If there’s one thing that Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips do very well in “Criminal,” it’s deliver a strong, surprising ending. Things are never quite as they appear in the world of “Criminal,” usually with the final issue of a story illuminating some truths, while still maintaining a certain ambiguity. The finale to “Bad Night” is no exception.
The protagonist (“hero” is way off) of this story, Jacob Kurtz shows his true colors and reveals himself to be far more than he’s always appeared. Kurtz has, to this point, been shown as weak and ineffectual, and, in this issue, is just as weak and ineffectual most of the time, but there’s also something far darker beneath that. His motivations and actions stem from weakness, but manifest themselves in ways no one could predict — but were also there all along if you were paying attention.
In a sense, Brubaker has produced a mystery here where last issue’s revelation that Detective Starr and Iris are working together. The true revelation is what’s inside Jacob Kurtz, who he really is, and the truth behind his wife’s death. And no one escapes justice here.
The issue begins with a startling shift in narration by showing Starr’s perspective on his encounters with Kurtz and suggests that Starr is the victim. If this were a police procedural, Starr could be the lead detective in a corrupt city and Kurtz would just be one of those scumbag murderers that managed to get away despite Starr, and the audience, knowing that he’s guilty. Of course, since this is “Criminal,” there’s something undeniably unlikable about Starr, and he misses the irony of decrying “corrupt cops” while he’s framing a man for murder.
Phillips’ art is its usual stellar work. His ability to depict subtle emotional shifts in characters is unmatched in comics today. On one page, he has Iris received two pieces of bad news and react in a stunned, hurt manner, but the different in those two panels is illuminating. The change isn’t drastic, but enough to show that, while the two items hurt, one hurts more than the other.
His use of three tiers is quite effective, particularly how he primarily has tall, thin panels broken up by the odd short, fat one. By shifting extremes, the rhythm of the comic is affected greatly, creating a subtle pace.
A strong end to a typically strong story that proves, yet again, that “Criminal” is one of the best comic books out there, both in its craft and its content. Brubaker and Phillips grab you from page one and don’t let go, even after the final page, as that final panel will stay with you for a while.