A new arc of “Criminal” begins with a perfect jumping on point, as usual. This book takes place in the same universe of the other “Criminal” minis, and it includes the odd Easter Egg-style reference to overall continuity, but it is a beast unto itself and a very savage one, at that. Ed Brubaker has been very open about the impetus for this book being the death of his own father and the personal investment on the page echoes like not enough comic writing does. This book is a study of our view of the past, both our own and a culturally ubiquitous one, as well as the start of the best noir tale you’ll find in any medium.
One of the largest hooks of this arc has been the inclusion of retro pages that look like “Archie” sequences while still including the sort of content you expect from this book. To subvert the visual simplicity with a horrific complexity of moral ambiguity and decrepitude might seem an easy thing to do, and to attempt it isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it is the level of class and innovation which Brubaker brings to these flashback pages that make them resonate with a smirking class. Not only are they not what you expect, but they tread a line between making you understand the characters and making you laugh out loud. “Criminal” isn’t a comic that often makes you laugh — it isn’t crime like Tarantino or even Leonard — so this issue is something fresh and yet still completely consistent with prior arcs of quality and tone.
Within this one issue, we meet Riley Richards and come to know him and his story completely. There are certain angles only alluded to, but the omission of information seems purposeful because it draws the reader in. Brubaker doesn’t want a single dimension of this world to be boring and the layers of time, character, and motivation are astounding. This is a dense comic that attacks your brain in waves and on many levels. There’s far too much about this comic to like.
For a comic that has built itself on being the beating heart of pulp on the stands, “Criminal” still always processes so much heart and humanity as well. This issue gives us a cheating wife, a standover father-in-law, and a serious debt owed, but it also delivers a sweet drug addicted childhood friend gone straight and a high school love like you never forget. The quiet panels of her hair in her face or his still-a-little-crazy smile are what will stick with you whether you realize it or not. This comic gives you what you too often forget: your past. Everyone has something or someone they’ll always love and that piece of our life never comes back easy.
Sean Phillips mixes up his style between past and present, but no matter what time he operates in he packs a lot of story and truth into his pages. When a loveless couple occupy a single bed, you know it’s true. When an old rich man looks down his nose at the fool who married his terrible daughter, you know it’s true. When a man faces up to the truth of his past and his present, you know it’s got to be true. Phillips brings truth to every panel and this comic is everything because of it.
The colors are slightly more subdued in this arc. The main sections feel less neon and more shadowy. The flashbacks are newspaper flat and childhood bright. Then there’s every panel Lizzie Gordon occupies, which is brighter and happier than everything else. Val Staples is narrating this tale as much as Brubaker and Phillips are, and he’s a masterful storyteller.
This book is somewhere between “Daytripper,” “Crime Does Not Pay,” and the Sunday funnies. You’re going to get a helping dose of pulp, but underneath it all are some home truths. This book will entertain as well as make you think. If you don’t want to call your own father after reading this issue then you aren’t reading it right. And then there’s that final panel, a moment that actually made me gasp. I’m really glad it wasn’t spoiled in the set up for the series. It’s so simple and yet so shocking, and a perfect hook to get you wanting more. You’ll love this comic and you’ll absolutely hate the wait before you find the next one in your local newsstand.