There are the cops and there are the robbers. We’ve been conditioned to believe that’s all there is, the dichotomy of the good guys and the bad guys. It’s good versus evil, law versus chaos, or at the least, it’s right versus wrong. We’re taught that’s how the world works; you’re one or the other. We’re presented with this two-dimensional binary view of everything but we grow up to realize just isn’t the way that the world works. It’s never as easy as one or the other; it’s more of a spectrum where we just try to point towards one side of it more often than not and hope that those in authority are doing the same. And even then, the nightly news often course corrects our own beliefs of who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.
Chip Zdarsky and Jacob Phillips’ Easton Newburn is a man who has come to recognize and reconcile his inner demons and inner saints. He is both a cop and a criminal. Once a member of the police force, he learned one day that he could still do his job but get paid better by the criminals. He was still working on the side of order only he policed the criminals and mobsters to keep the peace between them. He still investigated crimes and murders, only this time to see justice maintained between the various criminal organizations instead of the law. In many ways, he was still a cop as both the “good guys” and the “bad guys” gave him room to operate, to help solve the crimes and see that justice was done. Maybe there’s some kind of moral compromise happening here but Newburn was able to hold onto the self-image of a man who kept the peace.
All you have to do is count on one side or the other not to turn on you and forget the special privilege you have because of the job that you do.
Zdarsky and Phillips quickly develop a comfortable pace for Newburn Volume One. The easy, high-level description of the book is that it’s a procedural like any number of Law and Order spinoffs. Or more likely, it’s the slightly darker side of the Rockford Files (if you’re old enough to remember that goldie oldie.). Basically, Jim Rockford (the great late James Garner) was a private detective, an all-around good guy who operated a bit outside of the law but never crossed the line of the law. Easton Newburn wants to believe that he’s that man as he tackles cases like murder investigations, burned down buildings, potential gang wars, and even going undercover in a prison to get to the truth. Each chapter functions as another episode in the ongoing adventures of Easton Newburn.
But it’s not that simple; Newburn and his new assistant Emily skillfully navigate that line between cop and criminal, careful not to tilt too much one way or the other. Zdarsky writes the kind of nuanced hard-boiled dialogue you would expect from a modern procedural as Phillips stages the maneuvering of these characters in both light and shadow; Newburn and Emily are creatures of both the day and the night, having to know how to navigate in both worlds. Newburn is the old hand at this and Emily is the newbie, learning from Newburn but demonstrating her own unique already developed skills which are what caught Newburn’s eyes. In this life, she’s no more guilty or innocent than he is.
Emily functions as the fascinating wild card in all of this. At first, she seems like just a witness to another investigation but Newburn quickly realizes that she’s more than just an innocent bystander. Trusting his instincts even though he realizes he doesn’t know anything about Emily, he takes her on as a partner, teaching her, and developing her skills. Half the time in the book, she’s a background character, staying out of the spotlight as Newburn takes center stage. But you can tell that she’s always watching, always absorbing. Newburn may be the star of this book but Emily is the character that you really pay attention to what she’s doing and saying. Even while the last two chapters reveal more about events from her past, she remains the character with so much potential to surprise the audience and disrupt Newburn’s carefully constructed world.
Between Newburn and That Texas Blood, Phillips gets to draw similarly dark stories in completely different settings— the concrete jungle of New York City and the dusty plains of Texas. He has simplified his line as his art has developed, focused on storytelling and the acting of his characters. For as dark as the stories get, his linework provides a slight breeziness to this work, an immediateness to Newburn’s actions.
Even his coloring settles in on capturing tone and emotion more than it does strict light or shadow. He layers in colors and tones to express the character of each scene. As Newburn and Emily move between these worlds, Phillips’ artwork ties those worlds together closer together than we may be comfortable with. As we’re conditioned to believe that good happens in the light and evil in the shadows, Newburn’s world doesn’t reflect what we may want it to. Phillips has a way of showing a world where the mythology of good guys and bad guys is constantly challenged.
Chip Zdarsky and Jacob Phillips’ Newburn Volume One pulls at the private eye story, operating in the established noir rules but giving us a protagonist that may be an actual bad guy, someone we should be repelled by. Easton Newburn is a cop and a criminal, having merged his career with his needs and desires. Zdarsky’s rugged dialogue combined with Phillips’ atmospheric art sets us in a recognizable world even as Newburn and Emily’s unique standing in this world keeps you tensely turning each page, waiting for everything to explode.