Nov 23, 2012

Gateway Comics: Criminal

In the past year, I discovered Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' Criminal, a series set in a seedy city and revolving around a rotating cast of characters, mostly criminals. It just kind of went under my radar for a long while, and I'm surprised how much I enjoyed them, finding myself buying one trade paperback collection after another until I had all six books. As recently as a few years ago, I wouldn't have even given it the time of day.

As I read it, though, it became clear to me that one of Criminal's greatest strengths is that it would make a great gateway comic. Let's look at some of the reasons.

It's well-written. The Criminal series consists of the following books:
  • Coward, the story of Leo Patterson, a small-time hood who has made a name for himself by running away from the scene of the crime when things get hot and never getting caught.
  • Lawless, the story of military man Tracy Lawless returning to the city in which he grew up to find out the story behind his brother Ricky's death.
  • The Dead and the Dying, three closely interconnected short stories delving into the history of the city.
  • Bad Night, the story of Jacob Kurtz, cartoonist, who gets caught up in a terrible racket.
  • The Sinners, a sequel to Lawless
  • Last of the Innocent, an award-winning story that can quickly be described as (although this doesn't really do it justice) "Archie gone bad."
Tracy is the one
character who's
headlined two
The first five stories have protagonists who may not be likable, but we end up empathizing with them. The key difference between empathy and sympathy is that empathy is when you understand where a person is coming from, even though you don't feel the same way. These protagonists don't have the loftiest goals, and we may not agree with their actions, but we root for them to somehow get out of the mess they're in (although, Criminal being noir, you know they probably won't), and that's a testament to Brubaker's characterization. We know that Tracy is a good guy born into bad circumstances, and that while everyone else calls Leo a coward, ther's something in him to root for, and we want him to show us that. We want him to let it out.

In other words, in these noir stories that by nature have little to no hope, Brubaker makes us hope, and every ending is satisfying and rewarding. If that's not well-written, I don't know what to tell you.

Last of the Innocent is a bit different in that the protagonist, Riley Richards, is a dirty rotten scumbag to begin with. Getting rid of his wife is his big plan to make himself a happier man so he can indulge more in his vices (women, gambling). The Archie-style flashbacks to show these characters at a seemingly (but not really) more innocent timeand the use of the Archie analogue characters (Riley is Archie, his wife Felicity is Veronica, the girl next door Lizzie is Betty, his best friend Freakout is Jughead, etc.) appeal immediately to that part of the reader that responds to these archetypes. As such, it's okay that Riley is immediately portrayed as unsavory, because the flashbacks immediately tug at your heartstrings in a visual manner. (As an added bit of trivia, many visuals in Last of the Innocent were specifically made to play off of Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent. See how many you can spot.)

Speaking of visuals...

It's well-drawn. There's not much to explain here. Sean Phillips can draw, and he can sure draw noir (and he's ably assisted by the colors of Val Staples). The mood setting he does is remarkable, and what's more, every character he draws is distinct. They each have their own identity, their own body language, and their own unique features. They are instantly recognizable despite the fact that they don't wear costumes. That's remarkable.

Of course, Phillips may not get all the credit he deserves, because...

The storytelling is straightforward. There seems to be a trend recently in comics where the more powerful a story is or the more it's described as "well written," the artist doesn't get much credit, while fans are only all too willing to praise the writer (the best example of this is still Watchmen). I think this is a shame, of course, because those artists don't get recognized by the mainstream fans, but in some way I think it's a testament to their craft and dedication that they can communicate the story in a clear and effective manner without overpowering it, or feeling the need to overpower it.

Sean Phillips is such an artist. Adhering to a strict three-tier structure, one wouldn't quite be wrong in calling his work on Criminal cinematic, and that's actually what turned me off from the series. I went through a stage where one of my main criteria for trying out new books and creators what that the comics should utilize techniques that were exclusive to the medium—in other words, things that are difficult to adapt into other media. (My reasoning was that comics were expensive, and if they were adaptable into other media for a cheaper price, I'd get the cheaper version, so the storytelling was a more important factor than the story itself.)

Criminal reminded me not only that a good story is a good story, but straightforward comics storytelling is itself a comics-exclusive technique. By deciding on the sizes and composition of the panels, Phillips highlights the scenes that need it and lets the reader fill in the gaps between the panels. I had been so turned off by purely cinematic comics for such a long time that I had forgotten how involving and interactive comics was at its very core, and Criminal reminded me of that. Just because it's cinematic doesn't mean it has to be only cinematic.

And that's why people who are looking to get into comics would easily be able to get into Criminal. Look, I love fancy which-way-do-I-go-now layouts as much as the next guy who's read comics since he was three, but the fact is that some people aren't used to it. Not everyone can intuitively read comics—some people just don't have the mindset for it, and get confused by your JH Williamses and Marcos Martins. Newer readers may need something straightforward to ease them into the medium.

Criminal does that. It's well delivered and doesn't call attention to itself. The story comes first. It's easy to read, and what's more, it's a joy to read.

Speaking of which...

The world building is fun. The very nature of Criminal makes it even more fun and interactive for readers. With different protagonists all set within the same city, it's inevitable that each story would be interacting with the others. As a result, you get the history of the city piecemeal and your mind can't help but put them together bit by bit. For example, in Coward, a man named Teeg Lawless is mentioned. We never see him, but it's clear he's a big part of the city's history. The protagonist of the next volume, Tracy, is both Teeg's son and Ricky's brother. Coward shows a Dick Tracy–type comic strip in the local paper, by a guy named Jacob Kurtz (I wonder if that's intentional). He becomes a pivotal character in Lawless, and is the protagonist of Bad Night. Little things like this enhance the experience  and really reward recursive readings. It all connects, but they also all stand alone, and you can read them in any order (except for The Sinners, which is a direct sequel to Lawless, and even that's debatable, because it still feels like its own story).

In this way, it gives way to the same kind of fun experience that a shared superhero universe does, without—I think—any of the problems with continuity and different conflicting accounts of the same event (that's where having just one writer helps). If you're the type of reader who likes to find connections between different stories and figuring out how things fit, you'll love this.

And of course, the final reason this would make a great gateway comic...

People love crime fiction. I could probably even have omitted "fiction" from that last sentence. Crime's just a pretty popular genre, with a lot of shows dedicated to it and a whole channel on our cable service just for crime. Perhaps most tellingly, one of the biggest and most successful movie franchises of all time, The Godfather, is about crime.

And that's cool with me. I do feel that in American comics, people feel the need to use superheroes too much, even when they have other stories to tell. It's nice to see something like Criminal around, showing that human characters work just fine as protagonists and antagonists for human stories.

So if you're looking to get into comics and you love crime stories. Criminal is the place to start. And if you're looking for a Christmas gift for someone who fits that description, you'll have your choice of formats: six trade paperbacks or two deluxe editions.

Or you can hunt down all the single issues. They have extra features, and from what I've been told, it's worth it.

1 comment:

JV said...

Ed Brubaker and Sean Philipps have done a lot of other titles together. They do stellar work on Sleeper, a superhero/espionage/noir which also makes for a good gateway comic. Incognito is similar but pales in the shadow of Sleeper while Fatale is a horror noir mash-up that's been good so far but has yet to reach the same level as Criminal or Sleeper.

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