The first story-arc of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’s Criminal was a breath of fresh, noir air. Often, the opening arc of a comic is its best, or at the very least, better than the second. But 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 comics out there, period. Brubaker and Phillips create an incredible character in Tracy Lawless — one who doesn’t seem to give a damn about anything and truly is bona-fide badass.
The tone of this arc is even darker than the opening arc. As well, 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 slowly and methodically. What makes this such a wonderful story-arc is that Brubaker doesn’t pull any punches, and keeps things gritty and dark, while Philips’s art only mirrors that and adds to the noir feel of the book.
Brubaker’s penchant for gritty narration and smart dialogue gives the feeling that every word counts in this book. Every line and every panel matters, and leads up to a conclusion that readers may or may not agree with, but can’t fail to see how the character arrived at that point. Too often stories are injected with surprise endings just to throw a curve at the audience, and winds up feeling forced or unnatural. While the ending may certainly 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 messed-up than it already was.
Phillips’s artwork only adds to Criminal‘s already pulpy feel. There are very few artists who capture the noir-ish aspect of crime comics as well as Phillips. His artwork 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 is that the trade paperback collection doesn’t contain Philips’ wrap-around covers from the original issues. While 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 silver screen lately have been from crime comics. Movie adaptations like Sin City, Road to Perdition, and 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 almost a dozen issues so far, this second story-arc is something that would also translate well onto the big screen. Not just because of the excellent story, but the character of Tracy Lawless himself is an interesting one. 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, Lawless, it has cemented itself as one of the best comics of all time, and is at the top of the list of titles presently published. Its interesting, well-defined characters, dark and gritty story, and beautiful and complementary artwork show us why this title won best new series at the Eisner Awards last year. This is the best storyline yet, and gives hope that this 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 do so is a crime.