What a treat it is to read a comic that you just fall head-over-heels in love with. I’m tremendously lucky to have had it happen twice this year: first with Mikel Janín, Jordie Bellaire and Grant Morrison’s first issue of Superman and the Authority, and now with Sean Phillips, Jacob Phillips, and Ed Brubaker’s Destroy All Monsters — the third book in their continuing neo-noir mystery series Reckless.
Ethan Reckless was once a young undercover FBI agent who was all too aware of the viciousness he participated in. When an assignment went all sorts of sideways and Ethan got blown up, he emerged from the flames with a scarred face, a detachment from most of his emotions, and a revelation. As he himself puts it in series opener Reckless:
“All of these scientists assumed this future was inevitable. Not something we could avoid. Industry wasn’t going to stop pulling gas and oil out of the ground. People weren’t going to stop wanting cars and airplanes. They were just telling it like it was, following the facts to a logical conclusion.
There was even one who theorized we had lit a fuse with all the nukes we’d set off back in the ’40s and ’50s… And it was already too late, the world was over, and we were just watching the clock tick down… Living through the years before the end, not realizing what we’d done.
So I figure if we’re all doomed… If we’re all suffering… Then when not try to help people? Make someone else’s life better, even just for a few days.”
Ethan Reckless believes himself to be a vicious man, a walking ghost who can only really derive pleasure from wrath, but who wants to try and do right by folks who aren’t broken. This is true. To a point.
But, at least by my reading, Reckless isn’t quite the wraith he imagines himself to be. If he were truly so empty, he’d more likely embrace empty hedonism and apathy (a la the monstrous Riley Richards from the stupendous The Last of the Innocent arc in Sean Phillips and Brubaker’s Criminal) than try to help people. If he were truly so empty, he wouldn’t treasure his relationship with his best friend—his assistant/projectionist-at-the-movie-theater-where-he-lives Anna.
After two turns as a supporting character in Reckless and Friend of the Devil, Destroy All Monsters brings Anna to the forefront as a full-fledged deuteragonist. It is the story of her life, the story of her and Reckless’ friendship, and the story of how it changed.
Jacob Phillips’ colors give Reckless the haze of memory. This maps to the textual framing (particularly with the end of Destroy All Monsters) of the series as Reckless’ recollections. It also adds a sharp, larger-than-life feel to the action, which frequently uses a cooler, darker color palette compared to Reckless‘ more sedate scenes.
Sean Phillips is a living legend, someone who can put a newspaper cartoon character next to a raggedy, self-destructing noir comic protagonist and make the visual dissonance between the two an essential part of his comics’ success. Reckless has featured some of the best work of his career, and Destroy All Monsters continues the trend, from the way the flames in the image above become the hatred leaking out of Reckless’ would-be assassin to the quieter moments, particularly those involving Reckless and Anna’s friendship and its changes.
The Phillipses (they’re father and son) are matched by Ed Brubaker’s script work. Destroy All Monsters turns Ethan Reckless to a new angle, and the results are fascinating. Both Reckless and the second book Friend of the Devil considered Reckless as a lover — first to a woman he had known before the bomb that made him who he is, and second to a woman he believes he may well have loved. Destroy All Monsters, by contrast, is a platonic love story.
Reckless’ friendship with Anna goes back years, born from a shared love for movies and the two of them being in the right place at the right time to forge the sort of connection that lives turn on. Even when they’re at odds with each other — Ethan’s anti-nihilism is both deeply honorable and makes him prone to stasis, while Anna is pushing her limits and starting to figure out who she’ll be in the next phase of her life — there’s a deep care between them that’s both genuinely sweet and complicates Reckless’ assumptions about himself in fascinating ways.
Plus, Brubaker’s always had an ear for terrific dialogue, whether warm or vicious. Destroy All Monsters is a pleasure to read. Even at the end, when the Phillipses and Brubaker take a leap that is as intriguing as it is an absolute gutpunch.
I think Destroy All Monsters is my favorite comic of the year. It’s a thoughtful character study that reveals an intriguing new angle on a compelling protagonist, and one that does so with some really stupendous action and a look and feel that gets into the bones. It’s the strongest volume yet of what has been a consistently strong series by one of the great creative teams in western comics.
What a goddamn treat this book is. What a goddamn treat Reckless is. I’m so, so excited for its next volume, The Ghost in You.
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