Advanced Review: 'Where the Body Was' Makes a Meal from a Map
We review the new Sean Phillips and Ed Brubaker graphic novel and find an all-timer collaboration.
After years of searching, two weeks ago, on the last day of the San Diego Comic-Con International, I finally found Ed Brubaker's Lowlife while rummaging through a longbox. Not a trade, the singles, all of them bundled together and sold for a price not so ridiculous. I devoured them on the flight back home, and I'm thankful I did before the review copy of Where the Body Was arrived in my email.
There's an itch the author has been scratching since he started. Anyone familiar with his work, especially the comics made in collaboration with the maestro Sean Phillips, understands the thought(s) he's repeatedly picking. Why do people fall down the paths they do? Why do some commit actions outside the system? Why is failure more compelling than success?
Lowlife is a semi-autobiographical series about a slacker and his friends as they make bad choices and suffer for them. The added treat to the story is that it's drawn in Brubaker's hand. While it cannot compare to the work of his future artistic partners, it adds a layer of grit and ugliness that suggests a more honest experience. There is pain in those lines.
Where the Body Was, the new original graphic novel from Brubaker and Phillips, won't hit comic shops until 12/6 and bookstores until 12/12. As such, I will only go a little beyond what's already been teased by Image Comics. Like Lowlife, the story pulls elements from Ed Brubaker's youth and reworks them into an addictive mystery. There's a body; it's in the title and on the cover. It's found in a small neighborhood of a small town. A bunch of weirdos live there, like they do everywhere.
The body does not reveal itself immediately. Brubaker and Phillips take their time establishing the neighbors and the history of the street's construction. As you work through the narrative, the desire to get to the body grows less and less. Each character is living a stressful saga, and the comic's joy Is seeing how all these struggling folk bounce and collide with each other. It's a touch Robert Altman, a touch Paul Thomas Anderson.
The first two pages make a map of the neighborhood and establish the timeline, Summer 1984. Brubaker has said that Where the Body Was is heavily inspired by those mapback paperbacks from the forties. I've never seen one in person, but now I'm obsessed with the concept and eager to score a few for myself. With Where the Body Was, I repeatedly returned to these pages, tracking where the characters were in relation to each other. It's an unexpected interactive element, heightening the tension and speed as you race through the comic.
Is Sean Phillips better than ever, or is he always - just - flawless? Flipping back and forth between Where the Body Was and the recently released Night Fever, Phillips is undoubtedly doing something different from that book. Reality is firmer here than there, the nightmare living out in Where the Body Was being small, pedestrian, and delightfully, awkwardly, relatable.
Without spoiling the concept, there is a device Brubaker deploys in telling this yesteryear tale that Phillips wickedly executes. We've experienced Brubaker navigate narrators of every fashion, but we've never witnessed him deploy captions or inner monologue quite like how he does so in Where the Body Was. It's brilliant when introduced and gets profound as the comic wraps up. Its final usage destroys.
Jacob Phillips continues to be the most significant addition to the Brubaker/Phillips team. His colors determine each scene's emotion, refusing to adhere to natural laws or the expected. Friend, you're reading a comic, and each creator of Where the Body Was does what only a comic can do. I would love to see a cinematographer try to replicate Jacob Phillips' work; it's impossible.
There is a line connecting Lowlife and Where the Body Was. Or perhaps it's a loop. Brubaker is pacing along it, cutting a more pronounced path with each pass. Will he ever get off it? Do we want him to? Probably not. His demons are our good times.
When Sean Phillips and Ed Brubaker took a break from Reckless to pursue Night Fever and Where the Body Was, the wind left my sails. Their Destroy All Monsters injected tremendous urgency into the Reckless story, and I'm still restless regarding its conclusion. However, Where the Body Was is as good as anything they've ever made together. After one read-thru, I'd rank it at the tip-top of their collaborations.
Quickie Review: Juggling multiple characters and plotlines, Where the Body Was masterfully propels the reader to a deliciously obvious, only in retrospect, climax. The surprise lands, the characters are left forever altered, and you feel a little closer to the creators. Can you ask for anything more from a book?