Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Reckless: An ’80s Hard-Boiled Noir Comic Par Excellence

Fueled by Brubaker’s own childhood and ’80s nostalgia, Reckless is a thrilling story set in the decade’s lurid underbelly.
Reckless - Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (Image Comics)

When I picked Destroy All Monsters off the library shelf earlier this month, I didn’t realize that it was actually the third volume in Ed Brubaker (Captain America, Daredevil) and Sean Phillips’ (Hellblazer, Marvel Zombies) Reckless series. I was just attracted to the striking artwork, which promised a hard-boiled story filled with cynical men caught up in a world of violence and betrayal. And suffice to say, it fully delivered on said promise, and then some.

I subsequently blew through the entire series — five volumes in all — in less than a week, and had that weird experience of reading something that felt like it had been written specifically for me. (I’ve posted reviews of Reckless’ individual volumes in my Cultural Diet.)

Note: The following contains potential spoilers for Reckless.

Some of that is the obvious ’80s nostalgia that flows through the series, which follows the adventures and mishaps of Ethan Reckless, a former hippie revolutionary (and ex-undercover FBI agent) who has slowly rebuilt his life after a violent accident in the ’70s left him with holes in his memory and psyche. Now thoroughly disillusioned with society and living off the grid in an old movie theater, Ethan uses skills from his past to do odd jobs for people who need a private investigator, albeit one willing to use unorthodox — and extremely violent — methods to solve cases involving drug dealers, cult leaders, skinheads, and corrupt real estate tycoons.

Reckless’ nostalgia, however, isn’t of the sweet, innocent variety that undergirds Stranger Things. Rather, it’s a nostalgia culled from Brubaker’s own experiences as a former Navy brat who became fascinated with horror movies and scream queens, Hollywood’s glory days, murder house lore, underground zines, and the Satanic Panic. As a result, Reckless often feels like a deconstruction of the ’80s. As our cynical protagonist works/punches/shoots his way through sunny California’s seamy underbelly, Brubaker explores how the idealism of the ’60s and ’70s eventually gave way to the narcissism and materialism of the ’80s. Or perhaps more accurately, how the ’80s revealed that the preceding decades’ idealism was probably just an illusion all along.

But for all its cynicism, Reckless is an affecting, even haunting read at times. Ethan may be a man prone to violence, but Brubaker ultimately renders him sympathetic — or maybe just tragic — as his cases’ twists and turns inevitably lead to ruminations on his troubled upbringing and failed FBI career, the consequences of past violence, and his various and sundry regrets. (This aspect is helped by the series’ flashback framing device, which finds Ethan recounting these stories as past exploits.) That, and he has a propensity for getting in way over his head. Then there’s Ethan’s friendship with a young woman named Anna, his confidant and (non-romantic) partner. Their strictly platonic friendship is arguably the series’ best aspect, and leads to some genuinely sweet moments that are all the more meaningful given the prevailing darkness and cynicism.

With additional layers including the Vietnam War’s legacy, immigrant experiences, child sexual assault and sex trafficking, and the dark side of Hollywood glitz and glamour, Reckless becomes a surprisingly thoughtful read in-between the moments of inevitable and regrettable violence. (Which are, of course, rendered in painful detail by Phillips’ expressive artwork.)

The fifth volume, Follow Me Down, wrapped up the current “season” of Reckless back in October, but Brubaker has promised more adventures for Ethan and Anna to come, including forays into the ’90s. I’m confident that Brubaker will explore and deconstruct that decade with a cynical and jaundiced eye, as well. And I can’t wait to read it.

On a related note, I’m not a fan of Netflix, Amazon Prime, et al. adapting every cult favorite comic title. (Paper Girls, anyone?) That said, if a streaming service were to ever adapt Reckless — and according to Brubaker, there has been some movie interest — it would shoot to the top of my “To Watch” list, especially if the adaptation could capture Brubaker’s affecting blend of nostalgia, cynicism, melancholy, and hard-boiled violence.

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