My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have been working together for a while, since Phillips inked part of Brubaker’s Scene of the Crime at Vertigo. The first time they made waves together was Wildstorm’s Sleeper, which was everyone’s favorite book that no one read for the entirety of its existence. It lasted two years or, “seasons,” because the company decided that slapping a giant “Season Two” on the cover was the absolute best way to sell a relaunch of the book to people who didn’t already read the first year. Because what do people love more than anything? Coming in late to a story clearly labeled as already in progress.

Sleeper was the darling of the first generation of comics blogosphere, the most prominent voices of which were at the time united as one in their desire to save the book. To paraphrase Vonnegut on Vietnam, every respectable blogger on the internet was for Wildstorm in the early 00s. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. Wildcats 3.0 was good!

Flash forward another fifteen years and Brubaker / Phillips are still a team. Soon after Sleeper imploded the two started Criminal at Marvel’s Icon, an anthology crime book without even the few superhero genre signifiers that Sleeper had hanging around in the background. (It’s at Image now, which is how these things work.) “Wait,” (said I at the time), “how are they going to do the same thing again without the genre elements that made the book even mildly palatable to the Direct Market? I don’t see how that’ll work!” It wasn’t perhaps the smartest long-term prediction a critic has ever made, but to be fair, predicting which creators or creator teams will be able to successfully direct a work-for-hire audience away from the Big 2 and towards their creator-owned material has always been a heartbreakingly inexact science. Turned out there was plenty room on the shelves for a straightforward crime book with serious critical bonafides. People liked Criminal enough for the book to continue, and since then the team has worked together more or less steadily.

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies is the latest chapter of Criminal, a stand-alone story about a couple of recovering druggies who meet in rehab. They fall together and end up bringing out each other’s worst habits. Then, of course, it turns out that one of them is lying about who they are. That’s the kind of story it is: criminals lying to one another in the pursuit of illegal activities, so, yeah. If that’s your thing, this is that thing.

I struggle with noir precisely because the moral tone is unwavering and inescapable: these are stories about people who make the wrong decisions, consistently, and then hurt others as a consequence of their wrong decisions. Crime stories implicate the system that directs people into the arms of the carceral state. It’s hard not to read a story like My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies and not be distracted by the ways in which the world has failed these people, or in which the world has failed by enabling them, in the case of the rich folks shipped off to rehab as opposed to prison.

I used to work in a drug treatment facility that housed kids just like Skip and Ellie: there are more kids like them than you can ever imagine, invisible armies being shuffled away from confused or simply uncaring parents and into the lifelong arms of a system that cares only about keeping patients and prisoners as commodities. I don’t like to think about those kids because if I did I’m sure most of them would have ended up like this, albeit not under such picturesque circumstances.

The narrator of the story, Ellie, is the daughter of a drug addict who grows up romanticizing the activity because her mom was an addict. The story is filled with references to musicians who all suffered with drugs – Billie Holliday, Gram Parsons, Elliott Smith. (I never warmed to Ellie after she started throwing around music opinions as characterization shorthand, a process that often falls on its face if the reader does not precisely share creators’ knowledgeable prejudices regarding pop music.) The question of whether or not any of the characters in this book actually need medical treatment is passed over without much comment – it seems to pass beneath notice that anyone might actually seek help for their problems, instead of simply falling deeper into a deterministic universe whose boundaries are set by an ever dwindling array of bad choices. You know the characters are going to make bad choices so there’s no real suspense: they will choose to do wrongly and meet bad ends. That’s a story, of a kind, if a stunted one.

Ellie Meets Skip – Skip seems like a good kid, if easily distracted. She doesn’t have his best interests at heart, something she telegraphs almost immediately by telling the reader that she’s “a bad influence. With no intention of being anything else.” So why then are we following her story since she tells the reader on page seventeen that she picked the locks in the therapist’s office to read everyone’s files? It’s pretty obvious that she’s a criminal from the beginning, so where’s the suspense? No one in this story is sympathetic in the least, and the fact that she telegraphs her dastardly intentions from the very beginning saps the drama. Skip is a walking side of beef who seems genuinely sick, seeing him taken advantage of by someone who does not wish him well isn’t a fun thing.

