What makes a coward?
Let’s face it folks, civilization is addicted to crime.
We might vehemently deny that, but the Ocean’s trilogy made more than $1.1 billion worldwide, Law and Order still has about a hundred spin-offs (give or take a few) and millions of people around the world gather at the office water coolers every day to discuss the most recent cop shooting published in their morning newspaper.
Believe it or not, crime sells. Just ask Ed Brubaker, the Eisner-award winning author of Coward, the first story arc of his new crime series, Criminal. Brubaker, a master of the crime-noir genre, brings us another title in the vein of his Sleeper series, sans the super powers.
In this Sin City-esque, Cheers-type universe, “where everybody knows your name” and most of the central characters are second-generation criminals who frequent the same watering hole, Brubaker capitalizes on the notion that we’re fascinated with “the other side of the law.”
But Brubaker doesn’t fool around in this first story arc by allowing the reader to vicariously live out their wildest fantasies through some action-filled caper, or even pacify us by ensuring that the good guys always win. Instead he poses a poignant and politically relative question: What, exactly, is a coward?
It turns out our protagonist, Leo, is an incredibly talented pickpocket and a genius when it comes to planning a big heist, but he’s got this minor character flaw.
“Leo’s a coward,” one character says. “He doesn’t just walk away from trouble, he runs.”
Our protagonist prescribes to the old saying, “He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day.” Is that necessarily cowardly? In his defense, Leo is the most intelligent character in this story. He’s always got an escape plan, and he only ever checks out after one of his fellow criminals screws up and compromises their situation.
While reading Coward you can’t help but draw a connection between the subject matter—Leo’s penchant for turning tail—and the United States’ involvement in Iraq. Brubaker even directly addresses the changing political environment in the U.S.: “Gotta love the War on Terror, hunh?” asks one character after he calls in a bomb threat on City Hall, ensuring every cop in the city will be distracted during the heist.
I know, I know: Politics and comics? Hey, it worked for Marvel’s Civil War series. While not as epic as Marvel’s endeavor, Coward contains some more-subtle references to the Iraq War fight-or-flee debate that we’re experiencing here in the States.
With liberals clamoring daily for troop withdrawals, and conservatives pushing the repeat button on their “stay-the-course” jukeboxes, it’s difficult not to see some similarities between our protagonist and the U.S., as well as the underlying implications of this relationship.
Leo’s not so much a coward as he is a survivor. Before any heist he meticulously plans out an escape route in case things go to hell. Does that mean he goes into every score half-heartedly, always looking for a way out? No. Does it mean that he deserts his friends at the drop of a hat? No. It simply means that he enjoys life outside a jail cell.
So, along these lines, if the U.S. was as smart as Leo, we would have given ourselves a way out before we declared war. Leo knows the gravity—the importance—of a full-proof plan. In his own words, “Dying is a lot harder than killing.”
But even Leo realizes there comes a time when you’ve got nowhere left to run. Sometimes survival means something different. “If life is only about survival, then what is the ultimate cost?” asks Tom Fontana (OZ, Homicide: Life on the Streets) in the book’s introduction. “Does what it take to survive change you—to the point where you are no longer who you are?”
Following this mantra, the U.S. has a duty to finish what they started, rather than sacrifice every ideal that made us a world power in the first place.
Brubaker never officially endorses either idea, and the ending is ambiguous enough to allow the reader to make up his or her own mind on the subject. But the depth that he displays with this first story arc shows a lot of promise for the rest of the Criminal series. There’s real, socially conscious substance here—something that’s lacking with shows like CSI or movies like Along Came a Spider. Will every tale be laced with political ideology? Hopefully not, but Coward at least shows that Brubaker can pen more than your typical caper or good-guy-wins-again crime tale.