HEAT VISION

Writer Ed Brubaker on 'Bad Weekend' and the Comic Industry's Dark Side

The creator looks at the seedy underbelly of the superhero business with his latest work.
Sean Phillips/Image Comics
The creator looks at the seedy underbelly of the superhero business with his latest work.

The comic book industry is, as Batman might put it, filled with a cowardly and superstitious lot. Or, perhaps, it’d be enough to say that comic conventions are wretched hives of scum and villainy. No matter the reference, there’s a seedy underbelly to the comic business, and it’s that world that Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips gleefully dive into in the new graphic novella Bad Weekend, released this week.

The hardcover, which collects and expands upon the story originally published in the first two issues of Brubaker and Phillips’ current Criminal series from Image Comics, arrives at just the right time: With San Diego Comic-Con taking place next week, what better time is there for a story in which a veteran cartoonist uses a comic convention appearance as a cover for a revenge plot on an industry that has continually mistreated him — and one man inside the industry in particular?

Heat Vision talked to Brubaker about the release, his long-term collaborator Phillips and just what the Criminal brand means now.

The obvious starting point: Bad Weekend is your way of just letting everyone know how terrible the comic book industry is, right? It’s you blinking three times to tell us you’re being held hostage. You can tell me; no one will read this.

Ha, I know, right? But really, I think it's both love letter and hate mail at the same time, in some ways. Though more nuanced than that, I hope. It's more about this strange gray area comics fans and creators all live in, where we love the medium, we love the industry or are even obsessed with it, but we know that a lot of comics' history is of artists and writers getting shafted or working themselves to death waiting for that big break. 

And that stuff still happens today, obviously.... Yet, so many creators I've known over the years, mentors and peers, we all still want to do comics anyway — like moths to the flame. We all still have these dreams, even when we know what we're getting into. 

I don’t want to ask a “What are the origins of the story?” question but, at the same time…. What is it about the comic book industry and crime stories that seem like they’d work together well? The solicit for the book makes mention of comics being “a medium that’s always been haunted by crooks, swindlers and desperate dreamers.” Is all of comics just a crime tale waiting to happen?


I mean, I can probably turn anything into a crime story if you give me a minute, but the short answer is yes.  


It's an industry that grew out of the pulps, and you don't have to do much research to start finding stories about publishers screwing creators over, or ripping off other publishers' characters and getting sued, or not paying artists and then firing them when they complain. Anytime there's a boom in a field like this, where you need freelancers to churn out the work, you hear stories of horrible working conditions and shady grifters, or poor young artists giving their rights away for pennies, just to get published — like Superman, for example. And these stories wind through the history of comics, so you hear a lot of them when you spend your life going to conventions and working in comics, as I have. 

There are a lot of wonderful things about comics and comics conventions, don't get me wrong, but if we're talking about the underbelly, it certainly exists. And it gets pretty dark, the closer you look. 

But mostly, what I was using that darker side of comics history to do was write about those heroes that we watch get ground down by the system, who somehow keep going on anyway. I wanted to write about that through the lens of a young artist looking at his onetime hero, at the end of a long and distinguished career. That allowed me to talk more about the seedier side of the business, and the bitterness that many professionals feel sometimes, and how that balances against the love and joy of the craft, and the reasons they wanted to do comics in the first place. To me, there's both beauty and tragedy there — in the stories of artists like Jack Kirby, Alex Toth, Wally Wood, Jack Cole and so many others. 

One of the fun things about Bad Weekend is the way in which it plays with expectations in terms of genre, as much as actual narrative. It’s as much a (fake) comic book industry history of sorts — with cameos from real-life figures — as it is a crime story, and, despite the appearance of familiar characters from Criminal past, it doesn’t feel like a traditional Criminal story. It feels like a chance to scratch all different kinds of itches than you traditionally get to with Sean; was that the appeal of the story, to play against type?

To some degree. I think the past five years, me and Sean have sort of shown that while we do a few things — crime or mystery generally — we also tend to push the boundaries of what a crime comic can do. Things like The Fade Out or Kill or Be Killed, and last year with My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies, are kind of all over the map with how we approach a story. The crime is often secondary to the character studies, really. 

