Breaking the Law(less): Brubaker Talks "Criminal"

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' creator owned series "Criminal," published by Marvel's Icon Imprint about the bloodletters and bad men who make their living on the other side of the law, burst onto the scene with rave reviews and has garnered two Eisner nominations. With the first "Criminal" collection (collecting the series first storyline "Coward") in-stores this week and the second storyline set to begin at the end of the month, CBR News checked in with writer Ed Brubaker for an update on the series.

The reaction to "Criminal" was a pleasant surprise for Brubaker. "It's been more than what I expected honestly," he told CBR News. "Our first issue did over twice as much sales as the first issues of either series of 'Sleeper.' I think for the whole first five issues we never printed under 20,000. As long as we remain in the high teens or so we'll be able to keep doing this book forever. Critical reaction has also been great. I was down in LA a few weeks ago having a few different meetings with Hollywood studios who are interested in having me write a film based on the series."

There's also a growing legion of "Criminal" fans outside of the U.S. "The European sales for the foreign editions of the trade paperbacks have done really well," Brubaker said. "So the first trade comes out this week and by the end of May, middle of June we'll be out in six or seven different territories."

The intro for this week's trade paperback collection of the first "Criminal" storyline is written by another devotee of the book, a writer whose work Brubaker has enjoyed over the years. "We've got an intro by Tom Fontana," Brubaker stated. "He's a big fan apparently. He's one of my gods. 'Homicide' and 'Oz' are just amazing."

May is a big month for "Criminal" fans; the first trade hits stores this week and two weeks later (May 23rd ) "Criminal" #6 hits, which begins a new storyline entitled, "Lawless." The story arc is inspired by the revenge film genre of which movies like "Get Carter," "Point Blank" and "The Limey" are examples. "It's definitely a take on that genre, but there's so much you can do with it," Brubaker explained. "I just watched 'Get Carter' to make sure I wasn't completely riffing off of it. One of the things in 'Get Carter' that you get if you sort of read between the lines is that Carter and his brother weren't necessarily close. They maybe weren't even friends. So there's stuff like that in this story.

"One of the things I wanted to do was explore brotherhood and family," Brubaker continued. "A lot of people don't always like their family, but they couldn't handle it if anything bad happened to them. So that's really what this story was about.

"Also it's trying to get into a different headspace with a character than where I was with 'Coward,'" Brubaker said. "With 'Coward' it was all about a person struggling with their own sense of worth and the violence within them and that means they go to lengths to keep themselves safe from the world and what's inside of themselves. With 'Lawless,' the main character has been in the military for like eighteen years. So, he's a whole different kind of person and very few things affect him. Even the things that affect him he doesn't necessarily show you how they affect him. So he's a really interesting character for me."

When readers meet Tracy Lawless, the star of the "Lawless" arc, they'll instantly be able to see just how different he is from Leo, the star of "Coward." "The first moment we meet him, Tracy is strangling somebody to death," Brubaker said. "He's not a guy who takes a lot of shit. He's spent a good ten or fifteen years in Delta Force basically assassinating people for the military. He doesn't necessarily want to kill people, but he doesn't have a problem killing people if he feels like they deserve it because he's been in the Serbo-Croatian Conflict and Bosnia and Afghanistan and Iraq. He's been in a lot of places where people are doing bad things and he's been the guy on the rooftop blowing those people away.

"So, he's a really interesting character, but he's also a character who doesn't talk a lot," Brubaker continued. "Because of that I made a calculated decision; whereas in 'Coward, everything is narrated first person narration, this story is really third person subjective. You don't necessarily know anything Tracy doesn't know. I figured he's a guy who doesn't talk a lot so he's not going to have a rambling first person narration either. That's probably a nod to Richard Stark's Parker novels, which usually begin with 'When Parker . . .'"

