Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips: Criminal Vol. 1: Coward

By Leroy Douresseaux
June 3, 2007 - 13:43



Criminal, the comic book series by writer Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, is less than a year old, and it has garnered acclaim from trendy comics critics and Brubaker and Phillips’ colleagues, who are all too eager to provide quotes for book covers.  Word is that Criminal is some kind of meditation of the clichés of the crime genre – the authors’ chance to play with and to examine what makes crime fiction.  Whatever.  Along comes Criminal Vol. 1: Coward, the first trade collection of this series.

The truth of the matter is that to hold Coward is probably what it’s like to hold a rattlesnake in your hands.  People wondered if there would ever be another great, long-running crime series like Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s 100 Bullets, and this little mean s.o.b. could be it.  This is crime fiction.

Criminal Vol. 1: Coward collects the first five issues of the series and focuses on Leo Patterson.  He learned the art of being a pickpocket from his father Tommy Patterson and his “Uncle” Ivan.  Leo has never been arrested because he’s careful and he follows “the rules” to the tee.  His troubles begin when two old associates (from a job that went bad when Leo didn’t follow his rules) coerce him into a job with Jeff Driscoll, a dirty cop.  Leo takes control of the heist to make sure that everyone sticks to his rules, but the best laid plans mean nothing when dealing with a dirty cop.

Who will like this?  Fans of the aforementioned 100 Bullets and also admirers of David Lapham’s Stray Bullets are hungering for Criminal even if they don’t know it exists.  You can think of this as a hard-ass remix of elements of John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, and Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street.

Does this concept really work?  Brubaker’s writing is actually pretty elegant for such a down and dirty tale.  While the characters all fit a crime genre type, not all are stereotypes.  The female character Greta is a layered, rich personality and is completely believable as a former junkie.  If there is a movie version of this, a good actress can take Greta and turn her into an Oscar nomination.

Sean Phillips’ art isn’t so much gritty as it’s hard.  Where as 100 Bullets is crime fiction as slick, high art, Phillips paints Criminal as severe and as tough as a world in which people do kill without blinking.  He draws the characters in such a fashion that we know they’re hiding secrets and thoughts, but when something comes to the surface, Phillips makes sure it’s plain to see.

Ultimately, there is hardly a bump in the road here, making Coward a seamless crime comix classic.  There were times when I had to back away from this murderous little treat.  Read it.  Enjoy it, but don’t turn you back on it.





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