“Criminal” is my favorite comic book right now. Maybe if “All-Star Superman” #12 ever came out, or if “Casanova” weren’t on hiatus, it would have some competition, but “Criminal” could certainly hold its own against any comic, past, present, or future. It’s a series that has only gotten stronger as its progressed, and the current arc, “Bad Night,” is the best one so far.
Issue #5, the second part of the new arc, features “Frank Kafka, P.I.” cartoonist (and reluctant forger) Jacob as he experiences a unique kind of hell. A captive of the seductive Iris and her psychotic boyfriend, Jacob hallucinates about his own comic strip creations, recalls the horror of his own wife’s mysterious death (and the police harassment that followed), and anxiously begins a new stage in his warped relationship with Iris. All of this happens under the threat of death, as the imbalanced boyfriend, Danny, hovers over him.
Ed Brubaker has been playing around with formal structures in this series, using overlapping narratives between issues in recent stories, and even playing around with the flow of time through a measured use of black panels. “Criminal” #5 seems less structurally playful on the surface, but not only does it bring a minor background character (Jacob) into the foreground of the arc, it weaves flashback and hallucination into the present-day narrative with sublime grace. And Brubaker creates a sense of a fully-realized world in which to torment Jacob by showing Iris and Danny always in mid-argument. Jacob, the captive of these two, always seems to walk in on them as they’re shouting about something important, but we never get the full picture of their quarrels. Like Jacob, we are interlopers into their story, and we only see fragments of it.
But, of course, it’s really Jacob’s story, and Brubaker creates a complexity to his character the old fashioned way, by showing him in all of his contradictory impulses. Jacob is a classic type: the meek anti-hero with the bottled up rage. Brubaker emphasizes his foibles, but continues to make him sympathetic. When Jacob’s bad night gets much, much worse by the end of this issue, we see him step into a more forceful role. But he’s still Jacob, and he’s a long way from being all right.
Brubaker wouldn’t be able to pull any of this off so effectively without Sean Phillips, who continues to produce the best work of his career on this series. His chiaroscuro effects perfectly establish the haunting darkness of one man’s personal encounter with the underworld, and he’s able to pull off the potentially silly conceit of the Dick Tracy-esque Frank Kafka, a two-dimensional comic strip character, appearing in the “three-dimensional” world. It’s the type of thing that takes advantage of “Criminal” as a comic book. A movie wouldn’t be able to incorporate a blocky comic strip character so efficiently. At least, not without ruining the noir atmosphere. But in a comic, when done right, it completely works. And Phillips is the man for the job.
Like most “Criminal” issues, this one has the bonus of a crime essay in the back of the book. In this issue, we actually get two of them: one by Marc Andreyko and another by CBR’s own Steven Grant. It’s the kind of added feature that makes the already-excellent “Criminal” so far superior to any other comic on the stands. But, really, it’s the comic book pages that matter, and even without the essays, this issue would certainly be well worth its $3.50 cover price.
If you’re not reading “Criminal,” you should be. It’s a dark, twisted, glorious descent into the world of crime from two creators reveling in their work. I can’t recommend this book highly enough