Spotlight Sunday 10.24.21
The release of the third installment of a series of books that seem to be written specifically for me means that there are spoilers ahead for…
“Thing is, that’s not what I signed up for. This was supposed to be about revenge.”
My mom loved Charles Bronson. Why? I don’t know, really. It certainly wasn’t that she thought he was handsome – though she did like his voice – but for whatever reason, and of all the things one could be, she was something of a Charles Bronson fangirl. It didn’t matter what it was, or if it was something she would normally not enjoy, if a movie had “Charlie” in it, she wanted to watch it, and at the dawn of the home video era, which coincided with the dawn of my adolescence, there were a lot of movies to choose from. As a result, many of our trips to the video rental place led to us bringing home some kind of science fiction or fantasy movie for me, some kind of comedy – ideally one with nudity – for my dad (and for me, especially the nudity part), and some violent, gritty, grimy, and often downright sleazy movie featuring Mr. Bronson for my mom.
I didn’t share her enthusiasm for all things Bronson, but I watched them all and enjoyed them for what they were, and given that I saw them during a formative part of my life, they naturally left some sort of impression on me.
And I can’t help but think back on those – not very good – movies fondly, because they make me think of my mom and that strangely-endearing quirk of hers.
Somewhere around that same time period, what soon became my favorite TV show hit the airwaves: The Equalizer. I loved that show almost as much as my mom loved Charles Bronson.
Which brings us to the subject of this post.
What do Charles Bronson and The Equalizer have to do with Reckless? Well, the basic premise of the books, which are something of an experimental format for the team of Brubaker and Phillips, as in times past each book would likely have first hit the shelves as individual floppies rather than being released all at once in a single hardbound volume, shares some similarities with the premise of that old TV show starring the late Edward Woodward.
The books focus on Ethan Reckless, a man who, like Robert McCall of The Equalizer, has something of a haunted past and who, for a price, helps people in need who have no one else to whom they can turn.
Where Charles Bronson comes in is that the stories have the same feel – albeit more skillfully executed -as those late-period, direct-to-video Charles Bronson movies from The Cannon Group that I watched as a kid. That same kind of grit, grime, and sleaze.
All of which is to say I FUCKING LOVE THESE BOOKS SO MUCH OH MY GOD
Seriously, it’s no secret that I unconditionally love everything Brubaker and Phillips have ever done, but these books are just next level.
I despise that Vince McMahon meme, but it feels appropriate here.
I have said, at the top of this post and at many other times and in many other places, that it feels like these books are being made for me, specifically. I am the audience that has been targeted with surgical precision.
The fact that Sean Phillips liked a tweet in which I said this feels like validation of that belief.
I suppose I should actually talk about the book that’s in the Spotlight, huh?
In the first two books, we learned a bit about Ethan’s past. The short version is that while very young he was recruited into the FBI and put to work infiltrating a radical leftist group on the 1970s. As the result of injuries suffered in an explosion, his ability to experience emotion is diminished. It’s not that he doesn’t have feelings, it’s that he has difficulty accessing them, and while not entirely emotionless, his day-to-day experience of feeling his feelings is superficial.
Beyond that, he surfs, smokes a lot of weed, and frequently watches old movies in the closed-down, seen-better-days movie theater he owns and runs his business from.
In this book, set in 1988, we learn about his assistant – and best friend – Anna, how she and Ethan met, and her deep connection to Ethan’s theater. That latter point is of particular importance, and relates back to scenes from the previous books in which we see Anna pressuring a resistant Ethan to actually open the theater to the public to some extent, in part, but not entirely, to help bridge the financial gap between jobs.
As is part of the structure of the storytelling in the Reckless book, this one opens right in the middle of a climactic scene that takes place near the end of the story. In this case, we find the theater on fire, and Ethan inside it, trying to find Anna. Instead, what he finds is a crowbar to the head.
The stories are narrated by – apparently – a present-day Ethan, who in this opening narration tells us that 1988 was the year in which he started to feel himself aging, and slowing down, though he admits that he may be making excuses for the way in which he fucked everything up that year. As with other books, we jump back in time from that dramatic opening and begin walking the circuitous path to the ending that served as the story’s beginning.
We jump back four months, to when Ethan was picking up a birthday present for Anna – a print of the 1948 film The Easter Parade – which he is hoping will smooth things over, as Ann has been pissed at him because he doesn’t like her boyfriend and told her that he’s not allowed in the theater. (He talks during the movies in their private screenings and laughs at them at inappropriate times.)
From there, we jump back even further, to 1979, to when Ethan met Anna and brought her on to work with him, and we learn that prior to the theater closing down and Ethan taking ownership of it, her late father had been the projectionist there, and it had been the place where she was happiest as a child, the place she kept returning to now that she was a teenager who had run away from home. Ethan liked her almost immediately, and especially liked the fact that she was able to actually get the projector working.
Returning to the…well, none of it is the present, but at least back to the point we were at when we jumped to four months into the past from the point in our past in which the story started, the owner of the shop where Ethan was picking up Anna’s birthday present inquires if Ethan has gotten in touch with a friend of his whom he’d referred to Ethan for help. Ethan was unaware, as Anna handled that, and she hadn’t mentioned it to him, and this indicated to him that she wasn’t just mad at him, she was quitting.
After getting a chilly reception at her birthday party where he felt out of place as a 37 year old at a party full of 26 year olds, he leaves and reaches out to the person who was looking for his help.
