"Criminal: Last of the Innocent" is noir at its most despicable level. The last time "Criminal" was this bleak was during the "Bad Night" arc. That story, arguably the best story in this title's history, is somewhat mirrored in tone through the events of this tale. "Bad Night" ended on an incredibly bleak note. "Last of the Innocent" ends on what appears to be an upbeat turn and yet it still instills the chills in you that the world is a sucky place.
Riley Richards has been our man at the center of this tale. His actions have propelled the plot, and the results he has yielded have glued us to the page. Over four issues, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips set up a man who you almost identify with and who you feel you can understand. As Riley has slowly gone over the edge and become someone you can hate with an open heart, it becomes clear this might be his story but it is not his slice of noir. The coldest genre within crime turns its unloving eye upon Riley's new love interest, high school girl next door Lizzie, and you realize the victim all too late.
Lizzie has been Riley's prize, the item he's worked so hard to attain. Lizzie is the eponymous character and that's what makes her downfall so incredibly disgusting and sad. Lizzie doesn't deserve to even be in this sort of tale, no less its heel. She doesn't do a single thing wrong and yet all of Riley's wicked machinations result in her being used and abused without her knowing it. The kicker being, she probably won't ever be given the chance to know it. Riley gets a happy ending and yet dramatic irony shows us he doesn't deserve it and Lizzie deserves so much better. The worst should have been saved for Riley and somehow he dodges it all.
While the Riley-Lizzie finale is fantastically plotted and resolved, there are other elements that wind down too easily. The newly introduced Britt Black is a fun turn on a grown up Encyclopaedia Brown character and deserves more room to shine. His conclusion, though amusing in its brevity, is mildly weakened by the speed of his departure. Freak Out's arc is poignant and wound into the gaps of the plot tightly. It's hard to tell if there should have been more for Freak or if his end is simply a bitter pill to swallow.
Image zooms and angles in this issue never feel like set ups we've seen before. Every moment in this book is fresh. There is a lot of sex and Phillips makes each panel something interesting as well as salacious. The moments look like snap shots of ultimate love and yet the vibe isn't there, the hollow core showing through. Freak is also a character Phillips makes hop off the page as his slovenly manner is delivered through dashed inks and plenty of shadow.
"Last of the Innocent" will certainly be ranked as one of the best comics of 2011. The layers of history and love and opportunity build together to make a tale where you are invested completely. In some places, invested more than you actually want to be. The switch up ending is amazing and offers so much more to think about. The concepts of moral responsibility against personal desire are battles people face every day. Riley Richards runs through the gauntlet and in doing so shows us all the dangers of believing our own abilities and wishes. If you do something bad, do you become a bad person? Yes, but there are always degrees.