Criminal #6: Is This What Happens When Bad Meets Evil?

Criminal #6
ICON Comics

In the pages of Daredevil, Ed Brubaker killed Captain America and showed readers what it would be like for a costumed hero to wind up in prison. His carefully laid out plots and storytelling, along with wonderful characterization, have brought acclaim to both titles and finally drawn the attention to Brubaker that he’s deserved for years.

Brubaker and Phillips worked together before on the acclaimed Sleeper for DC/Wildstorm. The story of a con man in over his head, Sleeper took characters for a superhero book called Wildcats and made a gritty crime noir story line that ended way too soon. Now the team is back in a series that doesn’t make the words gritty, hard-boiled or noirish come off has hyperbole.

Brubaker has always shown a knack for writing compelling stories dealing with the underbelly of society, from the Black Mask character in Catwoman to the Daredevil in prison. In Deadenders, a woefully underrated series from DC/Vertigo a few years back, his main character was a selfish, self-centered SOB that readers were made to care about. With Criminal, the distractions are out of the way. There are no costumed villains or shady superheroes. There are no secret societies or garish characters out of a sci-fi or James Bond movie. Criminal is straightforward in that it deals with bad people doing bad things. Maybe some of the characters aren’t totally evil… Brubaker has to give them some redeeming traits to make readers care about their fates, but none of these people will be confused with heroes anytime soon.

I would compare the first story line, thematically, to the film Heat. The good guys are flawed. The bad guys are no angels, but some of them do have their own sense of honor and the viewer or reader isn’t able to settle into the traditional role of automatically rooting for the side of good. Brubaker compels the reader to dig a little deeper, and by investing more time with these characters we care about them, even if we shouldn’t.

The first five issues of the series dealt with a heist gone wrong and now we’re into the start of a new story line featuring a vet out for revenge against those who killed his brother. Again it’s about a bad guy interacting with other bad guys to get his own way. The fact that Brubaker is able to make the reader care at all about these people is a testament to his skills. You’re compelled to want to know more about what these people are going to do next. How are they going to screw someone over? How are they going to pull off their latest scheme, and how is it all going to get resolved? It never turns out how you would expect.

Promotional panel of Criminal
ICON Comics

Aside from the regular story, the backup pages are an extra bonus for anyone who enjoys these types of crime noir stories, be it in comics, novels or films. I haven’t heard of many of the works that Brubaker and his guest writers discuss, but I’m always sure to check them out after the fact.

Phillips’ attention to detail in backgrounds and the rough quality to his pencils create a perfect atmosphere in which to bring the darker world these characters inhabit to life. His art, particularly in this book, remind me of David Mazzucchelli, who brought a grittiness and realism to both Batman and Daredevil, and Year One and Born Again, respectively. I don’t tend to focus on the coloring in a comic, but that’s admittedly due to sheer ignorance about the subject. I don’t know the minute details involved with coloring a book, but I know a good looking book when I see it – Val Staples is the person to thank for this. The coloring sets the mood of the book; Phillips brings the characters to life and Brubaker pulls it all together with compelling dialogue for one of the most complete storytelling packages that I’ve seen in a “mainstream” book.