Ed Brubaker (Image Comics)

"We in America have actual fascists marching in the streets": Ed Brubaker on releasing art right now

The writer on his graphic novel "Pulp" being born of a brush with death and how it fits with our current anxiety



Chauncey DeVega
September 5, 2020 7:30PM (UTC)

The mood of the world is dark.

People around the world are struggling to survive the coronavirus pandemic, a ruined economy, and the rising tide of fascism, autocracy, the surveillance society and other forms of domination which limit human life and potential. These crises coexist with – or perhaps are coterminal with – the existential threats of global climate disaster, food shortages, and extreme wealth and income inequality.

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Such a state of peril has caused a global mental health emergency as indicated by increasing rates of depression, anxiety, suicide, substance abuse and other emotional problems. In the United States, this global mental health emergency has manifested in many ways.

New research published at the JAMA Network Open shows that rates of depression in 2020 have doubled since 2017. Researchers have also documented how the negative mental health impact of the pandemic and the country's economic collapse is even more acute among poor and working-class people as well as non-whites.

The Trump regime's assault on democracy and the rule of law, corruption, abandonment of the Common Good and general welfare, encouraging of political violence, cruelty, as well embrace of white supremacy as a guiding policy, has also harmed the collective mental health of the American people.

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To resist in such dark times, there must be some sense of hope that the future will be better than the present. In such moments of struggle, art in its many forms fulfills a key role in both documenting events and providing the public with the emotional fuel necessary for resistance and eventual triumph. This can be intentional and direct in the form of political art that aims to provoke and inspire resistance while telling dangerous truths about the powerful.

The emotional fuel can also be in the form of the fantastical and escapist, moving away from the pain and hardship of the present by imagining other worlds and possibilities. And sometimes the emotional fuel is just laughter and distraction from the quotidian struggles of life in hard times and perhaps even existential peril.

Ed Brubaker is one of the most influential creative voices in the comic book industry. He reimagined and gave new life to such characters as Marvel's Daredevil and Captain America's "Bucky" (aka The Winter Soldier), and has written such iconic characters as Batman as well as the X-Men.

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Brubaker has also enjoyed great success writing noir fiction with award-winning books such as "Criminal," "Incognito," "Fatale," "The Fade Out" and "Kill or Be Killed" and "My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies." On TV, he's written for HBO's "Westworld" and Amazon's "Too Old to Die Young."

In this conversation, he ponders the importance of escapism in the Age of Trump and the coronavirus pandemic. Brubaker reflects on how a recent brush with death forced him to reevaluate his life priorities, the types of stories he wants to tell, and career going forward.

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And Brubaker shares how his new graphic novel series "Pulp" (with artist Sean Phillips) is an almost unbelievable – and so very timely – story inspired by a real coincidence of events that include a retired Wild West cowboy, Nazis in 1930s New York, the Great Depression, and the Spanish flu.

In this moment of the pandemic and political tumult and horrible and almost unbelievable events all happening at once, time feels broken. We are stuck in this surreality. How are you feeling?

It seems to change from week to week, depending on how much I allow myself to look at the news. I have been compelled towards escapism in trying to find things to enjoy.

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I am hoping that once this terrible moment passes that there will be all of this great and amazing creativity unleashed upon the world. Of course, there will be bad art. There will good art too. Because so many creative types will be drawing on the same shared experiences with the pandemic, and fascism, a dead economy, and other things it could all be too grounded in social realism. What about some escapism?

Most of the people I know that are writers are leaning much more towards escapism and less into trying to write anything that reflects what is happening in our immediate world. Me and Sean Phillips' new graphic novel "Pulp" was supposed to come out in May. Diamond Comics, which is the main distributor for comics, shut down. The entire industry for comic books has been shut down for months because of the pandemic

"Pulp" was put on hold. When I wrote it there were things in the book that reflect what is happening today with the pandemic and politics more generally. When you write about the past you are writing about the present as well.

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"Pulp" feels so immediate. The main character lost everything in the 1918 flu. When he was living in New York in the 1930s there were Nazi and fascist brownshirts marching in the streets. "Pulp" is a lot more relevant than I imagined it would be.

I had a new project in mind and was going to start writing it after I finished "Pulp." But I took a step back and looked at what I was about to write, and it was just too depressing. I didn't want to write it. Life felt too bleak, and I just wanted to write something that was just more raw and fun for me. The project I had originally thought of was going to speak to these issues with fascism. But I then decided to write something about recovering from such a world. It was going to be a project about espionage. But ultimately, I decided that I can't write this. I don't feel like this is the kind of thing people are going to want to read right now while living through a quarantine.

