“Ed Brubaker’s Crime Fiction Career and the Versatility of Superhero Comics”
by Dr. Brad K. Hawley
Ed Brubaker is known for working in the genre of crime comics in the recent years after he quit doing work for both DC and Marvel. But, if we look at Brubaker’s output, we can see that he started writing crime fiction before he wrote for the big two, and he continued to write crime fiction while writing for DC, Marvel, and Wildstorm (which was purchased by DC in 1999). His switch to the superhero genre did not derail Brubaker from his goal of writing crime fiction: he continued to find interesting ways to incorporate crime fiction conventions and subgenres into most of his superhero work. In effect, Brubaker’s body of work shows how flexible the superhero genre is. In his opening essay to Ed Brubaker: Conversations (2016), a collection of interviews with the author, Terrence Wandtke offers a more theoretical set of arguments than I do here in this brief essay. This is mainly an introduction offered to a wider audience, to those interested in crime fiction but unfamiliar with Brubaker’s superhero-crime output. I want to situate his superhero-crime comics chronologically in relation to his other crime work, both before and after working on major projects for Marvel and DC. And while I explore some of the same comics Wandtke does—Catwoman and Point Blank specifically—I look at different examples to emphasize the first-person PI genre, a point mentioned only briefly by Wandtke when discussing Catwoman, for example. Other comics, like Gotham Central, Sleeper, Daredevil, and Captain America, are explored in much greater depth by Wandtke compared to my brief overview here. I refer the reader to his excellent essay. I fill in some important titles Wandtke misses: I don’t want Brubaker’s work on Dead Boy Detectives, Here and Now, The Fall, Gangland: “Small Time,” Batman: Gotham Noir, Batman: “I’ll Be Watching,” Hawkman: “The Black Bird,” Batman: “Made of Wood,” and Batman: The Man Who Laughs to be forgotten. All nine stories play an important role in showing Brubaker’s crime fiction offerings, particularly Here and Now, Batman: Gotham Noir, Hawkman: “The Black Bird,” Batman: “Made of Wood,” and Batman: The Man Who Laughs, all five of which include first-person detective stories.
Early Crime Fiction
Brubaker did some non-superhero work before DC and Marvel and started his career in 1987 with the Pajama Chronicles. Other early work included titles such as Purgatory USA (1989) and Lowlife from 1991-1996. Purgatory USA included a story about a murderer of a priest with a crucifix, and A Complete Lowlife starts with a story entitled “A Life of Crime,” so we can already see Brubaker’s interest in noir. And in “Burning Man” (1991), Brubaker doesn’t deal with crime, but does show an interest in the darker side of human nature. The main character, a kid, tells us, “We stood there and unflinchingly watched a man burn to death . . . And I’m sure we all thought it was one of the neatest things we’d ever seen.” Most notably, however, he wrote three excellent crime stories serialized in the anthology Dark Horse Presents from 1992-1998. We can already see Brubaker exploring crime fiction in An Accidental Death from 1992, Here and Now from 1995, and The Fall from 1998. An Accidental Death and The Fall were later collected into one-shots, but for some reason Here and Now was not reprinted.
In An Accidental Death, illustrated by Eric Shanower, two teenaged boys get in legal trouble when they hide the body of a girl whom one of the boys claims was accidentally killed. In Here and Now, illustrated by Stefano Gaudiano, we see Brubaker use the first-person detective model for the first time: He tells the story of Hal Banks, Private Investigator, who is on a case, shadowing a woman who is cheating on her husband. Unfortunately, he gets caught up in a murder. And in The Fall, illustrated by Jason Lutes, a young man stumbles on evidence of a long ago killing and becomes an unofficial detective, eventually running up against the killer himself. Though he is not a P.I., the character in the story is based on that model.
