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MY HEROES HAVE ALWAYS BEEN JUNKIES (review) (or, “Send no bail I’ll escape on my own”)

Writer: Ed Brubaker

Art: Sean Phillips

Image Comics, October 2018

REVIEW: Brubaker and Phillips' My HEROES HAVE ALWAYS BEEN JUNKIES is a  Psychedelic Bonnie & Clyde — Comics Bookcase

I CAN TELL A STORY IN PERFECT FAITH the facts are straight, and still be wrong. Light glances off the real in imaginary ripples before reaching us. This is how the art gripped me in this unsettling crime novella, as if seen in an intervening bright sunlight or a glaring moon shaded in watercolor effects that ooze the feeling of a scuffed pastel-print linoleum floor from the 1950s, when everyone was supposed to be happy, though it’s hot and sticky and everyone is not happy, yet difficult to say what they are instead. This should have been my first clue to beware the presence of pretense.

There is a crime here, not my usual genre, but I believed writer Ed Brubaker was going to supply a satisfying dose of drama, and he does, though I was always squirming a little at the scenery by artist Sean Phillips coalescing in a separate dimension behind a shield of sunlight and shadow, popping almost musically in a punk rhythm the characters can feel in their own heartbeats, and the reader can only faintly imagine. The flickering screen brought back a long-ago memory of our in-house piano player Barry standing on the porch, each arm clasped behind him by a policeman as they clasped him in handcuffs and took him away for being a heroin user. A simmering indignation at the perils decent society imposes on others, and has imposed for many lifetimes, infuses this comic, fueled by an accumulation of scenes like this one in our lived experiences. No mystery that rejection and escape begin to look like sensible options, and all your heroes might be better off indeed musing and dreaming, doing and being behind a physical barrier of personal perspective uninhibited by the established order.

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies s/c by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips

Most impressive in this slim hardbound strip is how easy I slipped into it, though nearly every panel shows the main character Ellie talking and thinking, and that’s about it. A quick glance says dull, but the first pages cast hooks right away. Ellie stands on a beach and riffs to a stranger about a singer Vic Chesnutt who “had this song called Stevie Smith” with a line about a swimmer farther out than expected, signaling to friends on shore, not waving but drowning: an image of despair as others happily wave back, oblivious. Ellie marvels the situation is summed up in just four words—not waving but drowning—carrying a meaning as big as the ocean.

I know the line from a 2001 Bush song, Out of This World, where the arresting question appears: “Are you drowning or waving?” A touch of brilliance, I thought, without recognizing the derivation, the same way we learn all our language and familiar places, myopic habits shaped over years and eons, syllable by syllable to the point today we claim everything captured is mine. The Chesnutt version of the phrase appeared in 1990, but it’s not even a version, rather, the song is lifted word for word from a well-known poem by Stevie Smith, called Not Waving But Drowning, published in 1957. In an interview, Smith said she saw the story in a newspaper, and the metaphor struck her at once for disengaged people who “do not feel at all at home in the world.”

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies - Comics by comiXology

On this beach Ellie smiles and greets you. And in one brief unwise moment, you wave.