This is a story about love losing to pride. A story about fathers and sons. A story about brothers from different mothers. A story about a girl. And a story about those moments in your life that change everything.
Criminal is a book about the seedy underbelly of our society and the people that live there. There are no heroes or even anti-heroes in this book. Just thieves, murderers and as the British say, villains. In this second volume of the series, Ed Brubaker (Captain America, Daredevil, Sleeper) and Sean Phillips (Marvel Zombies, Sleeper) return with a series of one-shot origin stories based on some of the background players from the first critically acclaimed volume. FYI, if you haven’t picked up the “Coward” or “Lawless” trades yet, you should. Quick. Anyway, this first story examines the heartbreaking story of Gnarly, the current owner of the Undertow Bar and 20+ years ago, a rising star in the boxing world. The story actually starts a few years before Gnarly is born, back in 1954 when Gnarly’s father, Clevon, takes low rent mobster, Walter Hyde out into a field to put two in the heart and one in the head. Fortunately for Walter, he manages to convince Clevon to spare him and in return he offers him a place by his side… once they manage to take out the current “heads of state” of course. What follows is a friendship between Clevon and Walter Hyde that extends to their two sons, Gnarly and Sebastian.
Gnarly and Sebastian grow up as close as any brothers could. But like all friendships, they rarely stand the greatest test of all… a dame. For Gnarly, it’s about love. For Sebastian… let’s just say baser desire prevail. Regardless of motivation, they both act irrationally and their friendship never recovers. Years later, or present time in this story, Sebastian is preparing to take over his father’s criminal empire, while Gnarly wants nothing to do with it. He shows no interest in following in his father’s footsteps, instead, he pursues a promising boxing career. But, it’s his love for his “brother” that keeps getting him into trouble. He just can’t seem to say “no” whenever Sebastian asks him for a favor… until he finally does. The tension in their relationship builds and builds until finally “that dame” from the past comes back into the picture to screw it all up, all over again.
Criminal is reminiscent of Brian Azzarello’s 100 Bullets, but without the layered conspiracies and purposely lyrical and at the same time indecipherable dialogue. It’s bare bones noir, with extra servings of heartache and irony. What I love so much about Criminal, is how wonderfully flawed all the characters are. These are real people I can root for and sometimes against. No one acts heroically, and if they do (which is extremely rare), they self-consciously realize how insane and out of character these actions are. And they know that in their world, no good deed ever goes unpunished. Brubaker and Phillips have also done a remarkable job of translating that black and white noir feel into a modern comic. Of course, some of the stories take place in the past, but those are mostly flashbacks. The real meat always happens in the present day. I love that in Ed and Sean’s heads, the romance of the underworld still exists in this modern age. The stories are always an entertaining and fulfilling read, with masterful plots and subtle character development. I don’t think Brubaker is currently writing a better comic book, including Captain America. Phillips art style is dead on. I couldn’t imagine anyone else drawing this book.
As an added bonus, Brubaker always includes a healthy amount of back matter, consisting of articles by Brubaker and other crime noir fetishists. These are fun and educational, and they really give you a sense of how much these guys love this genre. As first issues go, the inclusion of a complete story makes it a perfect time for newbies to jump on for the ride. Once you finish this one, you’ll immediately be compelled to find the back issues from the first volume, or pick up the trades. And once you’ve read all those… hey, you can start on the “Sleeper” trades.