My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies,
Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, Jacob Phillips,
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What if drugs help you to find the thing that makes you special?

Ellie and Skip meet in the group therapy sessions at the addiction clinic they’ve been committed to, one of those “circle of truth” approaches many therapists seem to love and pretty much everyone else hates. And like many such groups, the “true” stories the patients are made to share are frequently less true than the therapists would like to think – addicts and their ability to lie to suit their circumstances are an integral part of this tale; you really can’t trust what they say about themselves, their past, their motivations.

Which offers up the reader a pretty interesting dilemma – we’re presented with these oh-so-young characters, and we can’t entirely trust what we learn about them. While that is quite a clever device for generating suspense and intrigue for the reader (no godlike narrator who tells the reader everything, we have to take bits and pieces and try and decide which are true), it could also have been a problem. After all, if you can’t be sure what the characters are really like, how can you start to buy into them, empathise with them? It’s an approach which could alienate the readers, but this is Brubaker and Phillips we’re talking about, and they take that potentially double-edged approach and use it quite brilliantly; despite, or perhaps even because we can’t trust their accounts of themselves I found these characters utterly irresistible.

To begin with this feels like the classic star-crossed lovers, a young woman, a young man, pushed together by unusual circumstances, bonding not just through their shared youth but the confinement and the rules of the sanatorium, chafing at them, leaving them eager to strike out against those rules and authority figures. Romeo and Juliet by way of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Those rebellions start small – stealing the head doctor’s cigarettes while she is being lectured (a nice touch, the person telling her how to beat her addiction and how wrong it is to indulge thinks nothing of puffing away on her own addictive thrill while doing so), sneaking out of the building at night to smoke, talk, to make out. Romance and an up-yours to the authority figures at the same time.

This is beautifully handled – Phillips brings just perfect little touches to the visuals, such as a close up on Ellie’s face during the group therapy, her inner dialogue contrasting with what is being openly said in the group session, her gaze catching Skip’s as someone else talks, the expression just perfectly rendered, an elfish, knowing smirk that captures in a single panel how she’s feeling at that moment (as she admits to being a bad influence and having no plans to change), then the following visual interchange between them as the group and therapist continue unaware.

That rebellion will grow, however – sure these are young lovers, full of screw-you attitude, and it is easy to go along with their joie-de-vivre, to hell with the consequences approach. There’s always something intoxicating about that youthful rebellion and we-know-better-than-everyone pose. Except we know there are consequences, and, as noted earlier, these are addicts, we can’t entirely trust their motivations or their life stories. Not everything or everyone is what they seem here, and there will be some revelations, some may not be what you might imagine, although I shall say no more on that front for fear of spoilers.

I guess Billie Holiday is where it started.”

Threaded through all of this is a love of music, of how important music is in many of our lives, how sometimes it feels like a singer has written those lyrics just for us, the soundtrack to moments of our lives. And particularly here so much of the music Ellie loves was created by performers who struggled with addiction. There is a morbid sort of glamour to that, and come on, any of us who love music know that, we’ve felt it – actually we’ve felt it not just with music but with poetry, prose, pretty much every artform humans have crafted has been touched by those who have indulged, many argue for the better.

There are shades of the late, great Bill Hicks here on his stand-up diatribe on the War On Drugs, where he acknowledges the damage drugs can do but also notes how nobody picks up on the other side of it, like the stunning music that came out of some of that psycho-chemical experimentation, the old kicking open the Doors to Perception. There’s a fascination, even a sort of sick romance about all of that, especially tied to that spirit of youthful rock’n’roll rebellion, most of us have felt it, maybe even flirted with it even if just in imagination while blissing out to that music. Ellie tells the therapist as much when it is her turn to talk in the group sessions.

Like Welsh’s Trainspotting though, this book doesn’t glamourise drug use, it shows the mess it can and does make of lives, but it also, like Trainspotting, shows the highs and why they are so attractive – addictive. My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies doesn’t get on the soap-box to preach condemnation, nor does it paint that lifestyle as overly romantic, it mixes both, showing that just like everything else in our lives the positive and negative aren’t always clearly separated, they can be messy, intertwined. That theme is in itself attractive and compelling, but here it is just the garnish to an engrossing story, with shifting sands beneath the changing characters that draw you in deep. It’s simply brilliant. And you’re really, really going to want to make a good playlist to go along with your second reading. I’m starting with some Billie…

Hollywood Noir, the glamour and the sleaze in The Fade Out

The Fade Out Volume 1,

Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips,

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Like all the best Noirs, The Fade Out is set in that strange, twilight realm between night and day, the everyday, normal life and the shadow world’s intrigues and weird ways, forever in the shadow of the War. It’s 1948, and places don’t come much more in-between reality and perverse fantasy than Hollywood, it’s manufactured dreams, carefully designed and polished stars and the powerful moguls behind the studios.

