CRIMINAL – AN APPRECIATION
With its fifth issue, the first story arc of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ CRIMINAL comes to a conclusion. If you missed it, don’t sweat it. There’s a trade paperback coming out in a couple of months. Place your orders for it now, because no student of comic book storytelling should miss this book. It’s a wonderful example of everything comics can be when the creative team is in perfect synch and all the cylinders fire at the same time.
We’ll start with Brubaker’s story. It’s a modern crime noir story. It’s a heist movie. It’s a bad world filled with bad people doing bad things, but a world which immediately draws you in and makes you root for the right people. I mentioned in my review of THUNDERBOLTS last week that I had a hard time sympathizing for any of the characters in the book. They were all just miserable cretins. CRIMINAL is populated with criminals doing the wrong thing, yet you still root for the lead character, Leo. He’s a smarter brand of criminal. Some call him a coward, but he’s smarter than that. He’s not a gambler. He’s a man with respect for life and himself. And he has rules to live by which keep his crimes on the straight and narrow, if you will, even for a con man such as himself. It’s a wonderful inner turmoil that propels the narrative.
That’s actually the thing about the book that impressed me the most. Every character in the book is well thought-out. Nobody is there to simply fill up a plot point. They all have stories, and Brubaker is very good about suggesting those stories in brief snippets of dialogue for the reader who’s paying attention. In many heist movies, twists happen because the screenwriter needed to add something of interest on page 87 or 102 or wherever. In CRIMINAL, Brubaker supplies the same number of twists, but each one makes perfect sense. He’s established the characters and they can explain themselves when it comes time for the big reveal. More importantly, they all have valid reasons for doing what they’re doing. They’re not doing it simply because they’re evil. They’re doing it for what they truly feel is their own personal greater good. They’re often wrong, but they’re reasoned about it.
All of that makes the book ten times more interesting than your average heist flick, crime comic, or (most) television drama.
In order to accomplish all that, Brubaker has to squeeze every drop out of every scene that he can. Go back and read the story a second time after you’re done with it. Pay careful attention to the hints that get dropped in the dialogue. Notice the way characters are briefly described in their introductions and then perfectly follow those characteristics for the rest of the story. Notice the way a passing glance or a stalled bit of a dialogue really hints towards a larger picture.
All of this, of course, wouldn’t be possible without a great artist like Sean Phillips. He’s not afraid to draw eight panels on a page. He’s willing to keep the storytelling simple, using a three-tier grid approach to the storytelling, and dividing it up into as many smaller panels as he needs to. There’s a beat in every panel, especially the silent ones. And his choices in the mundane scenes are fascinating to look for. I noticed one in the fourth issue, in particular, I wanted to call to your attention as a great example. Phillips uses some techniques of cinematic storytelling throughout the series, in addition to the usual sequential narrative tricks that Eisner taught us all fifty years ago. When you have so many talking heads scenes, as CRIMINAL does, just how do you make them visually appealing? Storywise, Brubaker handles it with his terse dialogue and sharp choices. Nothing is wasted. But Phillips has the harder job of keeping the reader’s eyes glued to the page and not just skimming from balloon to balloon. Check out this portion of a scene from issue four.
It’s a very small section of a three page dialogue scene, with our protagonist, Leo, chatting with an old friend who’s in a new position in life. I don’t want to — nor need to — spoil the story elements here. I just want you to notice a subtlety in the storytelling. It’s an upshot on Leo follow by a downshot on his friend. That’s nothing dramatic until you realize that the two panels occur after Leo begins getting up from the table. The angles are the points of view of the other character in the scene. It’s her looking up at him, followed by him looking down towards (not at) her. And that’s set up by the first panel in the sequence, which shows that action happening. The series is filled with little moments like that, if you care enough to pay attention to them. You probably won’t on the first go-around, though. The story will grab you so strongly that you’ll enjoy it too much to notice the mechanics of why.
Phillips’ art is fun on the ZOMBIES books, but it’s in CRIMINAL that he becomes the teacher and we all become unwitting students.
One quick tangent: Later in that same scene, there’s this panel that reminds me an awful lot of John Byrne’s NEXT MEN-era art. No, I’m not suggesting an homage or plagiarism, or stylistic simpatico. I’m just saying that it caught my eye and was wondering if anyone else sees the similarity, or if I’ve just read far too many comics now?
