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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Essentials: Ed Brubaker

Taking a look at five essential comic arcs to start out your Ed Brubaker collection

Ever been interested in a particular subject but never sure where to really start in building that initial collection? We've been there, and now we're here to help! With 'The Essentials', we'll dig into a particular director, writer, actor, artist, etc and give you five of their "must-have" works as we see it and a place for you to begin if you're starting at ground zero.

April 4th sees the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the highly anticipated sequel to Marvel's Captain America: The First Avenger, still my favorite of the Marvel films thus far. What's really unique about The Winter Soldier is that its based upon a storyline from a fairly recent run of comics. While most of the Marvel studios films have pulled from a number of different core source texts for their characters (for example, the Thor films pulling equally from Lee/Kirby, Simonson, and Straczynski) it appears The Winter Soldier will be a strictly Brubaker affair. This is welcome news, as he, over the past decade, has established himself as one of the premier talents in the comics industry. Brubaker's highly cinematic style (most apparent when paired with artists Steve Epting, Michael Lark, and of course Sean Phillips) plays to everything I'm looking for in a satisfying read, particularly lately. Hard women, bad men, guns and booze are often the hallmarks of what you'll find inside a great Brubaker comic.

In the lead-up to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I've attempted to put together five essential Brubaker authored (or co-authored as the case may be) trade-paperbacks that can stand as the start of a well-rounded Brubaker collection, giving you a taste of some of his best work. Also, since we're talking about comics this time around, I've included a "If you like this, you may also want to try" option for those who find themselves enjoying one aspect of his oeuvre over another.

Gotham Central: Soft Targets
Gotham Central, a collaboration between Brubaker, writer Greg Rucka, and artist Michael Lark basically worked as a meld of police procedural and superhero comic action. The premise being: what is life like for the Gotham Police Force when they work in the shadow of Batman and have to deal with the special kind of crazy that fills up the Caped Crusader's Rogues Gallery? While the series had overarching elements from issue to issue, and writing duties were divided in a fascinating way (Rucka handled the day shift stories, with Brubaker writing the night shift), much of the series was stand-alone as per the procedural inspiration upon which the series pulls from. "Soft Targets" collected in Gotham Central, Book 2: Jokers and Madmen, is probably my favorite story of the bunch. The Joker has random begun to assassinate people with a rifle at Christmastime, and it drives the city into a panic. There are a number of stories that likely provided inspiration for Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, but with its sense of pandemonium surrounding the terrorist actions of The Joker, the focus on the inner politics of the GCPD, and the moral questions surrounding the continued tolerance of a costumed vigilante, Soft Targets feels like the closest antecedent in terms of tone that Nolan may have found a touchstone in. It's the best arc of an incredible, all too short, series.
If you like this, you may also want to try: The rest of Gotham Central, though keep in mind Brubaker left the title before the series was cancelled, so his characters started to shift to the background in lieu of Renee Montoya and the cast that Rucka concentrated on. I'd also recommend Brubaker's west coast noir Scene of the Crime, his first collaboration with Michael Lark (and Sean Phillips, who inked the series start with issue 2).