Charlie Parish is a screenwriter, working away on another new film, one designed to finally make Valeria Sommers the huge star the studio owner Victor Thursby thinks she should be, the “next Veronica Lake”. There are only two real problems for them – aside from the usual power plays, deviancy and gender abuse going on in Hollywood’s old studio system – but they’re fairly major problems. Charlie can’t write anymore. He tries, but the bright spark that marked him out as a rising star scriptwriter a few years ago was crushed out during the war. Fortunately his friend Gil works with him – Gil has already been blacklisted in the start of the reds-under-the-beds scare as the Cold War slowly works its way into American life, so no studio will touch him; now he works covertly with Charlie on the scripts he’s meant to be writing but can’t, a delicate but mutually beneficial arrangement.

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And the second problem? That’s slightly harder to fix than Charlie’s writer’s block. Valeria is dead, only a few pages into the story. Strangled and left lying on her living room floor. And what’s worse is a hungover Charlie wakes in her bathtub and finds the body, realising he must have come home with her after an out of control party the night before and that whoever murdered her did it while he was drunkenly asleep in the next room, totally unaware. Knowing he would be the prime suspect if discovered he carefully conceals any evidence of his own presence in her house and leaves furtively, later pretending to be shocked when Dottie, one of the studio’s press team, tells him the news of Valeria’s death.

Sick at her sudden, violent death and even sicker at the thought he’s had to lie about it to protect himself, Charlie’s already war-damaged psyche and moral guilt compass is about to be kicked in the head, when the studio’s head of security lets slip to him while talking to the police about the case that Valeria hung herself. But Charlie knows she didn’t – she was strangled, murdered, but he can’t say without admitting that he was there and covered it up. But if he doesn’t then the murderer walks free…

He looks around and can’t tell whose grief is real and who’s just putting on show in case the press is watching.”

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Naturally, in the best Noir tradition there is much more to it than this morally intriguing conundrum for Charlie – as he tries to walk a path around Valeria’s death, trying to keep his increasingly drunken, angry friend Gil on the straight and narrow (and their writing arrangement secret) the seedy, shadowy world of Hollywood draws him deeper into moral turpitude, and his sense of self-loathing and broken innocence, shattered first by his experiences in the war (like so many damaged anti-heroes of Noir fiction) then degraded more by witnessing the sleaze behind the velvet curtain of the movie world, grows, and no amount of parties or drink can still it, and every days seems to simply add more sleaze, more problems, more things he hates himself for being a part of but unable to do anything about or to walk away from, while Valeria’s presence hovers over the story, a ghost with glamour in the way only those great 30s and 40s stars could pull off.

It will surprise no-one who has read Criminal or Fatale to learn that Brubaker and Phillips have fashioned a dark labyrinth peopled by lost, damaged souls, some just slightly damaged, some truly damned, dripping with Noir imagery leavened by that beautiful 40s Hollywood glamour (Phillips creating some truly gorgeous interpretations of the film magazines of the period to show the late Valeria in real period style, pose and lighting, very recognisable to anyone who loves their film history), that beautiful but utterly artificial dream the studios sell to the audiences.

As with Criminal and Fatale, the deeper into the story, the more the moral quagmire deepens, the more the characters become lost in their own late-night labyrinthine maze of the soul, and just like reading Chandler or Hammett we’re pulled in there with them, fascinated and disgusted in equal measure, while, despite the increasing complexity Brubaker maintains a tight, well-paced narrative, perfectly partnered with Phillips’ artwork, which draws heavily on the films of the period, re-creating that perfect Noir atmosphere, be it a late-night city street or a darkened office with feeble light struggling through the slats of the blinds. You feel you ought to be wearing a Fedora while reading it.

