Where the Body Was by Ed Brubaker and Sean PhillipsWhere the Body Was by Ed Brubaker (writer), Sean Phillips (artist), and Jacob Phillips (colorist)

Ed Brubaker’s new graphic novel Where the Body Was with Sean Phillips is another excellent work of crime fiction. These two creators, with Jacob Phillips on colors, turn out the most amazing stories, and this one is no exception. Where the Body Was is a little different from some of the more noir books that they have put out over the years. This graphic novel is ostensibly about a body that is found by a young girl as she skates around the neighborhood. So, this is a murder mystery. Or at least that might be the shorthand summary of the plot, but it is misleading because it is really a story about memory and nostalgia and growing up and love.

The graphic novel opens with a map of the neighborhood with the main locations of the story numbered and marked. A lot of the story happens at an old, rundown boarding house. Another part of the story takes place between two houses next to each other: The Melville’s House and Palmer’s House. Another main location is the 7-11 and the tent of a homeless veteran, Ranko, out in back of the convenience store. The map even marks where the young girl, Lila Nguyen, finds the body later in the book.

After the map is a one-page layout giving us the nine main characters in the story: Tommy Brandt, a juvenile delinquent, who lives in the boarding house with Karina Lane, a teenage runaway. Palmer Sneed is a “man with a badge” who has an affair with the psychiatrist Dr. Ted Melville’s “neglected wife,” Toni Melville. Jack Foster is a private investigator who comes into the neighborhood from outside. Lila Nguyen, a young girl who roller skates, is friends with Ranko, the homeless veteran. Finally, Mrs. Wilson is the snooping neighbor. The book is the story of the collision of all these lives.

What really makes this graphic novel exceptional is the way the story is told: We are given ongoing action in the present interrupted by what look like “interviews” with the main characters across time. So, for example, the book opens with the history of the boarding house and then shows what is happening in the present at that house. But then the story is interrupted by an interview with Mrs. Wilson talking about the boarding house. Then the story in the present continues, but with a few panels here and there giving commentary from Mrs. Wilson. Then we switch back to the present again with the story of Palmer and Toni, with narration from Toni. After their story, we get narration from Lila Nguyen and her seeing the P.I. in the neighborhood and her interactions with Ranko, establishing their friendship. Sometimes,  however, the narration takes us into the past: For example, Palmer tells us about his past and how he ended up acting the way he does in the present. We also get into the minds of Tommy and Karina.

These narrations and interviews get more interesting later on when the interviews start taking place across time and into the future. Almost exactly halfway through the book, Brubaker shows us Karina in the future at her job (in what looks like a bakery or restaurant of some kind) talking to us directly about that summer in the neighborhood. These interviews have the characters talking directly to us, as if speaking to the camera, so to speak. Tommy also talks to us in the future about that time when he spent so much time with Karina. When we see Lila in the future, she looks to be in her twenties, shopping in a grocery store. My favorite interviews that happen years after the fact are with Ranko, the once homeless veteran, and particularly with Toni. The interviews in the future with Toni are the most interesting, I think, because on one page, for example, there are five panels, each showing Toni at different ages, from middle to old age, when she is finally in a wheelchair at what looks like a retirement home. And in the end, we even see Tommy as old as fifty-six by the final interviews.

So, what I have not touched on is the content of these interviews: They are reflective, thoughtful interruptions in the plot that show us the main characters thinking back on youth, on growing up, on falling in love, on jealously, on having affairs, and on aging. These interviews are what really give the story substance and make you want to start reading the graphic novel all over again when you are done. The mystery part of the story is interesting, but ultimately it is not what drives the story. So, knowing the mystery does not spoil the desire to reread the book, as it does in many mystery stories in the tradition of Agatha Christie. The art, too, is masterful as always. Sean Phillips is a brilliant co-creator with Brubaker, and Phillips’ son, Jacob is exceptional with the colors. Therefore, Where the Body Was is ultimately a comic that holds up to multiple reads and reflection on the part of the reader. I highly recommend it.


  • Brad Hawley

    BRAD HAWLEY, who's been with us since April 2012, earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia.