The first story-arc of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Criminal was a breath of fresh noir air. A lot of the time the opening arc of a comic is its best, or at the very least, better than the second. As good as that opening arc was, the second arc, titled “Lawless” is actually better and only solidifies Criminal as one of, if not the best comic out there, period. Brubaker and Phillips create an incredible character in Tracy Lawless, who doesn’t seem to give a damn about anything and truly is bona-fide badass.
The tone in this arc is even darker than the opening storyline. Aside from a brief appearance from the lead of “Coward” that shows Brubaker is creating a world that is linked together, this is pretty much a self-contained story. It involves the return of Tracy Lawless to America after hearing his brother has been killed. Tracy, a Vietnam vet, goes after the crew that his brother hung with, as word is they were the ones that killed him, and decides to take out his revenge slow and methodically. What makes this such a wonderful story-arc is that Brubaker does not pull any punches and keeps things gritty and dark, while Philips’ art only mirrors that and adds to the noir feel of the book.
Brubaker’s penchant for gritty narration and smart dialogue gives the feel that every word counts in this book. Every word, every panel matters, and leads up to the conclusion which readers may or may not agree with, but can see how the character arrived at that point. Too often stories are injected with surprise endings just to throw a curve at the audience which feels forced or unnatural. While certainly the ending may surprise some, it still feels in character with Tracy’s personality and the tone of the story. In fact, it makes the story even more disturbing and gripping than it already was.
Phillips’ artwork only adds to Criminal‘s already pulpy feel. There are very few artists who capture the noir mood of crime comics as well as Phillips. His work is stunning without being flashy or over-the-top. His panels are detailed enough to let you know what is going on, but not overwhelming. In short, he’s the perfect artist for Brubaker’s terse scripts. The only negative thing about the format is that the trade paperback collection does not contain Philips’ wrap-around covers from the original issues. While this is unfortunate, it may just be another reason, along with the back-up articles, to be buying this title in its monthly format.
Some of the best comic adaptations to the screen lately have been from crime comics. Movie adaptations such as Sin City, Road to Perdition or A History of Violence have shown just how deep and complex comics can be. They have also been adapted by some of the best that the movie genre has to offer. While Criminal has only published a dozen issues so far, this second story-arc is something that would translate well to the big screen, not only because of the excellent story, but also because Tracy Lawless is a fascinating character. This would certainly not be a “happy-go-lucky” Hollywood movie, but it would be a great addition to the already great list of crime comic book movies.
Criminal is a comic that any fan of the medium should be reading. With its second story-arc it has cemented itself as one of the best modern books and, likely, as one that will long be regarded as an example of the medium’s artistic potential. Its interesting, well-defined characters, dark and gritty story, and beautiful artwork show us why this title won best new series at the Eisner Awards last year. This storyline promises that the series is just going to get better as the creative team delves more and more into the dark, seedy world that is Ciminal. Buy this book, as to not to is a crime.