by Andy Wolverton
You’ll find more depth in the first four pages of Criminal, Vol. 1: Coward than in most other 32-page comics, and once the hook is planted, you’ve got no choice but to keep reading. Trust me, that’s a good thing. In the prologue, we meet Leo Lawless and three other masked men as they attempt an armed robbery that quickly goes off the rails. The scene is so familiar, it runs the risk of becoming just another run-of-the-mill crime story, but frequent collaborators Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (Sleeper, Incognito, Fatale, The Fade Out) set a much higher standard in these opening pages. As we watch the robbery go bust, we read Leo’s thoughts in narration boxes, the things his father taught him as well as Leo’s own rules: “They’re what separates a professional from a punk/pimp/gangsta/lowrider with a gun. Those idiots are cannon-fodder for the system. But someone who follows the rules, who understands how to stay safe… will never rot to death in a 4 x 5 cement room.”
Brubaker and Phillips make some interesting choices. The narration complements the action, although it doesn’t necessarily describe what you’re already seeing through the art, yet the high points of the narration align themselves perfectly with the high points of Phillips’s visuals. The creators also wisely use a bare minimum of sound effects throughout the book, relying on flash images of gunfire and explosions of blood that convey everything you need to know in a way printed sound effects never could.
Yet as outstanding as those first four pages are, there’s so much more to follow. A crooked cop named Seymour wants to hire Leo to help him with a job. Leo worked with Seymour once before and people got killed, so he doesn’t want anything to do with this offer. “Leo’s a coward,” Seymour tells his partner. “He doesn’t just walk away from trouble, he runs.” For a long time we begin to wonder if Leo is indeed a coward or just very, very smart.
But Leo’s life is not without risks. He looks after his Uncle Ivan, a real handful who battles Alzheimer’s, drug addiction, and runs off private nurses faster than Leo can hire them. And then there’s Greta, the widow of one of Leo’s men who was killed in the book’s prologue. Leo has made a career out of running from trouble, but there’s something in his soul that won’t allow him to run away from his responsibilities. Leo cares, and in his line of work, caring can get you into serious trouble.
Brubaker, Phillips, and Staples manage to take familiar crime/noir territory and make it fresh by giving us characters with depth and solidity. We know enough of Leo’s past without feeling like we’ve read his biography, and anything we don’t know, we can see in his face, thanks to Phillips’s wonderful rendering of these characters. Phillips also masters noir style, knowing exactly when to cloak his scenes and characters in shadow, when and how to illuminate certain scenes, when to pull back, and when to close in. His work is gritty without being sketchy, tough and hardened without eliminating hope. Val Staples adds to the noir atmosphere with muted, dark colors for the seedy underworld and nightlife of Criminal, but knows when the colors need to change with the tone of the story.
One of the great pleasures of reading the Criminal series is in discovering all its interesting characters. Seemingly minor figures in one book can become major players in later volumes, making the larger story a epic tapestry of crime and the desperate people in it. But perhaps the greatest pleasure in reading the series comes from watching the creative team of Brubaker and Phillips as they develop their collaborative style. Although they had done excellent work together before Criminal (such as in Sleeper), their work only gets better with time, including their current work on The Fade Out. Anyone interested in crime/noir comics will not want to miss the first volume of this superb series.
Image is reissuing the entire Criminal series (which originally appeared in 2006) this year. Coward was reissued in January and the second volume, Lawless, will be released in March.