Criminal

Created by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

No, the long-running, Eisner-winning CRIMINAL comic book series, written by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, isn’t a P.I. comic. Not really.

But with stuff this good, who cares?

Criminal began in October 2006, initially published by Marvel’s Icon imprint, and followed the crimes (successful and otherwise) and misadventures of a loosely connected assortment of thieves, pickpockets, enforcers, army deserters, mobsters, cops, victims, junkies, innocent and not-so-innocent bystanders, cons and ex-cons and various members of the appropriately named Lawless family. The action skips back and forth in time, and is mostly based in the fictitious Center City, although these miscreants certainly seem to get around.

About the only thing they’ve left out, really, is private eyes, and I’m pleased to report that they’ve finally rectified that glaring omission, with the introduction, at least for a while, of hapless Dan Farraday, into the Criminal universe in the June 2019 issue of the new monthly series by Image.

There have been other crime comic anthologies before, of course, and some have even tried to place them in a similar, loosely connected universe (David Lapham’s amazing Stray Bullets immediately comes to mind, and Max Allan Collins and Terry Beatty’s Ms. Tree, although not an anthology, was was no slouch when it came to ballsy ambitioun), but Brubaker and Phillips’ Criminal is something else again, a seemingly perfect blend of text and art. These two comic geeks have nabbed every comics award around, and with the nervy, twitchy, always ambitious Criminal have continued to push the crime comic genre in directions nobody expected, exploring, twisting, reshaping and exploding every god damn pulp, hard-boiled and noir trope they could get their hands on along the way.

There have been stories so bleak and black you may be left thinking there’s no light left in the world at all, and stories that will just shatter the heart of anyone who still has a working model. These are stories of hard luck, bad luck and no luck at all; punch-in-the-gut betrayals and catch-in-your-throat loyalty; cowardice and courage, stories that will make you despair and stories that’ll make you want to shoot out the lights.

But it’s not just the writing by Brubaker. Sure, most of you crime writers out there ought to thank your lucky stars Brubaker’s sticking to the funny pages, but as great as his vision is, it’s Sean Phillips powerful, nuanced artwork that brings it all home. A conjuror, blending the noirish balance of light and shadow to his will, and a master of characterization and the subtle, humanizing detail, Phillips can nonetheless turn on a dime and deliver stunning, blazing scenes of action and violence. As though to say, “Look what happened! And it happened to people!”

* * * * *

The first run of Criminal (2006-07, Icon) ran a mere ten issues, and boasted two story arcs, “Coward” (issues 1-5) and “Lawless” (issues 6-10), in 2007. Coward” introduced pickpocket Leo Patterson, who gets sucked into an armored car heist that is not what it seems, while in Lawless” we first meet Tracy Lawless, an army deserter who worms his way into his late brother Ricky’s gang to find out who murdered him, and whose various family seem to have a knack for popping up at, as title of one of the many collections puts it, the “wrong time, wrong place.”

A second run of Criminal (2008, Icon) ran seven issues, and also featured two story arcs, The Dead and the Dying,” featuring overlapping stories from the alternating POVs of three thugs in the 1970s, and “Bad Night, which has a special place in my heart, concerning as it does the story of hapless writer/cartoonist Jacob K. (and former counterfeiter) who writes and draws the Frank Kafka, Private Eye newspaper strip first seen briefly in “Coward.” It not only emphasized the elasticity of the series, but revealed the fondness Brubaker and Young have for the history of comics medium.

The next few series mini-series were published with subtitles, which certainly made it less confusing for everyone.

Criminal: The Sinners ran for five issues in 2009, and follows Tracy Lawless as he tries to stop a gang war from erupting, but it’s the fourth series, The Last of the Innocent (2011), that really grabbed me. It’s a nasty little tale about a small town boy, now all grown up and carrying debts no honest man could pay), going back home with plans to murder his (wealthy, dark-haired) wife and hook up again with the (working class, blonde) girl he left behind. The story was obviously inspired by Archie comics, and Phillips outdid himself, drawing the flashbacks in pitch-perfect Archie Comics-house style. I’ve often wondered if the success of this series inspired television’s Riverdale, which made its debut a few years later and delivered a substantially darker vision of that town.