Sleeper: Season One
There was a stretch of time where Wildstorm Comics was not a part of the DC Universe, and was instead its own line of comics, with its own mythology, heroes, and the like. Little of the line is of particular interest I'd argue, but Brubaker penned one of the few essential volumes of the Wildstorm-verse (the other being Warren Ellis' Planetary) in Sleeper. The concept of the series centers on Holden Carver, a super-powered former black ops specialist, is placed undercover by a division of the Government into a supervillain organization led by the powerful Tao. When John Lynch, the man who installed Holden as a member of Tao's organization, falls into a coma, Holden is left with no link to the outside world and a slowly crumbling sense of self. Is he slowly becoming the villain that he's been pretending to be all along? Is there a way out? And what happens when he falls in love with another member of Tao's criminal coven? This was the first full artistic collaboration between Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips, and what a start it was. Sleeper has a fascinating central concept, and is very accessible in that you don't need to know a thing about the Wildstorm mythos to enjoy this dark, fascinating story. It's superpowered noir espionage? How can you go wrong?
If you like this, you may also want to try: Sleeper Season Two of course, which is every bit the equal of its predecessor. Also recommendable is Incognito, another Brubaker-Phillips superhero piece that takes a look at a villain who enters into a witness protection program and begins to toy with becoming a superhero. Incognito plays a bit like the spiritual cousin of Sleeper, and is the next likely destination if you enjoy Holden's adventure.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
This is about as obvious a recommendation as I can give. Brubaker's Captain America is the series that turned him into a superstar and won him his first Eisner Award. It's the story that made me a Cap fan and updated the concept of his World War II era sidekick Bucky into something far darker than his goofy costume would let on. In this tale, a character called The Winter Soldier is under the employ of the ruthless Russian General Alexander Lukin who also happens to have in his possession the Cosmic Cube (or The Tesseract for those who are more familiar with the Marvel films). The eventual show-down between Cap and The Winter Soldier is a great moment, particularly when Cap finally realizes his identity and the role The Winter Soldier has played in Cold War history, and the somewhat dark opposite he represents of Cap himself, given his hibernated past. It's a stellar storyline and the first part of one of the defining arcs of the past decade of Marvel Comics (in the company of Brian Michael Bendis' Daredevil, Matt Fraction's Invincible Iron Man, Jonathan Hickman's Fantastic Four, and Kieron Gillen's Journey into Mystery).
If you like this, you may also want to try: The rest of Brubaker's Captain America run, specifically "The Death of Captain America".

Daredevil: The Devil Inside & Out (The Devil in Cell Block D)
During the course of his Captain America run, Ed Brubaker inherited the Daredevil title from Brian Michael Bendis. The state in which Matt Murdock had been left at the end of Bendis' tenure had him behind bars for his illegal activities as Daredevil. Brubaker re-teamed with his Gotham Central colleague Michael Lark for this gorgeously pieced together storyline that details the challenges Daredevil faces while being locked-up with many of the criminals he himself put behind bars. At the same time, someone else is masquerading as Daredevil in Hell's Kitchen, and Matt's longtime associates want to find out who. On the whole, I don't think Brubaker's run on the title was as strong as Bendis', nor did it have the sense of invention that pervaded his Captain America run. This first storyline though, is a stunner, and right up there with some of the best work that's ever been done on the character. This is also some of my favorite work ever by Michael Lark, highly refining and smoothing out his style in all its David Mazzucchelli-like glory.
If you like this, you may also want to try: The Immortal Iron Fist, of which one particular plotline spins off into. Brubaker wrote Iron Fist with then up and coming writer Matt Fraction, and they were paired off on the series with artist David Aja. Fraction and Aja would then re-team a few years later on the Eisner nominated Hawkeye series.

Criminal: The Last of the Innocent
Brubaker's creator owned series with Sean Phillips Criminal is a noir opus that focuses on the inhabitants of Center City. Each arc of the series focuses on a different protagonist and basically stands alone, though sometimes the star of an upcoming might make an appearance, or the same gangster mob boss will appear as a villainous presence throughout. On the whole, Criminal is Ed Brubaker paying homage to all of his favorite crime-genre influences and its spectacular, and probably the best of the many series that he's worked on. "The Last of the Innocent" is the most ambitious storyline of Criminal yet. What would happen if Archie and Veronica got married, grew up, and moved out of Riverdale? Well, if Archie owed alot of money to a loan shark, he'd probably end up alot like our central character Riley. Filled with stand-ins for the whole Archie gang, including its own version of Betty, as the girl he could have had, a recovering addict Jughead analogue, and flashbacks drawn in Archie style, but with an incredibly dark twinge. The Last of the Innocent is a must for anyone looking to pull together a worthwhile collection of Brubaker's best work.
If you like this, you may also want to try: While the rest of the Criminal series is tremendous, and gorgeously collected, those looking for something more in line with the above story's challenging of noir tropes would be advised to give Fatale a shot; which combines elements of the Femme Fatale archetype and crime comics with Lovecraftian horror. It's a blast, and is a wonderful thematic followup to this genre-busting predecessor. 

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