“When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell.”
So begins Richard Stark’s The Hunter, the dark-as-midnight crime thriller which introduced the ruthless thief Parker to the world. Stark (one of several pen names used by beloved crime writer Donald Westlake) wrote 24 Parker novels, four of which (The Hunter, The Outfit, The Score and Slayground) were adapted to comics by the late, great Darwyn Cooke. Stark’s novels and Cooke’s comics are all-time great crime stories. They’re narratively brutal, formally playful, and possess dark humanity.
In the afterword to Sean Phillips and Ed Brubaker‘s new graphic novel Reckless, Brubaker admires Stark and Cooke’s work, and cites them as an explicit inspiration for the project. He writes: “…for years I’ve wanted to do something along those lines in comics, our [his and Phillips] version of that kind of paperback “hero”…”
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic forcing comics creators and publishers to adapt rapidly, Phillips and Brubaker opted to take a swing at just such a character, using a presentation form closer to the Parker novels than say, an individual issue of Criminal. Reckless is the first in a series of planned graphic novels starring the title character, an independent problem solver and metaphorical member of the living dead. Both he and his comic make a strong impression.
“And if you’ve got a good enough story, then there’s this guy that shows up… And he solves your problem for you.”
Once, Ethan Reckless was an undercover FBI agent, tasked with infiltrating a band of anti-Vietnam activists. Once, Ethan Reckless fell in love and became disgusted with himself. Once, Ethan Reckless might have had a way out. And he did get out, but not the way he might have wanted.
A bomb essentially killed that version of Ethan Reckless, even though his body survived. His memory was damaged — even years after the blast, he’s still missing time from that period. His ability to feel strong emotions outside of anger was muffled. He traded one form of self-loathing for another. And his hatred for his employers grew into full-blown loathing when he came to understand exactly how little the powers that be cared about the damage they had done and were doing to the world.
Cast adrift, Reckless wandered until, by chance, he fell into troubleshooting. A friend’s friend needed help retrieving money her lout of a husband had run off with. Reckless tracked the schmuck and the cash down, and the friend’s friend paid him well for his work. So he kept at it, solving problems for people until it, in his own words, “just became what I did…” By the time Reckless begins, the title character’s been plying his strange trade for six years, operating out of a functional-but-shuttered movie theater, and acquiring clients through a 1-800 number.
Reckless is (sometimes) able to pay his best pal Anna to help him run the business. He’s close enough to the beach to surf. The unique nature of his job means that can at least aim his rage in a somewhat productive direction. It’s a good life, on its own terms. And then Rainy Livingston, the woman he loved before the bomb, tracks him down and asks for his help. The pre-bomb Ethan Reckless may be gone, but his history still lives.
And it has blades.
Brubaker’s direct citation of Parker (both novel and comic) as an inspiration for Reckless is interesting, given its content. As characters, Parker and Reckless do share certain key traits. But in the details, they’re substantially different from one another. Structurally though, the first volume of Reckless owes a great deal to The Hunter, the first Parker story.
Both The Hunter and Reckless establish their lead characters as creatures of habit and pattern. Parker’s thievery has a method, as does Reckless’ troubleshooting.
The Hunter and Reckless deliberately push their protagonists out of their comfort zones, forcing them to confront personal issues that the regular routines of their lives aren’t built to handle. Upon settling things, Parker and Reckless return to those routines affected, if not necessarily changed.
But where Stark and Cooke kept Parker’s internal life mostly concealed, Phillips and Brubaker delve deep into Reckless’ mind. Phillips’ illustrations, strikingly colored by his son Jacob, emphasize the sharp difference between Reckless’ past and present selves in his body language. He simulates the sensation of blankness that comes with Reckless’ lost memories by breaking up each section of the story with black, blank pages. Furthermore, the present-day Reckless carries himself and moves very differently between his private moments and his time on the job — and he’s never really comfortable unless he’s angry or fighting.
Brubaker’s script is first and foremost a character study. Reckless narrates the comic in the past tense, reflecting on the events to an unseen companion. His musings on the book’s events and the way his mind is wired are both compelling and quite sad. Reckless is a traumatized, nihilistic shell of a man who does what he does he can for selfish reasons. And yet, he continues with it. However muted most of Reckless’ feelings are, he still manages to care on some level. He still wants to try and do right, even if he fails in doing so.
Reckless is a damn compelling introduction to an intriguing anti-hero. It’ll be interesting to see where Phillps and Brubaker take him in the next volume – whether he’ll be able to get back into his routine or have to keep facing his past. Either way, Reckless Vol. 1 is a comic to read and Reckless Vol. 2 is a comic to keep an eye on.
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