Ethan Reckless, freelance enforcer, operates out of an abandoned cinema. Despite his current shortage of funds, he is not eager to rent it out. The El Ricardo is a temple,” Ethan explains to his handler Anna, “I can’t have it being ruined by other people.” It’s somewhat ironic coming from someone making their living by interfering in other people’s business. Although not exactly a private investigator, Ethan has a phone number (Reckless being set in the early 1980s) where clients call up and pitch what they cannot go to the police for. Perhaps Ethan wants compensation, and not just financially. For in the ‘70s Ethan used to be an undercover FBI Agent, living with radical left-wing revolutionaries. But not only did he fall in love with the leader’s sister Rainy, but he got injured during a bomb explosion. Ethan cannot remember the details, and his emotions have been dulled, creating a disconnect from his old double-life. So perhaps his newfound career is him vicariously reexperiencing passion, a one-way method of engaging with other people. Although the formula becomes troubled when Rainy is the one who calls him up.
An old flame returning to recruit a “professional outlaw” is straight from an old-fashioned pulp paperback, which is exactly the tone Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips and Jacob Phillips are going for with Reckless. The creative team have become a reliable source of “crime comics”, releasing tales about retired gunslingers (Pulp), romantic drug addicts (My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies) and lifelong low-lives (Criminal). Reckless is another proud addition, inspired by the paperback “heroes” like MacDonald’s Travis McGee and Westlake/Stark’s Parker. Although it’s noted that after the ruthless Parker completes a job, he undergoes an overwhelming desire for sex, his restrained emotions and animalism given their only release. When Ethan finishes his contracts, he notes “it’s like a pressure valve gets reset inside my head”, and he can finally get a good night’s sleep. Reckless is familiar footing for the creative trio, but like their best work, it adds interesting wrinkles atop satisfying genre work.
Reckless never feels like a rehash of other hardboiled stories, but as its own valid entry. Before tailing a car, Ethan discreetly pokes a hole into one of its tail-lights with a screwdriver, just one manual detail Brubaker adds to give Reckless added texture. Brubaker’s dialogue is stoic and authentic, often with the edge of real danger to them. Ethan once narrates he prefers to be passive, but the reason his threats work is that he isn’t bluffing. Others see that he will follow through on them. Yet these tense moments of confrontation are paralleled with Ethan’s introspective musings, often during stretches of him cruising down the highway. Here, Ethan ruminates on his history with the FBI, his disillusionment with an organisation he only joined to dodge the draft, and how analysis reports determined that humanity was already doomed since they dropped the nukes in the ‘40s. The rest of the world is just catching up.
Such introspections are illustrated by Sean Phillips’ gorgeous artwork, which breathe life and tactile detail into Ethan’s lifestyle (Ethan himself emulates peak Robert Redford). He and his son Jacob, on colours, capture a specific early ‘80s Miami Vice style (even if Reckless is mostly set in California), with hazy sunsets, short-sleeved shirts and constant cigarette smoke. The colouring is particularly noteworthy, as when Ethan reminisces about taking acid with Rainey, Sean Phillip’s detailed linework fades away to leave distorted outlines filled with Jacob’s bright but grainy reds and yellows. Another spectacularly moody sequence is after Ethan leaves the hospital at night, and gets picked up by his old FBI handler, the panels featuring patches of blue alongside streaks of pink. Reckless maintains the same consistent realism as previous Brubaker/Phillips collaborations, especially during its appropriately grisly scenes of violence. But it also incorporates an expressionistic palette that only pulls you further into the paperback world Reckless has created.
Reckless is another strong addition from Brubaker and the Phillips. Honestly, I enjoyed it even more than Pulp, which itself was a satisfying book but lacked a certain depth. It helps that Reckless is also longer. It isn’t without flaws, as this creative teams always seem so adept at solid groundwork that they often forgo a more profound statement or ending (Cruel Summer perhaps coming the closest). Similarly, Reckless’ ending is purposefully anti-climactic, but it remains abrupt. Even if the tragic final lines (tragic from how understated they are) almost compensate for it. Reckless may not be a life-changing reinvention, but it’s still an exciting and engrossing serialised adventure of a man rebuilding his connections with other people, one phone call at a time.
Ed Brubaker (W), Sean Phillips (A), Jacob Phillips (C) • Image Comics, $24.99
Review by Bruno Savill de Jong