The "Lawless" arc of "Criminal" isn't the only storyline that's been influenced by Stark's work. "In my mind 'Coward' was sort of the flip side of the coin of the Parker novels," Brubaker stated. "One of the things people take from the Parker novels when they go off to write their own fiction is the brutality of them, but they forgot Parker never does anything that he doesn't have to do. I wanted to do a character that was incredibly careful and incredibly professional and not just ready for violence at any moment because I don't think most people are, but I also think it took a level of escapism out of the heist scenario in the story."

Tracy Lawless's military background has made him a man ready for violence at a moments notice and his story will offer him a number of chances to exercise his combat skills. "Tracy goes AWOL because he's pissed that his commanding officer didn't tell him that his brother had been dead for almost a year," Brubaker said. "He hasn't spoken to his brother for almost fifteen years. That's just the jumping off point for the story. There are three or four heists in 'Lawless.' I wanted to do a story that had a lot more quick heists in it; where you see this guy getting embroiled in this gang."

Tracy gets embroiled with a gang pulling off heists because of his brother's death. "He comes back to town and since he doesn't just want revenge, he wants to find out what exactly happened with his brother. The way he sees to do that is to infiltrate the crew that his brother worked with because his brother was left for dead in an alley the day after a heist went down. So, Tracy figures his brother was double crossed by somebody in his crew. That crew is still working and since no one knows who the hell he is, Tracy comes up with a fake identity and tries to figure a way into their crew. That's what the first issue is about; him trying to figure a way in and reflecting on the fact that he spent most of his adult life separated from his brother. From then on it's a bunch of different heists and crime related events but really it's a character exploration with this guy realizing he didn't really know who his brother was."

Exploring Tracy as a character means the "Lawless" arc will be examining the family that helped shaped him. "The Lawless family are second and third generation criminals," Brubaker explained. "The whole series of 'Criminal will focus on characters like Leo, Tracy and Jacob, a character that we'll meet in issue #6 who will eventually star in his own story. All these guys knew each other growing up because their parents were all criminals and they hung out at The Undertow [a bar that 'Criminal' readers were introduced to in the first story arc]. So, the Lawless family is kind of messed up in a variety of ways. Each one of the Lawless boys took after different parts of their father, who was one of the meanest, most fucked up bastards ever.

"Eventually I'll get around to telling the story of their father, Teague Lawless's death," Brubaker continued. "That's going to be like the fifth or sixth arc, assuming we get that far. We'll actually go back into the '70s and '80s and see these guys as kids and see their parents pulling down scores.

"So, yeah, Tracy and his brother really came from a fractured upbringing with a violent, alcoholic dad. Everything they witnessed as children sort of affected who they became when they grew up. Tracy hated his father more than anything in the world."

When Tracy returns to town, he will feel some guilt over escaping the violent world of his family and leaving his brother behind. "One of the reasons he left town was that when he was eighteen and his brother was fifteen they got busted together stealing cars," Brubaker explained. "Since he was eighteen, Tracy was given the choice of jail or the military and his brother got sent to juvie. That's where they got divided."

Tracy Lawless comes back to town to solve the mystery of what happened to his brother after they got divided, but readers of "Lawless" will also be gradually given the answers to a mystery concerning Tracy. "When we first see him in the military, he's being released from solitary confinement after eighteen months in a military prison," Brubaker said. "There's a whole other mystery behind that, which gets revealed throughout the story. What exactly did he do? Why wasn't he ever tried and convicted of anything? Basically the military had to put him away for awhile to avoid a scandal for some reason. A lot of that has to do with some important stuff in the story."

Readers will also learn some important things when Leo, the protagonist of "Coward" appears in "Lawless." "He appears in issue #7," Brubaker said. "You get to find out what happened to him after the end of issue #5. He's got some insight into the story, but he hasn't seen Tracy Lawless for a long time. The last time Tracy was in town was when he was done with basic training."

