By Taylor Pechter — When it comes to crime comics, two names are basically synonymous with modern works in the genre: Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Throughout the last decade of their fruitful collaboration, the duo has made some of the most acclaimed series in all of comics, from the down and dirty family drama of Criminal, to the Lovecraftian horror history lesson that is Fatale, to their most recent monthly series Kill or Be Killed, a nuanced dive into mental illness.
Brubaker and Phillips’ latest creation is the original graphic novel My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies, wherein they create a story that involves romance, the meaning of life, and a thorough shattering of the status quo. This is the first time the pair has produced a complete work in the original graphic novel format, and so I think it’s helpful to break it down into individual qualities, starting with the writing and the plot.
Warning Spoilers: The story in My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies follows a woman named Ellie who is sent to a rehab facility by her uncle...or so she believes. In the early pages, readers get Ellie’s view of the world, as well as her thoughts on being a titular junkie. During a therapy session Ellie exclaims, Why do we automatically think getting clean is a great thing? What if drugs help you find the thing that makes you special?
Here in lies Ellie’s arc, during which she recalls past experiences with her mother, who was herself a junkie. Not only that, but Ellie’s story also touches thematically on some of the most famous singers—Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin—all of whom were junkies and eventually succumbed to their addictions. However, in Ellie’s mind they are the heroes of her story. Through them she learned that junkie carries a negative connotation, even though she believes it should really carry a positive one. Her logic goes: these famous musicians made memorable music while also high on something, be it heroin, cocaine, or speed. Essentially, Ellie sees being a junkie as breaking the status quo of normal life. Doctor Patti, however, obviously thinks the opposite. She thinks that her patient Ellie has convinced herself of this in order to feel special, making her just like any other person in the facility.
Eventually, readers are also introduced to Skip, another patient at the hospital. As time goes on, he grows closer to Ellie and they form a sort of partnership. It starts with sneaking out to take a puff at night and evolves into eventually planning escape. It is during this escape that Skip and Ellie grow closer. They move from house to house, forging a bond, and so romance blossoms. With romance, their dependence on drugs also grows. It is then Ellie monologues, I mean, what young lovers don’t secretly want this? To be bandits on some lost highway… Running until it all burns down?
It is not just through her dependence on drugs, but also her love of Skip, that the memories of her mother and the thrill of the chase bring Ellie’s life full circle. As the story draws to a close, Ellie is walking on a beach, much like we saw her at the beginning of the story. There, she reminisces about the events that have transpired. It is through her ending monologue that she exclaims that life is supposed to be like a clouded memory, and that the things you really remember are the things that are most important. It is in fact the love that others give you that makes life worth living.
In terms of the artwork, along with Brubaker’s detailed script comes, as always, Sean Phillips artwork. Phillips is a master of emotion, an artist who is able to capture the happiness, sadness, excitement, and boredom of each of the characters he renders into life. Not only that, Phillips use of body language also adds an extra layer of realism. This, however, has basically become standard within Brubaker/Phillips works. So much so, that we’re probably all taking how great these comics look for granted. Phillips work really has been that good for that long.
What is new with this most recent Brubaker/Phillips work is the colorist. Joining Phillips on coloring duties is his own son, Jacob. Jacob replaces Elizabeth Breitweiser, whose colors have often paired with Brubakers drawing of late. Jacob Phillips splotchy color palette of bright oranges, pinks, and blues really fits this particular story well, adding a psychedelic feel to the proceedings. The story also features many flashbacks throughout, detailing Ellie’s childhood, and Jacob Phillips lends them all a beautiful monochromatic style evocative of times gone by. Breitweiser is a great colorist, as is another past Phillips collaborator Val Staples, but Jacob Phillips work compliments his father’s in a way that has me hopeful they’ll continue to collaborate in the future.
Overall: With My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips craft a beautiful story of a woman trying to find her place in the world. This original graphic novel format adds extra weight to their story, too. With a detailed script and luscious artwork, this work is likely to rank up there with some of the duo’s best stories. It’s a solid offering from today’s masters of the crime comic, one to tide their fans over until the return of Criminal in January. 8.5/10
My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies
Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist: Sean Phillips
Colorist: Jacob Phillips
Publisher: Image Comics
Taylor Pechter is a passionate comic book fan and nerd. Find him on Twitter @TheInspecter.