I know other Doomkopfers have already praised Criminal up and down in the 2008 year-in review (2007, too), but I’m new here, and feel like I ought to send another good word to the creative team. It’s the kind of book that was written just for me. My first experience with writer Ed Brubaker was on his continuing run on Captain America, the first post-2000 take on the character that was actually any good. When I found out he was starting some creator-owned series I was interested, and when I found out it was called “Criminal”, I was a guaranteed buyer. I love the cop & criminal genres: detective stories, film noir, heists. They’re 20th century westerns. A battle between the black hats and the white hats, only their roles are so often interchanged.
Anyway, Brubaker is built for stories like these. Like Leo in the first volume, he is a master planner. He knows how to weave tight threads together, and then arc them back around in a new direction. His stories are well-told, and his characters are true. The pace is gripping, and it’s hard to find a good place to stop. This challenge is made even harder with the collected editions where there are no covers to break up every 22 pages of story, so if you’re going to pick one up, plan to make a night of it. And, as he has proven before (Cap #25, anyone?), he can write a plot twist like no other.
Each volume has its own title and are subtitled “a Criminal edition” because the stories stand by themselves. Oh, sure, they weave together lightly, but you may have to read each one more than once to pick up on some of the shared characters and locales.
In addition to different stories, the two volumes have a diversity to their attitude. Book 2, “Lawless” is gritty, tough-as-nails noir; it’s exactly what you would expect from a crime book: the Bogie-era, the Ellroy-influenced, and the Miller-esque. By contrast, the introduction to the series, “Coward” is a bit mincing. The lead character is confident and intelligent, but also a little bit too much of a Nice Guy with ham-fisted charm. Sure, they can’t all be hard-asses, but I just found myself slightly disinterested in Leo’s well-being. Maybe I just hated his goatee. The second book is also better than the first; actually, it works a lot like Star Wars: “Lawless” is clearly The Empire Strikes Back to “Coward’s” A New Hope, though while “Coward” isn’t bad, it’s not on par with the first Star Wars movie. (Maybe the X-Men movies would be a better analogy.)
The art, I should mention, is completely in tune with the spirit of the book. Really, it feels like a stripped down version of the Captain America team, and I mean that in a good way. It’s restrained, muted, and course. The linework and colors are just enough without being too sparse. Film noir uses the shadows, which obfuscate identities, hide dangers, and cover-up the scent. In these stories, Sean Phillips somehow manages to do the same thing, without making the page murky with ink.
To finish up, Criminal is truly a series that makes good on comics-as-literature. It’s series like this one that make me glad the medium was finally able to grow up. It has the sex, and the violence, and the crude language, and it doesn’t dance around it. It’s all there, straight-up, and it’s not just there because it can be done. It always serves the story. And what a story it is.