The work of Brubaker and Phillips being my drug of choice means that there are spoilers ahead for…
My Heroes HaveAlways Been Junkies
Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist: Sean Phillips
Cover: Sean Phillips
“I mean, what young lovers don’t secretly want this? To just be bandits on some lost highway…running until it all burns down?”
I’ve gotten off to several false starts as I sit here writing this, as the subject at hand is one that is intensely personal to me, and while I tend to be rather open about my recovery – as “open” as I’m capable of being, at any rate – even after eighteen years of sobriety there are times in which it’s difficult to articulate my thoughts.
The bare facts are this: I used to drink. A lot. Not every day – circumstances simply didn’t allow it – but most days, and on those days, I more than made up for the days I’d missed.
People talk about “struggling with addiction,” but for me it wasn’t a struggle. It was easy, because I had surrendered to it. To a very real extent, I chose it. It was a path I chose to walk, a raging river that I dove into. I knew that, ultimately, it would lead to my destruction, and that was the whole point.
Unlike “Ellie,” the narrator of this story, I didn’t romanticize it – not all the time, anyway, though there were times in which I fancied myself something of a “doomed poet” – I recognized the ugliness and futility of it, and I went along with it anyway, because it seemed as though it was better than the alternative. Life was unbearable, and while drinking made it worse, there were those moments – and they were little more than moments – in which it made it bearable, and those times in which it made it seem so much worse, in some ways, felt like progress. Progress towards what? The end. I believed that it had to get worse before it would get better, and that the faster my life fell apart, the sooner it would all be over.
Obviously, my way of thinking changed, otherwise I wouldn’t be here writing this, but sometimes, especially when I encounter something so familiar, I remember those thoughts clearly, and while I don’t have any interest in going back to that life and that way of thinking, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a kind of loss for that sense of purpose, and for that paradoxical feeling of control. Yes, control. I felt as though I was fully in charge of my life, and though I was swerving wildly along the road – figuratively and literally – at least I had my hands the wheel and my foot on the gas.
That feeling was an illusion, of course, but it felt real.
While it’s not listed on the trade dress, My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies is identified as part of the Brubaker and Phillips line of titles known collectively as “Criminal,” a set of loosely-interconnected stories with a noir theme that focus on the darker parts of life and the people who live and love in the shadows.
Our story begins – after a brief prologue – in a rehab center in which Ellie is, internally, calling bullshit on a story being told by one of the other residents during a group session. She knows it’s bullshit – the guy telling a harrowing tale of his life as a heroin addict is not even a heroin addict; he went into rehab as a cover to avoid his real problems – thanks to Skip, a handsome young member of the group to whom the speaker had confessed his deception.
Skip, Ellie notes, is into her.
Ellie, however, is not into getting sober. She’s there because her “uncle” dragged her there, and she’s just barely going through the motions of what’s expected of her.
In dark gray flashbacks we learn a bit of Ellie’s story, and about her obsession with substance abuse and substance abusers, which was the result of an early childhood shaped by her parents’ experiences of addiction, recovery, and relapse, and by a mix tape she found after her mother’s death.
The tape – made for Ellie’s father to listen to while in prison – is an eye-opener for young Ellie, not simply because of the amazing, new-to-her music she hears, but because of the discovery she makes after the fact: every performer on the tape was a junkie.
This sets Ellie on a course to become something of a scholar of addiction, or at least the addict lifestyle, tying some of the greatest artistic and intellectual accomplishments of all time to being high. Her entire view of life is shaped by this belief in the power and glamour of drug abuse, and given the litany of accomplishments, it’s a difficult view to argue against, honestly.
At least, if you ignore the enormous toll. How many of the people she names are still among us? She would dismiss that, of course, by pointing to the people who got clean and seemed to lose much of what made them great as a result, but even that is a rather reductive view of causality and ignores the subjective nature of such judgments.
As things progress, Ellie comes to realize that she is also into Skip and being the “bad influence” that she has always found herself to be, their rehab romance comes to its inevitable moment of crisis after she and Skip sneak out after lights out, get high, get caught, and are compelled to take a drug test.
Skip has secrets that he hasn’t shared with Ellie – though given her talent for breaking and entering, which allowed her to read the patient files of everyone there – it seems likely that she knows what those secrets are.
(In fact, that she does know is one of the secrets we will eventually learn about “Ellie.”)
Those secrets mean that it will be a disaster for him when the drug test comes back positive. But if there’s one thing Ellie knows, it’s how addicts think, and she uses that to do what every addiction does: pull the addict deeper in with the promise of a greater high by moving on to get an even bigger, stronger fix.
Ellie steals the key to the faux-heroin addict’s Mercedes and the two young lovers go on the run, ditching the flashy car along the way for something more low-key (and without Lojack), moving from town to town, favoring the kind of Rust Belt towns that are at the center of the opioid epidemic – the kind of towns that have fully-stocked pharmacies that they can raid – and spend their days in a fog.
Eventually, and I’m not going to spoil the end, both of their secrets catch up with them in a truly horrific way – this is a “Criminal” story, after all – that brings it all to the only end that’s possible for a life lived in the “completely free” way that Ellie longs for.
I was late in getting to this story, as my dealer ran low on supply and didn’t anticipate my need for a fix. Which is to say, the week it came out, it was already sold out at the comic shop by the time I got there and it hadn’t been auto-added to my stack, so I had to have them order a copy for me.
This is a complex, morally gray – which is echoed in the grayscale coloration of “Ellie’s” childhood memories – as are most stories by Brubaker, and it walks a very fine line between taking an honest look at addiction and its allure and glamorizing the lives of addicts. For the most part, I think it walks that line, and in the moments when it seems to lean towards glamorization, the words are belied by what we’re seeing on the page and by what’s really going on in the lives of the characters.
For as much as Ellie talks about ignoring society’s rules and walking away from all of the bullshit, she fails to recognize that there are rules to the life she’s chosen, and that she is simply trading one kind of bullshit for another. (And that’s before we even get into the “Criminal” aspects of the story.)
Life is life, whether you’re sober or not, and is filled with highs and lows and grand pronouncements about how to live that life, and post hoc justifications for all of the stupid, selfish, and senseless shit we do.
It’s messy and rarely stays within the lines, or at least the lines we can see, which is what made the color work so impactful. Like life, it’s messy, and rarely stays within the lines, but that messiness adds a richness and fullness that is quite striking, and gives it a much different look than what we’re accustomed to seeing from the clean, spare color work of Elizabeth Breitweiser, who typically does the color work on Brubaker and Phillips stories.
Here, the color chores are taken on by Jacob Phillips – Sean’s son – and the youthful exuberance and psychedelic nature of his colors are an excellent fit for a story about the hazy lives of two young people. Having kids changes people and apparently having your kid color your artwork changes your style. It’s a unique look for a Brubaker/Phillips book, though it’s not necessarily one that would work with any other story.
Again, I felt a personal connection with this, as it brings a kind of wincing nostalgia for times that have – thankfully, for the most part – passed. (Though I will say that the rehab experience presented here was a bit different from mine. For one thing, my experience was, by design, a total sausage fest, and for another, it wasn’t at some high-end, resort-style place.)
For a little more on the story behind the story – along withsome other interesting items of note – check out this interview with Ed Brubaker.
The Rest of This Week’s Fix
(No links because I am lazy.)
Black Science Volume 8: Later Than You Think
Heroes In Crisis #2
Nightwing/Magilla Gorilla #1
Superman/Top Cat #1
The Terrifics Annual #1
What If? Magik #1
That does it for the Spotlight for this week. Be sure to come back next week to see what it shines upon.
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