[Guest reviewer Zach King blogs about movies as The Cinema King]
On first glance, Criminal Vol. 3: The Dead and the Dying is a set-up for disappointment. The volume is short -- collecting only three issues -- though the editors have tried to obfuscate this by using noticeably thicker pages. What's more, this the third Criminal collection marks a soft reboot of sorts, with the single issues renumbering back to #1 (no, no Pandora cameo to be found).
What might turn off some readers is the fact that this trade collects three chapters billed as stand-alones, straying from the longer format of the first two volumes, which might lead readers to treat it less seriously. But as usually happens with these Criminal trades, The Dead and the Dying is a marvelous surprise that's almost impossible to put down.
What the book doesn't tell you right away -- and I almost feel bad revealing it here -- is that the three stories aren't stand-alones. Instead, they're interlocking parts of a larger story, and a great deal of the book's enjoyability comes from tracing the way these three stories are related. In the first, "Second Chance in Hell," we learn about boxer Jake Brown and his strained friendship with mob heir Sebastian Hyde. The second, "A Wolf Among Wolves," introduces Teeg Lawless, the father of last volume's Tracy Lawless, and explains how he came to work as an enforcer for the Hyde family.
The final story in the collection, "Female of the Species," fleshes out the character of Danica Briggs, the unlikely femme fatale who enmeshes herself in the book's events and turns out to be more human than any of her lovers know. "Female of the Species" pulls the book's threads together, explaining Danica's motivations and fleshing out her connections to Jake, Sebastian, and Teeg.
The most potent feeling channeled by this volume is that of epiphany. There are many moments of intersection among these three stories, moments when puzzle pieces click into place. Some take the form of repeated panels (almost outdoing Watchmen in this regard), while others fill in storylines the reader hadn't noticed. For example, in "Second Chance" Sebastian Hyde vows to find those who had wronged him, and in the next panel one such enemy turns up dead. But while readers fill in that Sebastian was the killer, "Wolf" reveals that Teeg was the triggerman, a clever and satisfying twist that deepens the shared universe feeling of Center City.
After reading The Dead and the Dying, I have to wonder if Brubaker has a master story in mind. Before this point, it seemed that Criminal was going the route of Sin City, with standalone installments set in the same gritty locale. But seeing how deftly Brubaker puts the pieces together here, I can't help feeling that there may be an overarching narrative developing. (Update: I've since discovered that there is an unwritten "final" Criminal story named Coward's Way Out, suggesting to me that the series is going to end where it began.) This book explains Teeg's coldness toward his sons -- a surprisingly touching moment rendered by the noirish narrator -- and backfills the rise of the Hyde family, pointing to an interconnectivity beyond the Undertow Bar (owned, of course, by Jake).
The artistic consistency on this title is not to be underestimated here. Sean Phillips returns for this volume, and I can't be happier about that. One of my only complaints about The Invisibles was the rotating artistic team which led to an overenthusiastic jam session and characters who could look wildly different from issue to issue (here's looking at you, Lord Fanny). So the continuity provided by Phillips is a welcome presence. Sebastian is instantly recognizable as a young man who will eventually grow up to become the crime boss from the end of Lawless, and the use of visual repetition reverberates throughout the book, echoing across pages when you least expect it. Criminal is subtler than his gory Marvel Zombies, but it's no surprise that Brubaker keeps him around -- Phillips is comics noir.
If I had doubts about the longevity of my interest in Criminal after Lawless failed to surprise me, Criminal Vol. 3: The Dead and the Dying restores my dedication to the series. Brubaker and Phillips prove that they continue to innovate, within both the crime noir genre and the comics form. Center City may be populated by the dead, but the series is alive and well.