Ed Brubaker begins issue #2 of “Criminal” (Volume 2) with this line: “When Teeg Lawless came home in 1972, he brought the war home with him.”
We’ve seen stories of tormented Vietnam veterans before, and we’ve seen guys like Teeg Lawless before — angry hardcases clawing their way through a hostile world — but Brubaker and artistic collaborator Sean Phillips present a masterful portrait of such a man. A portrait that’s filled with violence and death, betrayal and honor. A portrait that gains significance through the context of previous “Criminal” tales, but one that has enough strength to stand on its own. It’s a single-issue story that hammers its way into your psyche with a brutal unfolding of the inevitable.
To be honest, I’ve been disappointed by Brubaker and Phillip’s work on “Criminal” in the past. I thought their first story arc in Volume 1, “Coward,” was a second-rate crime story dependent more on contrived plot reversals than the character-based storytelling to which it aspired. Their second arc, “Lawless,” was far superior, as Tracy Lawless’ slow-burn revenge was a sordid delight to behold. When Brubaker and company relaunched the title with a “New Format” — basically, more pages and a single-issue mentality — I was looking forward to different kinds of stories in this not-quite-high-concept world, which Brubaker himself has described as “like ‘Sin City,’ but more realistic.”
Unfortunately, the first issue of this new volume, spotlighting Gnarly — ex-boxer turned bartender– lacked the bite and energy of the “Lawless” arc and reminded me that this book can tend toward the cliche.
But this new issue, titled “A Wolf Among Wolves,” is the best issue so far, and it proves the potential of the series in its smart mixture of characterization and genre conventions. Phillips is always a strong storyteller, creating moody and evocative images throughout both incarnations of the series, but Brubaker seems at his best when he’s writing bastards. When “Criminal” fails, it’s because Brubaker expresses too much sympathy for his protagonists — or wants to show their underlying goodness a bit too much — and when he’s writing a member of the Lawless family, here or in Volume 1, he doesn’t have to pull any of his narrative punches. In this issue, he allows Teeg Lawless the brutality necessary to do what needs to be done, even if that means slitting someone’s throat. Yet Teeg Lawless isn’t unsympathetic as a man haunted by Vietnam and caught up in double-crosses he doesn’t fully understand at first. He’s a man trying to survive and build a family, even if he doesn’t yet realize what we already know, as the narrator reminds us at the end of the story, “…a love for his sons that hurts him inside. Eventually, he’ll learn to hate them for that. But it’ll take a few years.”
This issue of “Criminal” is very good on its own, but it’s even better as part of the larger “Criminal” tapestry. It informs all of the previous issues and adds depth to scenes we’ve already witnessed. And, as a bonus, issue #2 includes a two-page essay by Jason Aaron on the topic of character-based crime fiction. Aaron mentions what makes “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “To Live and Die in L.A.,” and “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” so good, and in describing that last film, Aaron describes it as “dark, bitter, merciless and gorgeously violent.” It’s no coincidence that such a description could apply to “Criminal” #2 as well.