As he moved over to DC, he first wrote for DC’s Vertigo line of comics. In 1995, he wrote Vertigo Visions: Prez with art by Eric Shanower. The story is told in first-person as a kind of missing person case: They search for Prez, who is supposed to be the father of their friend. It is a mystery they are trying to solve. Brubaker also wrote a short story illustrated by Eric Shanower in Gangland issue #3: “Small Time” came out in 1998 about a “small time” crook. The story is told first-person: The main character sits at a bar and tells us the story of how he got involved in crime starting as a young boy. It is also a coming-of-age story, much like An Accidental Death. This was Brubaker’s fourth short crime story and shows the clear direction he was going in before writing superheroes.
Brubaker then did his first fully realized crime story for Vertigo as The Scene of the Crime in 1999. The art was done by Michael Lark and Sean Phillips. The Scene of the Crime is a first-person story about a private investigator named Jack Herriman, who gets involved in a case that quickly turns into a murder investigation. At this point, Brubaker is showing his strong interest in the PI subgenre, and he will return to it two years later in 2001 combining this crime subgenre with the superhero genre in Batman: Gotham Noir, which I will discuss momentarily.
In 2001, he would write his last Vertigo story, which was illustrated by Bryan Talbot, the four-issue The Dead Boy Detectives, obviously in the detective subgenre. In this story, he was asked to work with characters that already existed from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic book series. The “Dead Boy Detectives” were created in the year 1991 in issue #25 of The Sandman. In this 2001 comic, Brubaker is working off the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew model in which kids get involved in solving crimes; in this case the dead detectives are trying to solve the mystery behind the death of homeless children. The Dead Boy Detectives is also important because it was one of the first times Brubaker would show that he was capable of working with existing characters, something he would need to be able to do working for DC, Marvel, and Wildstorm. He would return to the Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys model in Friday in 2020.
Superhero Crime Fiction
Brubaker started writing superheroes in 2000 as he began to work on DC’s mainstream comics. Now, it should be said that Batman is already in the crime genre. He first appeared in Detective Comics #27 in 1939. DC stands for Detective Comics, so the entire company is built on the idea of the crime genre, but Brubaker would try to make sure his Batman comics, when possible, would fit the crime fiction genre in some notable and unique ways by bringing into the superhero genre crime fiction subgenres and conventions. For example, he helped write about Batman when he was accused of murder and then when he went on the run as a fugitive, but this writing was part of a larger narrative on which a number of writers were working, and I’m not sure how much Brubaker had to do with the grand narrative of this storyline. But after this work, Brubaker mixed the superhero genre with crime fiction in a variety of ways. He worked in the following subgenres of crime fiction: the police procedural, the heist story, courtroom drama, prison drama, and espionage, for example. One of his primary interests, to which he returns again and again, is the first-person detective.
As soon as he had a chance to write Batman as he wanted, he turned out Batman: Gotham Noir, a one-shot Elseworlds tale published in 2001. He worked with artist Sean Phillips, with whom he has done the bulk of his crime work post-DC and post-Marvel. An Elseworlds story is one in which the writer is given free rein to experiment with the main DC characters. For example, in the first Elseworlds tale, Gotham by Gaslight by Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola, Batman hunts Jack the Ripper during the Victorian period. In Justice Riders (1997) by Chuck Dixon and J. H. Williams III, the Justice League is shown in a Wild West setting. Other Elseworlds tales are equally creative.
In the Elseworlds tale Batman: Gotham Noir, Brubaker decided to work in the PI subgenre again, shifting the emphasis from Batman to James Gordon, the police officer in the main Batman titles with whom Batman often works. In Gotham Noir, Brubaker tells a new story about James Gordon: Gordon is a former police officer who is now an alcoholic private investigator. The story, as is often the case with Brubaker crime stories, is told in first person, and Gordon tells us how he tries to solve the murder of a young woman whom he is accused of killing. This presentation of the down-and-out PI is in keeping with the PI subgenre as made popular in Chandler’s Marlowe novels.
Continuing his focus on the PI crime subgenre, Brubaker next got a chance to write Catwoman in 2001 with the well-regarded crime fiction artist Darwyn Cooke. Before Brubaker’s Catwoman, he and Cooke first made their mark with a backup story in Detective Comics issues numbered 759-762 in 2001. In it, they tell the story of Slam Bradley on the trail of the Catwoman. Slam Bradley is presented as a first-person PI.