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Beautifully crafted art by Phillips (with wonderfully moody colouring by Elizabeth Breitweiser) and sharp dialogue and perfectly honed Noir narrative by Brubaker, and that feeling that while one writes and one draws, this is real collaboration, the pair obviously operating on the same wavelength, and oh how it shows to such lovely effect in the finished tale. I could probably just have given you a much shorter review and recommendation: it’s Brubaker and Phillips – you want it.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Velvet: Brubaker and Epting’s superb take on the superspy genre

Velvet Volume 1 : Before the Living End
Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting,
Image Comics

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There are some genres that never truly go out of style, and the superspy tale is one. When the Cold War was over many thought the genre would fade away, but it’s adapted to an ever-changing world and new creators have come along to put their own unique twist on it. And when those creators come in the shape of Captain America team Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting, you know you should be paying attention. And you should, because with Velvet Templeton, Brubaker and Epting have crafted a superb, edgy, sexy, intriguing superspy tale with real 60s/70s style and swagger, not to mention a powerful, assured, intriguing female central character.

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There are the tropes we expect in the genre – the oh-so-cool car (rather familiar looking model, of course with “all the usual refinements”), the glamorous locations, swish parties in Paris, New York, chilled champagne on ice, impeccable evening wear, superbly capable, ruthless but charming secret agents, conspiracies to investigate, sudden death and, naturally, sex. And the coolly reserved secretary to the chief, efficient, calm, flirting with the boyish secret agents, perhaps even falling for them, the eternal Moneypenny type…

Except Velvet is far, far more than a secretary to the chief of the agency, and yes, while she’d had her head turned by some of those charming, suave secret agents who risk life and limb for democracy, queen and country (and the thrill of it), while they think she has fallen for them they don’t realise she’s arranged the trysts and the sex on her terms. And each of them thinks they are the only one she has fallen for. These agents may be at the top of their spy game, but they have the emotional depth of a petulant schoolboy… And they have no idea that before taking her desk job Velvet did the same job they did, but she did it better, equally able to use a knife or gun or her sexual appeal as a weapon to get the job done (on the latter she can’t help but comment “men are so easy” as she uses her charms rather than gadgets or violence to find out what she needs for her mission. Take notes, boys, the female of the species is often deadlier than the male!). The opening skillfully sets up a James Bond style male spy hero only to bring him crashing down shortly afterwards – it is not a story about him – it is Velvet’s story.

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Those secret action days are behind her now, and almost no-one knows about them, but when the agency’s top spy is killed on a mission she is suspicious. Doing a little digging into the records she starts to come to the conclusion there may be a connection between his death and someone high up in the agency – a mole, a traitor? Before she can take it further she finds that for her troubles she has been framed for just that role, set up as the Oswald to take the fall.

Forced on the run, Velvet’s old training kicks in, and an entire team of younger agents finds themselves hopelessly outclassed by this mature woman with the streak of grey, a woman who sat calmly at her desk for years while they undertook dangerous missions, and here she is showing them what a real superspy is. And Velvet is going to need those old skills and connections if she is to find out the truth behind the murder and clear her own name – assuming her own side don’t kill her first.

Velvet is a superbly stylish, well-paced, tight tale of spies, conspiracies, betrayals, action, sex and death – everything you want from that Bond-style 60s/70s superspy story. But here very much from the female perspective, and for a genre which has so often treated women as disposable (literally) eye-candy characters for the main chauvinistic hero it is refreshing to see not just a female lead, but such an elegant, powerful lead. She’s simply better than the boys, faster, better reflexes, she know all the tricks they do but she did them before they ever started in the business, and she did them better. Determined, resourceful, beautiful, lethally efficient.

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Velvet has its cake and eats it, gleefully enjoying using those 60s superspy tropes – the gadget filled car, public school bully boy yet charming secret agent, even the chilled ’45 Rothschild on the balcony bar, the glamorous locations and action – but at the same time acknowledging the strong streak of misogyny that ran through many of them and giving it a damned good kicking from Velvet, who can easily stand alongside Black Widow or Emma Peel. Epting’s art is, as always, superb, and he is as deft in depicting glorious aerial night shots of Paris, or swanky rooftop bars in Manhattan as he is dark, close, intimate scenes, lit only by the slatted light coming in the blinds as spies trade theories in darkened rooms. Velvet herself he depicts as elegant, physically attractive but not overly sexualised; fit and toned to be sure, but still realistic, not the unbelievable physiques often used for superheroines (and superheroes, come to that).

