"Female Of The Species" is the third and final installment of the trilogy "1972" that started off the second volume of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' relentlessly great comic book "Criminal". The three chapters are very loosely intertwined, character-specific meanderings around a handful of shared experiences, all told through each protagonist's individual lenses. Each issue has also easily stood on its own as an airtight, noir short story.
Danica's story here is no exception. All three stories have been painfully tragic and affecting meditations on missed chances and the consequences of a lifetime of mistakes. It's dire stuff, and the incredible artwork of Sean Phillips makes the gloom almost inescapable. But, like the best noir work, that's the whole point.
Some lives just don't find a bright side. Some people just float from bad idea to worse idea. Some of us are given a shot at peace and hate ourselves so much that we feel that we just don't deserve it. The focus and intent of the most successful crime fiction is always that kind of life and that kind of person. It languishes in the missed opportunity and the protagonist who hates themselves just as much as they hate everyone else.
You might remember Danica as both the love of Jake's life in issue one and the woman Teeg had an eventful affair with in issue two. Her full story here in issue three has no shortage of similarly sordid and misguided relationships, and we see a lot more of what led to the steady decline we had only previously seen bits and pieces of.
While the first two chapters centered around some specific capers or confrontations, Danica's story is instead more of a series of small tragedies. A forced abortion, beatings, random shootings; all over the backdrop of an increasingly potent addiction to heroin. There's not a lot of hope here, even at the finish of the story. It's unclear if Brubaker will visit these characters again, but the way the rest of "Criminal" has always worked, I wouldn't be surprised. He and Phillips have built a world with just as solid a continuity and cast of related characters as any superhero universe.
As usual, the work of Sean Phillips is exceptional. With a disarmingly simple style, he manages to capture so much in posture and emotion in so few lines. And his capture of shadow through brushwork also looks so effortless. These two collaborators have worked together for years now and yet every issue they put out together looks more accomplished, displays more confidence, then the one that came before it.
Val Staples is the final piece of the puzzle here, and his work is just as essential as that of his partners. Not only does he do such a great job of coloring such a dark atmosphere with such a simple palate, but he's also expert at those panels of shocking violence where the backdrop is replaced by a single sheet of primary yellow or red. It's a critical facet of an already formidable piece of comic book storytelling.
Ed Brubaker also, as has been his tradition on "Criminal", continues to make following this comic only in the trade a very dicey prospect. This issue, like all the ones before it, features some great commentary by Brubaker along with another in a continuing series of essays on noir literature and cinema, this time a piece on the late Sydney Pollack's "The Yakuza" by Michael Stradford.
It's a pretty unbeatable combination for a ongoing comic. Fantastic storytelling; subject matter that is rarely approached with such skill, ingenuity, and reverence to its genre; and always a great value proposition. Any of the book's many protagonists would inevitably scoff at such verbose praise, so I'll put it fine.
"Criminal" is the best crime comic ever published, and we should just count ourselves lucky that Brubaker and Phillips keep finding new ways to prove it.