Review: Criminal Vol. 1: Coward trade paperback (Marvel Comics)

Monday, April 15, 2013

Criminal Vol. 1: Coward[Guest reviewer Zach King blogs about movies as The Cinema King]

When I first began to read comics as a very young child, the lure was simple -- Batman. Get anything with Batman on the cover. I expanded my net as my knowledge of the characters increased. As I got older and my budget got tighter, I matured into seeking out specific creators -- first writers, then artists as my aesthetic palate became more sophisticated.

Now I'm at what might be a third age in my maturation as a comics reader; I'm deliberately and specifically seeking out creator-owned work. It's not a political move, strictly speaking, since the bulk of my pull list is still company-owned. But I'm now conscious of the freedoms afforded to creators who own their own work, and with many of my favorite creators moving there exclusively, I can feel my palate refining once more.

As a fan of Ed Brubaker's work, particularly on Gotham Central, and having "met" Sean Phillips in the Marvel Zombies series, I was excited to dive into Criminal, their ongoing crime noir. Gotham Central it ain't, but by the end of the first volume, Criminal Vol. 1: Coward, the series more than lives up to the hype.

Coward starts out as your typical heist story. After a bank job goes wrong, Leo is contacted years later by a few dirty cops who offer him the opportunity of a lifetime -- the time and location of black diamonds being transported out of evidence. With a bad feeling in his gut but owing a favor to Greta (the widow of a crew member on the bank job), Leo takes the job -- and regrets it as soon as the deal, inevitably, goes sour. On the lam with a wounded partner, a junkie Alzheimer's patient, and a suitcase full of the wrong loot, Leo reevaluates his position but vows to continue to live by the rules that have kept him alive so far.

Coward is one of those books that you need to finish in order to "get" it. I'll be perfectly honest: halfway through the book I almost put it down. "I can't do six volumes of this," I told myself. The book was full of cliches and heist narrative stereotypes (most of which I recognized, oddly enough, from Inception of all places), and I didn't see them being used particularly well. Strictly speaking, I'd never read a crime comic before, and Coward wasn't impressing me.

But when everything goes to hell right around the end of Chapter Two, Coward becomes impossible to put down. Brubaker reveals that none of the apparent cliches were performing as expected, and when he reduces the cast down to Leo and Greta for a few scenes we find that this is a noir with a heart as much as a gut feeling. All of a sudden I find myself just one more voice among many echoing how clever and ingenious Criminal is, but I can't help it; the book is infectious, provided you stick with it.

On art duties, Sean Phillips is doing solid, gritty work that recalls the best of Gotham Central. Phillips pulls no punches; this book is not for younger readers, and Phillips knows it. Blood sprays, scarred torsos, and drained corpses proliferate in this book, and Phillips captures all of them in stark visceral detail that'll make you cringe at least twice. It's apparently a great creative partnership; Brubaker thanks Phillips at the end "for drawing it the way I see it in my head," and if that's completely true it bodes well for the future of the series.

Though Criminal consists of mostly standalone stories in a shared universe, it's evident that Brubaker and Phillips are building a world and an accompanying ambiance. Though I don't fully understand the meta-levels of "Frank Kafka, Private Eye" -- a comic-within-a-comic a la Watchmen -- I do see that I'm reading a longer story than just the fate of Leo. More interesting are Leo's "rules," since any noir fan worth his or her snuff knows that an alternate code of conduct is what brings us back to noir. Leo's rules are self-centered, smartly so, the consequence of generations of thieves and pickpockets raising each other. And when the rules are broken, the story gets more twisty and more interesting.

It's gritty noir, yes, but it's emotionally compelling as well. Though Leo starts off as just another hard-boiled narrator, his attachment to the mentally-impaired Ivan humanizes him, as does his obliging devotion to Greta and her young daughter. Greta is perhaps more intriguing; Brubaker wisely avoids the femme fatale trope for this outing, instead opting for a much more compelling and more human character whose materialism is matched only by her maternalism.

And it's the mark of a great story that, when characters die, I'm sad to see them go. Dickens likened the relationship between book and reader to a friendship, and while the characters in Criminal: Coward aren't exactly buddy figures you become attached to them in very subtle ways. It's impossible to say when I made the shift from rolling my eyes at Leo to rooting for him; it's probably when he too realizes that he's in a different kind of plot altogether, but it's to Brubaker's credit that he doesn't write moments designed as "insert empathy here" scenes. Instead, the power of the story and Phillips's sympathetic pencils do the work for you.

All you have to do is keep reading. After a few pages, you'll find it impossible to stop.

[Printed on glossy paper, but without full covers. In a way, the lack of covers is a credit to the trade, since it encourages you to treat it as a graphic novel and not a "mere" collected edition. In short, this is a book that fosters the one-sitting read.]

Later in the week, the Collected Editions review of China MiƩville's Dial H Vol. 1: Into You. Thanks!
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  1. yeah, criminal is great work. - steve

  2. Have been dying to read this, but I'll probably get the 2 Deluxe editions. They're a bit pricey though (for me, that is.)