What can one say about “Criminal: The Sinners,” the third volume and fifth story of the fantastic title by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips that hasn’t already been said? That it’s consistently one of the best comics available? That both Brubaker and Phillips are doing career best work on it? That, on weeks it comes out, it’s a reason by itself to head to the shop? All of that’s been said before, but, what the hell, why not say it all again since it’s all true? And this second issue continues the quality of all that came before.
Last issue, Tracy Lawless was tasked by his boss, Mr. Hyde, to find out who is killing supposedly untouchable men (or, at least, untouchable to all but Hyde and it doesn’t look like he’s doing it). The issue begins with Tracey learning of another death and that leads him to taking his investigation to the next level: “So basically, I’m going to have beat my answers out of people?” he says with a smirk to an old friend at one point. Not being a detective, it’s what makes sense and it’s what he’s good at.
While the basic elements of “Criminal” aren’t entirely original, Brubaker and Phillips are both great at giving them small touches that distinguish them. A scene where Tracy lies in bed, wishing he smoked because it would give him something to do while lying in bed, but he’s always refused to start because his dad smoked is one example, particularly coupled with Phillips’s depiction of Tracy’s face as this is narrated. He looks lost and almost helpless, like he’s a child again, while Val Staples colors his face in a pale grey than the red light his room is bathed in.
The combination of Phillips and Staples makes this book a visual treat. Every panel is considered and planned and is methodical in its choices. It is both realistic and unbound by realism, willing to forego it if the mood of a scene demands it or if, honestly, it’s simply better. The visuals reflect an understanding that the sort of stories “Criminal” tells is about mood and feeling as much as they’re about accuracy or reality. Emotions are heightened through the visuals, ‘naturalistic acting’ used only when it works, and, as a result, it is a gorgeous comic that is also one of the best from a technical perspective.
Brubaker obviously knows this and plays to the artists’ strengths well, putting characters into situations that lead to interesting visuals, and knowing that a simple scene of two characters talking will come out looking amazing. But, while the visuals enhance his writing, his writing stands on its own well. One of the highlights of the issue is a conversation between Tracy and Jenny Waters, both of whom grew up as children of criminals, but where Tracy still is one, Jenny is a cop in internal affairs who we’ve seen previously. The dynamic of both trusting and not trusting one another is handled deftly by Brubaker as they fall back into an old friendship while always remembering what the other is.
“Criminal: The Sinners” #2 is a very good comic, although I must admit that the end of this issue has the plot twist in a way that I’m not sure about. Then again, this title has never steered me wrong and it doesn’t look like it will start soon.