So with Bad Weekend, I knew if we did this in two issues of the monthly Criminal comic, it would kind of plant that flag of "you have no idea what to expect every issue from this series." To just take a left turn after the end of issue one, which sets up a big story we just started, and the next issue is a character study about an old cartoonist, and kind of a secret history of comics. No one would see that coming, I figured. 

In theory, Bad Weekend is a prequel to Bad Night, which Sean and you released a decade ago in an earlier incarnation of Criminal; the two share a protagonist, even if a lot clearly happens between the two stories. Considering what audiences learned about Jacob in Bad Night, was there any nervousness about returning to him as the lead for this story? I’m purposefully avoiding spoilers, of course.

Oh no. I mean, Jacob has appeared in other Criminal stories, too, and is even in issue 7 [of the current series] next month. I just had to go back and reread the original book, to make sure the timeline worked out and that nothing in Bad Weekend contradicted Bad Night. But I was worrying more about the Hal Crane of it all, honestly. 

I’m curious how the stand-alone graphic novella version of Bad Weekend came about. As you said, it was serialized as two issues of Criminal originally, but now it’s been reworked and, for those who follow you and Sean in books, appears as the stand-alone follow-up to My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies
...

It was something that happened organically. I was assuming we'd do a big collection of single-issue stories and include this in there, but by the time I got into the second half, I was starting to wish we were making it longer so it could be its own thing. 

And then when we were going to press, Eric Stephenson called me up and said, "I just read Bad Weekend all the way through, and I think we should do it as a hardback, and get it out for convention season.... What do you think?" He thought it stood on its own as a story, and that a lot of readers might really respond to it, whether they'd tried our stuff before or not, because of the tragic comics history angle. 


And since we were putting out Bad Weekend as a hardback, I took that as an opportunity to expand the story, and put in some scenes that were in my notebook, but I didn't have room for originally. It's about 10 pages longer, and has a few tweaks to the text here and there, a few added word balloons. We really labored over it, while doing issues 4 and 5 at the same time. 

We keep mentioning Sean, and I have to ask: Is this one of those stories where the fact that he can seemingly do anything becomes even more appealing? He manages to easily evoke Alex Toth-style animation guides that aren’t too slavish a re-creation without breaking the reality of his “regular” art style. It’s such a fun moment.

Oh yeah, for sure. I love doing all that meta stuff. I've probably gone to that well too often, maybe, but having Sean do the Saturday morning cartoon lunch boxes and old comic covers and stuff like that is so much fun. And knowing that he was going to nail the idea of a book of old newspaper strip cartoons, kept locked in a closet, and how much that feels like a holy moment to an artist.... But like you said, Sean can draw anything, and he never misses a deadline even when I add extra pages, somehow. I'm really lucky to have him as my partner. 

I have to say, as well as Bad Weekend worked in serialization, I think it works better in its new form. I mentioned before that it seems unusual in terms of story, but in this new incarnation, it’s unusual in terms of publishing format, too; we talked Sean could do anything — is the same true of Criminal, now? Is there a sense that the two of you can do whatever you want with the Criminal brand, at this point? It can be single issues, a series, a graphic novella, whatever feels right…?

I hope so. Ever since we did The Last of the Innocent, our sort of Archie Comics meets Talented Mr. Ripley story, I've felt like all bets are off...because even that was a very personal comic to me, that helped me channel my grief after my father's death into a strange story about  nostalgia and regret.

Ever since then, I just follow that gut instinct on Criminal and write what feels most like it needs to come out of me. And I guess it's not too surprising that in a year where there's a huge franchise movie with a character I co-created in it [The Winter Soldier, in Avengers: Endgame], and where you see artists from the old days who created a lot of these characters having to Indiegogo their health care, that the comics industry and its criminal treatment of artists and writers was on my mind. 

***

Bad Weekend will be released digitally and in comic stores July 10.

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