Monday, May 26, 2008

Gosh Recommends... Criminal: Coward and Lawless

Story: Ed Brubaker
Art: Sean Phillips
Marvel Comics Icon

Let it be said: Criminal is cool. Not because it’s been optioned for a movie, or because it’s been frequently name-dropped by Wikipedia-savvy pop culture commentators. Rather, Criminal is a comic that manages to be identifiably of its day while remaining totally unique; that makes the medium feel fresh and exciting instead of ripe for franchise development; that stands as the unfiltered vision of two creators at the top of their game. And that’s cool.

Okay, I admit it, I’m gushing, but I can back it up. Even though the creators have openly drawn influence from pulp films, novels and comic books from the 30s up to the modern day, there’s something about Criminal that singles it out as being especially deserving of its 2007 ‘best new series’ Eisner award.

It could be Ed Brubaker’s writing, which so plainly displays his love for gritty crime stories and speaks of the twenty-odd years he’s spent refining his craft. From his semi-autobiographical Lowlife comics in the early nineties to pulp noir superhero works like Sleeper and Daredevil, Brubaker appears to have been picking away at the industry, looking for the right nook from which to tell his tawdry tales of murder and misery. In that sense, Criminal feels very much like a homecoming for him – the perfect corner in which to carve out his own world and fill it with scintillatingly tragic events.

The comic’s glowing personality could also be down to Sean Phillips’ art. It is worth noting at this point that Sean Phillips is an artistic genius, in the most genuine sense of the word. While in Criminal he employs a heavily-shadowed, realistic style, he’s not restricted by photo reference, which becomes evident in more action-heavy or comic moments in the book where small flourishes of bombastic dynamism or exaggerated expression really make the panels sing.

Most likely, as with most good comics, the answer lies in the synchronicity between writer and artist, and in that sense the Brubaker and Phillips team is one of the all-time greats. While Brubaker has also worked brilliantly with such artists as Michael Lark on Gotham Central and Scene of the Crime, his scene-setting and storytelling beats are captured with almost preternatural accuracy and effectiveness by Phillips here. Turns of the head, moments of silence or single-panel flashbacks are palpable, and no inch of space feels wasted or unnecessary.

All of which is to say nothing of the actual content of the books. Criminal has thus far been collected into two trade paperbacks, each collecting a five-issue story which can be read and enjoyed totally in isolation. With characters and events informing each other between volumes (if only in the background), there’s a real cumulative build to the series which serves to deepen your investment in the characters and their actions. Another knock-on effect of this is the fact that Criminal is one of those rare comics that you will actually come back to, picking up new in-jokes and references on the second or even third time through. As an example, by the time that Criminal Vol 2 #2 (not as yet collected) rolled around, the historical significance of Teeg Lawless, Vietnam veteran and deadbeat dad, had been so well established that the prospect of actually meeting him in the pages of the comic was a genuine thrill.

While the purpose of this article is to sell you on the trades, I recommend immediately going out and catching up with the even-cooler latest issues. After the ten issues collected here came out, the comic was re-launched in a new format with more pages of story per issue and, most importantly, more back-page articles. Criminal’s back-up columns have become legendary in a short space of time, and with good reason. Brubaker has assembled an impressive crew of industry noir enthusiasts including such diverse figures as Scalped creator Jason Aaron and actor, writer and comedian Patton Oswalt, to contribute reviews and retrospectives which should prove fascinating to anybody with even a passing interest in pulp fiction. To put the icing on the cake, each article is awash in Phillips’ gorgeous spot illustrations and portraiture.

While the stripped-down nature of the trades allows the quality of the material to speak for itself, you’re missing out on the beautiful design, expanded content and expert pacing of the monthly instalments which make this one of the increasingly rare titles on the shelves that reaffirm the value and the joy of periodical comics.

Pick up the Coward and Lawless paperbacks and then catch up with Criminal 2 #1 and #2 from our back issues. You won’t be disappointed.

Recommended by Tom - some images courtesy of Sean Phillips' excellent blog.