First off, let me say that I loved Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’s work on “Incognito,” their recent mini-series about a super-villain in the witness protection program. That said? I’m even more in love with “Criminal,” so having Brubaker and Phillips return with a new mini-series puts me over the moon.
“Criminal: The Sinners” returns to Tracy Lawless, star of the second “Criminal” storyline. Don’t worry if you didn’t read “Lawless,” though; Brubaker makes sure that new readers know what they need to about Tracy. Even without the brief piece of exposition, though, it’s not hard to immediately grasp Tracy’s problem. Being a hitman who still has some code of ethics is a way to get forcefully unemployed, even though Tracy has the debts of others needing to be repaid. I appreciated that once Brubaker set up Tracy’s problem, though, he begins to move things forward as Tracy gets a chance to do something else for crime boss Hyde. “Criminal” in general has always been a moving target when it comes to its stories; you may stop for a second, but it’s forever marching forward and changing things up.
What I also always appreciate about a “Criminal” story is that Brubaker keeps upping the ante. Even as Tracy searches for the rogue killer, we get to see to see another hit in action, and it was both surprising and disturbing to do so. With each new scene, there’s an additional piece of information, a new character, another moment that ratchets up the tension. “Criminal: The Sinners” really understands how to tell a story that works both as a serialized comic as well as a collected graphic novel, and the pacing here is outstanding.
Phillips and colorist Val Staples are, per usual, at the top of their game. From Tracy’s craggy face lurking around the corner on the first panel all the way to the end, Phillips continues to draw just beautiful page after beautiful page. I love that Phillips never resorts to a splash page to emphasize a critical moment, because he doesn’t need to. This is an artist who can easily fit six to nine panels on every page and makes sure that every one of them carries a visual impact. From the red explosions of blood out of people’s chests (with a beautiful, green-lit Chinatown in the background) to a shadowed Tracy in an undershirt and pants, every drawing is just about perfect.
If you haven’t read “Criminal” up until now, “Criminal: The Sinners” #1 is a perfect place to start. And if you’re thinking about waiting for the collected edition, just know that you’ll be missing out on all of the bonus materials at the end of every issue. Essays, interviews, media recommendations… Brubaker and Phillips pack a lot of care into making sure you’re getting your money’s worth. In an idea world, “Criminal” would be a top-selling franchise. Maybe it’s not too late to start. Check it out.