Criminal: The Last of the Innocent #1
Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist/Cover artist: Sean Phillips
Colors: Val Staples
Publisher: Marvel Comics/Icon imprint
Price: $3.50 US
You know those comics Archie published not too long ago in which the longtime publisher and its storytellers showed us what it would be like if Archie and the gang grew up and got married? Well, Ed Brubaker offers his much darker take on the concept here with a cast of characters that were clearly inspired by the close-knit group of teen friends from Riverdale. Archie doesn’t just grow up here, he grows the fuck up. It’s a great concept, but it was also a risky undertaking on the writer’s part. Such an experiment could easily go awry, with the reader seeing the juxtaposition of the harshness of the world of Criminal with the innocence of the Archies as being ludicrous. But he and artist Sean Phillips make it work, and it works incredibly well. While far from the most intense of the Criminal story arcs we’ve seen, this was perhaps the most amusing and the most grounded one we’ve seen thus far.
Riley Richards’ life hasn’t turned out to be what he thought it would be. His wife’s cheating on him, and he owes big money to some lowlifes in the city. But when a family emergency draws him back to his small hometown, he rediscovers his youth and reconnects with old friends. Riley comes to realize he’s made some poor choices in life, choices that seemed right at the time. And he’s finally come up with a plan to turn back time, as it were, to give himself a second chance to make the right choices.
The dual approach to the art works incredibly well with this subject material, and especially so given the characters’ nature as representative of other pop-culture icons. The first flashback scene immediately put me in mind of the style of Shazam/Captain Marvel creator C.C. Beck, and some of the flashback artwork reminded me of the style of Jaime (Love and Rockets) Hernandez’s style as well. But later scenes, the Archie riff was a little more apparent. Phillips wisely doesn’t adopt the Archie house style completely for the flashbacks. He merely employs a generally brightly style to represent the simpler, better times in the main character’s life. Still, there’s no mistaking some of the parallels in character designs. Moose comes to life as a small-town cop, and Freakout, despite being significant different from Jughead in many ways, nevertheless channels the classic slacker character. Phillips tones down the sexuality of the Lizzie character, Betty’s standin, and it’s a wise choice. Riley needs to be seen as drawn to Lizzie because of who she is, not what she looks like.
With this script, Brubaker reaches into the pop-culture ether, grabs Archie Andrews by the sweater vest, shaking him and yelling, “What the fuck are you thinking? Veronica Lodge?!? She’s a manipulative, spoiled, vacuous narcissist! Yes, she’s hot, but Betty Cooper is hot, fun and nice!” And it’s not just the red-headed, all-American kid next door he takes to task. He’s slapping the reader, hell, the entire pop-culture consciousness, across the face, trying to get it to snap out of it and see things for how they really are. Brubaker shatters the idyllic vision of adolescence while also celebrating the carefree nature of youth. Despite the fact that Riley Richards and company are new to the world of Criminal, they’re nevertheless incredibly familiar, and that makes for a strong connection with the reader.
While Brubaker entertains with his deconstruction of the classic Archie characters, what the story is really about is how one lives life. Here, Riley has opted for an easy life. While he denies it, he’s clearly in part drawn to Felix because of her money. He marries for convenience, not for love. It’s not to say that he never felt anything for her, but that she represented what he wanted to reject: his small-town life. Riley wanted out of his own past, but now, he wants back in, away from the dark place he inhabits now. The problem is that he’s using the ugliness in which he’s been immersed as a means to achieve his ends. 10/10
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