Somewhere in there, Brubaker and Phillips also began doing one-shots, a couple of short stories. “No One Rides for Free” was  a short story done for the Comic Book Defense League, and appeared in the Liberty Comics anthology, and “21st Century Noir” was done for Noir, a crime anthology from Dark Horse in 2009. But it was the two “special editions,” done for their new publisher, Image, that picked up from where The Last of the Innocent left off that really blew the roof off the sucka, showing once and for all how deep Brubaker and Phillips’ love for crime and comics could go.

Criminal: The Special Edition (2015) told the story of Teeg Lawless doing 30 days in county jail in 1976, trying to stay alive, his only refuge found in a beat-up old Conan the Barbarian-style comic magazine left behind by his dead cellmate. What sends it over the top is that the story’s punctuated with generous helpings of the comic itself, allowing Phillips’ mastery of the style to shine through. And just to follow the conceit even further, this one was also released in a special, limited, over-sized edition, called The Savage Sword of Criminal. You know, just in case someone didn’t “get it.” Fan boys went nuts. Or at least this one did.

And they (and I) went nuts again, the following year, when Criminal: Tenth Anniversary Special Edition was released. Having diven deep into seventies-era comic book magazine history  so successfully before, they dug in again, this time reviving the almost-forgotten line of kung-fu/martial arts of the era. In this one, Teeg Lawless and and his adolescent son Tracy are on the run, driving from town to town. Shy, awkward Tracy is doing his best, looking out for his father (and acting occasionally as getaway driver), but the slowly dawning realization of what his father really is, the onrush of puberty, and the discovery of escape through reading (in this case, the aforementioned pulpy martial arts comics) makes for a tale so bleak and ultimately heart-busting it could be an outtake from Springsteen’s Nebraska. Once again the story is interspersed with generous excerpts of Phillips’  perfectly captured mimickry of the style, and once again the issue was also released in a limited, over-sized edition, “Deadly Hands of Criminal, featuring (of course) the deadly Kung Fu Werewolf! Yeah, laugh all you want, fuzzball, but just try and find a copy now.

Next up was an “unofficial” addition to the series, My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies (2018), Brubaker and Phillips’ first actual graphic novel (as opposed to a collection). It revolves around Ellie, the daughter of a heroin addict with way too many romantic notions about drug addiction for her own good, who winds up in rehab. Almost universally acclaimed, its success inspired the revival of Criminal as a monthly comic from Image in 2019.

BUT THAT’S NOT ALL, FOLKS…

One of the great bonuses of the series for me — like the writing and art aren’t enough — has always been the “DVD-style” bonus features: back page goodies that at first were just bits’n’pieces (prose stories, mini-rants, a few plugs for friends, etc.), but always included a letters column by Brubkaer (eventually called  “The Secret Ingredient is Crime” ) that comes top-loaded with his (and sometimes Sean’s) always worthy recommendations on books, films, TV shows and comics that have recently caught their fancy, and  a short, sharp and savvy essay on films, books or something to do with crime fiction (see below), by some pretty interesting folks, such as Megan Abbott, Duane Swierczynski, Patton OswaltJason Aaron, Jay Faerber,  Joe Hill and Kim Morgan. And each essay is illustrated, of course, with the usually jaw-dropping art, generally provided by Sean. And here’s the catch: The backup features are only found in the single issues, although a few have surfaced in the deluxe collections.

Of course, it would be pretty easy for these guys to round up these essays and their illustrations, tweak ’em a little, and unleash one primo, illustrated non-fiction book about crime fiction.

ABOUT THOSE GUYS

Maybe it’s in the blood. Ed Brubaker’s uncle was John Paxton, who wrote the screenplays for two of Edward Dmytryk’s biggest noirs: the Chandler adaptation Murder My Sweet and Crossfire.

Still, Brubaker is probably best known, at least to the average fanboy, if not the general public, for bumping off (and later resurrecting) Captain America for Marvel. He first made a mark for himself for such acclaimed projects as Lowlife (an autobiographical alternative comic), At the Seams, Detour, An Accidental Death, Prez and contributions to Dark Horse Presents, such as the private eye tale Here and Now.” He then moved on to inject some much-needed hard-boiled grit and noir depth to such superheroes as Batman for DC and Captain America and Daredevil for Marvel. He even brought DC’s original two-fisted private eye Slam Bradley back from the dead, first as a back-up feature in Detective Comics #759(August 2001), which served as a sort of dry run for re-introducing Slam into his revamped Catwoman comic. And in 2006, he resurrected Dakota North, Marvel’s fashion model-turned-gumshoe, as a supporting character in a surprisingly noirish story arc in Daredevil. He’s since become something of an indie darling for his acclaimed crime comics, most notably Criminal for Icon (and later Image), an obvious labour of love perpetuated by Brubaker and his long-time partner-in-crime, illustrator Sean Phillips.