It’s a gorgeous book, at least. Deserving special commendation are Jacob Phillips colors. The book, far from grayscale noir (which does appear briefly in flashbacks), is awash in riotous color – cool blues, electric pastels. Rather than flat the colors are mottled and distressed. The effect is dynamic and compelling even when the story is not. The book’s colors carry a great deal of life, a movement indicated through a reference to Van Gogh (touching on the themes of drug abuse and altered states of consciousness). The one thing color can never do here is convey an emotional state beyond the realm of anxiety: even the sky blue of the cover is pitched just a shade too bright.

It would be difficult to argue that My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies isn’t an accomplished book, as the creators certainly seem like they might be at the top of their game. It’s worth pointing out that the book does avoid glamorizing drug use, and makes clear throughout that Ellie’s association of drugs and her mother’s love is extraordinarily unhealthy. Instead of using the ample opportunities open to her to seek help, however, she chooses to harm others, and that makes me wonder why we need to hear her story in the first place. Perhaps that’s a fault with the reader and not the book or its genre. Affected hopelessness for shits and giggles just ain’t doing it for me in 2018, but then, it rarely has.

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5 Responses to My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies

  1. Alex says:

    Great review! Thank you for it. I agree that the twist that Ellie is bad is less foreshadowed than it is plainly written. I can’t imagine anybody gets to the end and thinks “Now I can read those hundred pages again with some uncovered secrets in mind!”

    The reveal I really wondered about happens on the last page (I think? definitely in the last five or so). We learn that Ellie is a character from an earlier Criminal arc’s son. Is anybody so invested in these noir archetypes that having one of them show up again is exciting? Unless this is a teaser for the returning character’s bigger role in a future Criminal story (in which case this book feels like an interlude), I think Brubaker/Phillips expect the reader to see a cameo by a dude who doesn’t do anything but show up and feel content that that’s the same as a big ending. It’s that hollow-feeling trick superhero comics play, where a closing scene’s revelation that the new bad guy is Mysterio’s son is supposed to make you throw the comic in the air and scream “I can’t believe they did it! They gave Mysterio a son! A character I know is related to a character I didn’t know!”

  2. Bl says:

    “… the world has failed by enabling them, in the case of the rich folks shipped off to rehab as opposed to prison.”

    So ashamed by this statement I couldn’t finish the review. “Tough on Drugs” nonsense has ruined too many lives too visably, unless you’re a sheltered

  3. Tegan O’Neil says:

    The idea was hardly intended to echo any kind of “tough on” rhetoric. Part of my problem with crime literature like this is that even just talking about the story on its own merits means you end up buying into the specious logic of carceral systems of behavior modification. This review wasn’t the place for a three-paragraph tangent on prison abolition (I mean!), but it’s enough for me to assert that in a system in which prison is used as a tool of the state specifically to destroy the lives of PoC and other marginalized folks, rich people squeaking out of hard time to do soft rehab is indeed an injustice. Prison abolition shouldn’t start with rich people who really *should* be in decent treatment facilities instead of using diversion as an excuse to squeeze out of the grip of the prison industrial complex, but not like it’s not for them, too.

    Again, it’s a weakness of the crime genre that getting pulled into the genre’s stakes means accepting a few ideological whoppers which I usually avoid. I never watch or read crime stuff, usually, for just this reason.

  4. Tegan O’Neil says:

    And as this was my first Criminal story, I didn’t know anything about any continuity connections. I didn’t even know Criminal had larger continuity! I hardly think it detracts, as it was certainly not obvious, but it certainly adds to my impression of this as very much “very much up the alley of people for whom this is very much up their alley.”

  5. Didn’t know you’d written this Tegan, so always a pleasure to discover you’ve written on a series dear to my heart.

    Right now, the Brubaker / Phillips team (along with Alan Moore) is about the only creative force which I will check out, even with no other information.

    I agree with you that the intentions of the protagonist are clearly telegraphed. I suspect the intention was to craft an inevitable tragedy, rather than the ‘twist’ of “OMG SHE WAS A VILLAIN ALL ALONG…”

    The connection with the larger Criminal mythos was incidental. As someone that’s read literally every Criminal comic, I don’t think it substantially added to or subtracted from the overall quality.

    That art though….wow.

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