Some background on Slam Bradley is needed: Slam first appeared in the year 1937, in the first issue of Detective Comics, which at the time was an anthology of crime stories in a variety of crime subgenres. So, Slam predates Batman by two years and 26 issues. Brubaker, with Cooke, digs into DC’s past in bringing Slam Bradley back to Detective Comics in 2001. In this four-part first-person PI story, Slam is the quintessential down-and-out PI in a corrupt town, the type of town we are used to seeing in the work of Hammett and Chandler. As Slam tells us, “From the street-level cops, all the way to the politicians. It’s as dirty as any town I’ve ever seen.” The story opens with Slam in an all-out brawl, using his fists as he tells his story to us in a wise-ass, sarcastic manner. He will do anything in his power to track down Catwoman. But he, like Philip Marlowe, is a man with a code who sees himself differently from other, dirtier, PIs: “Private eyes have a bad rap as creeps who’ll dig up any kind of dirt for a paycheck. And it’s true, some will gleefully ruin people and dance all the way to the bank. I’m not that kind of guy, though.” Brubaker uses common conventions beyond the first-person. For example, early in the story, Slam gets knocked unconscious with a sap on the head. He gets threats from multiple interested parties, including the mob; he’s shown drinking; and so on, making this story more of a PI story than a superhero-themed one, though Slam does have a run-in with Batman, almost as a reminder that this is also a story that takes place in the realm of DC superheroes. But Catwoman is a femme fatale for Slam, and he does not escape from this case without a beating from the cops because of the trouble he goes to for her.
Next, Brubaker was asked to start a separate Catwoman title, and we can see why this appealed to Brubaker since Catwoman is in the noir subgenre which Brubaker likes so much. He even tells a few heist stories about her, but Brubaker likes to defy expectations, so he keeps the heist subgenre to a minimum. In the course of his run on Catwoman, Brubaker told stories about Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman: Like a first-person noir tale, we get Catwoman telling us her story, the story of a criminal, one we are supposed to like and root for. At the start of her story, she watches Batman, who fits in the superhero genre, and wonders “Is this my world, too?” The answer is partly, for Brubaker combines the noir subgenre with the superhero genre, as he likes to do. The overlap, of course, is the violence of both worlds: As Selina says, “The violence sure feels like my world.” But she also sees the difference, the black-and-white world of the superheroes versus the morally grey world of noir, the world of Selina, who says, “My world is all just shades of grey, Batman, that’s why you’ll never really understand me. It’s about good people being forced into bad situations. That’s my territory, in between right and wrong.” The words of Catwoman offer us one of the key qualities of much noir, showing us that Brubaker fully understands the pulp subgenres in which he works so well.
Meanwhile, from 2002–2006, Brubaker split writing duties with Greg Rucka on a title they co-created called Gotham Central, which is notable as a crime comic in the police procedural subgenre. In this series, Brubaker relegates Batman and superhero genre conventions to the margins, both in terms of the story and the art. For example, Batman is seen only in a few scenes and is dismissed by most of the police officers as a nuisance. And via the art, superhero art shows up only when Batman sometimes appears or a supervillain like Mr. Freeze. In a scene with Freeze, for example, the colors are not muted and noirish like they are throughout most of the comic. Instead, when Mr. Freeze appears, the colors are bright and colorful like a typical superhero comic. When he is off the page, the comic goes back to its noir style. Brubaker will later use this technique in Point Blank. Gotham Central focuses on the police as a character: a unit made up of individual police officers on day and night shifts, much like Ed McBain shows in his 87th Precinct police procedural series (Wandtke). We get to know the police officers, their personal background, and their various types of relationships with each other. Consequently, Brubaker shows a masterful understanding of the police procedural throughout the comic.
In 2003, Brubaker, with artist Ryan Sook, wrote a story called “I’ll Be Watching” in Batman: Gotham Knights #41 (and collected in Batman: Black and White Volume 3). In it, Brubaker takes an interesting approach to the noir genre, often told from the perspective of the criminal. In this story, David Thompson, a former criminal, tell us how he met Batman while he was holding a gun during a robbery. When Batman learns that Thompson has not fired the gun, he lets him go, promising him he’ll be watching, and Thompson attributes that promise/threat from Batman as what has kept him on the straight and narrow for many years. This is a very unusual noir story of a crook scared straight.
