Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips are hoping crime does pay because their new creator owned series “Criminal” from Marvel’s Icon imprint hits stores this Wednesday. The new ongoing series follows a large cast of interconnected characters and the various felonious acts they often engage in. CBR News spoke with writer Ed Brubaker about the crime series
“Criminal” came about when Brubaker and Phillips, who had previously collaborated on the Wildstorm series “Sleeper,” were searching for another project to work on. “I wanted it to be a truly creator owned comic and hopefully something that like ‘Sleeper’ would spawn a franchise of trade paperbacks,” Brubaker told CBR News. “I started looking through some of my notebooks and I found all these outlines for crime stories I’d written. There was a time about four years ago when I was trying to sell a series of graphic novels to a foreign publisher. I had a bunch of notes from that and I looked at those and thought, ‘Is there some way I can do a crime comic as a creator owned thing that uses all these ideas and is like an umbrella title with a cast full of characters that I can populate these stories with and explore the themes that I have been fascinated with for years?’
“I sat down with that for a few days and was trying to figure out a way that would work as a continuing series as opposed to a series of graphic novels or mini-series,” Brubaker continued. “So, I figured out this cast of characters who all have these links between them and the back story of it all just started falling into place about a year or so ago. So it’s been formulating in my head for all that time.”
This large cast of characters Brubaker has developed for “Criminal” will populate their own little universe and some of them will take the stage and be the focus of the story at different times, similar to how certain characters receive the spotlight in titles like “Sin City” or “100 Bullets.” “One of my favorite crime writers is George Pelecanos,” said Brubaker. “All his books take place in Washington D.C. He’s got a variety of different characters that sometimes star in a book. When you’ve got a book with one character at some point in that story he hangs out with one of the characters from one of the other books. I always liked that. It was like all these characters exist in the George Pelecanos Universe. That was my break through as to, ‘How do I make this my sort of Ed Brubaker universe?’
“There’s a back story to it all,” Brubaker continued. “Basically all the characters interact, but the main character in the first arc is this guy Leo. There’s a secret back story that sort of gets pieced together through each arc and when we get to the point where the reader thinks they know the entire back story; then we’re going to do sort of a period piece that’s all about these characters when they were kids. That’s when this back story event happened.”
The main characters in “Criminal” are acquainted with each other as adults because of their shared childhoods. “The main characters are all like 2nd or 3rd generation professional criminals,” Brubaker said. “Their parents were all in a group that would pull down scores. So, their parents all knew each other and they have this twisted history of having grown up around each other. You know how your parents would sometimes take you to their work parties when you were a kid? Well all their work parties ended with people getting in fist fights and broken glass. They weren’t nice people.”
Leo, the main character of the first arc of “Criminal,” tries to keep clear of violent displays of criminality like fist fights and broken glass. “He is a pick pocket and also has worked on a number of heists,” Brubaker explained. “He is sort of one of those guys that if you’re going to plan a score, you want to him to help you figure out how to get away with it, but being careful is really his big concern. His dad died in prison and he doesn’t ever want to meet that same fate. He carries around a lot of guilt for some things and we don’t exactly know why. He’s a very careful, calculated person. He doesn’t have a lot of friends and he doesn’t let a lot of people in. He’s one of those guys that any job he’s ever worked, he always has another way out. He has multiple exits if he needs to take them and at the first sign that things are going wrong he will be the first person out the door, changing clothes, getting on a subway train and disappearing into the city.
“So, because of that he’s got a little bit of a bad reputation among the criminal community,” Brubaker continued. “A lot of people who don’t really know him think that he’s a coward. The people who have grown up with him, some of them don’t really understand everything about him and think he’s a coward as opposed to somebody who’s just incredibly careful.”
The first story arc finds a reluctant Leo joining a crew to take down a score. “It’s a heist story,” Brubaker stated. “A lot of them will be. I’m trying to do what will sort of be my ultimate noir because I want to start big. I decided to take a bunch of different noir genre tropes and string them into one story. The first act of the first story is basically a heist. The second act is sort of the twisted noir love story. The third act is sort of the ‘man on the run gets revenge’ noir story. They all string together into one sort of mini epic. It’s the story of Leo taking a chance for a variety of reasons and how it completely backfires because he breaks his own rules. The one time he says ‘fuck it’ and puts his rules away, everything that could go wrong does. So, there was a reason for the rules.”
As readers see the consequences of Leo breaking his own rules, they will also encounter a number of colorful and crooked characters. “Basically there’s a crooked cop and a guy from Leo’s past named Seymour gets together with him to help plot this score,” Brubaker said. “They have their own agenda obviously. Once Leo is convinced to go into it he brings in his friend Donnie who is this conman. He’s an epileptic conman who makes a few thousand dollars a week pretending to have seizures on the train and asking people for money to go to the emergency room.”
The character of Donnie was inspired by real events. “It’s actually something I saw in real life in San Francisco,” Brubaker explained. “There was a woman who I saw do this about six times. Then about a year later there was an article about her in the paper and how she was making like $4,000 a week. She had kids and lived in a penthouse apartment in San Francisco.”
In addition to Donnie, Leo, Seymour, and the crooked cops, the heist crew also includes a female member. “Greta is sort of the other main character in the story,” Brubaker stated. “She’s this woman with a connection to Leo’s past that sort of coerces him into helping out with this score because he feels somewhat responsible for something that happened to her in the past. They have sort of a cantankerous relationship because he doesn’t really trust her for a variety of reasons but he feels beholden to her as well. They have a little bit of a struggle because even though they don’t totally trust each other, they trust the other people on the job, a bunch of crooked cops and the people who hang out with them, even less. So it’s an interesting dynamic as they plot out the heist, everybody is wondering how they are going to get stabbed in the back or if they’re going to walk away with millions of dollars.”
