Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Best Books You Aren't Reading: Criminal

This is the first in a set of comics-related articles. In case you couldn't tell from the pretentious and obvious title, it's about some of the best comic books on the shelves that have a criminally small readership (that sure was punny, right? Right? Oh, god, shoot me). Today, I'll be talking about Criminal, a book put out by Marvel Comics under their Icon label, and a book that has just very recently gotten a second shot as they released Criminal volume 2 #1. And before I receive accusations of being indier-than-thou (seriously, I don't think Criminal counts as all, but I have been called such), let me just point out: you KNOW all the big-name good books. You know that Ed Brubaker is doing great stuff in Captain America, and some fine work in Daredevil. You know all about Grant Morrison's Batman or All-Star Superman. Those books that sell well, some of them are great - but they're selling well, so obviously, people KNOW they're great. Criminal or Blue Beetle? Those are the books that could use a boost.

While there is continuity to Criminal, each arc is kept apart from the one before it, with a different main character and an all-new supporting cast. Under a less-talented writer, this might cause some problems, but Ed Brubaker, long familiar with noir-styled comics, seems to enjoy being able to shift his focus.

Now, why should you care? That's the question that makes books like Criminal a tough sell. It doesn't have any of the characters you know and love. It's constantly in danger of cancellation. It veers off the mainstream superhero stylings. Why am I asking you to throw down your precious money on a complete wild card.

Well, a few reasons.

The art. The art on Criminal, done by Sean Phillips, is amazing. No, really, it's really damn good. If I had scans - and I WILL have scans once I get my scanner hooked up - I'd post them to prove it. Suffice to say, Phillips' noir-stylings and perfect panelling give the series so much atmosphere it hurts, and he can do a great job with any kind of scene: action, romance, or just the dreaded talking-heads segments.

The characters. The characters are complex and entertaining. They're realistic, and you realize as the story goes on that you can understand why these people became criminals. Leo Patterson is one of the best new characters in recent memory - he's heroic in his own way, but the criminal culture has him tagged as a coward, just because he's smarter than your average crook. Tracy Lawless is a whole other kind of criminal: he's the sort of in-your-face, fearless bastard that you don't want to run into on a street-corner, the one who shows you just how important how you're raised can be.

It never insults your intelligence. Brubaker doesn't assume that you're too stupid to put A and B together. You begin to catch on to all the subtle relationships that exist between even minor characters. It seems like each member of these teams is a fully realized character, one about whom the next arc could be featured without trouble....

It's not a lot, but it's there. Criminal is consistently well-written, with beautiful art and a complex crime story. It won the Eisner Award for Best New Series in 2007. And it's a great book with a small readership that deserves a much larger one. If you like crime dramas, heist stories, or getting in close and dirty with the criminal underworld, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' Criminal is for you.

On top of a new issue just recently coming out, the first two arcs are collected in trades.

Criminal: Coward

Criminal: Lawless

I sincerely hope you give the book, and others that I'll talk about sooner or later, a shot. Ask your local libraries to pick it up, if you don't want to drop the cash yourself. Libraries are an important resource, and are slowly becoming more and more open to comic books.


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