Written by Ed Brubaker; Art by Sean Phillips
2007 Eisner Winner for Best New Series
2007, 2008 Eisner Winner for Best Writer
Noir is the new black. It seems like everyone is going for noir these days (at least the ones who aren't going for zombies). You put some detectives in a gritty urban setting with a depressing narrative and you've got it made. Comics in particular have started producing a lot of noir in the past few years and the best of these that I've found is Criminal.
There have been three complete story arcs for Criminal so far and all of them are contained in Criminal: The Deluxe Edition. The first one is titled "Coward" and is about a thief who survives by planning every detail and following a strict set of rules. Those rules make other people think of him as a coward, especially since he fled the scene of the last big job while the rest of the crew were gunned down. He is driven to break his own rules as part of a new job that's bigger than anything before and it has some troubling consequences.
The second story is "Lawless" where a man trained as the army's perfect killer goes AWOL to seek his own brother's murderer. His brother was a criminal and the signs point to the murderer being part of his own crew. So this man infiltrates the gang by cutting a bloody swath through the underground.
Finally there is "The Dead and the Dying" which is three interlocking stories of a former boxer, a soldier just returned from Viet Nam, and a woman who loved the wrong man. Their lives collide as the woman seeks revenge on her former lover, the soldier attempts to find a place for his violent nature, and the boxer attempts to protect the woman he accidentally hurt.
These could have been simple stories about bad people doing bad things but Brubaker creates some compelling personalities to center the story on. These stories are from the school of writing where you throw together a bunch of strong-willed people together, put them at cross-purposes, and see what happens. These stories aren't about the big heist, they're about what happens after the heist.
One aspect of that is that these are bad people doing bad things and Brubaker does present them as heroes. It is appropriate to a noir story that the characters given heroic development but it can be a bit off putting when the guy you're supposed to be cheering is murdering people in cold blood.
Sean Phillips impressed me with his ability to carry these stories. These days it's more popular with artists to create large designs but he has created pages that are dense. He's fitting in seven or eight panels per page and while he stays locked on a three tier format he does not limit himself to variations on the nine panel grid. He enjoys the tight, inset reaction shot and uses it well. This wouldn't have worked if Phillips wasn't able to do a terrific job with the characters' faces.
I don't usually single out the colorists like this but Val Staples does a standout job with Criminal. It would have been easy to do a traditional coloring job with this book and it would have been fine like that. Staples on the other hand rarely uses more than two hues in any given panel which gives the book a washed out feeling that's appropriate to its style.
Even though I wouldn't call Criminal a perfect book I'm unable to come up with any specific flaws. Everything is good, I'm just left with a nagging feeling that it could have been better. However if you like noir at all then I can think of no reason to not read this book. The Deluxe Edition is well worth it too as a terrific looking hardcover that collects everything current and a whole lot of extra material. On the other hand if you don't care for noir then I doubt that Criminal is going to change your mind.