Beyond the reasons I’ve listed above, part of the reason I love these books is the complex narrative structure and non-linear approach to storytelling. (Who could imagine that I, of all people, would like stories that jump around and are filled with asides and tangents and anecdotes that provide seemingly-unconnected details and background information? …he asks, sarcastically.) From the moment Ethan makes that call, we jump back in time on a tangent about a recent case Ethan and Anna worked on that turned out to be shitty in a literal and figurative sense that ended in failure – and not getting paid – and ruined the lives of three people over something simple and stupid.
This is on Ethan’s mind as he’s late to meet his new client, a politician who is out for revenge on the rich real estate developer who ruined and indirectly – or maybe not so indirectly – ended the politician’s father’s life. It’s a case that has ties to the racist history of transportation in the Los Angeles area, something that immediately made me think of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, which is something that Brubaker himself briefly mentions in the afterword.)
After a run-in with the police immediately following the meeting, Ethan thinks he’s been made and that corrupt cops are working for the target, so Ethan manages to rope Anna back in to help out.
While this case, which delves into the seedy underbelly of the world of rich and powerful men who are convinced – with good reason – that they can get away with anything, goes better than the one Ethan reminisced about, it doesn’t sit right with him, and it leaves some business unfinished.
Still, at least this time he got paid, and at least it got things with Anna back to normal. Or so he thought. It turns out that she plans move in with the boyfriend Ethan hates, which involves moving to the other side of the 405, which means that they’ll rarely ever see each other again, given the nature of traffic.
Anna leaves, and Ethan spends most of the summer surfing, smoking weed, watching old movies, having a summer fling, and not doing any work.
But as mentioned, business was unfinished. While they had successfully achieved the goal of ruining the life of a corrupt and evil man, they turned him into a fugitive from justice, one who was still powerful and was now looking for revenge.
Ethan and Anna’s lives converge once again when they both see that their former client had died of an apparent, but, to their minds, suspicious heart attack and Anna does some digging into the background of their former target and makes a startling discovery. That leads us, finally, to the book’s fiery opening scene.
And that’s as much of the plot as I’m going to spoil. These posts are never intended to serve as a substitute for reading the books they’re about, and that’s especially true in this case, because if you’re someone who enjoys gritty, violent noir stories filled with moral ambiguity, and especially if you are of a certain age that allows you to look on the 1970s and 1980s and the gritty, noir stories filled with moral ambiguity of that era through the lens of nostalgia, these books, though they’re clearly made for me are also made for you.
One could argue that the fact that we get narration for present-day Ethan lowers the stakes, as we know – unless he’s narrating from the afterlife – that he’s going to come out of these stories that are set in the past alive, I maintain that it’s a benefit, given that it means that we have the opportunity to get a lot more Reckless books.
Besides, as we see in this book, Ethan isn’t the only one whose life is at stake.
I’ve noted that I love the structure of the storytelling, and how, while being non-linear, it normally follows a comfortingly-predictable pattern, this book mixes up the formula a bit, as there is a section in which we get a view of what’s happening with Anna and the narration changes from first-person to third-person, a shift that I found pleasantly jarring.
The conceit of Ethan not being able to easily access his own emotions is a brilliant way to draw the reader in, making us active participants who have to step up and feel them for him. When he can’t feel how much he cares about Anna, we can, and do, and when she’s away, we miss her on his behalf.
There’s not much I can say about the artwork of Sean Phillips that the work doesn’t say for itself, but I will note that the thick lines and deep black shadows suit the mood and tone perfectly. The brutal, dirty fight scenes are dynamic and convey a sense of naturalism; they’re awkward and clunky, with none of the finesse of some big-budget action movie with skilled and carefully-planned fight choreography. (It’s another thing that reminds me of all of those Charles Bronson movies.)
The splotchy, painstakingly-planned sloppiness of the colors from Jacob Phillips perfectly complements the line work, adding to the mood and atmosphere through inspired color choices and lighting angles that are a bit askew and at times seem to follow some different, unseen contours and impossible light sources. I’ve liked his work on some of the other books he’s done, but he really seems to shine – though there is little shininess in the colors themselves – on these books.
The overall effect of the art is that it’s like reading a comic that was filmed on grainy stock and then transferred to VHS, all of which just punches up that direct-to-video movie feel for me.
Sean Phillips also handles the lettering, and that’s another area in which he and this book excel. The lack of borders around the narrative captions and the way the word balloons occupy a negative space by being either partially or wholly set against deep, inky black backgrounds, adds to the immersive nature of the story. The don’t feel like they’re floating on top of the action, instead feeling deeply embedded as part of the action. It’s a subtle effect in a book that’s filled to overflowing with subtle effects, all of which add up to something far greater than the sum of its parts.
I’ve actually been reluctant to write any Spotlight posts about these books, because I fear that I too often go back to the same well, writing almost exclusively about the works of a few creators I love, works that honestly don’t need the minimal, almost non-existent promotion that my posts can, theoretically, bring.
Also, I feared that I would, Jack Torrance-style, just fill the screen with nothing but “I fucking love Reckless” repeated ad infinitum.
But I couldn’t keep myself from writing something, because I fucking love Reckless.
I fucking love Reckless. I fucking love Reckless. I fucking love Reckless. I fucking love Reckless. I fucking love Reckless. I fucking love Reckless. I fucking love Reckless. I fucking love Reckless. I fucking love Reckless. I fucking love Reckless. I fucking love Reckless. I fucking love Reckless. I fucking love Reckless. I fucking love Reckless. I fucking love Reckless. I fucking love Reckless. I fucking love Reckless. I fucking love Reckless.
…okay, I’ll stop.
This book and the others in the series are fantastic.
Buy them. Read them. Love them the way I love them. You probably will, even if you didn’t have a Charles Bronson fangirl mom.
And please remember…
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