It's a matter of morality.
Almost all of the conflict generated in each Criminal story is driven by the moral decisions characters make. While many of the lead players in the story are absolute professionals, they are often undone by their own consciences. Even if it helps save their souls, there is always a price to be paid.
The Sinners – the fifth story in the Brubaker and Phillips comic – is a fine addition to this established history of painful morality. Tracy Lawless is as dangerous as ever. His family’s history of spilling blood mixes with the cold eye and sheer logic of the absolute soldier. But he has enough burdens on his soul and needs to ensure that those he targets deserve their fate.
These pangs of conscience are noble enough – unfortunately, Lawless lives in a world where nobility is a detriment. The Sinners of the title refer to every character. All of them - even Lawless, who lives and may die by his strict code – is damned.
Some, like the exceedingly dangerous Chester of the loathsome Sebastian Hyde, gave in to their own nihilism a long time ago, but as well as being the usual morality play, The Sinners is also a story about those who justify the horrific things they do. Blood is shed in the name of revenge or loyalty or sheer morality, but that doesn’t make the end result any better.
Even for the Triads, who make a pleasingly predictable debut in this series, it’s all just business and they will justify everything in the name of profit. In a world of professional criminals, the gangs that rule Chinatown have centuries of experience and are scared of nothing.
Despite this widespread justification for violence, the things Father Mike does with his revenge squad are particularly abhorrent. His plan to seize control of the city is logical and smart – nobody sees kids – but the price paid is a terrible loss of innocence. These boys are damned before they can shave and there is real tragedy in the fate of the one kid who just can’t give in to the darkness. Poor Evan has just as much reason for revenge as anybody else, but he just doesn’t want to.
But it’s the story of Tracy Lawless and the reason he was becoming the worst hitman in the world that keeps this latest Criminal story rich and fresh. At the start of the book, he can’t do it any more. He will still take out those who fail to meet basic moral standards, but he just can’t just kill people because they’re stupid and disrespectful.
By the end of the book, all sorts of bad shit has gone down and Tracy is glad that he is going back to the war, where he can just follow orders for a while. He has done his bit for his family and shaken the Criminal world up through sheer force of will and moved on, leaving it to sort itself out.
These characters are given real life through Brubaker’s words and Phillip’s pictures. Brubaker is one of the best dialogue men in comics – some of his characters can sound a little similar, but that’s just because they speak with the simple economy. Brubaker writes about people with no time to waste, so there is no use for wasted words. His sense of pacing and plotting is ideally suited for crime comics and he’s been doing it enough to know when he is in danger of overcooking the story.
Sean Phillips is the perfect collaborator in this regard. Phillips has also moved past periods of intense experimentation into a rock-solid style. None of his characters look the same, they are all distinctive in some way, making it easy to tell the diverse cast apart. He also contributes a real mood of dread and suffocating danger, and the final panel of the whole book is particularly effective – a strangely horrific image of a grinning man in the shadows with a gun.
Unfortunately, that’s it for a while. Brubaker and Phillips both have other interests and are next producing another Incognito series, which is typically satisfying while still lacking some of Criminal’s unique charm. Criminal is now pushed back to a much longer schedule, with a break of more than a year between stories.
That’s okay. There are now five brilliant Criminal books that offer up endless re- readability pleasure and I’m quite happy to join the mass waiting patiently and eagerly for the next story, whenever it may come. This kind of story is always worth the wait.