Sunday, June 21, 2009

It's Criminal

I bought the first two collections of the Criminal comic by Brubaker and Phillips last weekend. It’s really fucking good.

I got the first collection on Saturday, and enjoyed it so much, I went back to the comic shop the next day and picked the second one up. This morning, I went and got the third. I haven’t done anything like that since I had a disturbingly chaste love affair with the Sandman comic back in 1992.

It’s a fantastic comic, hitting all the right beats and making all the right moves. Brubaker has visibly evolved as a crime writer over the past few years and Phillips has settled into a style which perfectly compliments the writing, and the work they produce is simply stunning.

There is a lot to like about Criminal and to spare the overuse of gushing adjectives, here are a few of them, all in easy to read bulletpoints.

* The Undertow bar. One of the constants in the tale, bringing it all together. But it’s also a fascinating character in its own right, from the bartender who knows everything and tells nothing to the cold, hard history of the actual building and the people it attracted.

* The complete lack of bullshit in Brubaker’s writing. No stylistic tricks, just straight, solid storytelling. Brubaker has always been unafraid of letting his characters tell the story, and with the cast that fills the pages of Criminal, his job must have become a little easier. But it all adds to the effortless readability of the thing. With so many comic writers falling prey to stylistic tics, no matter how groovy, it's actually rare to see a work that has so much self-confidence that it doesn’t rely on anything like that. Events happen at their own pace, but it never gets dull. It's the same kind of easy readability you see in the work of Garth Ennis, and when used right, it can be massively powerful.

* The unpredictable plot. There is always a certain pattern to crime stories, but it’s the way the details play out that make or break the tale. If a job is set up, it is guaranteed to go wrong at some point, due to the sheer unpredictability of the world, but it’s always a question as to when it does go tits up. Killing a character who has just recovered from an almost fatal injury has an incredible punch to it.

* These are serious people, doing serious jobs. Michael Mann has built a very solid film career with this theme, (and one of the best eyes for capturing the sheen of modern life), and it’s pleasing to see the same sort of professional in Criminal. The other week I watched Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, and it was hard to feel any sympathy for criminals who were so goddamn stupid that their downfall was inevitable (which may have been the point of the film), but when you see these serious men doing everything possible to ensure their plans go right, it’s a real gut-punch when things go wrong.

* The maturity in the storytelling and confidence in its audience. It doesn’t repeat any information that it doesn’t have to and trust the reader to make the connections necessary. You don’t need to be continually told how much of a total badass Tracy lawless is, his actions speak for themselves. This denseness allows a wealth of information to be imparted with the minimum of bullshit.

* The devil in the details. The slow release of information means there are little details that pop into focus when they are expanded on in later issues. Read a new issue or book of Criminal, and you've got to go back and check out the previous story, because there was a moment in that that seemed a little vague, but is now obvious. The Hernandez brothers have been fucking masters at this with Love and Rockets, forcing a dive back into previous stories whenever a new issue is released, and I fucking love it.

* The facial expressions Sean Phillips gives his characters. Brubaker has to put a lot of faith in his artist. If he was writing a crime novel, he could just describe the look of disgust or weariness on somebody’s face, but in a comic, it’s all down to the artist. Fortunately, he’s got Phillips, who is fucking excellent at things like expressions and body language, and it’s always easy to tell what the characters are thinking (or what they want you to be thinking). When you look at how awful some Bendis comics are, just because the artist is incapable of showing the difference between a wry smile and somebody who looks like they're jizzing in their pants, it shows how important this can be.

* And Phillip’s action scenes are magnificent. Easy to follow with a real rhythm. It’s a sadly little seen talent in modern action comics.

* And… fuck… it’s the whole damned thing. The compassion shown by these people who know they are damned, but still live by a code. It’s a story of horrible people doing awful things to good people, but it’s also a story of the love that drives there. It's a story about Leo Patterson’s willingness to walk and Gnarly Brown’s willingness to pay the price for an insult. Teeg Lawless’ love for his sons and the terrible things he thinks he has to do for it. Poor old Ivan and the skills he hasn’t lost even as his mind goes. Those awful lessons, repeated in generation after generation and all those poor people who keep making the same mistakes. These stick-ups and shake-downs and hauls and scores that destroy lives and offer hope. These crimes.

The only bad thing about Criminal is that I’m ashamed it took me so long to get into it. What the hell was I thinking?


Unknown said...

Nice look at the series here. Man, I love this book. I assume you've read Sleeper, but if not, I highly recommend it. And their current distraction, Incognito, is pretty good too, but I'm ready for them to get back to business on the real thing.

Just out of curiosity, what do you mean by "stylistic tricks"? I do think Brubaker does use some, like the intertwining stories of the third volume, but they're so well done that they don't call attention to themselves. A lot of people talked about the blackout scenes in Teeg Lawless' story, and that's another device that was used really well, effective in its naturalism. And I don't know if you've gotten to volume four yet, but there's an interesting trick that Brubaker uses in the final issue to reveal some of the untold backstory; I thought it worked, but I could see some people being put off by it.

Not that I'm disagreeing with you; I think the writing is excellent, and yes, Phillips' art is just amazingly good (and don't forget the coloring by Val Staples). What a great series.

Bob Temuka said...

I did write that bit about stylistic tricks before reading the third book, but the way Brubaker uses them is just so organic, they never pop out. Those Teeg blackouts felt perfectly natural, and just about the only way to portray the event from teeg's point of view in a way that makes sense.

It's more that Brubaker never goes overboard with captions, or overcooks the dialogue. Somebody like Grant Morrison is brilliant with the snappy dialogue, but sometimes it can get a bit too much. The characters in Criminal actually speak like real people, and that's something that is sadly seen too little in modern comics.

I have read Sleeper and will read Incognito, but it's the non-superhero stuff that Brubaker and Phillips excel at, and that's the stuff I'm keener to read.