Although Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips has been doing their creator-owned crime comic Criminal since it was first published by Marvel in 2006 and later by Image, my introduction to it was reading the one-shot graphic novels. I had mixed feelings about My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies, but was impressed by Bad Weekend, so I was curious what new installment that the two creators can conceive. Enter: Cruel Summer.
What started as the initial issue of the new Criminal series from Image to eventually becoming an ongoing arc from issue #5, Cruel Summer takes place in the summer of 1988, where you can play Ms. Pac-Man in the arcade and Dungeons & Dragons was still played in your basement. The story centers on Ricky Lawless’s abusive relationship with his father Teeg, who returns home to plan the biggest heist of his career. However, as Ricky and his friends are going down a similar dark path to their fathers, the actions of one will definitely affect the other.
This story ties in with the original Criminal comics, as it has the cast of characters, but you can pretty much read this as a standalone feature. That’s tradition in Criminal: telling self-contained narratives that focus on different characters. In fact, the nine issues here are written like standalone stories as each one focuses on the perspective of one or two characters, not just the Lawless family.
Considering that Criminal often focuses on the clichés of the crime genre, Brubaker has to approach these stories in ways that are realistic and believable, which doesn’t always work — I couldn’t emotionally engage with the junkies from My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies. Another criticism I tend to have with Brubaker is his overuse of narration, which may be a recurring technique in a lot of crime fiction, but he is writing comics and should rely more on the visual storytelling.
That said, as unlikeable as the characters are here and are constantly making mistakes, there is nuance in the characterization that makes you want to spend more time with nearly every character, as their actions keep shifting the storytelling into unexpected territories.
As a frequent collaborator with Brubaker for so many years, artist Sean Phillips continues to shine with a style that fits well with the gritty surroundings of crime comics, with tight paneling that provides a sense of claustrophobia that the characters feel trapped by. Although much of the comic is comprised of the back-and-forth of characters talking, when the violence kicks in, Phillips punctuates these moments with intensity. This intensity is enhanced by Jacob Phillips’ coloring.
As great an artist Phillips is, his visual storytelling can feel predictable at times, with each issue having one or two splash pages, and there’ll be some panels that will use an all-red background for moments of action. This may be minor, but the art team is certainly employing a formula they’ve been for a number of years.
It may somewhat suffer from some of the tropes of Brubaker and Phillips’ previous collaborations, but Cruel Summer is a strong crime narrative that is held together by its strong cast of characters, especially the central father-son dynamic.