ED BRUBAKER Shares How CRIMINAL is a ‘Funhouse Mirror Reflection’ of his Own Family

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Credit: Sean Phillips/Jacob Phillips (Image Comics)
Ed Brubaker

Ed Brubaker

Credit: Image Comics

Ed Brubaker has had a pretty good few weeks recently: Criminal #6 hit shelves, his OGN My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies (with Sean Phillips) won an Eisner Award, and he signed a deal with Legendary to adapt some of his creator-owned comic books for TV.

Not bad for a writer whose last collection was titled Bad Weekend.

Newsarama spoke with Brubaker in the days leading up to Comic-Con International: San Diego about Criminal, the Eisner Awards, and how he balances TV and film work with comics.

Brubaker has two upcoming appearances – August 1 at Los Angeles’ Skylight Books with Paul Scheer and Nicolas Winding Refn, and then August 2 for the launch of the Too Old to Die Young soundtrack at Amoeba Records with Refn and Cliff Martinez.

Credit: Sean Phillips/Jacob Phillips (Image Comics)

Newsarama: Ed, how are you doing? What are you working on today? Be as specific as you want to be – people love details.

Ed Brubaker: Today I’m writing issue 8 of Criminal, which is part 4 of “Cruel Summer.” When I finish this, I think the story will be at the halfway point. Yesterday I spent more time with my notebook, fleshing out character details for Jane, the focal character this issue, and making sure the structure would flow right, and today I’m back into the script.

Nrama: You’re now balancing a career writing comics, writing TV, and doing some movie work. How does this affect you as a comics writer, being so busy elsewhere?

Credit: Sean Phillips/Jacob Phillips (Image Comics)

Brubaker: The last year it’s been almost exclusively comics for me, just writing for Sean every week and getting started on a new secret project with another artist. Before that, for about three years I was working full time on either Westworld or Too Old to Die Young with Nicolas Winding Refn, and that was sometimes rough, for getting my own writing done, I’ll freely admit. I don’t know how Brian K. Vaughan managed to do so much while on Lost or running his own show. I used to get up at 5 and write for a few hours before going into Westworld, that was the only way to keep on schedule.

Credit: Sean Phillips/Jacob Phillips (Image Comics)

With Too Old to Die Young, we met at odd hours once production started, so I had a more open schedule.

Now I’m just doing development, taking meetings, and getting started on adapting some stuff, so I can balance the workload pretty well.

But I’m still writing the same comics I’d be writing either way. I don’t think of the comics career and the screenwriting career as being either/or. I only want to write a few things at a time really, and when I was doing four or five comics a month from the big publishers, I was more overworked than doing some TV work and keeping my books with Sean going, too. If that makes sense.

Credit: Sean Phillips/Jacob Phillips (Image Comics)

The comics with Sean – Criminal or Fatale or Kill or Be Killed, etc – those are essential for my mental health as a writer. That’s where I get the most creative satisfaction, at least so far, and where I can do whatever I want and I know that Sean will make it all work somehow. TV writing is fun and it pays well, but it can also be grueling and feel like a lot of wasted effort, compared to comics, where what you write gets published as you wrote it (or at least how we do it, it does).

Nrama: From a format standpoint, does working on screenplays affect how you see and respect the comics form?

Credit: Sean Phillips/Jacob Phillips (Image Comics)

Brubaker: They’re completely different forms of writing, so not really. Comics are about isolating moments and images, and laying narrative and dialog into scenes with a rhythm that will pull the reader across the page. But you’re writing to your artist, if you aren’t drawing it yourself – it’s a conversation. Screenwriting is describing a story to an audience, as if you’re watching it and telling them about it. And the dialog is a totally different beast in a screenplay than in comics. I love both forms, but comics is probably technically harder, since you have to track every single image.

Credit: Sean Phillips/Jacob Phillips (Image Comics)

The process of working in Hollywood, the endless revisions and notes and changes during filming, that certainly makes me love the simplicity of comics more. Just me and Sean and Jake creating stories, with no budget on what we can do. That’s very nice.

Nrama: We’re talking today about Criminal, and the final days of Teeg Laewless. You’ve been living with Teeg in your head for years – how long has the overarching bits of this current story been percolating in your head?

Brubaker: Since issue 1 of “Coward,” like 13 years ago.

Credit: Sean Phillips/Jacob Phillips (Image Comics)

Nrama: Is this something where something thought up as backstory for yourself only has now turned into stories to publish?

