Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artists: Sean Phillips & Jacob Phillips
James R: At first, I was a little taken aback by the price of the latest offering from the world of Criminal. It's officially a 'Criminal novella' - a first for this series. In recent years, Criminal has appeared as lush, oversized one-shots, echoing the '70s comics that featured in their narratives. My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies is 72 pages, (roughly the equivalent of three issues of a 'standard' book) but this tale crams a lot into what seems like a simple story at first glance. Is it worth your hard-earned cash though?
Firstly, it's great to see Brubaker and Phillips back doing these stories. Since its inception over at Marvel's Icon imprint (Remember that?! Given Marvel's recent shambolic editorial decisions, it seems less and less likely we'll ever see Marvel invest in a line that indulges in adult themes again!), Criminal has always showcased the duo's best work. Brubaker has an obvious love of noir, and Criminal was the book where that was fully unleashed - in series such as the excellent Sleeper, the noir was always tempered by the demands of superhero books. In teaming with Sean Phillips, the two made one of the most remarkable collaborations in modern comics - Phillips' art perfectly suited the gritty world of the Undertow bar and the nefarious stories that it contained.
This tale almost feels like Criminal: The Next Generation, as there are links to the 'Criminal Universe', yet it feels like a step on from the tales surrounding the Lawless brothers. This story focuses on Ellie and Skip - two young people trying to recover from their addictions in an expensive rehab clinic, whilst Ellie recounts the troubled past that's led her to this point. I'll refrain from divulging any more, as Brubaker's script is razor-sharp - this is a story of addiction on the surface, but it's more a story of love and obligation. In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Brubaker revealed that it has autobiographical elements - his mother was an addict, and he talked about attending AA meetings. Those moments are front and centre here, but that's just a part of what makes this book work so well.
As always, Sean Phillips' art is fantastic, (and it's now almost impossible to imagine another artist illustrating Brubaker's scripts; at the recent Portsmouth Comic-Con, the artist intimated at a panel that he would be exclusively working with Brubaker for the foreseeable future) and in the absence of Elizabeth Breitweiser, Jacob Phillips does a fine job on the colours. The scenes set in the present are washed with hazy colours suggesting the detached world of the clinic, whilst the scenes in flashback are black and white, evoking classic noir cinema.
Best of all for me, it passed my test of immediately warranting a re-read to scour for the little details and clues scattered throughout. So many hardcovers or 'special releases' feel like style over substance, but this one stands up to re-reading (in the four days I've had it, I've read it four times, and it still packs a punch). The plot also uses a mixtape as part of the plot, and there's a lot of good music to be enjoyed if you join Ellie on her musical journey.
In the same Hollywood Reporter article, Ed Brubaker passed on two pieces of great news. Firstly, Criminal as a monthly series is due to return in January, and he's promised that characters in My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies will be making an appearance, thus continuing Criminal's canny shared universe. Secondly, he also talked about Too Old To Die Young, the crime TV series he's masterminded with Nicholas Winding Refn. It's due for release next year, and this makes for a beautiful double-barrelled blast of crime. As a result, 2019 already looks a whole lot more promising.
My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies is more expensive than a miniseries, but it's certainly worth the outlay if you like crime books; with Brubaker and Phillips, the secret ingredient is always quality. 9/10