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The writer pulls back the curtain on his latest graphic novel, ‘Destroy All Monsters,’ explains why he declined a Substack deal and reflects on widely circulated comments he made about creator pay: “I’m hoping that there will be some kind of happy ending.”
By Aaron Couch
Senior Editor, Heat Vision
For Ed Brubaker, disappearing into the 1980s world of Reckless has been a much-needed escape during the pandemic. The acclaimed writer and his longtime artistic partner, Sean Phillips, introduced pulp hero Ethan Reckless only 10 months ago and have just released a third graphic novel starring the private eye. The latest installment, Destroy All Monsters, is the most personal chapter yet as it dives into the history and friendship between Ethan and his trusty confidant, Anna.
The Reckless books have been a hit for Brubaker and Phillips, whose collaborations date back nearly 20 years and also include titles such as Criminal, Pulp and The Fade Out. All three of Image Comics’ Reckless installments have placed well on the graphic novel charts, and Brubaker also saw an uptick in sales on his back catalog from an unexpected source earlier this year.
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In April, Brubaker gave a widely circulated interview to Fatman Beyond‘s Kevin Smith and Marc Bernardin in which he revealed his disappointment with the compensation he received from Disney as the co-creator of the Winter Soldier, the popular character played by Sebastian Stan in the Captain America movies and in the recent Disney+ show The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. While Brubaker only gave one interview on the subject, it was picked up by news outlets around the world and sparked a conversation about creator pay at Marvel and DC. That in turn sparked greater interest in Brubaker’s work, leading to an uptick in sales.
Brubaker tells The Hollywood Reporter that Marvel has been in touch following those public comments and he is hopeful for a happy ending to the story. “I feel like they definitely got the message,” Brubaker says with a laugh. He says he was surprised by how big a deal the interview became, noting that while he may have sounded angry when quotes from the Fatman podcast were used in news articles, in the audio, he was telling the stories calmly and with a laugh.
In a conversation with THR, Brubaker also reveals that he has finally watched Falcon and the Winter Soldier, explains why he said no to a Substack deal, reflects on his defining run on Daredevil and shares how Robert Kirkman played a role in his Reckless journey.
What is your Reckless origin story?
I was reading all the Travis McGee books in the early days of the pandemic. I got obsessed with going back to these pulp-era characters. It’s the reason we all loved Ted Lasso. We all wanted something that was just comfort food but engaging. When they were first published, I think they published them every two months for six months. That’s how it became the biggest series of the ’60s and ’70s. I just thought, “Sean and I are pretty fast. We’ve been working together for almost 20 years where we pretty consistently put out 10 or 12 comics a year. If we just do these graphic novels, we might be able to get three of these out in nine or ten months. That would be kind of insane.” And we did it.
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How were you and Sean able to put out so many pages in such a short amount of time?
Initially, I’ll send him the first three or four chapters as I’m writing it. I’ll start out where I’m 30 or 40 pages ahead, but Sean is incredibly fast and I’ll get sidetracked by some Hollywood stuff for a week and barely get any work done. Or I’ll get stuck on a chapter. I think one of the reasons we are so prolific is because Sean is incredibly steady and prolific, whereas I will agonize. If I’m working with a slow artist, I will agonize over every decision I need to make as long as I have the ability to. “Oh, he needs pages.” Then I suddenly am able to land on a decision. Sometimes [with Reckless] I’ll get to the point where I have to stop and do a lot of research about some area of L.A. L.A. now doesn’t look like L.A. in 1988 or 1989 a lot of times. That’s part of what I love about the series. It’s trying to use those forgotten Hollywood and L.A. spots that I remember from going up to L.A. in my youth.
The books are also an ode to how things used to be — Ethan is able to solve crimes by methods he says can’t be done today, little tricks with the utility companies and things like that.
Some of that is my own knowledge living through the ’80s. I was definitely part of a sketchy crowd at different times when I was a teenager. I did end up meeting a few private eyes and I saw how some of that work was done. A friend of ours ran away and was hiding at this house my friends and I had lived at. A private eye had been hired to track her down, so I got to see how that guy worked. He worked on us, basically. In the ’90s — my brother-in-law is a lawyer in San Francisco who does criminal law; he introduced me to some of the private eyes who worked for him. So I got to go out to lunch with these guys and pick their brains.
