Over their assorted collaborative series Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have always presented strongly developed characters, verbally and visually. It’s something that especially sets their crime material apart. Becoming enveloped in a personal worldview gives a strength and credibility to what someone does, and it creates the odd jaw-dropping moment when a person we’ve come to like steps away from what we think they are, the technique well used here. It’s only a single very small internal credit that associates My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies with the creators’ Criminal work, and that’s probably a wise editorial decision. It is connected, but via what’s almost a coda to what we believe the story to be.

Ellie slots right in to Brubaker’s long list of fractured protagonists, an attractive young woman booked into a rehab facility by her Uncle, but who has no problem with her drug use, and fails to buy into the programme. She’s romanticised about drugs from an early age, obsessing about the music on a mixtape made by her dead mother, realising that every single artist on the tape from Billie Holliday onward used drugs in a big way. Ellie chooses to see this as releasing their creative muse rather than dulling their inner torment. Despite her confidence, she comes across as lost and naive, and we learn that soon after admission Ellie accessed the files of others undergoing treatment.

The reason for downplaying this being a Criminal story is that much of the crime is low level and the emphasis is more on Ellie and how she became what she is, which is very carefully constructed. Some scenes are heartbreaking, such as Ellie recounting being present as a child at her mother’s rehab meetings, but much of what she spouts is shallow. However, there is a bomb to be dropped, and it may be intended or it may be coincidence, but once that bomb has dropped it’s possible to question everything Ellie’s told us directly. A final scene indicates some truth.

Artistically, this is also distanced from previous Brubaker and Phillips collaborations by the art. Phillips is using an incredibly delicate line, very good for expressions, and this is accentuated by the vivid colouring of Jacob Phillips, which is unlike anything seen on his previous work. The considerable quantity of watercolour pink is a brave choice.

For all the care constructing Ellie’s personality as fundamentally unsympathetic to anyone beyond the first flush of youth, the result is eventually too sterile, too much an exercise. The ending is clever, and because this is a first rate creative team this isn’t a poor graphic novel, just one that lags behind much of their other work.