I was reading a bunch of fun crime novels and other escapism. I reasoned then that, "When I decide to stop looking at the real world, I don't necessarily need the real world reflected back in all the art I'm seeing right this second too. It is just a bit much."

Pleasure is political. Joy is a form of resistance. Black slaves danced and sung. The Roma danced and sung. Jews and others fighting the Nazis found strength in joy and pleasure too. Poor folks in Appalachia in those company mining towns danced and sung. Black folks danced and sung under Jim and Jane Crow terror. Folks suffering under power are still dancing and singing today.

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Storytellers and comedians have always helped people survive tough times. We're in a bad time in the world right now. The world has been in a lot of other bad times. At times we're too dismissive of the gift of escapism. But it is not a small thing to be able to create something that gives people joy – even if it only for 30 minutes. Sometimes I am too dismissive of popular things. But thinking about it again given the state of the world, if some TV show makes people happy even if I don't like it and find it trite or uninteresting and unoriginal or superficial then maybe I shouldn't be too hard on it.

As I was reading "Pulp" I said to myself Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have caught lightning in a bottle. This is so smart and timely. Was that intentional on your part or a happy accident of sorts?

I have different feelings about "Pulp."

I was not thinking in terms of trying to capture any kind of mood or state of the world at present. But then again, we are all processing the world around us.

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I almost died last year from drowning. I was rescued from the sea, and for a long time that experience really stuck with me and impacted my mind in a bad way.

I started writing this book about an old outlaw looking back at his life. I did not plan to do that. I just started writing. And then I got to the place in the story where he was having a heart attack and being afraid of leaving his wife with nothing. Then it started to become really hard for me to write the book after that point, because I thought, "Oh, this will just be this fun, rollicking, pulp adventure." And instead I felt like I was pouring all this fear and trauma and everything that I'd been storing up in me for eight months since I almost died into this story.

"Pulp" is about a fictional character inspired by real outlaws and the people who claimed to be Butch Cassidy or Jesse James. I always was fascinated by those stories.

But when I was writing the book, all I could think about was, "This is that story about that moment when I was in the water, when I was afraid I was going to die and leave my wife with just horrifying mess and not enough money to survive." I'm a freelance writer. We live in perpetual fear of not providing for ourselves in our later life.

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I kept thinking about that. I also kept thinking about her living in a world where there are these right-wing militias, guns everywhere, right-wing mass shootings and all those other horrible events. I wouldn't be there with her. I have been watching the world devolve over the last 20 years, and the idea of leaving my wife alone in that world was really part of what I was writing about in "Pulp."

Ultimately, of course what you're writing about and what the book is turn into two different things. While "Pulp" is a period piece about an old Wild West outlaw in 1939 in New York, it also feels like it is really capturing this moment in time that we are living through. I wasn't setting out to do that originally. But we are all writing about the world around us.

In the end, the pandemic forced "Pulp" to actually be released at a time when we in America have actual fascists marching in the streets.

How did that confrontation with your own mortality change you?

About 15 minutes into it, I realized I was not going to be able to get out of trouble on my own. I was going to have to be rescued. I needed to find some way to not drown. The waves just kept getting bigger. It was pretty terrifying. One of the things that ran through my head was a book that I had started outlining 15 years ago that I still hadn't gotten back to finishing. I was thinking of Sean and that book we promised to finish together before our careers were over. I thought to myself, "The hubris of you, as you're drowning you are thinking of that book as if anyone will care besides me."

My wife was on the shore with our dog. She was terrified. I just wanted to get back to her. The experience really changed my life. After almost drowning I changed a lot of things. I cut some toxic people out of my life. I ended working relationships that were too stressful for me. I changed my representation in Hollywood and decided I would refocus my life.

I had moved to L.A. to try to get movies and TV shows made out of some of my and Sean's books. I wanted the experience of working on some other TV shows because I believe that we are in the golden age of TV. I wanted to be part of that. I thought I can write the kinds of things that I like to write and share them with a wider audience. But instead I spent years trying to get my stuff made and then going to work on "Westworld." I have also spent the last three or so years working with Nicolas Refn on our show "Too Old to Die Young" for Amazon. But in so many ways I had been sidetracked into working on other people's projects.