During his time working for DC, Brubaker worked for Wildstorm, which was purchased by DC in 1999. He wrote Point Blank (2002–2003) and Sleeper (2003–2004) (as well as The Authority [2004–2005]), and again worked with existing characters who fit the superhero genre. Point Blank and its sequel Sleeper are both espionage stories, but Point Blank is particularly of interest and worth looking at with some depth because it features more of Brubaker’s first-person PI writing: Grifter, a post-human superhero of sorts, works with Lynch, who, as one character says, is a “bastard” with “more secret agendas than anyone I ever met.” But as a detective character Grifter tries to unravel some of Lynch’s secrets. In a conversation, Grifter is asked flippantly, “Are you trying to be Sherlock Holmes?” And as he makes clear, he has a mission as a detective to solve the mystery of why his friend was shot: “I’m gonna find out what happened to him, and make whoever did it pay.” And as we expect, from the detective genre, Grifter has a code. He says, “It wasn’t about revenge, it was about justice…it was about honor and obligation.” Grifter is Philip Marlowe in an espionage story in search of the “truth,” as Grifter says. Brubaker has Grifter, his reluctant detective, ruminate about his detecting skills: “I’ll freely admit I’ve never been much of a detective. Putting together clues and figuring out motives just seems too tedious. Usually I just try to figure out who to shoot.” To make clear how much the superhero genre is still present, they show Grifter watching a superhero on TV. The art for the superhero is in bright colors in contrast to the dark noir look of the rest of the comic. One character complains to Grifter about superheroes, “It’s all out in the open now… these colorful suits, like neon signs flying through the skies… They ought to be ashamed of themselves.” In contrast, the espionage aspect of the story is about missions in the shadows, covert operations. As Grifter later tells us, “I’ve never really gone into the whole costume thing much anyway.” As always, Brubaker uses the superhero story and shapes it to tell crime stories in the pulp tradition. Sleeper continues on this path. As Brubaker writes, Sleeper is “another gritty noir spy story with super-powered overtones” (Sleeper, Volume 1)
In 2003, Brubaker, with Patrick Zircher on art, wrote “Made of Wood,” serialized in Detective Comics 784–786. In it, Brubaker uses the first-person narrative of Gordon and Batman to put an emphasis on the detective genre. Gordon actually beats Batman to the killer, but Batman has to save Gordon when he is captured. What is interesting is that Brubaker contrasts Batman with Green Lantern Alan Scott, writing that there is a difference between a hero and a detective. Alan Scott is a hero, but Batman is a detective. As Bruce tells Alan: “This is what detective work is. You take whatever facts you have, and you create a narrative. You try to imagine how it might have been.” Overall, as we will see again in Batman: The Man Who Laughs (2005), Brubaker likes to use the Batman stories to tell first-person detective stories, putting Batman on the ground-level of crime where he can work out the clues to solve puzzles.
During his time working on Gotham Central for DC and on Sleeper for Wildstorm, Brubaker found the time to work on one tremendously important issue of Hawkman: Hawkman #27 in 2004 with artist Sean Phillips. In this issue, a lesser-known work of Brubaker’s since it was just a one-shot, Brubaker builds the story on the framework of The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. The story by Brubaker is called “The Black Bird.” It’s told from the first-person perspective of Jimmy Wright, a Pinkerton Detective, and an earlier incarnation of the current Hawkman. Wright works with “Sam,” a stand-in for Dashiell Hammett, whose first name was Samuel. Wright, our main detective, seeks out the Maltese Falcon and encounters mobsters and an ancient enemy of Hawkman’s. The story is framed by the Hawkman story, a good representation of the way Brubaker works with superhero comics.