This book takes place in the ’80s, but the narrator is in the future and knows what the reader knows, about modern climate change and other disasters. How’d you settle on that?
When I was trying to figure out why is this an ’80s period piece, and I just thought, “Here I am, sitting in a pandemic and it feels like the world is about to end and I also feel like ever since the ’70s or the early ’80s, everything that’s happening today in the world is things you would hear about here and there. There’d be some article about some scientist testifying before Congress about global warming. We’d all be like, “Oh, that’s hundreds of years away.” And here I am writing a book and Seattle is 120 degrees and California is mostly on fire. Europe’s on fire. Russia is on fire. Siberia is melting. Huh! I thought that might be an interesting way to make an ’80s period piece seem more relevant. It’s being written in this modern perspective from this guy who saw all this stuff coming and was like, “Well this is what’s going to happen so I should try and help people because we are all living on this doomed rock.”
You’ve said the third book is your favorite so far. I imagine much of that is due to the connection between Anna and Ethan?
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I spent the whole book falling in love with her and their friendship. I was talking to a mystery writer friend of mine when I was struggling with parts of that book. She was like, “What’s the problem?” “I feel like for me the whole book is just about him and her. The case they are on is almost incidental.” She’s like, “Oh, then you’re doing it right.” My whole life, a lot of my best friends have been women. Or when I was young, girls. There’s nothing sexual between [Ethan and Anna] at all. They are not going to fall into bed together. He’s not hitting on her. He doesn’t hate her boyfriends because he wishes he were them, he hates them because they are getting in the way of them watching cool movies together. (Laughs.)
Your Captain America run at Marvel is still very much in the public consciousness today, but what do you remember about you and Michael Lark taking over Daredevil, following the iconic run of Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev?
I thought, “How do you follow Brian?” I started thinking, “What would I want to do?” I didn’t know how he was going to end it [with Matt Murdock going to prison]. My original pitch ended with Matt being arrested and thrown in jail. Then the second arc was going to be what my first arc was, where it’s Matt Murdock in Riker’s surrounded by all the enemies. I called Brian to walk him through it and he was like, “Hold on a second, because I want to end mine where he is in jail but they won’t let me because they say that’s too rough of a cliffhanger to throw to the next person.” When you are leaving a book, you try to leave it in some way where whoever starts can just create their own status quo and go from there. He said, “Look, if you’re into that, let’s call up Joe [Quesada, editor-in-chief] and pitch him on the handoff.” I was like, “Yeah, if you end with him in prison, we’re not going to lose any readers going from the most popular writer in comics to a guy who, at that point, was kind of a mid-level.
You and Bendis were quite a one-two punch on Daredevil.
That was a great time to be at Marvel. I arrived there right after [Bill] Jemas left and Dan Buckley had taken over. They weren’t doing crossovers constantly that everybody does now, where every quarter there is another thing. Back then, it was one event thing a year. If you were on Daredevil you could ignore everything that was on every other book. Even in Captain America, I barely had to deal with crossovers, even when Captain America was starring in Civil War I never really touched on it until the end. It was before they were owned by Disney, so they weren’t worrying about that stuff. They didn’t have their own movie studio yet. We were all just trying to make really cool comics. The Ultimate books were considered the prestige jewel in the crown at that point. I remember when I started Captain America and working on Daredevil it was, “Let’s try to take those on.” Me and Brian and Tom [Brevoort, editor] were talking about, “Let’s try to be as big or bigger than those. I want to do a Captain America run that is bigger than The Ultimates.” Luckily, I got to do an issue where he died so it was one of the best-selling comics of the decade.
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Back in the spring, you revealed you weren’t watching Marvel’s Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Have you checked it out yet?
