This arc of “Criminal” is gearing up to be the best one yet. While this second issue isn’t quite as good as the smashing debut, it is better at the game of comics than nearly every other rag that drops this week. Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips slow things down and really delve into the character and emotion of this tale. The lead character is getting ready to make a very serious decision and this issue helps paints the motivation behind it all.
Brubaker has found an amazing pace for making the noir soak into the comic pages. The captions from our seedy lead, Riley Richards, are blunt as a black jack and broad as the shoulders that wear his burden. Brubaker can’t use the terse prose to set the scene — Phillips gets that honor — so the words that appear only work to set the character forward, though perhaps downward is a better preposition. Pages are packed with panels and the claustrophobic tone makes everything feel more dire.
Riley becomes the ultimate noir lead here as we unearth a man we might not actually like, and we certainly can’t quite cheer on, but yet we feel some sort of kinship for. He’s not actually a bad person, he’s just had some bad circumstance sweep him off his feet. There’s enough for us to want to follow him but also a twist strong enough that we won’t mind when the inevitable meets him. He has had opportunities to make his life better but never been man enough to pull the trigger. Now, with those opportunities far too gone, he’s finally ready to act, and overreact.
The plan Riley sets into motion is indeed dastardly. He doesn’t like himself for doing it and you’ll hate him for some of it. Whatever your feelings, it’s a damn crafty set of moves. Once the dominoes start tilting, you cannot look away. Brubaker is deft in his ability to show us what Riley is doing, without necessarily telling us. It’s rare a comic that relies on, and assumes, the intelligence of the audience.
The synchronicity of Phillips’ art to Brubaker’s words is a collaboration to behold each time an issue drops. Phillips fits so much story and scene into each single page while still having room for words to breathe. Nothing feels forced or left out. However, Val Staples takes the cake twice in this issue. His work on the car speeding out of town is gorgeous with trailing neon brake lights showing the speed and immediacy of the scene. Then the final page is the greatest as it slowly descends into horror in both content and color. Staples shows exactly how you use color to make a page do more, not just make it look nice.
It’s another winning issue of “Criminal,” as the usual suspects deliver a hearty slice of how you break a character so he makes the mistakes this genre is known for. Riley Richards is a man not well, and the document of his descent is both sad and stellar. Noir works best when it’s a spiral; the suction on this tale will not only take the lead but crush everyone connected to him. The gleeful insistence of violence to ruin is too strong a lure and no one will make it out safe. This is the crime comic to read for character, plot, and that wink in the eye that tells you nothing is safe.