They first teamed up for Scene of the Crime, a 1999 DC/Vertigo mini-series about a San Francisco private eye. It was the start of a beautiful friendship, and the two have been partners in crime ever since, working together on Incognito, a noirish take on superheroes, Fatale, a macabre tale about an immortal vampire who just wants out, and The Fade Out, a Hollywood period piece about murder, deception, kinky sex and making movies.

COMICS

 

  • CRIMINAL
    (2006-07, Icon)
    10 issues
    Written by Ed Brubaker
    Art by Sean Phillips

    • “Coward (Part One): Caught in the Undertow”(October 2006; #1)
    • “Coward (Part Two)” (December 2006; #2)
    • “Coward (Part Three)” (January 2007; #3)
    • “Coward (Part Four): ” (February 2007; #4)
    • “Coward (Part Five): Too Late” (March 2007; #5)
    • “Lawless (Part One)” (May 2007; #6)
    • “Lawless (Part Two)” (June 2007; #7)
    • “Lawless (Part Three)” (July 2007; #8)
    • “Lawless (Part Four)” (May 2007; #9)
    • “Lawless (Part Five)” (May 2007; #10)
  • CRIMINAL
    (2008, Icon)
    7 issues
    Written by Ed Brubaker
    Art by Sean Phillips

    • “The Dead and the Dying (Part One): Second Chance in Hell” (February 2008; #1)
    • “The Dead and the Dying (Part Two): A Wolf Among Wolves” (March 2008; #2)
    • “The Dead and the Dying (Part Three): The Female of the Species” (April 2008; #3)
    • “Bad Night (Part One)”(July 2008; #4)
    • “Bad Night (Part Two)” (September 2008; #5)
    • “Bad Night (Part Three)” (October 2008; #6)
    • “Bad Night (Part Four)” (November 2008; #7)
  • THE CBDLF PRESENTS: LIBERTY COMICS
    (2008, Image Comics)
    One-shot anthology
    Fundraiser for the Comic Book Defence League

    • “No One Rides for Free” (July 2008; #1)
      A 5-page short story wherein Tracy shakes down a reporter who has written an exposé on his boss’ corporate dealings.
  • CRIMINAL: THE SINNERS
    (2009, Icon)
    5 issues
    Written by Ed Brubaker
    Art by Sean Phillips

    • “The Sinners (Part One)” (September 2009,; #1)
    • “The Sinners (Part One)” (September 2009,; #1)
    • “The Sinners (Part One)” (September 2009,; #1)
    • “The Sinners (Part One)” (September 2009,; #1)
    • “The Sinners (Part One)” (September 2009,; #1)
  • NOIR
    (2009, Dark Horse)
    One-shot anthology
    A collection of crime stories from Dark Horse

    • “21st Century Noir” (October 2009)
      A 6-page short story. A man hooks up with a woman online, and learns about her abusive husband.
  • CRIMINAL: THE LAST OF THE INNOCENTS
    (2011, Icon/Marvel)
    4 issues

    • “Number One” (June 2011; #1)
    • “Number Two” (July 2011; #2)
    • “Number Three” (August 2011; #3)
    • “Number Four” (September 2011; #4)
  • CRIMINAL: THE SPECIAL EDITION Kindle/ComiXology it!
  • (2015–, Image Comics)
    (aka “Savage Sword of Criminal”)
    One-shot
    Written by Ed Brubaker
    Art by Sean Phillips
    The “Conan” issue.
  • CRIMINAL: TENTH ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL EDITION Kindle/ComiXology it!
    (aka “Deadly Hands of Criminal”)
    (2016, Image Comics)
    One-shot
    Written by Ed Brubaker
    Art by Sean Phillips
    The “kid in the getaway car” issue.
  • CRIMINAL(2019–, Image Comics)
    Written by Ed Brubaker
    Art by Sean Phillips