Yeah, I watched it. I’ve had a little bit of contact with the people at Marvel since all that stuff went public. I’d been trying to get in touch with them behind the scenes before I said anything in public. The only reason I said anything in public was because I was getting inundated with people wanting my opinion about this or how do I feel. I just started to feel, “Man, I guess I should just be honest about how I feel about it,” which is, “I feel kind of like I got fucked over.” (Laughs.) Because they didn’t own a movie studio when I wrote that story.
When I was on Kevin’s podcast, I didn’t intend to talk about it as much as I did. If you listen to the way I’m talking about it [in the podcast], I’m not yelling or upset. I know what the situation is and I’m just explaining the situation. But I sound very aggrieved in some of the articles where they are quoting me. I’m like, “Well, I was actually laughing when I said that.” It keeps coming up again and again. Over the last two months, I’ve had people emailing me, “Why do you keep talking about this?” I say, “I haven’t said a word about it since the Kevin Smith thing.” But the Scarlett Johansson [lawsuit against Disney over Black Widow] happens and more people talk about it. Until just now I haven’t talked about it to anybody outside of a couple of people inside Marvel. I’m hoping that there will be some kind of happy ending to it at this point because I feel like they definitely got the message. (Laughs.)
You got a lot of support after that.
A lot of other people chimed in about it. It was nice to see the outpouring of support from all the fans. All I kept thinking was, “Just go buy my other books.” After I was on that podcast, all the Reckless books, all of me and Sean’s books, for several weeks on Amazon were on the top 10 graphic novels. I was like, “Wow. That was nice.” People really did kind of be like, “What can we do?” They can’t pay me for what Disney is not paying me. (Laughs.) What can you do? You can support people’s original work.
Many comic creators are taking big paydays from Substack, but you turned one down. Were you tempted to put your newsletter on there, create some comics, and take what seems like potentially easy money?
I thought about it for a couple days and I realized I would have to be doubling my comic book output to do that. I wouldn’t want to mess up what Sean and I have by trying to serialize our stuff that way. We’re at the point where comic book retailers who used to order 200 copies of our first issue of something are now ordering 200 copies of our graphic novels for the first day.
Yeah, it is free money. They are literally giving people money to just make their own stuff. Hopefully every week we’ll start getting 10 or 20 pages of comics out of these. It’s an interesting phenomenon. People definitely made it sound like it was going to shake things up more than I think it’s going to. It’s just additional work for all of those people. I write a newsletter every month or two and it’s so much work to put a newsletter together. I like writing the comics and seeing the pages come in, but when I sit to do those newsletters, by the end of the three or four hours it takes, I’m so exhausted. I can’t imagine having to do this two or three times a week! (Laughs.) I’m just too old for it. The offer was amazing. The amounts I’ve heard from lower-level people to the big-name people, the amounts of money they are throwing around is really impressive.
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How are you feeling about the state of the comic book industry?
I started publishing comics in the early ’90s as an alt-comics person writing and drawing my own comics. The whole time I’ve been in comics, every two years there’s a crisis. “Comics is going to die.” And the last two years are the best-selling years the entire time I’ve been in comics.
How far will Reckless go beyond book three?
We were going to do the first three and take a break and do the other books and come back and do two or three more of the Reckless books, but when [Robert] Kirkman read the first book, he was like, “Why are you only doing three?” and I’m like, “We’re not stopping at three. I have an idea for a sequel to The Fade Out that I want to do. And I have this other slightly longer stand-alone graphic novel idea I want to do. And then after those we’ll come back and do more.” Kirkman was like, “No! I want to see more of these guys. You’ve got to do at least five before you take a break.” So I was like, “All right, fine, just for you. We’ll do five.” Now I’m halfway through four and I’m plotting through five. I should listen to Kirkman more. I’m glad he convinced me to do that.
Has there been Reckless interest from Hollywood yet?
We’ve had a bunch of movie interest, but nothing that’s come to fruition yet. Every time someone asks me who I want to play him, I’m like “Sebastian Stan.” Not just because he was the Winter Soldier. Partly that. But because I think he’d be perfect for it. “Come on! You could be in every scene instead of half of them.”
Destroy All Monsters is available now from Image Comics.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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