In addition to Leo, a few other established characters will make return appearances in the "Lawless" arc. "The characters from The Undertow are all there; Gnarly the bar tender and you get to see what happened to Greta's daughter Angie, who was left with Gnarly at the end of issue #5." Brubaker said. "It's going to turn out that Gnarly and his wife end up raising her. The next time you see her she's busing tables at The Undertow and yelling at customers and emptying ash trays. She basically becomes a little tyrant in there."

There's a few returning characters in "Lawless," but mostly the story features new characters or characters that have been alluded to in earlier issues. "Mallory was mentioned in the back up story in issue #1 and you meet her in #6," Brubaker said. "She becomes a real prominent character throughout the rest of the story.

"And there's Sebastian Hyde, the richest man in town," Brubaker continued. "He's mentioned in the first storyline and we actually see him in this storyline. He comes to the fore. He's basically a 'fixer' around town. He's a very important character in the fictional world of 'Criminal.'"

Another character readers meet in "Lawless" is someone who may not have been mentioned by other characters, but characters in "Criminal" have been seen enjoying and being confounded by his work. "You meet the guy who does the 'Frank Kafka' strip in this storyline," Brubaker said. "He'll get his own story eventually about why he does the strip and what the underlying meaning of it all is."

Some readers may have misinterpreted the meaning and significance of the "Frank Kafka" strips that have appeared in past issues of "Criminal." "A lot of people have referenced 'Watchmen,' with the Black Freighter, which you could really view as almost a key to 'Watchmen.' It sort of explains the theme of the comic and reflects the story," Brubaker stated. "But with 'Frank Kafka,' I was doing it almost like a Greek Chorus, where it's talking directly to the reader and commenting on the story. If you read the story closely you can hopefully see an emotional resonance between the things being talked about in 'Frank Kafka' and the larger story. There should be an emotional resonance between 'Frank' and its surrounding scenes in 'Coward.' Like in the final one you see Frank basically screaming to the heavens that he's being screwed with. Then you turn the page and Leo's about to step out and open fire. He thinks of Greta. There was a line that I cut out there where I was going to explain what he means when he says, 'I'm making the same mistake my father made.' But I really didn't want to hammer it over readers' heads. If you're reading the story closely enough you know that the mistake Leo's father made was caring more about him than he cared about himself. That's why there's this nice picture of Greta smiling from the pillow; this one happy memory of a moment before everything went to hell."

"Frank Kafka" is just one of the fun little segments of "Criminal" that readers have come to enjoy. Another segment is the back-up articles where Brubaker and his friends write about things like their favorite crime films. One upcoming article will be authored by the writer of one of Brubaker's recent favorite crime films. "Josh Olson is going to write a piece about 'The Silent Partner,'" Brubaker explained. "He was nominated for an Academy Award for writing 'A History of Violence.' I met him just recently because he's a comic fan. Someone at a store in LA e-mailed me that he was a big fan of 'Criminal' and 'Sleeper.' So I made the guy give him my e-mail. Josh wrote me and we just started e-mailing back and forth. I actually got together with him a couple of times when I was down in LA. He's a really interesting guy. He's been around forever, doing work around the film industry and he's even done comics back in the day. Now he's an overnight success."

With the sales success of "Criminal," Brubaker is currently debating what story to tell after the "Lawless" arc. "I think it's a good idea that once the book gets going to have some stand alone issues instead of always doing a serialized story because we have all the back material [back-up stories and articles] that isn't going to be in the trades and that stuff makes the comic an attractive thing for people," Brubaker explained. "The way the market is now so many people wait for the trades and I find it hard to argue when someone is selling you something like a great stand alone story. You can't say, 'I'm waiting for the trade,' to that. I was looking at 'Fell' and I like how each issue you can read on it's own, but they build on top of each other. So I may want to try and do something like that next. I'm waffling back and forth between doing that and doing the sequel to 'Coward' right away. But even if I do the three stand alone issues, I'm thinking it will be just like a three month delay from jumping into 'Coward's Way Out,' which is the sequel to 'Coward.'"

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