    • (January 2019; #1)
    • “Bad Weekend (Part One)” (February 2019; #2)
    • “Bad Weekend (Part Two)” (March 2019; #3)
    • “Orphans” (April 2019; #4)
    • “Cruel Summer (Part One): Night of the Hunter” (June 2019; #5)
    • “Cruel Summer (Part Two): Song to the Siren” (July 2019; #6)

GRAPHIC NOVELS & COLLECTIONS

DELUXE EDITION GRAPHIC NOVELS & COLLECTIONS

  • CRIMINAL DELUXE EDITION (Vol. 1) | Buy the book 
    (2009, Icon/Marvel)
    Feature-packed 432-page hardcover edition includes the first three collections, plus a number of extras, including three of theback page “essays” (and the artwork), the CBLDF short story “No One Rides For Free”, the original Coward “trailer,” , a covers gallery, and more.
  • CRIMINAL DELUXE EDITION (Vol. 2) | Buy the book
    (2012, Icon/Marvel)
    Another 432 page hardcover whopper, rounding up Bad Night, The Sinners, and Last of the Innocent.

THE SECRET INGREDIENT IS… BACKUP FEATURES?

  • “Out of the Past: An Appreciation” by Ed Brubaker (Criminal, Vol.1, #2)
  • “Touch of Evil: An Appreciation” by Ande Parks (Criminal, Vol.1, #3)
  • “Blast of Silence, Whisper of Rage” by Patton Oswalt (Criminal, Vol.1, #4)
  • “The Neo-Noir” Roundtable by Charlie Huston, Warren Ellis, Greg Rucka, Patton Oswalt, Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker, David Goyer & Charles Ardai (Criminal, Vol.1, #5)
  • “The Long Goodbye” by Steven Grant (Criminal, Vol.1, #7)
  • “Blaxploitation” by Mark Rahner (Criminal, Vol.1, #8)
  • “Two by To” by Ed Brubaker (Criminal, Vol.1, #10)
  • “Knock Me Over: An Appreciation of David Goodis’s The Burglar” by Duane Swierczynski (Criminal, Vol.2, #1)
  • “My Favorite TV Cops and Movie Tough Guys, Flaws and All” -by Jason Aaron (Criminal, Vol.2, #2),
  • “The Yakuza” by Michael Stradford (Criminal, Vol.2, #3)
  • “Hard Case Crime: Interview with Charles Ardai” by Ed Brubaker (Criminal, Vol.2, #4)
  • “Forgotten Noir: One False Move” – Marc Andreyko (Criminal, Vol.2, #6)
  • “Harry O, An Appreciation” – by Jay Faerber (Criminal, Vol.2, #6)
  • “Andrew Vachss and the End of Burke” – by Mark Rahner (Criminal, Vol.2, #7)
  • “Darwyn Cooke and Parker” by Ed Brubaker (Sinners #1)
  • “The Killer Elite” by Michael Stradford (Sinners #1)
  • “Three by Peter Yates” by Ed Brubaker (Sinners #2)
  • “Australian Noir” by Ryan K. Lindsay (Sinners #2)
  • “Real, True Damage: Mr. Majestyk Remembered” by Joe Hill (Sinners #4)
  • “The Femme Fatale” by Jess Nevins (Sinners #5)
  • “Encyclopedia Brown and the Great Brain” (Last of the Innocents #1)
  • “In Search Of…” by Megan Abbott (Last of the Innocents #2)
  • “Magnum, PI”  by Jay Faerber (Last of the Innocents #3)
  • “S.W.A.T.” by Duane Swierczynski (Last of the Innocents #3)
  • “Blood Simple” by Kim Morgan (Criminal #1)
  • “Angels With Dirty Faces” by Kim Morgan (Criminal #2)
  • “The Color of Money” by Kim Morgan (Criminal #3)
  • “Wild Boys on the Road” -by Kim Morgan (Criminal #4)
  • “The Series Character”  (Criminal #5)
    A short discussion about series characters between writers Ed Brubaker, Jason Starr, Alex Segura and Sara Gran.

ALSO OF INTEREST

  • The Art of Sean Phillips Hardcover (2013) | Buy this book
    Simply astounding.

RELATED LINKS

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

Talk to me...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s