In Reckless, it's been 10 years since Ethan walked out of Rainy's life when she mysteriously walks back into his. Both part of a home-grown '70s era hippie-terrorist cell (that's a lot to take in right there), an explosion ended the cell and nearly killed Ethan and his secrets. Now he watches old movies in a rundown theater he owns, waiting for the next person who needs the type of help that the police or even the FBI can't provide. So when Rainy reaches out through channels, Ethan can't help but get pulled into a lost love's troubles. Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' newest book treads past memories, looking for closure for the characters and for a new beginning for this long-standing creative team.
Written by Ed Brubaker
Art by Sean Phillips and Jacob Phillips
Lettering by Sean Phillips
Published by Image Comics
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10
Probably best known for their Criminal series, Brubaker and Phillips' partnership has become one of the great staples of comic books, particularly crime comic books. The invisible alchemy of Brubaker's words and Phillips' art has practically become its own genre, the realistic but personally driven story of bad men (well, mostly men) trying to do good things but failing to one degree or another. Or is it good men driven to do bad things? Looking at their work, either combination of good and bad, men and their deeds work.
Reckless continues this exploration of the nature of man with Ethan Reckless, a one-time undercover FBI agent, who goes through life feeling nothing; no emotions. He knows he once lived a life of emotions and even passion but the explosion that ended his relationship with Rainy damaged him. If he finds any joy, it's in his old movie house, watching old Robert Mitchum flicks. When he sees Rainy again, he knows he should feel something for his old love but he acts more out of obligation to who they once were more than any connection to who they are now.
One of the big things that set this apart from Criminal is that a large part of the action and drama occurs in the bright California sun where so much of their past work is either taking place at night or is shielding itself from the daylight as if its characters fear being exposed by the sun. Reckless embraces the bright, revealing sunlight. Phillips and his colorist Jacob Phillips create a canvas of wide horizons, without all of the heavy shadows to hide the characters and their motivations. Sean's pages feel more open and expansive and not as claustrophobic or oppressive as in his past work. It's easily recognizable as Sean Phillips' art but in all of his projects, he's able to find ways to subtly shift his art to give each story its unique tone.
Jacob Phillips has a fascinating way of using color also to capture the mood and the lighting without trying to recreate natural lighting. There's what is realistic (and is how many mainstream colorists work) and what works on an emotional level. Jacob makes choices that enhance the storytelling, looking to emphasize the emotions that Brubaker and Sean Phillips are trying to create in each scene. When we are children, we're taught to color between the lines but Jacob's work doesn't happen between the lines. Colors bleed and mingle with other colors; they play against one another. The color adds to the essence of Sean's drawings instead of just trying to remain faithful to the lines set down. Sean leaves details for Jacob to fill in as Jacob finds ways to use colors that tell us about a scene as much as the line artwork does.
But sometimes Brubaker and Phillips are a bit too proficient at what they do. Over their nearly 20-year partnership, they've developed a precise and practiced voice for their work. In Reckless, that voice is just a little too orderly and clean. Brubaker has a lot of work to do to make us believe that Ethan and Rainy have a history that means something; both of them are looking for closure for a relationship that went bad. And that would be a good story if we buy into the premise that the characters really need or even want that closure. Brubaker and Phillips have to build up that relationship and sell it to the audience so that we believe that these are two people who care for each other or are ruthless enough to take the chance and open up the old wounds again. Unfortunately, there's just not that kind of connection here between the characters as they feel like they are moving through the plot instead of living these lives and having these true connections.
We're told that once upon a time they were madly in love and that it was Ethan's deceptions that forced them apart. That's the problem in this book; we're told so much about these characters but we don't see it; we don't get to watch these characters grow or change. There's never even a spark of a true connection between these characters. These kinds of stories are built on a very basic romantic premise and it's just not a believable foundation in Reckless.
The more convincing relationship in this book is between Ethan and his assistant Anna. It's not a romantic relationship; it's closer to an older brother/younger sister back and forth that the two of them have but Brubaker doesn't need to tell us what his relationship is. He uses the story and their banter to peel back this relationship and let it exist even as he has to explain Ethan and Rainy's relationship and have it basically just exist through exposition. There's a give and take in the way that Brubaker portrays Ethan and Anna that's far more interesting than the relationship between Ethan and Rainy that is trying to drive the motivation of this book.
Reckless has the technical proficiency that we expect from a Brubaker/Phillips joint production but lacks the rough edges of their best work that truly gives their work its true character. It lacks the jagged edges that a reader can lose themselves in. As Brubaker and Phillips try to mimic a certain style of crime book (think of Donald Westlake's Parker books), they know the notes and beats that they need to hit but just aren't able to infuse the passion and heat that drive the machinery of those stories.