Let’s also talk about design for a second. I love a well-designed book, comic book, or cover. I don’t have a graphic design degree or anything. I could only give you the rough outline of how nice a grid structured layout can be. But I know what I like when I see it. I love to see creators — and even companies, as a whole — stretch themselves and try something different. I enjoyed the Marvel Civil War trade dress. I liked the half-cover art, the large issue numbers in white tucked into the corner, and the large “CIVIL WAR” banner across the bottom half. It jumped out at you, and looked like something different from the usual posed stock action shot of a single character on a cover. Plus, it helped tie in together all the relevant chapters of a given event.
CRIMINAL benefits from double-page cover spreads. The front cover grabs your attention, but it also wraps around to the back cover, forming the left half of the image, an appropriate place for pull quotes, and a beautiful movie poster looking thing. Phillips painted each cover, and did so with a strong sense of color. Reds and blues dominate — mostly reds in the first couple, and then all blues in the last few. Some of the art is a little sketchier or more abstract than others, but it’s all striking and gets the point across.
Heck, I even like the way the two page splash when you open the comic uses the inside front cover to give the issue a title page.
Credit also goes to Val Staples, who handles the interior colors. He’s one of my favorite colorists today, particularly as he’s not one of those big names that people tend to think of first when they think of comic colorists. But I put him in the same class as a Lee Loughridge or a Patricia Mulvihill or even a Susan Daigle-Leach. These are the colorists who aren’t flashy. They aren’t busy trying to sculpt a photoreferenced drawing into something that looks exactly like a photo. They’re there to tell the story without distracting from it. The use of colors is restrained and often monochromatic. Sometimes, a simple earth toned background color (perhaps with a slight gradient) behind a cool-colored character is all you need to tell the story. That’s the kind of work Staples does here, with a cooler tone to the comic that keeps the storytelling clear without calling attention to itself.
But he’s also capable of making bright vivacious decisions. Check out his work on some of Robert Kirkman’s books — everything from INVINCIBLE to BRIT to BATTLE POPE. All of the same lessons apply, just with brighter colors. It’s not over-rendered, and it promotes the art.
Lettering, for my fellow lettering junkies, uses the “Sean Phillips” font from Comicraft. It looks great here and gives the book its own look. It looks like the balloons are drawn by hand with the letterforms thrown in on the computer. Since there’s no credit for “letterer,” I’m guessing Phillips did this himself. It’s a great example of why it’s so important for the artist to take the lettering into account as a part of the art, and not something slapped on top later down the road. Too many artists crowd every panel with art, leaving no room for the word balloon to go. For an artist like Phillips doing his own lettering, not only does he know enough to leave room for the balloons, but he can also achieve some nifty effects by hand drawing the balloons in the sizes and shapes he knows he’ll need.
So, basically, CRIMINAL is a success on every level. I normally try to balance out my reviews a bit by picking a nit or adding a little constructive criticism in here. It usually makes my columns completely unquotable and leads far too many people to believe I didn’t like a book because I qualified too many statements. That won’t be a problem with this book. I have no nits to pick here. There’s nothing that bothered me about the book. There’s actually nothing wrong with it that I can pick up on. And that’s a rare pleasure these days.
The first five issues are out in stores now, if you’re lucky enough to have a shop that ordered enough copies to still have them on the shelf. Each issue comes with some of that “back matter” material that books like FELL and CASANOVA are famous for. They vary from text pieces and letters columns by Ed Brubaker to multi-page appreciations for classics of film noir, with gorgeous illustrations by Phillips. I don’t know if those will be in the trade paperback or not, so it might be worth hunting down the single issues just for those.
The first CRIMINAL trade paperback is shipping in May through the Icon imprint at Marvel Comics. If you missed the monthly series, this is your second chance to jump on one of the most exciting new titles in quite sometime. It’s a book that doesn’t disappoint. Give it a chance.
I ran out of time this week to write up a proper review of TEXAS STRANGERS, the new Image book shipping this week. It’s a fun colorful alternate history western/magic comic book. (Think BRISCO COUNTY, if you’d like, but it’s a little more alternate than that.) I hope to come back with a review for you next week. But I’ll give it my recommendation now and see you back here next week to explain why.
My blog, Various and Sundry still carries on. If you like AMERICAN IDOL or 24, this is your place to visit every week for a lively conversation. If you’re a DVD hound, be sure to check out the site every Tuesday for a discussion about what’s new each week.
More than 700 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They’re sorted chronologically.
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