Crime Wave: Brubaker talks "Criminal"

For the characters of writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips's ongoing Icon series "Criminal," the old axiom "Crime doesn't pay" isn't exactly true. In "Criminal," crime usually does pay; it just comes with a lot of complications, most of them lethal. These deadly difficulties were on fully display in the series' most recent first story arc, the self-contained "The Dead and the Dying," and a new protagonist's life will be turned upside later this month when "Bad Night" begins in "Criminal" Volume 2 #4. CBR News spoke with Brubaker about August's "Bad Night" as well as the stories in "The Dead and the Dying," now collected in trade paperback and on sale this week.

"The Dead and the Dying" is comprised of three stories each taking place in the early 1970s and each starring a different protagonist. While all three stories can be read on their own, they do combine to tell one inter-connected tale. Brubaker found crafting the three stories to be incredibly difficult. "I felt like I had too much story for every single issue. I thought 30 pages of story would be enough for each of these short stories," he told CBR News. "Most writers will tell you writing a short story is harder than writing a novel because you have to be much more concise about it.

"I knew they were all going to link together and sort of build around each other but as I got further into the second story I realized how much I wanted each of the issues to stand on their own at the same time, so they could be read by anyone in any order, even though I knew they were intended to be read #1, #2, #3. I wanted to make sure the timing worked and there's a lot that happened in each issue."

The first story in "The Dead and the Dying" deals with the past of Gnarly Brown and the beginnings of a falling out with his childhood friend, Sebastian Hyde. Regular readers of "Criminal" know Gnarly would go on to own and run the Undertow, a bar which figures prominently in the series. For his part, Hyde would succeed his father as the most powerful underworld figure in "Criminal's" fictitious Center City. "Originally in the story, Sebastian gives the bar to [Gnarly.] It's something his family gets the lease to and they give it to Gnarly as sort of a peace offering between the two," Brubaker explained. "But it didn't end up making it in. There was no way to fit it into the issue. I felt like it didn't need to be stated. If you read the other books you know he ends up running it and you can assume he ran it from the mid '70s on because you've got Leo [Patterson, the star of the first award-winning 'Criminal' story 'Coward'] and Tracy [Lawless, the protagonist of the second tale, 'Lawless'] and these other people talking about having been there as kids."

The second chapter of "The Dead and the Dying" revolves around Teeg Lawless, a Vietnam veteran who's just returned from the war and finds himself in the incompatible roles of criminal and family man. In the story, Teeg has to do some pretty despicable things to protect his wife and young sons Tracy and Ricky. These acts put him in the debt of the young Sebastian Hyde, which echoes the climax of "Lawless" in which the violent actions of a grown up Tracy force him into a similar relationship with the odious Hyde. "That was totally intentional," Brubaker laughed. "Obviously there's more to that story. There's more to come of Teeg and Hyde."

The final part of "The Dead and the Dying" stars Danica, a former flame of Gnarly, the ex-girl friend of Sebastian Hyde, and the woman who helps ensnare Teeg Lawless in a dangerous scheme. Of the three stories in "The Dead and the Dying," Danica's was the most difficult for Brubaker to tell. "It was partly because about halfway through plotting the issue, I realized I wanted to do something completely different with it than the original plan," the writer explained. "The original ending of the story was going to be very similar to what happened to her in issue #2, but than I thought we've seen that already. I didn't want to just show the same scene from different perspectives. I wanted to get into her head and tell more of a story about how you became a 'Femme Fatale.' My whole intention was to write that chapter from the sympathetic point of view of a Femme Fatale, where she actually has your sympathy as opposed to 'She's the conniving bitch who fucked everybody over.' So that was difficult; trying to capture that mind frame of somebody who is used, abused and than tossed away but learns from the experience that she can get men to do whatever she wants them to do. But there's also an emptiness to that."

"The Dead and the Dying" trade paperback features a new cover by artist Sean Phillips created just for the collection, but his painted covers for the original issues are also included in the collection as interstitial pages that separate the three stories. The collection also features an introduction by acclaimed director John Singleton ("Boyz in the Hood," "Four Brothers"). "John Singleton is apparently a big Ed Brubaker fan," Brubaker laughed. "I say that with tongue in cheek to some degree but I was in LA a couple of months back and a guy I was meeting with said, 'You know Singleton would flip if he knew I was talking to you.' So he hooked us up and I asked him to write the intro. He was totally gracious about it. He's a big comics fan."

