Any aspiring crime writer might want to take a look at Pulp. They should take it all in, then figure out how the story could have been told any better. If they can genuinely improve on it, then congratulations, they’ve made the grade.

For most of their collaborations Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips present a protagonist rather than a conventional hero, someone who leads a story without necessarily having a moral compass, although Max Winters certainly knows when it’s time to step forward. We meet him as an elderly man in the 1930s, being told the pulp magazine he writes for is dropping his word rate. The difference between Max and other writers of pulp Westerns, though, is that back in the 1890s he actually lived the life, riding with an outlaw gang hunted by the Pinkertons, and he funnels that authenticity into his stories. There’s a lot more to Max. He’s of an age where he’s had time to reflect on his life, regret the mistakes he’s made, and have a certainty about what he wants. He’s also of an age where heart attacks aren’t entirely unexpected.

While Brubaker’s narrative characterises Max so well, Phillips elevates him via the stooped pose, the sorrow we see in his eyes and the intuitive use of light and shade. Colourist Jacob Phillips also plays a part by separating Max’s outlaw days via fractured filters of orange and red over the otherwise black and white past. It evokes a searing sunlight and the brightness of youth. 1930s New York is wonderfully observed through changing seasons, tenement blocks, shop signs, hats and plain iron hospital beds among the many signifiers separating Max’s later times from ours. There’s a good self-portrait of Phillips as the younger Max on the cover also.

It’s not as if Brubaker hasn’t been a master crime writer for a long time, but the way he feeds information of later significance has a lightness about it, and he’s able to bring even the smaller roles to life in just a few captions. It runs deeper, though, the connecting circumstances so smooth, and Max knowable from the wish-fulfilment of his stories. Max is an astute observer, and his later companion Jeremiah Goldman even more so, and although both are elderly, their strangely shared past as adversaries brings them together for one last ride into the sunset. The result is a crime story to cherish, with its weary worldview making it a contender for the best ever Brubaker/Phillips collaboration.