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Criminal #1

Written by Ed Brubaker and illustrated by Sean Phillips
Icon/Marvel Comics
32-page comic book, $2.99

A sign of times and circumstances, here's the blurb on the front cover of the first issue of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' new series Criminal: "From the writer of DAREDEVIL and the artist of MARVEL ZOMBIES!" Both writer and artist have done much better, more genre-specific work elsewhere, but Marvel has to sell this to Direct-Market retailers and, hopefully, their customers, and in this case it's an uphill struggle from the very concept on out. Criminal is a straight-no-chaser crime comic, with no superhero tropes, no "one hundred untraceable bullets" gimmicks or Secret Society That Rules America waiting in the wings — it's a pure expression of the form, and thus quite likely doomed unless Marvel avoids bringing the same expectations to its comics-shop sales and looks to eventual collection and possible success in other markets. Good luck with that one. These days, Marvel's management and promotional staff aren't exactly known for their savvy.

 

Leo works the crowd, in this sequence from Criminal #1, ©2006 Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips.

 

Setting cynicism aside for a moment, Criminal is an excellent example of the form. Brubaker has clearly been immersed in hard-boiled films and novels for many years, and thus has an excellent understanding of how crime noir works. We enter on a job gone wrong, during the course of which we meet our protagonist for the first five-part arc, a pickpocket with a finely-tuned instinct for survival named Leo. Five years later, what happened during that job still haunts him, so when the disastrous episode's other survivor, Seymour, shows up to offer him a place in a diamond heist, he initially refuses. Unfortunately, Seymour knows just how tied into the criminal underworld Leo actually is, and consequently how to drag him back into the thick of things. Then Brubaker begins showing us just how many jagged spikes sit waiting in the pit over which Leo's about to jump...

 

Brubaker and Phillips work the readers, in this sequence from Criminal #1, ©2006 Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips.

 

Noir doesn't work without atmosphere, and while Brubaker's script hits all the right buttons, it wouldn't work as well as it does without Sean Phillips' shadow-streaked art and a colorist with the good sense to stay out of his way, Val Staples. Phillips and Brubaker worked together previously on the Wildstorm superhero spy thriller Sleeper, and each clearly knows how to play to the other's strengths. Whether the script calls for a moody establishing shot, action sequences that progressively ratchet up the tension from panel to panel or conversations that require just enough visual interest to keep the reader going but not so much as to distract from the dialogue, Phillips knows just how to play the scene. Criminal's co-creators are at the top of their game, and the results are solid, absorbing crime comics from cover to cover.

And regardless of whether or not Marvel botches the promotion and marketing — a straightforward, well-crafted, adult-themed, hardboiled noir thriller from Marvel Comics? Creator-owned? With no superheroes in it? Holy shit. I'm getting closer to having seen it all with each passing day.

 

This essay appeared on the then-website of The Comics Journal sometime between 2006 and 2008.

 

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