This arc of “Criminal” hasn’t messed around at all. We’ve had the set up, then we’ve been delivered the execution, and now we get the aftermath. Riley Richards is not a very nice guy, but at least he recognizes this in himself. Over halfway through this storyline, it’s shaping up to be the best “Criminal” arc for many reasons.
One major aspect that separates this book from other crime comics is that this never feels gratuitous. Ed Brubaker doesn’t set things up so he can show people getting stabbed or shot. He sets up people to be stabbed or shot so we can see the ripple of emotion and opportunity it creates in the wider story. Then he doesn’t actually show us the violence in question. It’s a bold move and one that opens up room for much more characterization. Riley made a plan and didn’t consider the difference between theory and practise. Now, on the other side of the deed, he’s reflecting on what it makes him feel.
The main concern of this series is the question, “Is it worth it?” Riley is in the position he wanted to get to. He’s worked hard, made it all happen, and now must consider what comes next. To right what he saw as wrongs and place himself with a chance to get the girl he should have chosen all the years prior, Riley has managed to generate a lot of bad scenarios for other people. It’s like he thought he was just going to burn a photograph and instead has torched half the town. So many lives are ruined just so one man can relive his high school choices again.
This story could almost be over, were it not for the fact Brubaker is playing with noir. This point, right when the lead thinks he’s made it, is when things get their nastiest because things go off the script. Riley’s reactions to ruining his best friend’s life are interesting; he’s upset but sees it as almost necessary. His thoughts about setting up an old rival for more than you might think is disturbing in his ability to taunt and be so cold. Riley is driven and focused. Apart from the lady, all others are collateral damage. The only problems with this issue come from some character reactions to Riley. He’s put on a convincing display of grief, and for anyone to see through it doesn’t ring true. It feels slightly forced just to push the story into the next act.
Sean Phillips makes the right choice to draw every character looking haggard in this issue. No one glows, they rarely smile, and creases define the troubled times they all live through. Phillips wants the faces to propel the story, and he manages to do it with pages still dense with panel work. The flashback scenes are perfect examples of matching an art style to tone and intent. A shame the present art is always as good when it shows a few inconsistencies in shape and selling the scene. There’s much more ink, perhaps a signifier of the darkness creeping into the title. Dave Stewart comes in as the new colorist and, as far as new guys go, this is a pretty stellar standard to step into. He nails the flashbacks and keeps the overall aesthetic consistent, though in the present his spread could feel smoother and the popping colours need more vibrancy. The pages have a tendency to all rely far too much on the one tone.
“The Last Of The Innocent” might be a title referring to only one character. She’s the one you have to worry might get hurt the most by story’s end. The formula and planning ends with this issue and here on out is going to be a jazz free-for-all of survival and wits matched. It’s fun watching one man, even one as nasty as Riley, pull off such a bold plan. It’s going to be even more fun watching him slowly wind in on himself as the walls close in. This issue is the demise of a man, a real man, and the sudden replication of a person capable of fooling himself. This is a character-driven comic lead by a character who is making himself anew, and that makes for one hell of a dark ride. You want to hate this character until you see so much of yourself in him. This is a retroactive revenge fantasy played out on a bleak landscape of souls who lost happiness long ago and are now searching for something close but decidedly different.