Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Criminal Tendencies

Posted by Don MacPherson on September 19th, 2006

Criminal #1
“Coward, Part One of Five”
Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist/Cover artist: Sean Phillips
Colors: Val Staples
Publisher: Marvel Comics/Icon imprint
Price: $2.99 US/$3.75 CAN

Those who have read Ed Brubaker’s foray into the espionage genre (by way of super-heroes and villains, in Sleeper) won’t be surprised at how well he pulls off a journey through an urban underworld in his latest project, Criminal.  This is classic Brubaker writing… dark, intense and engaging.  Actually, the writing seems so much like what we’ve seen from Brubaker in the past, it borders on the derivative.  Fortunately, it’s really good derivative stuff.  It may not be rare in the context of Brubaker’s comics CV.  And while there are other strong crime comics on the go right now, the genre’s not so prevalent that it doesn’t need another strong member among its ranks.

Leo is a rare breed of professional thief: one who’s never done time.  Leo is very good at what he does, but he’s not only a master thief, but skilled at steering clear of trouble.  He chooses his jobs carefully, and the ones that have gone wrong in the past haunt him.  And they come back to bite him in the ass, as an old colleague tries to recruit him for a new (but risky) job, while the widow of one of his late partners shows up to guilt him into it.

Sean Phillips’s work here is very much in keeping with what he offered up on his last collaboration with Brubaker, Sleeper.  Phillips employs a minimalist style here that’s reminiscent of Charlie (The Walking Dead) Adlard’s that nevertheless achieves a strong sense of realism.  He conveys the characters’ movement convincingly, and the backdrops are more than a little believable.  The colors by Val Staples are much brighter than what we saw in Sleeper, but Criminal is rooted in the real rather than the surreal world of super-heroes and super-spies.  Phillips’s work here also reminds me a little of Eduardo (Cobb: Off the Leash) Barreto’s simple but gritty style.  Phillips doesn’t employ quite as noir a style as we’ve seen from him before, but when things do go rather dark, it’s to great effect.

The closing scene, in which the main villain of the story is introduced, immediately put me in mind of Pulp Fiction and Ving Rhames’s mob-boss character.  It establishes a thoroughly chilling cliffhanger, and it’s the payoff for Leo’s disquieted behavior throughout the issue.

It’s clear from the narration that an omnipresent force in Leo’s life is his memory of his father.  He’s haunted by his father’s mistakes, terrified of repeating them and becoming the broken man he remembers.  I find it interesting that just as Leo carries that memory like a weight on his shoulders, he’s also burdened by another broken father figure.  Ivan is a friend and previous partner in crime, but his age, his Alzheimer’s and his addictions have transformed him into the classic vision of a parent that a child is now forced to care for.

Brubaker takes the reader into a world s/he doesn’t know.  It’s a dark place where a bad day at the office means you wind up dead or beaten, and when a good day means you can just rest easy for one night, until you start looking for your next score.  But the writer takes a matter-of-fact approach to it.  We see that this is Leo’s profession, the job he’s chosen.  He’s no villain, no degenerate.  He’s a regular guy who’s immersed in an irregular life.  Brubaker brings the character and his world down to earth somewhat, allowing the reader to relate to him and thereby accept his reality.

Criminal may be a guided tour through the underworld, but it’s basically about a guy without a future.  He’s burdened by his past and seems to have nothing in the way of fond remembrances.  And the nature of his work, his life precludes the possibility of any kind of future.  Leo merely exists solely in the present, and we see that it’s an empty, half-life that he doesn’t even know he needs to escape. 8/10

Criminal #1 is slated for release Oct. 4.