Sure, I learned so many things that I need to know in order to be able to successfully do my own shows, but I really felt like, "All right, I almost died and I really can't put any more of my time and energy into getting sidetracked with other people's projects. I have to be focusing on my own work, whether it's something original or whether it's adapting one of these books or helping to get it produced.

I refocused and ended up signing an overall deal with Legendary. They optioned a bunch of my books to try to turn into TV shows and movies.

After that experience I also changed how I spend my time. I have not been on social media for four or five years. I still look at the internet and closely follow the news. I have also decided to spend more quality time with my wife. The accident made me value whatever time I have left on this Earth.

We get to these points in life sometimes where we have made decisions about work and life and then we get put in different direction and sucked down a path that we did not intend.

Most people, they did a thing they wanted to do, opportunities arose after that, and they had to choose between them. That's how you end up making your path through life. I was able to have that moment of looking at my life and choices and go, "Okay, where have I gone off the path and how do I get back to it?" In a way that near-death experience helped me.

Truth is stranger than fiction. Given the rich history of comic books as a medium – so many people love comic book movies and do not read the source material, never mind know anything about the history of comic books – can you share a bit about the character Hal Crane and your graphic novel "Bad Weekend"? There you are giving renewed life to the history of what was once a subculture now gone mainstream for better or for worse.

And by the way we should never forget that Stan Lee got ripped off, too; he just didn't get ripped off as bad as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko did. Stan Lee was a millionaire, he should have been a billionaire. They all should have been billionaires. They created Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four and all these characters. They all should have been much wealthier than they were, Stan was not just the guy running the company and being the figurehead of Marvel. Stan Lee was also a guy who worked in his career for 22 years before he was considered successful. 

Hal Crane was a combination of four or five different old-time comic book artists that I grew up loving the work of. And then as I got into comics more and hung around the conventions more, I would hear crazy or sad stories about that generation of creators. Having worked at Marvel and DC and getting to know some of the old editors who were around from back in the '60s and '70, I would always pump them for stories about these old characters who used to work there. I became obsessed with those stories and history.

The character Hal Crane in "Bad Weekend" is my effort to reflect on the complexity of what it took to make a living as a freelancer in comics and animation in the earlier days of the medium here in America.

Many of these now legendary and too many forgotten early creators wanted to do newspaper strips, and then the war came. And then they got into comic books, and then in the 1950s superheroes were dead and they did crime and sci-fi and horror. And then superheroes came back, and a lot of them didn't want to do superheroes again, so they lost their job. Or they went off to Hollywood to do animation and because they wanted to have health insurance because they were getting older.

I see that choice and parallel in my generation. Many of the comic writers I know, myself included, have moved out to Hollywood to become TV or film writers. Yes, we want the bigger audience. But when you get into your 40s and 50s and you're a freelancer, you really want stable healthcare.

In "Bad Weekend" what I was trying to get to was this strange ability of fans to be both very demanding and very forgiving of the artists that they love – and to forgive people because they love their art so much that they are willing to betray their idol.

There are so many people at comic conventions who love some writer, artist, or even character, and they would, in a heartbeat, take the job of the person that is their idol. "Well, that's my dream to do your book." That is why I wrote the book from the point of view of Hale Crane's biggest fan, the only person who really knows his real secret.

What is going on with your graphic novel series "Gotham Central"? It is tailor-made for television and for years I have been hoping that it would be adapted. The premise is so simple but compelling: what is life like for a cop on the day-to-day in a world where there are supervillains and superheroes and you have no powers at all beyond your mind, skill, and perseverance.

They've talked about it multiple times. Now there is talk about a "Gotham City" TV show. The rumor is that it may be called "Gotham Central." But I have also heard from various people that the TV show will not be based on my book "Gotham Central" and is just a spin-off from the upcoming Matt Reeves Batman movie.

At this point I try not to put too much energy into the Hollywood stuff. I have no control over it. I don't want to get frustrated or angry about having been part of something that is so successful. DC and Marvel do not tell freelancers what they are going to do with their comics and graphic novels later on.

No one ever told me, "Hey, we're going to do a TV show about the Winter Soldier." I find out at the same time everyone else does. For example, I found out that they were making the "Captain America: Winter Soldier" movie when I was walking away from a convention and going back to my hotel. My phone kept getting calls and messages of congratulations. I didn't know why I was getting all these texts congratulating me. I looked online. "Oh, it's the Captain America movie. That's kind of cool. I wish someone would've told me. I could've been at that panel."


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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