This first story art featuring Leo is called “Coward” and will run five parts. Leo will participate in the next story arc, but in a smaller capacity. “The next storyline is called ‘Lawless’ and that sort of ties into some of the stuff discussed in the back up stories in the first few issues,” Brubaker said. “Each issue we’re having various articles and back up stories and things like that because we have the full thirty-two pages to work with.
“The first back up story is about the wake of this guy who is mentioned in the first story arc,” Brubaker continued. “In the back up story you find out that he’s been dead for awhile and the second storyline is about his older brother coming back to town because he just found out his brother was killed a year earlier. He comes back to town to find out what the hell is going on and he goes AWOL from the military, where he’s been for about twenty years. He comes back looking for answers. It’s kind of like ‘Get Carter’ in a way. It’s sort of the investigative noir trope.”
The third storyline in “Criminal” once again find Leo in the lead role. “Leo and the main character in ‘Lawless’ are two of the main characters who will be in most of the storylines, although there is another character that is alluded to throughout the first storyline. I don’t want to reveal how exactly, but there’s a running thing through out the comic that helps tie it all together, which you’ll see in the first issue.”
Readers of “Criminal” will want to pay close attention to all of the conversations in the book and things that happen in the background. “There is nothing in the book, no single line of dialogue that is thrown out that doesn’t actually mean something, that isn’t part of sort of building the world,” Brubaker said. “If you hear two people talking about someone in the background in a scene at some point, you’re probably going to meet that person.
“I want it to be a comic that rewards its readers for buying it and I also want it to engage people,” Brubaker continued. “I want it to challenge them in some ways. I want you to have to go back and reread it and go, ‘Oh shit! I didn’t notice that!’ I’ve been trying to do that on all my stuff as much as I can, but there’s always the fine line you tread of trying to tell a story really clearly so readers don’t stumble and also giving them something with dual meaning and some kind of challenge where they go back and reread it and go, ‘Oh! There was a clue about this!'”
“But there is a bar that all these characters go to that has a lot of history and a lot of the back up stories center around the bar,” Brubaker continued. “Sean and I have talked about, depending on how long the book goes and how long we get to keep doing it, doing single issue one-off stories about various characters that we meet through the bar. I’ve already started mapping out the first one, which would be about the main bartender you see throughout the first arc; this grizzled, old ex-boxer. We talked about doing a story about him that takes place in the 70s or late 60s.”
With “Criminal,” Brubaker hopes to take familiar noir genre tropes as ingredients and blend them into a potent and fresh story cocktail. “I’m basically trying to use the noir and crime genre in a way that plays with the clichés,” Brubaker stated. “There’s reader expectation with any sort of genre trope or cliché, so you can actually play off that expectation by sort of twisting the clichés in different directions. That’s one of the main things that I wanted to do with this book and why I wanted to do the book. It was to do the kind of crime stories that I felt like I wasn’t really seeing. The kind of stuff that when you start to describe it, it sounds like ten other stories, but when you read it it’s much more of a character piece and goes in different directions than you would expect.”
“Criminal” will focus on dark toned noir and crime stories, but that doesn’t mean the series won’t have its share of lighter moments as well. “There is a lot of humor in it, actually,” Brubaker said. “There is sort of a mood to it. I don’t know exactly how to describe it. It’s that sort of dark mood, but it does sort of have a more playful energy to it. When I was working on the first issue, I found that if I could get the mood of the book and the world across that I would have succeeded in what I was trying to do. I found that I had to start listening to a lot of smoky bar room kind of music while I was writing the first issue; going back to stuff that I hadn’t listened to in years like Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits and even Frank Sinatra. I was trying to fit the right mood to it. It’s got a sort of bleakness to it. I wanted it to feel sort of the same way inner city America feels when you go there. It feels kind of bleak and depressing.”
Each issue of “Criminal” will be jam packed with content including dark toned crime stories, back up stories and the occasional article. “Me and some friends of mine who are writers and comedians are writing a variety of things about the crime and noir genre and crime comics and crime movies,” Brubaker said. “I’m writing an article about ‘Out of the Past,’ which is an old Robert Mitchum film that’s one of my favorite movies and I think is one of the ultimate noir movies. It has just about everything. It has the best femme fatale of all time.
“Patton Oswalt is going to write some articles about old noir films,” Brubaker continued. “Patton is probably the biggest noir film buff that I ever met, even more than me. He lives in LA and he goes to these festivals where they’ll show stuff that hasn’t even been shown in theaters since the 50s and is not available on DVD or Laser Disc or anything. He’ll go see a movie that you’ve been reading about for like 20 years. So he’s going to write about that.
“I have other friends and I want to do a variety of things and make it some ways almost like a magazine,” Brubaker said. “I don’t want the text stuff in the back to just be a letters page, but we’ll probably run the odd letter here and there if we get a good one. I really want it to feel like you’re getting a complete package and you’re getting your money’s worth every time.”
For those of you hoping to get the complete package, you’ll want to pick up the monthly comics – those extras won’t make it into the eventual traders. “So, if you want to get all the back up stories and extra material, those will only be in the comics,” said Brubaker. “Instead of saving all the bonuses for later, we’re giving the bonuses to the people who are actually making this possible.”
Brubaker hopes that many people pick up “Criminal” and make it possible for the series to continue for a long time. “I could do this book for the rest of my life,” he said. “And I think Sean could, too.”
CBR’s journey through the felonious underworld continues tomorrow when we speak with artist Sean Phillips about “Criminal.”