There’s a certain kind of inside baseball type of writing that has an indefinable quality that determines whether it’s good or bad. Like “movies about movies” describes all sorts of things, but movies about the movie industry? There’s a big difference between say The Player, which to me always felt masturbatory and self congratulatory and Contempt, which is ugly and fucked up and beautiful. Both are movies with extremely long takes about idiot industry people who don’t know how to make a movie without being a piece of shit to the women in their lives. The big difference is obviously execution. The Player ends with the characters falling into the roles of a bullshit hollywood movie, and if that works for you it works. There’s the Michael Winterbottom adaptation of Tristram Shandy, which falls somewhere in the middle, with the actors existing as fictional versions of themselves alongside actual fictional characters, ostensibly adapting an un-adaptable book. In Bad Weekend, I think we’re in that gray area.
Bad Weekend is Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ latest release, this time under the Criminal title so maybe brings a little more weight to it than some of their other collaborations (their comic Incognito felt like a “Merriam Webster defines coasting” riff). This is a comic book about the American comic book industry, with the crime element amounting to the twist of a decent episode of Columbo. So the content has to be the most compelling thing.
Our lead, Jacob, a former artist’s assistant turned private eye (I think), is asked to mind his old boss during a 3 day comic con, in 1997, at the possible death knell of the industry before all the movie and video game money came in and ruined everything or something. His mentor is Hal Crane, an obvious blend of several real life figures like Gil Kane, Wally Wood, Roy Crane, Alex Toth, Gray Morrow, Frank Thorne, Carmine Infantino, etc. Hal's mentor, who commits suicide with Hal in the car, is obviously based on a certain kind of pioneer of draftsmanship (Alex Raymond), who also died in a car crash. It's a school of comics artist, most of whom don't get reappraised by anyone except other comics artists, and this is a story about one of those guys. Hal's got a drinking problem, he packs heat, he makes deals to sign forged animation cells, he’s estranged from his family, he runs through his assistants like they’re human garbage.
The entire comic is about the weekend for one of those guys, darkened a little...but considering some of the things that we know about the comics industry just in the past year, none of it is really that dark at all. Or any entertainment industry, let alone a fucking vile drainage ditch like comic books. This thing actually could have been Black Kiss level gross and no one would have batted an eye.
The stakes are low. It’s not seething hatred against an industry that chews up and spits out a certain kind of talent, of the kind of men who are dinosaurs in their attitudes but professionals up until the point their hands don’t work anymore; people who draw until they die, people that don’t retire. People who did two weeks worth of work on Johnny Quest and then spend their life hearing people talk at them about it. Hal's explicitly invoked as Alex Toth a few times, even being called “a master without a masterpiece”. Will Eisner, Marv Wolfman and Stan Lee are mentioned by name, making this our world but with extra characters… Wally Wood gets quoted in a brutal fashion. Have you ever seen the photo of Wally Wood in his apartment? Dear christ.
The two big dramatic counterweights of the story are getting Hal to the awards show where they’re giving him a lifetime achievement thing, and Hal running around town with a gun trying to find some pages his daughter sold. He can’t find the pages, and he won’t say what they are. He finally gets to his speech and punches a Stan Lee/Marv Wolfman stand-in right in the mouth after a heartfelt speech. You can guess the twist in reference from the tenth page or so…and you wish it was meaner. If this had been a savage takedown or less of a pastiche of people, or the violence was sold a little more...
That’s the problem here, I’d say. This is excellent. It’s a great comic, full of great detail on the writing and illustration fronts. It feels lived in. Sean Phillips clearly loves this kind of artwork, despite his artistic tradition being more of a meat and potatoes style of representation. He’s not Bernie Wrightson-ing his backgrounds, just more interested in gesture and rich inks. I feel Eddie Campbell a lot in his work. He’s definitely someone that’s read more non-superhero comics than superhero comics. The color work here, by Jason Phillips, gets particularly nuanced in the final sections in the bar and banquet hall. It’s emotional and bleeds into the figures in way not too dissimilar to film approaches. The pinks and purples in the bar completely elevate the scene to Mean Streets/Chinese Bookie territory. The stark whites in the banquet hall feel harsher on the figures as Hal chooses his fucked up thing to do in real time.
Hal gives a lecture at one point that has to have come from real life, and it’s the absolute best thing here, about how Charles Dickens made his name off of screwing some poor cartoonist, and how writers forever will take any opportunity from an artist and run as fast as they can in the other direction to make someone say their name just once. It’s comics, how much writing we see on the page, especially from this era the character is meant to represent.
It amounts to dialog. It just doesn’t have the rage that speech vibrates off the page with. I wish it had been meaner or more in depth or the crime element seem less perfunctory. It’s lived in in a way that only people who have sat with this kind of man and seen their life play out in their every little gesture and grumble at a dinner table or a bar after dealing with the fucking public all day. This is The Player version of this story, it’s a shame to say. There’s a version of this that can’t be published and it’s like a phantom image--and I want the whole thing.