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Criminal Retrospective
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Comic Books

Revisiting ‘Criminal,’ Sean Phillips and Ed Brubaker’s bleak, beautiful masterwork

With the re-release of the deluxe editions, we delve back into this standout of gritty noir comics.

When the jobs go bad, they go bad. Someone screws up. They yak to the wrong person, pull a double-cross, or just prove to be a plain old vicious weasel of a human. But still, the players press on. Why? Because the prize is a hell of a thing. Or because there’s nowhere left to go but forward.

A monstrous excuse for a man clings to his never-was past as the All-American boy. An honorable soldier with guilt, regret, and scars insists that he’s exactly like his venal (classically) pathetic brute of a father — no matter that it blatantly isn’t true. A self-loathing cartoonist’s boredom pulls him back into the underworld and the underworld pulls him down into his very own hell.

These are the vibes and the people of Sean Phillips and Ed Brubaker‘s masterful Criminal, their long-running noir comic about those who live and work in sinister corners. Last year, Image Comics released the third deluxe volume, collecting the one-shot comics and novellas Phillips and Brubaker had released after moving the series from Marvel’s Icon imprint to Image. This year marks the return of the long-out-of-print first and second deluxe volumes. Together, they collect the first six major Criminal stories: Coward, Lawless, The Dead and the Dying, Bad Night, The Sinners, and The Last of the Innocent.

Even the weakest parts of Criminal are really, really good. The best of them – The Sinners and The Last of the Innocent – stand among the medium’s highest peaks. To celebrate the deluxe editions’ return to print, I decided to follow Phillips and Brubaker down the mean streets they paved in Criminal and bear witness to what they built beneath those flickering streetlights.

Criminal
Courtesy of Image Comics.

At the end of the day, at the end of the job, who are we?

Every Criminal protagonist struggles, consciously or otherwise, with their own self-image. In some cases, it’s explicit. Coward‘s Leo clings to that epithet for a twisted sort of comfort. As long as he prioritizes saving his own skin over anyone and anything, he does not have to face the violence he is capable of. Meanwhile, The Dead and the Dying‘s Danica Briggs struggles to overcome her own traumas, and ultimately abandons the possibility of happiness for a revenge she knows will kill her.

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Criminal: The Deluxe Edition Volume 1

Courtesy of Image Comics.

Lawless and The Sinners‘ Tracy Lawless sees too much of his rotten father Teeg in himself — to the point that he underestimates his own (relative) decency. Teeg, a major player in The Dead and the Dying, is lost in himself with no way out. And where Teeg’s venality is made tragic by his inability to understand (or even comprehend) his hurts and moments of humanity, The Last of the Innocent‘s Riley Richards is all the more loathsome for his horrifically hollow self-awareness.

Criminal: The Deluxe Edition Volume 1
Courtesy of Image Comics.

As Criminal‘s writer, Brubaker uses his cast and their many travails to dig into humanity under a very particular, very sharp sort of pressure. He then intensifies this pressure through a combination of external and internal forces, a crucible that sees his protagonists emerge changed if not transformed.

Leo abandons his self-imposed cowardice — some good comes from this, but not for him. Tracy and Teeg become sharper and perhaps truer versions of themselves: Tracy settles scores while Teeg grows fangs. Riley Richards becomes, to quote Grant Morrison’s famous Batman run, “the hole in things.” The results are, without fail, magnetic. To read Leo’s story is to come to know a man better than he knows himself until, at last, he stops running. To read Tracy Lawless’ is to hope that maybe he gets out something like intact. To read Teeg Lawless’ tales is to pity and fear the man’s utter lack of understanding for anything but violence. To read The Last of the Innocent is to delve deep into darkness and see what likes on the far shore of humanity, where decency is a distant memory.

Just because this is a nightmare of our own making does not mean we cannot have some fun with it.

Criminal: The Deluxe Edition Volume 2
Courtesy of Image Comics.

Sean Phillips is one of the finest illustrators working in comics in any genre. Part of what makes his work on Criminal such a treat? How playful it gets. Without compromising the bleakness of the mood, or the humanity of his character work, Phillips has a ton of fun across Criminal. This is especially the case in Bad Night and The Last of the Innocent, where he combines his moody, noir-styled illustrations with pastiches of Dick Tracy-esque newspaper comics and Archie‘s expressive cartooning. In addition to the pleasure that comes with taking in brilliant work, Phillips formal experiments tie Criminal into the long and varied history of comics, demonstrating not only the medium’s flexibility, but the flexibilities of styles famously associated with a particular mood and feel. The bright cartooning of The Last of the Innocent would work really well in Riverdale itself, but proves itself just as adept at Criminal‘s horrific noir tale.

Aside from the striking dissonance between their modes and Criminal‘s regular look, Phillips uses Bad Night and The Last of the Innocent‘s visual shifts to heighten the impact of his storytelling. When Frank Kafka P.I. begins showing up in the real world and actively conversing with his creator, it’s a major warning that what the audience has been shown throughout the comic is not one for one what has happened in the comic.

For most of The Last of the Innocent, the bright, Archie-esque look is deployed to depict Riley Richards’ nostalgic memories of a version of the past where he was the most important person in his own world. When the style returns to close out the book, it’s one of the most unsettling things that Phillips has ever drawn — and given how horrific and violent Criminal stories can get, that is saying something.

Criminal

Courtesy of Image Comics.

Brrr. The dissonance of the imagery, combined with its perfect reflection of Riley Richards’ empty heart, make The Last of the Innocent‘s closing unforgettable. Riley has not returned to innocence, nor has he truly obtained the new beginning he believes he has. He’s flattened himself into a caricature of a person to escape from his bad acts, and in so doing become someone horrendously, willfully, lost in himself.

Phillips’ mastery of the form is just as evident in his more classical moments. Consider these two pages from The Sinners:

Revisiting 'Criminal,' Sean Phillips and Ed Brubaker's bleak, beautiful masterwork
Courtesy of Image Comics.
Revisiting 'Criminal,' Sean Phillips and Ed Brubaker's bleak, beautiful masterwork
Courtesy of Image Comics.

The stillness Phillips grants Tracy and Elaine Hyde is something rare and lovely. And, as rare and lovely moments almost invariably are in Criminal, it is fraught. Their snuggling is the biggest beat on the page, a moment that gets to be and breathe in a way that their conversation does not.

Tracy’s on assignment for Elaine’s vicious and increasingly impatient crime lord husband Sebastian. Elaine’s looking for something healthier than her crumbling marriage. The stakes are high for both as individuals — never mind what would happen if they were caught together. Once their moment of peace has passed, the tension comes right back. And when Elaine goes quiet, it isn’t the restful, healing quiet of the cuddling. It’s guarded, tense, weighted down by history.

Phillips and Brubaker have worked together for years, and they have produced a lot of great work in that time. Even by the lofty standards the duo have set, Criminal is something special. It isn’t just a well-crafted noir comic, it’s a well-crafted crime comic that takes full advantage of its medium to enhance the impact of its stories. And it does so while building a compelling, memorable band of characters whose personal and shared histories stretch across decades – something that becomes particularly evident when reading the series in these collections. Teeg’s actions in the 70s and 80s shape his sons’ actions in the 90s and 2000s, for instance, and that’s just the most direct example. The Sinners and The Last of the Innocent are towering achievements in comics. Criminal as a whole is one of the form’s all-time great accomplishments.

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