As one of his final efforts at DC, in 2005, Brubaker wrote Batman: The Man Who Laughs with Doug Mahnke on art. This story picks up in many ways where Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One left off: It’s still early in Batman’s career, and he faces the Joker. This is the Joker’s first appearance in Gotham, and Brubaker tells the story from the perspectives of Batman and Gordon, both first-person narratives. So, we get a police procedural combined with the first-person detective, as Brubaker emphasizes the detecting skills of Batman as he hunts down the Joker and thwarts his plans. He also does research on an antidote to Joker’s poison, so the comic shows us Bruce Wayne working in his lab several times in addition to his trying to put together the clues that will help him stop the Joker. The one-shot shows that Brubaker remained interested in the first-person detective as his career at DC came to an end.
In 2005, Brubaker started writing for Marvel, and in Captain America (2005–2012) with Steve Epting and other artists, Brubaker employs the espionage genre as he did in Point Blank and Sleeper. He creates his espionage story by inventing the Winter Soldier by, and this was controversial, bringing back Bucky Barnes from the dead. Barnes was supposed to have died in WWII in front of Captain America’s eyes, but Brubaker creates a different story: Bucky Barnes was captured by our enemies, brainwashed, and turned into an international terrorist who has been used for years for political assassinations. Captain America, particularly with the Black Widow, has had the espionage side of the comic emphasized in the past, but Brubaker brings this type of story to the forefront in his run on Captain America, taking the emphasis off the superhero genre. Instead, Brubaker, as he will with Daredevil, makes the heroes morally grey, as we would expect from crime fiction: “Brubaker often crafted plots focused on how potentially similar the heroes are to the villains” (Wandtke).
In 2006, Brubaker, with Pablo Raimondi, wrote Books of Doom, an interesting six-issue series that could be described as noir, as Brubaker shows a fascination with the story of a criminal as told by that criminal, in this case the powerful Doctor Victor Von Doom, a character originally created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1962. He is the arch-nemesis of the Fantastic Four. In this series, Brubaker manages to offer us a disturbing picture of a man who, when he was young, was more sinned against than sinning, but as he gets older, his crimes grow greater even though he claims to have the goal of ruling better than the current king of Latveria. Brubaker takes our initial empathy for Von Doom, and twists it into horror as the story of an evil man progresses. His story is reported first person, and as we find out in the end, he has been talking to a woman with a video camera who, ultimately, discovers a secret that challenges the veracity of the entire narrative. It is an excellent limited series that shows Brubaker’s continued interest in the criminals’ side of stories.
Daredevil (2006–2009) with artist Michael Lark and other artists allowed Brubaker to work in another crime fiction subgenre: The courtroom drama. Since Daredevil, Matt Murdock, is a lawyer by day, Brubaker was able to work within this genre throughout his time writing Daredevil. Daredevil is told in first person. Matt Murdock is a detective on the streets at night and lawyer by day, but Brubaker’s story starts with Daredevil in prison, so Brubaker gets to tell another aspect of the crime genre, “the prison drama” (Wandtke), as Matt Murdock worries about Kingpin, with whom he’s locked up. Daredevil was put in prison by the previous writer, Bendis, but Bendis said in his final letter in his last issue on Daredevil that it was ultimately Brubaker who suggested the idea. The story bounces back and forth between courtroom drama and the prison story, where we meet corrupt guards and dangerous felons, all who want to destroy Murdock. Daredevil is a title well-suited to Brubaker’s crime fiction: He shapes Murdock into a morally grey character when prison turns him into a revenge-seeking man, very much unlike the usual superhero Daredevil whose code has always been so black and white. As Wandtke convincingly argues, Daredevil, in Brubaker’s series, “lashes out with the type of anger associated with a Jim Thompson protagonist (Wandtke).”
From 2006–2011, in the midst of his work on superheroes for Marvel (most notably Captain America and Daredevil, though he also worked on X-Men (2007–2008) and The Immortal Iron Fist (2006-2008)), Brubaker started writing his creator-owned title Criminal with Sean Phillips for the Icon Imprint at Marvel, and this time he started creating his own characters. He would continue this creator-owned series for Image publishing company in 2015 (His early Criminal work for Marvel is now put out by Image, so that most of his crime fiction work with Sean Phillips is now published by Image comics). Criminal has continued to be the series that Brubaker is most associated with, and I will not go into detail here since my focus is on the way the superhero genre is combined with crime fiction subgenres by Brubaker. Criminal obviously fits within the crime fiction genres.