With "Bad Night," the four part-tale that kicks off in August's "Criminal" #4, Brubaker takes readers back to the present. "Bad Night" is set about a year after the series' second arc, "Lawless," and is a decidedly unusual sort of tale for "Criminal." "It's a very different kind of noir story than the ones we've done so far," Brubaker explained. "David Goodis did stories like this a lot, where a normal guy would get thrown into the wrong situation and a lot of this story is like that; it features an average person. Leo is a professional pickpocket, who in the past has killed a person. Tracy was a professional solider who ends up going to work for mobsters, probably as a hitman. The characters from this year's three stand alones were all characters that exist in that crime world .This is much more about an average person being thrown into a world they thought they had gotten out of a long time ago."

That person is Jacob; a character readers of "Lawless" know grew up with Tracy Lawless and Leo Patterson because their parents were all part of gang that took down scores. "Jacob is Jacob K., who does the 'Frank Kafka' comic strip that was in 'Coward,'" Brubaker added. "So it's basically about a guy who's sort of removed from the world he grew up in and lived in for awhile. A lot of big things happened to him at one point in his life and he ended up being crippled and having to spend a long time in traction in a hospital. He had to go through physical therapy and when we saw him in 'Lawless' he was on crutches. In this story he's off his crutches but walks with a limp and has to use a cane or crutches some times. He's a very fragile kind of character.

"He's also an insomniac," Brubaker continued. "He's a very different kind of protagonist. We know from "Lawless" that he used to be a professional forger. So he comes from that background but because of the things that happened to him he's really turned his back on that whole world. And now some things happen to drag him back into it. There's more to the guy than meets the eye but I don't want to say much because I don't want to spoil anything. This is a story that's going to benefit people who read it very closely."

Much of "Bad Night's" first chapter is about Jacob's insomnia and how it impacts his life. "In some ways, this is both the most and least plot driven of all the 'Criminal' stories," Brubaker said. "It's much more plot driven than it appears to be, but the way it's written it's really a character examination, at least at first. Then as things start to pile on, you see that it's a very psychological story, sort of Hitchcock crossed with Jim Thompson."

The Femme Fatale who appears to be the catalyst for Jacob's "Bad Night" is just one of a host of eclectic and eccentric supporting characters that populate the story. "Since Jacob's an insomniac, this is also about the places he goes to when goes out into the city, those open all night kind of places," Brubaker stated. "There's an all night diner that he hangs out in which is staffed by these three weird guys, who are reoccurring characters in the story."

Jacob's connection with Tracy Lawless means there's a possibility the character will make an appearance in "Bad Night." "I'm leery to promise anything because I've learned with each issue that the scenes I imagine are going to be there don't always end up being there," Brubaker said. "But there's definitely potential for Tracy to appear as the story sort of kicks into high gear."

Brubaker also wanted to make the tone of "Bad Night" different than those of his previous "Criminal" yarns. "With 'Criminal,' it's noir and it's always going to be darker, but there's also room for a lot of humor in noir. You read stuff like Jim Thompson and there's actually a lot of humor in it. So I'm trying to bring some black humor into this one, and have it be more of a twisting thrill ride for the pace."

While "Bad Night" features a different type of protagonist and a different tone, the story will delivers the same amount of action "Criminal" fans have come to expect. "There are still heists and violence and people running from bad people," Brubaker said. "Just now, the person who's doing it is a much more average person who never expected to be in that situation and when he is running away from someone he can't really run that fast. There's a page that Sean did where I think it might be the first time you see Jacob walking outside and he's going down these stairs. And when I got that page I was like, 'That's perfect!' It really does look like a guy limping, which is really hard to do in still images."

A popular feature found only in the individual issues of "Criminal" is the back-up articles and essays by Brubaker and friends on various noir related topics, often films. "The 'noirticles' will continue," Brubaker confirmed. "Starting with issue #4, we're going to have a noir article and an interview or another article on something else not movie-related but still noir. In the next issue we have an interview with Charles Ardai, the guy who runs Hardcase Crime, about his line and what they basically do. He's reprinting old pulp stuff and printing new pulp stuff so I thought it would be the kind of thing 'Criminal' fans would be interested in. And my friend Count Dante aka Bob Calhoun is a journalist, author and wrestler in the Bay Area. He wrote an article about the film 'Night and the City' from the point of view of wrestling because it's one of the only wrestling noirs. And I've got Ande Parks working on something else."

Brubaker is still considering what story he'll tackle in "Criminal" once "Bad Night" wraps. The current front runners are the sequels to the award-winning "Coward" and "Lawless," but the writer isn't ruling out more flashback tales like those found in "The Dead and the Dying." "There's more of that stuff to come at some point. It's not in the planning stages right now though," the writer said. "Although there is one big story that will probably end up being the longest story we do in the book. It will be about Leo and Tracy and Ricky's parents' gang and about them as teenagers. It's basically the story of how Leo's screw up ended up fucking up everyone's life. If we ever decide to end the book that will probably be the last story we tell."

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