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Where the Body Was
Image Comics

Comic Books

In ‘Where the Body Was’, Phillips and Brubaker skillfully dial down

A new book from Phillips, Phillips, and Brubaker is a reason to celebrate.

…after several years of mourning, Louise turned her big empty home into a boarding house…

Renting its extra bedrooms out to college students at first…

And then in the 50s and 60s, to beatniks and hippies. Some of them she didn’t even charge rent. That’s how much she loved being surrounded by these young souls. But Auntie Lou, as she was known to her tenants and neighbors, passed away in 1982. And by the summer of ’84, the house was in a protracted legal battle between three of her heirs. It had become an eyesore, and the tenants were a revolving collection of lowlifes…

Sean Phillips and Ed Brubaker, Where the Body Was

 

 

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I’ve written extensively for AIPT about why Phillips and Brubaker are, for my money, one of the best creative teams western comics has ever been fortunate enough to see. Whether they’re telling a lean mean heartbreaker of a crime story, conducting a long-form character study of a damaged man who isn’t nearly as broken as he thinks he is, taking a ticket deep into the mythic terror of nightworld, or laying out the how and the why of their comicscraft, Phillips and Brubaker are without fail a joy to read. Their character work (Phillips’ body language, Brubaker’s dialogue), their environments (be they Reckless’ California-by-the-decades or Pulp’s New York-and-dying-old-west-as-it-was-and-as-it-is-imagined), their formal playfulness (Merciless Archie pseudo-pastiche Criminal: The Last of the Innocent is to this day one of my top ten comics of any sort)—the duo’s work is reliably sublime. A big part of why, at least as I read their work, is their ongoing willingness to explore and play within forms they know well.

Where the Body Was, Image.

The specificity of Phillips and Brubaker’s settings has long been one of their great strengths as a creative team. Where the Body Was’ Pelican Road and its ensemble are a shining example of their ability. (Image Comics)

Criminal, Reckless, Pulp, Night Fever, and now Where the Body Was are all crime stories. But the whats and the whys of those stories differ drastically. Pulp turns on the metatext of a pop writer reflecting on his life through his creative work—never mind The Process Edition breaking down the comic into a study of the Phillips family and Brubaker’s process. Night Fever sees Phillips push into wild, surreal physical horror. Criminal has space for everything from extended comic book pastiches (Deadly Hands and Savage Sword boast letters pages and everything) to the classical noir of Cruel Summer and The Sinners. Each volume of Reckless pushes its titular problem solver (and, on one memorable occasion, his best friend) not only into different mysteries but into different styles of mysteries. And as for Where the Body Was, well, it’s one of the most intriguing books the team (Phillips, Brubaker, and colorist/Sean Phillips’ son Jacob Phillips) has crafted. It’s a full-blown ensemble piece, one that embraces shagginess and strange corners to study the ways a disparate group of folks lives and, in one case, die in a neighborhood full of secrets that are both life-changing and far more low-key than, say, Riley Richards’ murder plot in Criminal’s The Last of the Innocent or the sudden reappearance of a long-long sister in an obscure Z-movie in Friend of the Devil, the second volume of Reckless.

Where the Body Was’ cast is a distinct bunch, all scrambling through the ennui of the mid-1980s (as Ethan Reckless notes in the opening of Friend of the Devil, “When I think of the mid-80s, I mostly think of all the bad drugs…and music I never thought we’d be listening to for the rest of our lives…It was an ugly time for the fashion of pop culture…And an uglier time for the world around it.”) A hollow man angry at the world for its venality swipes his abusive father’s police badge from his funeral and then decides to use it to play sheriff, the Sheriff of Pelican Road, and feel like the big man he wants to be to spite his hateful father’s corpse. A tween putting herself out in the world takes to the streets in roller skates, a cape, and a domino mask. A veteran who is not getting the help he needs tries to get by where he can. Kids wrapped up in bad drugs and the sour side of punk dance around getting wrapped up in each other.

 

Where the Body Was, Image.

Where the Body Was draws its power in part from its mastery of temporality—the specifics of Pelican Road’s 1984 summer and the flashes of the ensemble’s lives before and after. (Image Comics)

They’re the most down-to-earth crew Phillips and Brubaker have put together in a while. No one here had to rebuild their body and soul after getting blown up. No one here used to be one of the most feared outlaws alive. Even the empty monster isn’t quite the hole in things that Riley Richards is. By and large, Pelican Road’s inhabitants are living their lives—their vital, desperate, astonishing, familiar lives. They have a normal. And when the corpse of a private investigator pops up on the street, normal goes right out the window. Desperation creeps in, and bluster puffs up. Phillips embraces Where the Body Was’ comparatively sedate setting as an opportunity to push his mastery of body language in a quieter direction—particularly the way that folks change and hold onto parts of themselves as they age. Throughout the book, especially as the summer drags on and the players’ individual dramas spiral and converge, Phillips cuts to their older selves ruminating on the fallout—and ultimately, how they lived in 1984, 2023, and the years in between.

Jacob Phillips’ colors carry the mastery of darkness he demonstrated in Night Fever forward into Where the Body Was’ quieter context—best seen during the book’s climax, where deep shadows and sickly oranges and yellows pull the reader’s eye towards the hapless would-be thieves stuck in a closet. In less dramatic contexts, his light blue skies capture the languor of summer and bright, panel-filling reds on a busy night at a roller rink.

 

Where the Body Was, Image

Image Comics

Working with an ensemble offers Brubaker an opportunity to stretch his writing muscles—while some of the players would be right at home (if very, very doomed) in Criminal or Reckless, “Roller Derby Kid” Lila Nguyen is a protagonist unlike any Brubaker has written in quite some time. And his hops forward in time are an evolution of the sporadic leaps into the future that he’s made in Reckless. It’s crunchy, compelling work.

A new book from Phillips, Phillips, and Brubaker is a reason to celebrate. Where the Body Was is a prime example of why. Its ensemble is compelling. Its tone and focus are an interesting departure from their greater bibliography. Its colors are striking, and the body language of its cast is impeccable. Put simply? Where the Body Was is good comics made by folks who know good comics. It’s a joy to read and well worth checking out.

Where the Body Was
In ‘Where the Body Was’, Phillips and Brubaker skillfully dial down
Where the Body Was
While Where the Body Was sees Sean Phillips, Jacob Phillips, and Ed Brubaker shift into a lower key mode, the resulting comic is as beautifully constructed and thrilling as ever.
Reader Rating0 Votes
0
Working in a quieter mode gives one of comics' best creative teams the opportunity to flex their muscles in new ways.
Brubaker's character work, from lovable tween to despicable pretend cop, is sharp and compelling.
Sean Phillips' mastery of geography and setting makes Pelican Road a vivid, claustrophobic-despite-its-suburban-sprawl setting.
Jacob Phillips' colors bring the haze of a long, strange summer to a neighborhood full of miniature crises.
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