Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips (2021), Bad Weekend, Image
Ed Brubaker’s niche, if you will, are comic books nibbling at the borders of masculinity. Some of my favorite works of his involve characters like Daredevil (his run with Michael Lark is probably the best – outside of some of Frank Miller’s work) and Captain America. Coming to terms with violence, balancing responsibility and the inherently transgressive work of superheroes is a constant theme. Outside of his work involving caped crusaders, Brubaker has carved himself a niche writing comic books about crime, usually with his collaborator Sean Phillips doing pencils and ink. I will admit, I am not as interested in these books, particularly those, like Criminal and Incognito, that deal with crime in a doggedly realist way. The first run of Criminal, collected in several trade paperbacks, ended a few years ago – but recently he re-launched the series, collecting the issues by storyline rather than issue by issue. Bad Weekend is, to my mind, the most interesting collection of the bunch. It is not, somehow, about crime at all.
In Bad Weekend, Brubaker and Phillips (with colors by Sean Phillips’ son, Jacob), tell the story of one comic book convention weekend, and of one legendary comic book artist’s decline, and his life of frustrations and regret. Bad Weekend is brief, but its story is told with a surprising amount of subtlety and breathing room given the brisk pace of the plot. It’s a bracing but excellent read, and if you’re interested in (yet another) tale of an old man’s decline and bitterness, then I can strongly recommend it. Both Phillips and Brubaker have been telling this kind of story for such a long time that the only surprise is the specific kind of characters and setting, but it’s enough to elevate this beyond the usual inky shadow of violence and crime to a story about the real darkness that powers the history of this colorful art form. It is by far my favorite work the Brubaker/Phillips team has produced in its long, long collaborative career.
First things first: this is not a roman à clef – Brubaker isn’t giving us a portrayal of a specific artist. Looking at his frustrations, you do immediately think of outsize artists like Jack Kirby, particularly given the fictional character’s penchant for fantastic tales over plain corporate ones. Or indeed, with Bad Weekend’s Hal’s insufficiently remunerated work on cartoons, one thinks of Alex Toth. I would, however, suggest a third artist, who, given his popularity towards the end of his life – and his seeming ubiquity in movies and on TV – wouldn’t seem to fit the bill of a frustrated, indebted, bitter comics industry veteran: Stan Lee. But crucially, the book is set in 1997, before the current boom in superhero comics on TV and the big screen. Earlier this year, Abraham Riesman wrote a magnificent biography of Stan Lee, True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee, which offers a much more nuanced, and indeed occasionally harsh portrait of the legendary creator. Addiction, gambling, the mob – Stan Lee’s life ran the gamut. Hal, Brubaker’s protagonist insists that comics are dying – and in 1997, the comic book industry was in a real crisis. In 1996, Marvel had to file for chapter 11 bankruptcy – far from the titan it appears to be today, and other publishers were similarly struggling. Smaller companies like Defiant and Valiant went bankrupt; in a sign of the new age of comics we’re experiencing, Valiant relaunched itself in 2012, with a big slate of books and artists on board, and has since published some of comic’s most exciting titles, like Jody Houser’s Faith.
In 1997, when Bad Weekend is set, nobody expected this kind of bounce back – least of all artists like Hal, who had lost most of the rights to their titles anyway. So instead, what Brubaker gives us is a meditation on what it means to be a fading comic book artist – how you interact with archives, and participate in the creation of new archives and archival structures. Hal has sold off most prints he owns, so he signs fake animation cells to authenticate them, making very little money off them. As we meet him, he arrives at a convention where he’s about to be given an award for his life’s work – but he doesn’t care about industry awards, particularly since this industry is declining to pay him fairly for all the work and characters he has created – a familiar complaint among artists. He gets a former assistant of his to serve as his guide around the convention, and it is from that assistant’s point of view that we follow the story. Years ago, he discouraged said assistant from pursuing a career in comics, letting the then-young man get entangled in a crime-adjacent life. Now, he needs his help to recover prints that he has been trying to dig up for a while. Through break-ins and violence, we retrace some of the paths these objects sometimes take, we see fragments of Hal’s life outside of this specific “bad weekend,” as events slowly come to a head.
The final revelation, which explains the urgency at the heart of Hal’s weekend endeavor, is equal parts heart-breaking and illuminating, helping us shine light on some of the moral quandaries of a career in comics. Brubaker tells his story in small pieces of pertinent information, scattered around a fairly regular story of small time crime. The crime isn’t the point, it’s incidental, it’s the only path open to Hal at this point in his life. His memory is going – he repeats himself, forgets details, etc. – and his life is barely holding together. This connects Hal to Brubaker’s other, less artistically talented criminals. They are not supervillains, created for a life of crime, crime is incidental in their life as well, it’s a means to make lives wrecked by violence, capitalism and mental breakdowns work, a means to be able to go on among others, head held high. For all the burglary, assault and forgery committed on this “bad weekend,” Hal isn’t ashamed of any of it. In fact, he’s trying to erase something that nobody outside of the industry would consider shameful in any way – but that, more than the financial situation, is what prevents Hal from being himself, freely without bitterness and shame. In this way, Hal is just like most of Brubaker’s male characters – using the toxic fruit of masculinity to combat feelings of (imagined or real) inadequacy, themselves created by masculinity. The toxic ouroboros of masculinity and the circle of violence informs much of Brubaker’s work – and in Bad Weekend, he gives us a particularly well crafted, dense, moving version of it.