Ed Brubaker on letting 'Criminal' out of jail with 'Savage Edition'

Since they signed an exclusive five-year contract with Image Comics last year, the crime-comics duo of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have been rolling out newer, weirder stories with the finale of Fatale and their latest Hollywood noir The Fade Out.

But at the end of this month, they’ll return to their biggest project, the anthologized yet interconnected neo noir series Criminal. Originally published though Marvel's Icon imprint beginning in 2006, the series returns on Jan. 28 with a one-two punch of Coward, the first Image Comics trade collection, and an all-new magazine-sized one-shot titled Criminal: Savage Edition.

We caught up with Brubaker about the return of Criminal, the one-shot’s mix of prison life and '70s genre comics, and the future of his partnership with Phillips.

ROBOT 6: You've spoken a lot about picking up new readers with each project you've launched at Image, and because it's been a few years since you and Sean did a brand-new Criminal volume, I thought we'd start with the basics. How do you describe Criminal to those who haven't read it? It’s a series with a high concept behind it, but it's not one of those "It's The Big Sleep ... in Space!" kind of high concepts.

Ed Brubaker: It really doesn't have a high concept, does it? I usually just lean on saying it's won a bunch of awards and is critically acclaimed, because I don't know how to "one-sentence" it. But let's try ...

Criminal is a series of standalone crime stories that all take place in the same city, where characters you meet in passing in one story become the stars in another. And so far, each book we've done is our take on some of the more archetypal noir tales -- the heist story, the brother coming home for revenge, the man under the spell of a dangerous woman, stuff like that. But we've twisted the cliches around and taken them seriously at the same time, so the book isn't over the top. The stories are very human and real, and because we're subverting noir a bit, too, as we went along our storytelling became a bit experimental and, I hope, unique.

Criminal, more than anything else, is what cemented me and Sean's reputation as a team, too. When I first came up with the idea, I wanted a book that could contain any type of crime story I felt inspired to write, and Criminal was meant to be an umbrella for these stories. But as I started writing, the links between the stories and characters started growing and that made the world feel bigger and gave the different arcs -- "Coward," "Lawless," "The Dead And The Dying," for example -- a deeper resonance, I think. A sense of history and family weighing on our "heroes" -- in quotes because we really don't have heroes.

This is obviously Criminal’s first time being published under the Image banner, as you and Sean have signed a long-term exclusive contract with them. Did that idea of having a five-year home influence your decision to come back to the characters of Criminal?

Not exactly. We've always planned to do more Criminal down the line. The reason we decided to do the one-shot now was because we're releasing the new Image editions of the trades, and it just felt like a fun thing to do to give retailers and readers something new at the same time. We've missed that world, and I had an idea for a way to do another magazine variant version that I really wanted to do, after the success of the magazine version of The Fade Out’s first issue.

Let's look at both sides of the incoming Criminal: Savage Edition one-shot, starting with the story itself. This is, I believe, the first Criminal story that's really focused on prison life, and it centers on Teeg Lawless, who's had a spotlight on him before but hasn't quite been the focal point character his son Tracy has been. What was the attraction to this milieu, this character and this era of the 1970s to kickstart a new set of Criminal stories?

The main idea for this is something that's been percolating in my mind for about 15 years, ever since I heard from an old editor that in the '70s and '80s, lots of prisoners had subscriptions to the more adult comics magazines like Heavy Metal, Conan, Creepy, Eerie and Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, stuff like that. And hearing that, I just had this image of a guy lying in a cell, reading some black-and-white barbarian fantasy comic. And it always stayed with me.

So when we had the Criminal relaunch set up, that image was still in my mind, and it all fell together, including the magazine-size variant ... I just knew that it would be a story set in the '70s in a county jail, and there'd be a comic inside the comic, and that it had to star Teeg Lawless, who is the worst guy we've got, really.

And while we haven't seen Teeg much in the comics, he's a thread that runs through almost all the Criminal books in some way. His influence is everywhere.

On the more meta side of the equation here, the last volume of the series, "Last of the Innocent," let Sean play with a very different set of cartooning skills with some throwbacks to classic teen romance comics mixed in to his normal crime work. Savage seems to be offering up a similar kind of exercise for him, with a completely different comics genre of the past. What's drawn you guys to switching up the visual approach here? Do you think that other projects like Incognito and Fatale have pushed you in that direction some?

I think it's mostly that we always want to keep pushing ourselves, challenging ourselves, to be better than what we did before. Experimenting and trying different things, me writing one-page gags and Sean having to try to draw like an old Archie comic for a few pages every issue, that forced us to grow as artists.

And having seen the first pages of the comic within the comic, again Sean is outdoing himself. I got the easy part, I just had to overwrite narration and dialog so it feels like it came out in 1976. That was fun. Sean has to make it look like it came out back then, which is much, much harder. Insert maniacal laughter.

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When you and Sean started working together, we were at something of a low ebb for crime comics, but in the past 10 years, creative interest in your favorite genre has skyrocketed. What do you lay that at the feet of, and does the spike of interest make it easier or harder for you guys to do something that feels new to you?

I don't know. I think when we launched, there were only three or four other crime comics out there, and now there's about seven or eight, so it's not as if it's that different. 100 Bullets is gone, but Stray Bullets is back. It feels basically the same as it did when our last arc "Last of the Innocent" came out, and it still feels like an uphill battle to get people to try out books like this, from this side. I'm just glad me and Sean have established such a strong following over the years. We're very lucky that way.

But I never worry about what else is coming out when I'm writing. I mean, I spent about 10 years doing comics like Batman and Captain America. If you worry about what anyone else is doing at the same time, you'll be paralyzed.

You guys are still serializing your latest noir series The Fade Out, and I wondered if there was ever a pull for you to make that story a volume of Criminal. Is there a definite trigger that has to be pulled in your mind that makes a crime story you want to tell a Criminal story as opposed to its own thing?

Yeah, I think there is something that makes a story a Criminal story, and The Fade Out never felt like one. Criminal stories generally focus on one character at a time, and they're in a fictional city. They're violent character studies or tragic romances in a way. But The Fade Out is a period piece, set in a very specific time and place, and it's got a sprawling cast spinning around a murder mystery.

Looking forward, The Fade Out is set to continue for a while yet, so how are you and Sean approaching the idea of doing more Criminal? Will you continue to work other series in around Fade Out’s schedule, or do you think that you'll do another big book once this series is all wrapped?

Right now, I've got a few ideas for what we'll do after The Fade Out ends. I want to do shorter projects in between the longer ones, so I'm not sure yet. The next Criminal story is starting to fall into place in my notebooks finally, and it grows out of this one-shot special, in a way, although it takes place years later.

But I don't want to speculate too much about what we'll do next. I love the mystery aspect of our deal at Image, where we can just announce a project when the previous one ends. We're planning to have a lot of fun and do a lot of experimenting over these five years, and really, we're just getting started.

Criminal: Savage Edition arrives Jan. 28 from Image Comics.

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