As Though Nothing Could Fall— thoughts on My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies by Brubaker & Phillips

In Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ comics, crime is the law. In a very Biblical sense, original sin runs wild in their comics as there is no such thing as a truly innocent person. In their Criminal series as well as everything since the victims are usually just people who aren’t nearly as bad or corrupt as the true villains of their comics. My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies, their latest collaboration, tells the story of Ellie, a girl basically trapped in a rehab facility who doesn’t believe that she actually has any problem worthy of rehab or any problems at all that she wants to be free of. But she isn’t even all that innocent as she plays temptress to one of her fellow rehab patients Skip, who shows a real desire to clean up his act. Skip may be the one good person in this world ruled by guns and desires. There’s no good versus evil in this story, at least not how we want to imagine it is as two opposite and warring sides of morality. Morality exists on a spectrum in Brubaker and Phillips’ comics, that skews heavily towards the darkness that seeps into every nook and cranny of humanity. My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies tries to discover if there is any light that can escape that darkness’s gravity well.

As the latest installment in their Criminal series, this comic steps away from the gritty city and exists in a world of resort-like rehab clinics and off-season summer houses. These are places of hope and restoration but as Brubaker and Phillips turn their attention toward them, they become as run down as any seedy bar or two-bit motel room. The corruption of the city infests these places like a virus of evil. When they eventually run away from the clinic, Ellie and Skip play at being a real couple even as they spend most of their time stoned out of their minds on the drugs stolen from a small-town pharmacy. Ellie knows that she’s bad and can’t fight against her urges to bring Skip and everything around her down to her level. “.. I’m a bad influence. With no intention of being anything else,” she reveals to the audience.

The fight against that darkness is really just a fight for survival and, as we put together the puzzle pieces of who Ellie really is (a nice little prize for long-time Criminal readers,) that means fighting against becoming what the darkness desires her to be. Ellie believes that she can use the fear that comes with the evil without it changing her but that’s what everyone likes to believe. That’s the big lie present of most of Brubaker and Phillips’ work together, that the darkness of the human soul can be used against itself, but we’ve seen time and time again that it’s not possible. That evil, the result of some kind of long-borne sin of humanity, always wins. Even in Brubaker and Phillips’ books, when characters seemingly win the day, we have to ask what was the true cost of the victory?

Ellie’s story, a good girl in a bad situation and bringing Skip down with her, gets lost in a haze of drugs and the fantasy of some kind of perpetually stoned, domestic life. Looking at her mother, who she saw as angelic when she was doped out of her mind, and musicians like Graham Parsons and Billie Holiday who lost years and lives to drugs, Ellie sees something that a lot of people see in drugs. She sees an escape from this world. She sees an escape from her life, one that robbed a young girl of both a father and a mother, and put her in a position where she has no choice but to ruin Skip, someone who could take her out of her life and possibly into a better one. Drugs are an escape and while Ellie doesn’t seem to be one of the junkies that she idolizes according to the title of the book, you can see how in a world that promises only guns and death how drugs could appear to be a legitimate option out of that world.

"But the best crime stories never let us off that easy; they know we’re all guilty of something (even if it’s as innocuous as jaywalking) and judge us even as we’re feeling good that we’re not criminals like Ellie is."

So why do we keep reading these stories? Do we really think Ellie is better than she actually is even if everything tells us to not get involved with this woman? Part of it is that we probably do want to believe in “heroes” and “good guys” even if Brubaker and Phillips constantly remind us just how fallen people are. Maybe it’s that we see something of ourselves in their protagonists and that Brubaker and Phillips hold up a mirror that’s distorted just enough to make us think that we’re seeing ourselves in Ellie and Skip even if it’s not a clear or complete reflection. Ellie is a good girl in a bad situation, or that’s at least what we tell ourselves and it’s easy to relate that to our stories and some less than ideal situation in our lives. She’s just like us, just without the rehab, the drugs or the guns. Or maybe it’s that she’s exactly like us and if she can be saved, we can be saved. But the best crime stories never let us off that easy; they know we’re all guilty of something (even if it’s as innocuous as jaywalking) and judge us even as we’re feeling good that we’re not criminals like Ellie is.

Even the art, with its wide open lines, seems to be warning us about the face value of this story. Phillips moves away from the recent realism of their recent Kill Or Be Killed toward a more suggestive and expressionistic image. Combined with Jacob Phillips’ tonal coloring, there’s an innocence to this artwork that separates this from most of Brubaker and Phillips’ stories. The coloring, full of pastels and light hues in the day, takes on a more sinister emotion at night. Jacob’s color palette doesn’t change but he leans into more darker and ominous tones that help hide Ellie’s ulterior motives when Ellie coaxes Skip out of his room to sneak a smoke and a kiss. In these night scenes, My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies starts to look more like a classic Criminal story in both images and words.

This isn’t a story of life and death, except that it is. It’s about two kids rebelling against the authority that is trying to shape them and their futures. They’re two kids who don’t want to be told what to do by their parents or guardians, even if their reflections of those parents. Both Skip and Ellie are living with the sins of their parents, stuck in a rehab center because of parents that they’re trying not to be even as they’re turning into them. In the darkness of their escape from the rehab center, they’re seeking a release from this world. Characters in the Criminal stories have always sought an understanding of their lives but Ellie seems to know all too well what her life is and how her actions reinforce her own concept of herself.

Some of the best crime stories explore the search for redemption in worlds without forgiveness or grace. Brubaker and Phillips’s stories are full of people who, to one degree or another, are guilty of something. So even our “heroes,” like Ellie, in any other kind of story would be the villain. Instead in My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies, Ellie is our deeply flawed and damaged protagonist, someone who looks at junkies and sees a beautiful disconnection from the ugliness of the real world. Her heroes have always been junkies and Brubaker and Phillips turn that on us, making our hero in this book a junkie as well. Maybe she’s right and Ellie doesn’t need to be in rehab but she’s such a damaged character that maybe she does need some other type of rehabilitation that this world just cannot provide.

My Heroes have Always Been Junkies
Written by Ed Brubaker
Drawn by Sean Phillips
Colored by Jacob Phillips
Published by Image Comics