Ed Brubaker is more commonly known today as the man who killed Captain America. As great as it is that people are getting to know this man’s comic book work, his best work is not his superhero books, but his gritty noir crime comics. From Sleeper and now to Criminal, both with artist Sean Phillips, Ed Brubaker is showing he is one of the top crime comic book writers today. His gritty storytelling accompanied with Phillips’ noir-esque visuals help make Criminal a book to keep an eye on. This is a story about cops and robbers, only the cops are worse.
Criminal is essentially a heist gone wrong. However, like most noir stories, the plot very quickly becomes intricate and draws the reader in. The characters themselves are not always “likeable” per se, but you still root for these anti-heroes as, quite frankly, they are the “lesser of two evils”. That’s not to say however that the antagonists are not enjoyable as well. That is the great thing about noir: every body is bad, albeit at different degrees.
Sean Phillips is no stranger to noir comic books either. Having worked with Brubaker on DC/Wildstorm’s Sleeper, he can depict dark and gritty scenes perfectly and still allow shocking moments to hit hard. The artwork is in no way flashy, and that is how it should be in a story like this. This is a crime comic, not a superhero one; the rougher the art is the better. If the artwork were to have a “spit and polish” shine to it, it would come across more as a bad Bruckheimer action-caper than something that fits more in line with Sam Peckinpah’s classic The Getaway or the new director’s cut of Payback.
Something that creator-owned comics have over company-owned superhero books is that no character is safe. This is especially true for noir comics where the line is blurred between “good guy” and “bad guy”. Brubaker gives enough surprises to keep you interested, but not only that, you also care for the characters and what happens to them no matter how dark and seedy they may be.
One of the newest trends in independent comics is to offer “more” for your comic book money. In most cases, this means a few pages of writing from the author. Criminal is one of these books. Every issue has a write-up by Brubaker as well as a special section with a rotating list of contributors wherein they talk about noir books, movies, etc. One of the best of these is the one in the fifth issue, whereby Brubaker and a list of other noir comic writers talk about their favorite noir films from the 1970’s. It is this contribution that makes you feel like you are entering a noir community and allows the reader to check out other pieces of noir fiction to further their enjoyment of Criminal.
If you are in search of a new comic title to that is not about the usual superheroes, or is not dozens if issues already into a story, Criminal is the book to pick up. With enough questionable characters, gritty artwork, and additional back-up material to draw you in and keep you engaged, you’ll be glad you did.