From Criminal to Sleeper, Ed Brubaker has written some of my favorite
comics. And much as I enjoyed his stint on Daredevil, those original series
have always been my preference. A Complete Lowlife fit the bill, so I was
hoping for more of the same.
Which is to say: I set myself up for disappointment. Although Brubaker’s been
exceptionally consistent over the course of his career, there are a few details
that set Complete Lowlife apart.
First, Brubaker drew it himself. The art is serviceable, but that’s as much as
I can say for it. It gets the job done–the stories are mundane and don’t
necessarily need visual flair. That said, a big part of what draws me to
Brubaker’s later work has been the contribution of his artistic foils. I like
Michael Lark. I really like Sean Phillips. I love Darwyn Cooke.
These are his very first commercially-published works, and he’s definitely
still finding his voice. The stories are (loosely) autobiographical, maybe in
recognition of the age-old advice to “write what you know.” So there’s nothing
supernatural here. That’s not a criticism in and of itself. I can appreciate
“slice of life” books (for instance, I really enjoyed Local by Brian Wood).
But there’s not much to redeem the characters in these stories. They’re mostly
about the bad decisions of confused and self-centered kids. A reviewer quoted
on the book’s jacket refers to “slackerhood,” and I can almost appreciate that.
There’s something to be said for shared experience and (especially) nostalgia.
For instance, I’ve never felt this critical of “1979” by the Smashing
Pumpkins; maybe the only
difference is that I experienced the Pumpkins tune when it was released. Maybe
I’d be defending A Complete Lowlife if I’d read it back in 1995. I’m open to
the idea that I’m being overly critical, but that doesn’t mean I’d encourage
folks to read it.
…except for the final page. Brubaker reflects on this era in his life through
a short speculative story, one where a future version of himself returns to the
city as a condition of his parole. This vignette shows the author at his most
sincere, and by working through his feelings of regret, he gives meaning to the
stories that came before. It’s almost enough to make the trip through
nihilistic adolescence worthwhile. Almost.