactly as does Reckless.  You could also consider Jim Rockford living in that old trailer along the Malibu coast.  How about Mannix, or Philip Marlowe, or Sam Spade, or hell even Robert McCall if only just a bit?  The Reckless series taps into these tropes and more – never imitating outright but always illuminating what keeps enthusiasts like me coming back for more.  On more than one occasion, I found myself reflecting, “Jim Thompson would love Brubaker and Phillips.” And you know what?  So would Dorothy B. Hughes, because Anna, Reckless’s punk-rock themed partner, is an equal player well beyond Mannix’s Peggy or Perry Mason’s Della Street.  She keeps Reckless even-keeled, and one volume features her pursuing a case while Reckless is otherwise engaged.  No doubt, Brubaker explores their mutual attraction, and, yes, the pair fight like the best of married couples.

Throughout the series, Brubaker and Phillips explore counter cultures through a dark lens.  Biker gangs, drug dealers, Satanic cults, and old-school Hollywood scandals aren’t romanticized but instead are laid bare as examples of California’s “alternative” aspects.  I truly appreciated Brubaker’s adding a horror host at one point.  He couldn’t have targeted my tastes more accurately.

A friend once explained that he likes to ask potential comics fans what television shows or novels they prefer before suggesting titles to them.  If you’re down with private detectives, high-speed noir, outlaw culture, and grit, then the Reckless series is for you.  After the fifth volume appeared, Brubaker and Phillips announced that they were taking a break to pursue other projects.  The first of these is Night Fever, due out in June 2023.  Ethan Reckless will return, however, and I will be waiting.  Several elements remain unresolved, so hopefully that return is soon.