As with Criminal, Incognito (2008–2011) was written for the Icon imprint for Marvel and featured characters invented by Brubaker; however, at this point, unlike Criminal, he was still working in the superhero tradition: The story is about Zack Overkill who, once a super-powered villain, is now in the Witness Protection Program. He turns vigilante and tells us his story in first person. This noir tale is about a bad guy turned good, and plays in the grey areas of noir, much like Brubaker’s Catwoman does.
Post-Superhero Crime Comics
Brubaker left Marvel for good by 2012, and in the past ten years has dominated the crime comics field in his work, mostly collaborating with Sean Philips (with a few exceptions like Velvet and Friday). He wrote Fatale (2012–2014) with Sean Phillips, his first series for Image. Brubaker continues his genre mixing in this book. Fatale is a combination of horror and crime fiction in that he employs the trope of the femme fatale in a new way: He makes his femme fatale the protagonist of his story as she runs from cult-like groups that worship horrific creatures and forces.
His other major works all fit into the crime subgenres in various ways. I will make only brief comments about these works because they are clearly in the crime comics camp, whereas I think the superhero comics are, in this essay, worth looking at more closely because of the way Brubaker brought the crime fiction subgenres into the realm of the superhero.
- Velvet (2013–2016) with Steve Epting is about a female Moneypenny-type character who turns out actually to be a James Bond-type figure.
- The Fade Out (2014–2016) with Sean Phillips is about Charlie Parish in 1948 L.A. waking up to find he is in a bathtub and there is a dead woman in the next room. He and a friend will seek out the killer in this murder mystery.
- Kill or Be Killed (2016–2018) with Sean Phillips is a noir story about a young man who explains why he is compelled to kill and why he turns vigilante.
- My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies (2018) with Sean Phillips is about Ellie, a femme fatale of sorts, who meets a young man in a rehab center. This book, their first original graphic novel, is connected to the Criminal universe.
- Pulp (2020) with Sean Phillips is a western, the genre much crime fiction is rooted in as a model. It is about Max Winters, a fictional pulp writer in the 1930s, whose stories are based on his “real-life” adventures.
- Friday (2020–ongoing) with Marcos Martin is about a young woman who was a Nancy Drew-type figure when she was younger. She is now in college, and she has come back home and is confronted with her past.
- Reckless (five books) from 2020-2022 with Sean Phillips is about Ethan Reckless, an unofficial investigator, an off-the-books private detective like Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder.
- Criminal (2006–ongoing) with Sean Phillips continues to be the series that Brubaker works on and plans on returning to after the fifth Reckless book comes out. So far, the series includes Coward; Lawless; The Dead and The Dying; Bad Night; The Sinners; The Last of the Innocent; Wrong Time, Wrong Place; My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies; Bad Weekend; and Cruel Summer.
Ultimately, Ed Brubaker is the finest crime comics writer out there, and in the span of thirty years, he has published more crime comics than any other writer, particularly if we consider most of his superhero comics within that genre. Brubaker used the superhero comics to further develop his career as a crime comics writer: It certainly was not a detour or a break from his crime writing. I hope this essay encourages an audience who might be interested in crime fiction more than superheroes to seek out Brubaker’s earlier superhero work. There is much to appreciate in this genre for those crime fiction fans who are not as familiar with superhero comics.
Wandtke, Terrence. “Introduction.” Ed Brubaker: Conversations. Ed. Terrence Wandtke. UP of
Mississippi, 2016. Print. ix–xxxviii.
Dr. Brad K. Hawley received his PhD in English Literature in 2000 from The University of Oregon. He works at Oxford College of Emory University in Georgia where he teaches courses in first-year college writing, comics, ethics in fictional narratives, and crime fiction. Dr. Hawley also writes book reviews of comics for the review site Fantasyliterature.com.