Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Word Balloon: Criminal
For this month's edition of the column I wanted to look at a comic book called Criminal, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips published by Marvel/Icon. Icon is an imprint of Marvel Comics, an imprint designed so that some of their exclusive creators and big named talents can create their own work and retain rights for themselves while staying under the Marvel banner. Icon doesn't publish a lot of work, currently only Brian Michael Bendis Powers and David Mack's Kabuki.
Criminal is a series of self contained stories about the cliches of the crime genre, while maintaining a believable and realized world. Each arc is a single story, but when read together create small links to each other arc. Brubaker is a huge crime and pulp aficionado and has created a very deep world, full of gangsters and hard nosed antagonists who aren't always on the side of the angels. It is very much a book dedicated to the dark underbelly of America's crime obsession. Brubaker's writing style is very dynamic, creating fully formed characters, flaws and all, all within the trappings of a huge criminal caper.
Sean Phillips art is a perfect fit for the book. Dark and murky, he never the less gives each character a distinct and tough look. It's nothing like the clean lines and colors of a super hero book, very much a blurred and muted world, the same world that the antagonists he draws inhabit. Not the flashiest artist, he tells the story in the characters expressions and in his panel work. He truly has a style perfectly suited for this noir style story.
There are currently four volumes of Criminal in print, with a 5th arc slated for the end of the year. I recommend volume 1: Coward. Coward is the story of Leo Patterson, a second generation criminal who works by a very specific set of rules, rules designed to keep him alive. He works alone, but when a crooked cop cons him into pulling an armored car heist by attacking his one weakness, he agrees. The cop, Seymour, recruits Greta, a beautiful but damaged single mother to convince Leo, whom Leo knew from his early days working as a criminal, from before things went south and he adopted his rules. Seymour is working for a drug kingpin named Roy L.T. and as such, Leo and Greta suspect a double cross. From there the story delves into the intricacies of planning a heist, and the back stabbing and double dealing that always seem to be involved with the criminal underworld.
There are several great subplots running through the book as well, that really broaden the universe that Brubaker and Phillips have created. When read in conjunction with the rest of the series, it ties Leo and the cast of characters into both the past and the future of the series. Leo was partially raised by Ivan, a friend of his fathers, who is now addicted to drugs and suffers from Altimers Disease. Leo has to manage that and his penchant for picking pockets. Ivan has ties to characters that eventually show up in future tales but is contained nicely in this story. You get a peak into the local crime bar, the Undertow, that characters frequent in both the past and the future of the series.
Really what Brubaker and Phillips have done is bring to life the great noir and pulp books of the 1940's and 50's. Influenced by the likes of crime authors like Richard Parker and the gritty street cop films of the 60's and 70's, like Bullitt with Steve McQueen and Point Blank with Lee Marvin. Dark, urban films about tough bad men doing the things they needed to do. With this tone they bring to life the dark underbelly of the crime world.
Another great staple of this series is the endings. Especially in Coward, Brubaker lays out a story that you know is going to end badly, a story where bad things happen to bad people, but you never know how he is going to take you there. To Greta and discovering how she got damaged, to really delving into Leo and finding out why everyone thinks he is such a coward, the book is constantly turning from the predictable to the unknown, taking the underpinnings of a once familiar setting and and turning your expectations on your ear.
I heartily recommend Criminal for someone looking once again to stay outside the norm of capes and super heroics, and to discover just what lurks in the criminal shadows around us. Ed Brubaker has quickly and efficiently broken into my top five writers of all time, joining easily the likes of Alan Moore, Warren Ellis, and Brian K. Vaughn. Writers who can easily switch between the world of heroes and find relevance and stories off the beaten path. Phillips brings a quiet quality to the story, art that perfectly fits the mood and tone of the series. Both creators are perfect on this book, and it is can't miss. Check it out, Criminal: Volume 1: Coward by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, published by Marvel/Icon.
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