Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips must feel the same way, because Criminal is packed full of just the right kind of plots, characters and tragic twists that make the best pulp stories—whether they’re set in the present or 30 years in the past.
Brubaker—best known as the man who revitalized Captain America and then killed him without skipping a beat—and Phillips have a unique way of telling the stories in Criminal. Each arc features a different lead character, and Brubaker takes the reader along for the ride as one thing after another goes wrong. All the characters in Brubaker’s fictional underworld are intricately linked, and what happens in one story usually carries a consequence for someone else down the line. When something happens off-panel, but it’s mentioned in the story, the odds are good that it’s a case of Brubaker setting up a future tale. Nothing is as simple as it seems, and there’s no such thing as a throwaway line in this title. Brubaker and Phillips have gone to great lengths to make sure this world is dense and fully realized.
In creating deeply flawed characters—like Leo Patterson the cowardly bank robber, or the entire doomed Lawless family—Brubaker shows that he has an affinity for characters with shady pasts and uncertain futures. Teeg Lawless, the subject of the recent issue “A Wolf Among Wolves,” is a recently returned Vietnam vet in 1972, and the problems he left behind when he was shipped off have been waiting patiently for his return. Lawless tries to escape his demons by drinking—a lot. We see disoriented flashes of what happens during his binges through the use of solid black panels, representing times when Lawless blacks out.
Phillips is a talented artist and his style is deftly suited for a book like this. It’s rough-edged and violent but still clear and precise. The pacing is never off, and the dark, shadowy style he employs lends the perfect atmosphere to Brubaker’s bleak tales. While Phillips does an amazing job on a page-by-page basis, it’s his vivid covers that make the book more appealing than ever. Each one captures the gritty vibe of James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler novels.
While the stories are definitely the main focus and the reason to keep coming back month after month, there’s always a little something extra. Each issue contains a guest-written article focusing on a forgotten pulp/noir classic. Comedian Patton Oswalt wrote one on an obscure gem called Blast of Silence, in which he called it “the best crime film you’ve never seen.” After that article, people started scouring the Internet and video stores everywhere looking for a copy, but none existed. Finally, Criterion got a hold of the rights and put out a beautiful-looking package of the film, containing cover art and a four-page comic illustrated by Sean Phillips. It was a nice little nod of recognition to the comic that helped Criterion realize there would be an audience for the DVD.
With Criminal, Brubaker and Phillips have given comic fans—and old-school noir fans—something fresh to lose themselves in. The seedy underworlds and back alleys that would scare us to death in reality are right at your fingertips, ready to show you the ways of fast women, heartless crooks and shady con artists. It’s also a testament to how the world of pulp never goes out of style, even if the genre is 40 years past its glory days.
CRIMINAL Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, Icon/Marvel