With a shelf full of enticing covers, it can be tough to choose what to buy each week. When I started reading comics, I followed a few characters, mostly Spider-Man and the X-men. As I got older and more interested in books outside the superhero genre, I came to rely on staff recommendations at the comic shop. They’d see my stack of books and point to something I invariably ‘had to read’. Usually, they were right. As I’ve gotten older, I find myself seeking out the work of particular writers. Once I’ve ‘discovered’ a writer I like, I end up hunting for their older work in Trade Paper Backs or back issues (if the price is reasonable/cheap). Usually, I end up buying their current work on the newsstand, month after month. Lately, I’ve been hooked on Ed Brubaker, who has been on amazing run. If you haven’t been reading all the titles he’s working on, you’re missing out.
Brubaker’s career at Marvel started with a re-launch of Captain America. He revitalized Marvel’s most iconic character and revived a hopelessly lame sidekick. Part of Captain America’s status resulted from the character’s simplicity. He represented the best of the American spirit. As a hero, this construction worked in a post World War II world, but became increasingly irrelevant as readers gravitated to more complicated heroes who better reflected the readers’ own internal conflicts. Finding the humanity in Captain America is not a simple task, because he completely internalized the ideals he represented. Part of Cap’s success as a character was his unrelenting faith that his country was on the side of good (not an easy sell today). Captain America needed an update in order to make him relevant. Brubaker accomplished this by bringing Steve Rogers’s inner conflict to the surface.
In Winter Soldier, readers see a humanized Steve Rogers confronting his responsibility for Bucky Barnes’s death. In Civil War, they see him justifying his anti-government stance against the superhero registration program, and watch as he leads an open revolt against Tony Stark, S.H.E.I.L.D, and the rest of the registered heroes. The updating of Captain America can be read through the change in his own perception of the responsibility inherent in wearing the flag on his chest. In the World War II era, he saw himself as the embodiment of the patriotic and militaristic values of the United States, which he understood to be fundamentally good and just. By the time the Civil War story begins Captain America sees himself as a dissenting voice against the power of the State. From Captain America’s perspective, his values have remained consistent, where the State has been corrupted. Where his principles made him a hero of the State in WWII, they now make him an outlaw.*
Brubaker’s Captain America run by itself would have been worthy of high praise, and it probably would have led me to pursue much of his older work. That he managed similar feats with two other titles, Daredevil The Man Without Fear and The Immortal Iron Fist, pretty much ensured that I’d read anything he put out in the future. Unlike Captain America, the character of Daredevil has been in strong hands for years. Thus, the shift marked by Brubaker’s writing is more subtle, turning the focus of Daredevil toward the elements of detective fiction. Since his inception, Daredevil was a relatively complicated character, from the limitations presented by his blindness to his focus on protecting Hell’s kitchen, to the personal and professional relationships he struggled with as Matt Murdoch. With the possible exception of Spider-Man, Daredevil has always been an easy character for readers to sympathize with. Where Steve Roger’s primary motivation to ingest the super soldier serum and to take on the rule of Captain America was patriotism, Matt Murdoch seems to be driven by his emotional pain. Daredevil is compelling as a hero because he has created moral boundaries for himself that serve to distinguish him from the villains he fights, at least in his own mind. Clearly defining this line through the eyes of the protagonist, allows for the writers to incorporate darker themes and scarier more realistic violence. Brubaker’s Daredevil is exceptional for the way the protagonist suffers for this choice.
Perhaps more impressive than his work on either Captain America or Daredevil has been Brubaker’s recent work Iron Fist.** I had never read Iron Fist growing up, and the title never garnered much buzz to compel me to pick up an occasional issue on the newsstand. If Iron Fist was tossed off primarily for Marvel to cash in on the martial arts craze of the 1970’s, he is now the central figure in a new mythology constructed around the Iron Fist power, and its origin in the Seven Cities of Heaven. Brubaker’s Iron Fist is essentially an introduction of the character into the Marvel Universe that necessitates a retelling of the character’s origin that begins with Danny Rand on mission to uncover the reasons why he has been losing his Iron Fist powers sporadically. The mystery leads Rand to track down the ghosts of his father and grandfather, and then deep into a mystical world of martial arts champions with incredible powers. The story works because Rand’s internal monologue balances the fantastic. Since Rand does not dwell on the supernatural elements, readers do not have to work to suspend his disbelief; they just have to follow along.
These three titles alone make for an impressive run. However, while these were running Brubaker also launched Criminal with artist Sean Phillips for Marvel’s Icon imprint. You may have ignored this when it came out because it was outside your superhero comfort zone. Luckily for you the industry quickly bundles issues together in Trades. If you enjoyed following any of the other titles discussed above, you’re doing yourself a disservice ignoring Criminal. The book aims to be a true Noir, so adjust your expectations accordingly. It would be difficult to identify any of the characters as good, and all are deeply flawed. The stories in Criminal succeed by bringing depth and subtlety to recognizable character types. For those readers who enjoy R-rated movies and adult beverages (occasionally in excess), Icon has given Brubaker enough leeway to portray the seedy elements of the criminal world his characters inhabit, with enough detail to make their moral choices difficult. Unlike the superhero books, there is no clear overarching moral code of right and wrong, individuals choosing different shades of grey. If you have the resources, I recommend eschewing the Trades and seeking out the back issues. The issues contain excellent articles about the Noir genre and other nuggets, not included in the Trades, and make for excellent accompaniments to the issues.
Word on the net is that Brubaker has a new book coming out on Icon in December titled Incognito, which will follow a Super Criminal in a witness relocation program. Take a flier on the first issue, I’m confident you’ll get hooked.
*Although this tension is central to Millar’s writing in Civil War, and other writers of titles under the Civil War banner, it is explored in the sharpest detail in Brubaker’s writing in Captain America.
**Credit where credit is due: Ed Brubaker paired with Matt Fraction (Punisher War Journal) for this run. That’s not really important to the larger point of this piece, since the run was great and Brubaker got top billing. Trying to discern which writer contributed is a fools errand. However, I did enjoy the 11 issues or so I read of Fraction’s Punisher.