Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips make a welcome return to the "Criminal" universe with this fun one-shot comic book that gives readers a long visit with one of the most famous characters in that world, Teeg Lawless. It's a great jumping on point for new readers curious about the franchise, as it delivers a clear done-in-one story that adds background for those familiar with the franchise but is still accessible if this is someone's first dip in this gritty pool.
Brubaker structures the story as a back and forth between the prison where Lawless is riding out a 30 day stay for a petty crime, where he must try to survive long enough to claim his cut of a heist, and the fictional world of Zangar, a bloodthirsty Conan analog that tears a swath of vengeance through a sword-and-sorcery world. The parallels between the two characters' experiences are laid out fairly directly with Zangar serving as Lawless' outlet for violence and vengeance before having to protect himself from being killed for real. Both men use violence as a tool; Zangar as an offensive one, a driving force pushing him closer to his ultimate goal of discovering the source of betrayal in his world, and Lawless as a defensive maneuver, warding off attackers seeking to collect the bounty currently placed on his incarcerated head.
While Brubaker clearly has fun showing off the violence in each of their worlds, he also underlines the idea that -- though it's as common as the morning paper for each -- the ramifications leave the men feeling hollow and ultimately alone. Lawless is released and returns to his family, distant and cold, barely connecting with his children or his wife. He dives deep into Zangar once again, clearly relating more to the fantasy than to his own reality. The entire affair is paced well, with both stories staying just long enough on page to drive home their points. Brubaker shows how common bloody hands can be for Lawless as his days become almost comically violent while he still maintains his own rational inner monologue, casually running through the list of people who could have possibly put the hit out on him while still inside.
Phillips has a great time bouncing between the gritty style of the "Criminal" universe and a tighter, more defined style for the Zangar pages. Every page is beautiful in its own way and shows off his ability to switch his delivery method with ease. Phillips letters the reality of the story with hand-drawn balloons and text that add weight to Lawless' story and contrasts that with more sterile and clean letters for Zangar. Every character has a unique and distinguishable look and the designs all stay true to the time period of the story. Zangar's action is all done Marvel style with bold dramatic posing that contrasts Lawless' action sequences, laid out with much less dramatic style, spotlighting how common fisticuffs are in his life. There's also a brief drug sequence that is gorgeously rendered with Elizabeth Breitweiser, which momentarily bathes the pages in gorgeous pastels that are soft and inviting, putting the temptation to succumb to the effects of the drugs on full display.
While it isn't a story with huge plot ramifications, this "Criminal" one-shot is a welcome return to one of this team's most enduring creations. Any "Criminal" is better than none at all and, hopefully with the franchise now being published by Image, the gang will come back to visit this universe more often.