Ed Brubaker is celebrating a summer of crime.
While the veteran comics writer is always at work on new stories with his longtime partner, artist Sean Phillips, the past several months have also seen the pair back in action on their signature ongoing crime series Criminal – a book that celebrates the interconnected history of working class crime families across the decades from Image Comics. The latest release in the Criminal series is Bad Weekend, a graphic novel drawn from the main series that mixes crime and comics as never before. The story covers a 1990s fictionalized version of San Diego's Comic-Con where a legendary artist is about to receive a lifetime achievement award, only for things to go terribly wrong.
Aside from that timely release, Brubaker is also on a victory lap after his long-awaited Amazon Prime TV collaboration with director Nicolas Winding Refn has debuted on the streaming service. Too Old To Die Young is an LA crime story that mixes Brubaker's ground-level explorations of the criminal lifestyle with Refn's slow-boil neo noir stylings, and the show has earned rave reviews in its first weeks on demand.
Ahead of Comic-Con 2019, CBR caught up with Brubaker to see where his comics life and TV career are headed in the rest of 2019, and below the writer digs into how he and Phillips are telling stories they've planned for years both about the drudgeries of convention life and the history of Criminal as a whole as well as share how Too Old To Die Young has shaped his future writing for TV.
CBR: Ed, you and Sean obviously have never stopped making comics together for more than three minutes, but up until last year, it had been a while since you stepped into the Criminal title. I think the most recent issues have carried a similar vibe to some of the Hollywood books even as the period has shifted to 20, 30 years ago, but what was the draw to finally get back to the world of the Lawless clan?
Ed Brubaker: When we were working on our book My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies last year, I just had this sudden urge to bring Criminal back as a monthly comic. Like, I suddenly had ideas for like five new Criminal stories, of various lengths. And I wanted to try to do some single issue or two-issue stories. Just really try to utilize the single issue comic format, in kind of an old school, you never know what will come next kind of way.
I think the big story that we're doing right now, Cruel Summer, finally started falling into place in my head more, so it felt like the right time to bring it back.
Bad Weekend is coming out as a standalone graphic novel now, though you've been committed to single issues with Criminal when a lot of people rush right to collect everything. Between that approach and the annuals a few years back, what, creatively, do you and Sean get out of playing with the "floppy" format?
The immediacy of it can't be understated. Getting to put our work out as we create it is such an amazing thing. You can see why Dickens and Dumas did it. But I think there's something very special about comic books, and the whole trek to the comic shop every week to see what's out. I think everyone should put more effort into making the single issues less of just a chapter of a trade, you know? Make the comic itself something special. Then make the trade or hardback collection special too. They're different formats, they each have advantages, but a lot of publishers single issues seem like afterthoughts lately. So I want to make sure our comics stand out from that, and are always worth your money. I take a great amount of pride in that, even though almost no one but me seems to care.
And I mean, we do collect everything, eventually. The longer stories we put into books pretty quickly. But single issue stories, you have to get a lot of them before you put out a collection.
Some of the fun of this story comes from the details and homages to Comic-Con. Sean throws in cosplayers just this shy of characters we know, and the plot even involves the riot at the Hyatt. How much of those bits came from you, and how much was it Sean playing around?
All the cosplayer stuff is Sean. I just mentioned there should be some, so when we see the girl dressed as Princess Yaz it makes sense. I wasn't actually sure the cosplaying was as much a thing in 1997 as it is in the book, honestly. I can't remember. I know you always saw some, but now it feels like a third of the crowd some days.
But yeah, it was just me and Sean mining a lifetime of going to conventions, so it was pretty easy. We've all had that day where no one cares about you, except some little kid who just wants the program book signed. It's sad and funny at the same time.
And the Image comics gag is just fun, because I remember feeling that way in the '90s and now they're my publisher.
While there are a lot of real people from comics mentioned in this story (we even see Will Eisner for a panel), the core aging comics artist Hal Crane especially read like an amalgam of reputations held by the likes of Alex Toth or Wally Wood while still being an original character. What leads a story like this for you? How much do you reflect on your own personal history with this stuff versus letting the idea or the theme take over?
I mean, all writing is taken from your own history in some way or another, even if you don't know it. I don't really think about that stuff too much. I just start from the character, and Hal Crane was one of those characters I'd been building in the back of my mind for a long time, based on various stories I'd heard about a lot of artists from the '50s and '60s, but just sort of trying to make someone like that, other than a few incidents I used and changed the details of. I think when I had his life figured out in a way that made sense, all the different parts of his career, then I was able to figure out how to crack the story.
Where does this Criminal series take us next? Ricky Lawless has been in the spotlight for a minute, but Teeg's story has featured recently, and his generation is the root of a lot of the characters in the series. Do you have any desire to go all the way back to the beginning, or is jumping across characters and decades the only way this series really works for you?
Yeah, that seems to be what I like to do with Criminal most. Stories that go back and forth to different time periods in the characters lives. It's become more reflective and experimental, I think, as we've gone along. And with the current story that we started in issue #5, Cruel Summer, we're doing a really long one that shifts focal characters each chapter, so it throws a really wide net, and is like three or four different things at the same time. And that all takes place in the summer of 1988.
I've thought about doing some stories set further in the past, like the '50s or the '40s, but we'll see. Right now I'm just trying to make sure the current one lands where it needs to, because it's running through issue #12.
Your Amazon Prime TV series Too Old To Die Young has gotten a terrific response. I think everyone who's followed your comics over the years has enjoyed the film and TV work you've done, but this feels significantly different – much more like your crime comics than anything that's been filmed before. Does it feel that way to you? Does the milestone of having something out there that's yours change things at all for you?
Honestly, I'm not sure. I feel like it became more Refn's thing as we went along than "our" thing, which is the nature of working with a director as the co-writer. I'm really proud of the show. I think it's one of the most amazing and singular things ever made for television, and it's the best looking show ever, too. But I don't feel the same sense of ownership of it that I do of my comics. I'm still chasing that feeling in Hollywood, but all the stuff I've learned from Westworld and Too Old to Die Young will hopefully help me be more in charge on my next TV projects. I'm not giving up, that's for sure. I've got big plans, and big news coming soon.
Like you say, your collaborator Nicolas Winding Refn's fingerprints are all over this show. His slow, deliberate style of crime filmmaking meshes well with your stories. How much did comics prepare you to collaborate there versus how much gigs like Westworld that gave you that practical experience of making a big prestige show?
Nothing can prepare you for working with Refn. He's a crazy artist from Denmark, and he's constantly chasing some undefinable creative urge as he shoots, so you just try to hang on and cross your fingers, through like a zillion daily rewrites, as he films. But I learned a lot from working with him, about challenging ideas, and trying to push things into stranger and stranger directions, so even when I felt like I was losing my mind, we still laughed a lot. But one director shooting for 10 months is not something I'd recommend to anyone. I'm surprised he lived through it. I barely survived.
I know that there's been talk of bringing your comics to the screen, both what you've done with Sean and also projects, like Velvet. Do you feel like the two halves of our career have a chance of merging more in the future, or will comics always be an independent part of your writing?
I'll always do comics, with Sean, and probably the odd other comic. There's nothing like it anywhere else, the creative freedom, the lack of a budget to what you're writing, and the simplicity of the creation. With us it's just three people, doing what we want to do. So even if I end up adapting some of our books to TV or film, the comics will always be important to me, and me and Sean will be making comics together for the rest of our lives. We're 20 years in already. I think we might be break a record at some point soon.
The Criminal collection Bad Weekend is on sale now from Image Comics.