Comic books are fun, there is no denying that. It’s a medium not just about superhero-themed shared universes, but also a place where anyone can tell any story they wish, as proven with creator-owned works from Image and the recently-cancelled Vertigo imprint. However, from the very beginning to even now, there has always been a shadiness within the comics industry where creators have been screwed over. If you are well-versed in comics history, you can’t help but feel a bit cynical about key aspects of the industry, which is satirized in the latest Criminal novella.
Formerly an assistant of the legendary comic book artist Hal Crane, Jacob reluctantly agrees to be a minder for the artist for a weekend as he will be given a Lifetime Achievement Award during a comics convention. Reunited with a man whose association ended on bad terms, Jacob struggles to keep Hal away from trouble, despite being someone who has had a troubling history in both the industry and his personal life.
Last year came the publication of the Criminal novella, My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies, which I found problematic due to focusing on unlikeable people and not actually having anything to say about drug addiction. With Bad Weekend, Ed Brubaker steps up his game. As someone who’s been involved in comics since the early ’90s, he gives some insight about the industry’s history as well as the experiences of creators attending conventions, which don’t seem as exciting as that of the fans meeting their heroes.
Throughout the sixty-plus pages, there is no doubt that these characters have a dark side and will forever be consumed by such, but there is a tragedy behind them all. In the case of Jacob, he grew up reading comics and particularly loved Hal’s art. He had aspirations of following Hal’s artistic footsteps, until Jacob’s own experience in the industry diminishes those expectations. There is that common word of advice that “you shouldn’t meet your heroes”, and yet for Jacob, his fandom towards the artist can’t keep him away from the past.
Hal’s situation, on the other hand, is even more complicated with a tragic past that has never gone away from him, and he always looks like he is about self-destruct that can be dangerous to those around him. You never get inside his head as a lot of the narrative is told through Jacob’s eyes – continuing Brubaker’s love of over-extensive internal monologue – but Hal’s presence alone puts the book on the edge.
Being a tie-in to Criminal, crime does play a big part here and despite the interesting use of counterfeit animation cels, the big criminal act is rather anticlimactic, ending the story on a bit of a whimper. That said, artist Sean Phillips, who has frequently collaborated with Brubaker, continues to shine. Much of the “action” is told through facial expressions, while there’s a sense of claustrophobia in the panels, which evokes the central idea of characters feeling trapped within the system. Similar to his depiction of Hollywood in The Fade Out, Phillips presents a grittiness behind the glamor of the comics scene, within an attention to detail towards convention cosplay; keep an eye out for the man dressed up as Wonder Woman.
Following the disappointment of My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies, the dynamic duo of Brubaker and Phillips improve their game with a crime-based examination of an industry that isn’t just about the heroics.