Casing the Joint
Criminal, drawn by Sean Phillips and written by Ed Brubaker, is a searcher’s comic. Its protagonists, who range from the loathsome but lost to the self-aware and self-loathing, are all looking for something. A way out, a way to make right, a way to make sense. They haunt and hunt forgotten spaces, by choice or by necessity or both. The best ending they can hope for is one that’s deserved. But in the pages of Criminal, things are rarely so clean.
This is the third omnibus collection of Criminal stories, and the first to be published at Image. It collects the Savage Sword of Criminal and Deadly Hands of Criminal specials, the graphic novellas My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies and Bad Weekend and two stand-alone stories from the ongoing Criminal comic – The Night Callers and Orphans. The first two deluxe editions were originally published by Marvel’s Icon imprint, and are set to be reissued by Image next year.
Making the Score:
Prior to reading this collection, my main exposure to Criminal was its sixth story, The Last of the Innocent. The Last of the Innocent is one of my all-time favorite comics, a bleakly affectionate riff on Archie that pays homage to Riverdale’s famed art style and abiding goodness with a series of skillful contrasts. The Last of The Innocent‘s villainous protagonist Riley Richards is precisely the sort of quivering cretin who’d glower enviously at Archie Andrews without understanding how vastly different they are despite their superficial similarities.
The Last of the Innocent runs on a really terrific blend of metafiction, pastiche, and classic noir storytelling. The weakest of the Criminal stories collected in this volume is still a pretty darn good neo-noir comic. But the best of them — Savage Sword of Criminal, Deadly Hands of Criminal and Bad Weekend — pick up the blend Phillips and Brubaker crafted for The Last of the Innocent and run with it.
Savage Sword and Deadly Hands emphasize metafiction. They split their pages between the stories of recurring Criminal characters Teeg and Tracy Lawless and the comic books both father and son read. Teeg, a violent goon-for-hire who struggles to understand other people (and for that matter, struggles to understand that he’s struggling), finds himself drawn to the mirth and melancholy of wandering barbarian Zangar the Valandrian. Tracy, a cunning lonely youth who’s being shaped by Teeg’s lessons in crime and failures as a parent, gets sucked into the youthful angst and flying claws of Fang: The Kung Fu Werewolf.
Zangar and Fang’s adventures give Phillips an opportunity to stretch his muscles as a stylist. Zangar’s vengeful reaving is bolder and more rambunctious than Criminal‘s real-world violence. And Fang’s melodramatic emotionalism allows Phillips to put more exclamation points in his expression work than Tracy’s guardedness around Teeg often allows.
The dance which Phillips and Brubaker choreograph between Savage Sword of Criminal and Deadly Hands of Criminal‘s two halves is critical to the comics’ success. Zandar and Fang’s fantastical violence makes Teeg’s real-world violence hit out all the harder for its sheer unglamorous viciousness. And the care that Phillips and Brubaker take in crafting Zandar and Fang makes Teeg and Tracy’s fascination with their comics believable. The excerpts from Deadly Hands and Savage read like they could be real comics — books with care and craft, even if it’s mercenary care and craft, put into them. They’re comics to get lost in. And both Teeg and Terry have reasons to find that appealing.
Where Savage Sword of Criminal and Deadly Hands of Criminal turn on criminals who read comic books, the graphic novella Bad Weekend is built on criminals who have made comic books. It’s the late 1990s. Jacob, an artist turned professional thief, is hired by a comic convention to serve as the minder for his former mentor Hal Crane. Crane, a talented creator, is one of many folks who’ve been cheerfully and repeatedly stabbed in the back by the comics industry. But he’s done himself no favors by being an abrasive, cantankerous jackass with more than his share of shady moves on a good day.
There’s a good chance that Crane asked for Jacob to do the job because no one else can stand being around him. But, as lost in his own bitterness as he can get, Crane’s got a long memory. He knows that Jacob’s dad was a thief, and that Jacob’s gone into the family business. He puts two and two together, gets four, and makes a play. Bad Weekend may not be as brutal as the Teeg Lawless stories, but it’s still Criminal. By the time they have reached the end of the con, Crane and Jacob would call their tale’s title accurate.
There’s a specificity to Bad Weekend that makes it sing, a knowledge of comics and other creative industries’ long history of treating creators abominably that’s woven into its very fabric. It’s a story about people who love art with all of their beings and, to quote a favorite comic, “what happens to that much love if it curdles.” It’s bleak and haunting and magnificent.
While My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies, The Night Callers and Orphans aren’t quite on the level of the Savage/Deadly duo (collected outside of this edition as Wrong Time, Wrong Place) or Bad Weekend they’re still quite strong noir. This third Criminal Deluxe Edition is a darn fine collection of damn good comics, bolstered by some neat behind-the-scenes material from Phillips and Brubaker. For folks who love this team’s work, folks who dig metafiction, and folks who have a hankering for quality crime stories, it’s well worth picking up.
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