My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies: A Criminal Novella is another Ed Brubaker-Sean Phillips work of perfection. It’s another tale of danger and the criminal world. The story and the art are each five-star outings, the storytelling melding well with the visuals. Simply put, this noir story has matching noir-ish artwork, but if you’re familiar with Phillips’s work in previous Criminal titles, you’ll be surprised by the light pinks and purples and light blues used this time, creating a different tint than the usual (colors are by Jacob Phillips, Sean Phillips’s son). Any noir novel fans, including fans of the covers, will appreciate both aspects of the book — content and look. The father and son artists give a sense of some of these covers with a contemporary, more realistic feel. And the story itself could come out of a David Goodis or Jim Thompson novel.
It’s hard to write about the plot at all without giving spoilers: The story starts out mysteriously — Who is Ellie, this young woman talking to us? Who is this young man she meets? And then the mysteries get peeled back like the layers of an onion. Basically, Ellie, our main character, tells us her story: Of being in a rehabilitation center and meeting Skip there. Though one of them seems to be more experienced, or worldly wise, they, too, have a loss of one kind of innocence in the course of this story: the loss of the belief that violence, and the world it comes from, can ever be escaped, that violence can be defeated by kindness. So, this is a coming-of-age for both young characters. Sudden revelations and insights mark a sort of breaking into the adult world for them.
The story is also about inevitable endings. Going back to the beginning again to reread (which you will probably do immediately), you can see now from the start that one of the characters knew that there was a slim-to-none chance that the ending was going to be anything other than what it ended up being. And yet to fight that inevitability? We have a character who fights against the odds and sees that those odds are real, that a person is going to lose more than they are going to win. It’s a dark story with a darker worldview, both adding up to a bleak ending. And yet . . .
There’s something so refreshing about these two characters. Particularly Ellie, who has a passion for famous artists, like Billie Holiday, who were brilliant junkies. The black-and-white scene in which Ellie, as a kid, listens to a Holiday album is particularly touching. However, Brubaker fans know things don’t go well for the protagonists in a Brubaker-Phillips production. (And if you haven’t read Brubaker yet, I suggest saving this book until reading at least the first Criminal volume, Coward. On the other hand, thematically and story-wise, My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies stands on its own as a complete work of art). This young couple is doomed from the start, and so if you are a Brubaker-Phillips fan, you know we’re just going in for an almost vicarious thrill of watching a train wreck of human lives.
So, I highly recommend this work of art because it is more noir genius by two of the best creators in the business. Yes, My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies is bleak, but noir fans like to see this world, the world that exposes through exaggeration (sometimes) the flaws within the world around us and, perhaps most importantly, the flaws within ourselves. Read this book and see a young man and woman grow up, Brubaker-Phillips style.