Brubaker: No. The Lawless family was always a big part of the Criminal “universe” or whatever you want to call it. I didn’t realize it when I started, but they’re based on my own family, but like a f***ed-up funhouse mirror reflection of it. My dad wasn’t an abusive thief or murderer, but he was a Vietnam vet who had a lot of dark nights of the soul around us, and my mom was an addict, and my brother and I are similar in some ways to Tracy and Ricky – but again, my brother isn’t a thief or getaway driver.

Credit: Sean Phillips/Jacob Phillips (Image Comics)

Nrama: Do you have any touchstones, literal or proverbial, to get in the mindset of what Teeg would be thinking?

Brubaker: Not sure what you mean by a touchstone. I create characters that I can empathize with, even if they’re awful people at times, because if I can’t empathize with them, then no one will, you know?

Credit: Sean Phillips/Jacob Phillips (Image Comics)

Teeg is one of my favorite characters that I’ve ever written. He’s a complex and screwed up man, a bad father who loves his kids anyway. His pain and confusion about life, his alienation, are things that are inside most of us, I think. He alternates between wanting to be free of his responsilbities and feeling trapped by them, but knowing he built the trap himself. That human side makes it all work for me, as a writer. Makes him feel real.

But as writers, no matter what you’re writing, you’re sort of always writing about yourself a bit. Or your old friends, things that were formative experiences that you spend your life processing.

Credit: Sean Phillips/Jacob Phillips (Image Comics)

Nrama: We’re talking just before Comic-Con International: San Diego, a show you’ve been attending for decades, first with your father and now on your own. My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies is up for an Eisner, but this isn’t your first go-around there. What’s the experience like for you now, especially where you’re doing comics and tv shows and movies, now all of which comic-con encompasses?

Brubaker: This year was much like the past 10 years or so, for me. I did a bunch of signings at the Image booth and met a ton of readers and retailers. It’s a good experience, for as crowded as that place is. Nothing about working outside comics really changed anything, at least so far. I didn’t have any rabid Westworld fans trying to pry secrets out of me or anything like that. All the fans I met were just comics people, mostly Criminal or Kill or be Killed readers. I still sign a lot of Captain America issues, too, but less than I used to, for sure.

I’m always just humbled that a lot of people still show up for my signing times and bring big hardback books and stuff. And it’s always nice to get an Eisner Award. You never get jaded to that. And ours was the last award of the night, so I had a loooot of time to worry we might not win.

Credit: Sean Phillips/Jacob Phillips (Image Comics)

[Editor’s Note: Brubaker and Phillips’ My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies won “Best Graphic Album-New” in this year’s Eisner Awards.]

Nrama: Speaking of the past, ever have the urge to get back into drawing comics?

Brubaker: Sometimes. But my drawing abilities were never that great, and it limited what I tried to write. Working with Sean or other artists, it frees me up to follow my creative instincts without the limitation of what I can personally draw well.

And it’s been so long since I’ve done more than doodle, that I can’t imagine being good enough to publish ever again.

Nrama: You’re in your sixth year of an exclusive with Image for you and Sean. What keeps you coming back, especially in this changing landscape of publishing with new companies, book publishers coming in, and the demise of stalwarts like Vertigo?

Brubaker: Robert Kirkman and Eric Stephenson changed my life by giving us this “whatever we want to do” deal, and for all the doom and gloom online about the industry at times, our books are selling better and faster than they ever have. Junkies was our first hardback original and we sold out the whole printrun in a few months, and Bad Weekend has been flying off the shelves. Amazon even had to back order it before it went on sale.

On top of the faith and loyalty those guys have shown me, Image also has the best deal in all of publishing, especially in this era of big corps buying up comics companies and properties left and right.

Nrama: Last question – what still gets you excited about comics, Ed?

Brubaker: Everything. Comics is one of the best artforms ever created, telling stories with words and pictures, getting them out on a monthly schedule to readers all over the world… that’s amazing. And we’re definitely in a golden age of great work appearing. The new generation of cartoonists that put out graphic novels are kicking serious ass. Artists like Emily Carroll and Jillian Tamaki, and a whole host of their generation are amazing storytellers, just changing the rules right there on the pages. And writers like Matt Fraction and Kieron Gillen and Warren Ellis are still trying to push the boundaries in the single issue, too. The good comics on the shelves right now are better than they’ve ever been. I find that tremendously inspiring.

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