Like Emma Peel she’s confident and powerful and while attractive she’s no mere object for the Male Gaze – you’re likely to find Velvet staring right back at you (and more than likely calculating how she can use your attentions and desires to her own ends. She is in charge here.). All of this plus the always-fun convoluted conspiracy to unravel, the action, sex, travel and a genuinely cool heroine you’ll warm to quickly – no wonder the first few issues of this made my Best of the Year back in December. If you missed those issues here’s your chance to catch up with the first collected volume.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Reviews: Velvet #1, superb old school superspy thriller with a twist

Velvet #1

Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting

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There are some sub-genres that never go out of fashion, and the spy thriller is one of them. Brubaker and Epting’s Velvet gives us all the trappings of a proper, old-school spy adventure yarn, very 60s/70s in feel, the handsome but cold and ruthless, incredibly able super-agent in immaculate evening wear, parties in expensive locations in cities like Paris or New York, the oh-so-cool car (naturally with the ‘usual refinements’), sudden death, conspiracies and, of course, sex – not to mention the panting secretary at the agency that is so secret most other spy agencies think it is a myth, if they’ve heard of it at all that is. The eternal Moneypenny type, efficient, prim, always in love with the daring secret agents who risk life and limb against impossible odds for Queen, Country and World Security (and a chilled bottle of ’45 Rothschild, naturally).

But that’s not Velvet at all – yes, as I said these are the trappings, instantly recognisable from the stories and movies of the 60s and 70s spy tales, but this is not about the super X-operatives agents, not really. This is about that secretary who adores the handsome young men who go on those missions. And she’s not at all what most of those men – supermen in terms of their spy abilities but overgrown schoolboys when it comes to emotional depth – think she is. Oh yes, she’s fallen for an agent and slept with him. But as one agent finds out she’s done that with numerous operatives, each one fooled into thinking he was the only one she doted on. The sex here is purely because of her choice and played her way. And there is much more to Velvet than the hidden sexual side. A whole side most of the department would never dream of…

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We open with a great scene in early 70s Paris, a tuxedo-clad assassination in an expensive restaurant, the daring escape through night-time streets to the waiting car (an Aston Martin, naturally) and… A trap. Bang and our superspy able to escape everything is simply taken by surprise and shot. Just like that, no coming back from this, the man we thought was being set up as our main character is gone within a few pages, his death the trigger for what comes after. The department is woken in the small hours for the news and secretary Velvet Templeton is both upset (she actually liked this particular agent) and shocked – despite the extreme danger of their missions, X-operatives rarely get killed in the field. And not in a common ambush like this. Someone must have known his escape route – there is a mole…

Questions are asked, the entire department turned upside down, and soon a suspect is named, a man seemingly once above suspicion and yet there is some evidence that hints he may well have been the perpetrator. Velvet is not convinced though, she knows the man and also finds something amiss in the records she researches. Has this older agent really turned on them, or is there a deeper mole than thought, someone with the ability to manipulate the department, set someone up? And if so, what does she do – not to investigate means ignoring a security breach, digging further may turn attention to her…

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I won’t blow the ending to this first issue by going any further, but suffice to say, as we learn in flashbacks then in the present, Velvet has not always been a secretary, and while she may be up against unseen opponents using her own department colleagues unknowingly, she has abilities most of those younger agents have no concept of…

This is a rollicking read – it has its cake and eats it, with the old-school superspy set-up, the public school bully boy mentality macho male agents, the gadgets and glamorous locations and sex, but it also has a clever, powerful, extremely able female lead, up there with Mrs Peel in her ability to look like the refined, middle-class lady one moment and the unstoppable super-agent the next. It’s a great combination, both paying homage to those older superspy tales while also tacitly acknowledging their sexist streak and playing against it, glorying in the glamour and devices yet showing how all the gadgets in the world don’t help when someone simply blasts a shotgun at you from a few feet away.

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Epting’s art is suitably dark – dimly lit meeting rooms at the headquarters, some wonderful night-time scenes in major cities (some lovely, atmospheric colouring work there too by Elizabeth Breitsweiser, which deserves a shout out). Tense, sexy, intriguing and with a powerful female character cutting through those 60s style Boy’s Own superspy conventions, plus the always-fascinating and compelling nature of a good conspiracy, it all adds up to a cracking and quite cinematic debut issue. Well worth picking up.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog