Written by: Ed Brubaker
Art by: Sean Phillips
Colouring by: Val Staples
I first came across Criminal in the Covid Humble Bundle last year. That was ‘Coward’, which opens this collection. The series takes a good look at crime story cliches in a set of separate but slightly interconnected stories – you don’t need to have read all of it to understand each part, but there is a ‘universe’ going on here.
Volume One is a 440-page tome collecting the first three graphic novels in the series plus a big old bag of alternate covers, sketches, essays and biographies, as is tradition. This a new version, an oversized hardback, although this review copy is a PDF, so I can’t tell you exactly how deluxe it is!
Leo, a pickpocket son of a career criminal and the titular coward, narrates his own story. Leo lives by a set of rules which have kept him out of trouble until now, but he’s been lured into a heist against his better judgement. Like all heist stories, he’s got to put together a team. Here comes an interesting cast of corrupt cops, junkies and absolute reprobates. A good heist story demands a level of complexity, but this feels like it has a bit more depth than what Hollywood has to offer these days. Yes, it leans into some cliches hard, subverts a few along the way, but then it more than makes up for it with the depth of character given.
I’ll give you a flavour of the rest, or you’ll be reading this review almost as long as I’ve been reading these epic volumes. The second story brings together a prison break, another caper and one man’s search for revenge, while the others take in themes of race, war, family and alcoholism—all the fun things.
There’s no sugar coating the language. While it jars to see some phrases written down, it’s not like you’ve never heard people say the casually racist or sexist things these characters do, and they’re presented warts and all.
Frank Miller is an obvious place to go in terms of comparison, and that’s harsh because everyone comes off worse that way. These aren’t run of the mill crime comics – there’s some craft at work here, with great pacing and some classic plot devices used well. It’s dark, it’s gritty, horrible things happen to morally questionable people, and if that’s ok with you, it’s fun to read!
The art style has a suitably gritty quality for these tales. Once again, Frank Miller seems like an obvious marker, but Sean Phillips does his own thing here. Characters retain detail throughout where a background might just be a splash of colour – this is about the characters and their story, and everything else in there is to serve that purpose. Colours are muted throughout to keep with the realism theme. I feel like the word bubbles are slightly oversized – this seems to be an aesthetic decision as it’s consistent. The art occasionally switches out to a ‘dream’ style which throws out all the linework and brings a slightly more pastel look.
In short, if you’re looking for interesting, well written and well drawn crime stories where no one is dressed as a bat then this is for you.