By Al Kratina
April 11, 2007 - 11:01
Sequential art is a medium as rife with possibilities as any other. Which is why it’s strange that the American comic book market is so dominated by superheroes. The magazine industry manages to print titles varied enough that you can obscure the front of your idiotic lad mag with a torn Scientific American cover so your boss doesn’t see you reading about gadgets or a Q&A with some Brazilian swimsuit model. The literary industry pubilshes at least one book about 19th century naval warfare for every 10 Stephen King novels about killer cars, health books that toe the line between weight-loss and inspiring anxiety driven anorexia, and childishly written books about The Holy Grail that try to dumb Dan Brown down even further. And even Hollywood, the most mercenary of industries, makes the occasional foray into romantic comedy or award-season drama amidst the flurry of teen comedies and horror films that alternate loud noises with shots of Jessica Biel in jean shorts. But comics, they generally tend to stick to the superhero formula, which is why titles like Criminal stands out so much.
But even if crime comics were a dime a dozen, Criminal, by Sleeper team Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, would distinguish itself nonetheless. The story of Leo, a professional thief, drips with all the atmosphere, memorable characters, and most importantly, nihilism of film noir. From the first page, when Leo speaks of his childhood, of learning the criminal ropes from his father, we know that things will not end well for our anti-hero. Though the first issue, with its emphasis on the various rules and codes of honor for criminals, occasionally verges on cliché, it quickly becomes evident that this is yet another deliberate touchstone to the noir genre. After a heist gone bad, Leo retires from big scores, choosing instead to pick pockets for a living, but when he’s approached by his old partner, a crooked cop, an ex-junkie from his past, and the details of a huge job stealing diamonds from a police evidence van, Leo is pulled back into the world he was trying to leave behind. Again, the basic story is familiar, but Brubaker infuses it with so much life, death, and creativity that it seems as fresh as the first time someone quoted Al Pacino in Godfather III. The cop turns out to be more crooked than Leo could imagine, and the job sours, leaving Leo on the lam with a fortune in heroin, a dead friend’s girlfriend, and his elderly drug-addicted/Alzheimer’s-stricken foster father in tow. Things go rapidly downhill from there, and Brubaker brings an unrelentingly hard and realistic feel to the book, with sharp dialogue and a progressively darker mood. The most interesting part of the book, however, comes with the Leo’s character arc, which is less of a development than it is a revelation to the reader, who learns detail after detail that eventually leads to a disclosure that coincides with the climax of the plot, making the final issue a devastating read.
Sean Phillips’ panel layouts are straightforward enough to let the story flow smoothly, and his art is simple but evocative, bringing the look of film noir to life while updating it with modern flourishes. What’s most impressive about Phillips is his versatility; the art here bears little similarity to his work in Marvel Zombies, which shows that he’s adaptable to different story telling styles. His characters in Criminal are distinctive without being caricatured, and the realism of his style lets the story hit you in the gut with a balled fist. And thankfully, that fist is not gloved, wearing a power-ring, or attached to a guy in a cape.
Rating : 9 on 10