The Cinema King]
I've thoroughly enjoyed the past five trades in the Criminal series, so there's an air of the bittersweet to my encounter with the final (for now) volume in the series. Criminal Vol. 6: The Last of the Innocent is a bit of an oddball as endings go, setting aside most of the Center City trappings that have been the hallmark of the series. Instead of a densely interconnected entry in a larger web of stories, The Last of the Innocent is a largely insular volume in the best standalone tradition, tonally different from the five volumes that preceded it.
But that difference, as has been the case throughout my reading of the series, works in the book's favor; rather than fit comfortably into a particular niche -- highly original though that niche may be -- Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips team up one more time for a trade that is an engaging read and a powerful examination of themes that Criminal has flirted with but never fully confronted.
The Last of the Innocent introduces us to Riley Richards, a depressive personality with a laundry list of regrets and a devious scheme to reclaim his life from a time before things went awry. Married to Felicity (dubbed "Felix" by her friends), Riley longs for a happier time in his life, when high school offered him fulfillment with his sweetheart Lizzie and his best friend Freakout. But Freakout is a recovering addict now, Lizzie is forever the one that got away, and Felix is cheating on Riley. At his father's funeral, Riley decides that, for his life to flourish, Felix's must end. Riley's unforgivingly methodical plan unfolds with that noir element we've come to relish from Criminal.
Following up on the inclusion of Frank Kafka in Bad Night, Brubaker and Phillips again turn to our own comics as a way to reckon with the modern era. Here, our able creators dissect the legacy of Archie in interstitial flashbacks that render Riley's past as pages from romantic comedy comics not unlike Archie. (In fact, there's a fairly clear one-to-one correlation: Riley/Archie, Freakout/Jughead, Felix/Veronica, Lizzie/Betty.)
Rather than resort to cheap shots at the Archie line (as Alan Moore's satire always seemed to ridicule its source material), Brubaker's story uses these pages as ways to grapple with uncomfortable truths. These pages are set up as comedy, but the jokes are disturbing; it's cute when Riley is hiding from Felix's father, but the patriarch's hatred for his daughter and her suitor are transparent, and the implication that Riley is performing oral sex on Felix under her father's nose is an uncomfortable punchline to the page. But this Archie-fication, we learn, is how Riley remembers his past -- with a veneer of nostalgia that deliberately obfuscates the fact that the good times weren't always consistently so.
The Last of the Innocent is a very smart treatment of the way we choose to remember our pasts, and it's delivered oh-so-effectively by Phillips, who again proves his own style to be malleable; the nostalgia pages look sharply different from the scenes in the present day, and the blending of the two artistic modes communicates in a clever shorthand what exactly we're seeing (the "authentic" past, the [mis]remembered past, or the noirish present). By the end, when the two styles flow together in discordant panels, the effect is one of those things that only comics can do.
All of this is to say nothing of how smartly Brubaker's script delivers the story, as per usual. While I'll admit that this volume felt a little aimless at first, once the plot crystallizes before your eyes you'll realize what an expert craftsman Brubaker really is. His talent at creating plausible characters is so strong that you'll find yourself accidentally sympathizing with Riley, even as he plots his wife's murder and sows trails of deceit to provide himself with an alibi. Even aside from Brubaker's clever characterizations, The Last of the Innocent is his homage to the "perfect crime" genre, and it's painstakingly thought through; as a writer, I found myself asking, "Why didn't I think of that?" which is truly the mark of a terrifically original story.
Like all the Criminal volumes so far, there are standout moments where the plot turns in unexpected and irrevocable ways, and by this the sixth volume Brubaker and Phillips have proved themselves masters of the "plot twist." These moments, which one can distill to a single panel, are simultaneously heart-wrenching and jaw-dropping; the first of these comes with the juxtaposition of Felix's inscrutable face (is it a smile, a sneer, or a concerned frown?) and Riley's narration, "I have to kill my wife." With each of these successive moments (which are so perfectly crafted, it'd be a shame to spoil them here), Riley digs himself deeper as his creators weave the plot together more intricately.
With Criminal Vol. 6: The Last of the Innocent, we reach a kind of closure for the Criminal series; though Brubaker has said he's not done with the world of Center City, these six volumes are all we have of the story so far. Though The Last of the Innocent is remarkably different from the series it "concludes" -- only incidental cameos from Teeg Lawless and Sebastian Hyde tie it to this shared universe -- it is of a consistent quality where fans of the genre will find much to appreciate. Fortunately for readers looking for more, Brubaker and Phillips have collaborated on a number of books, and I for one will be seeking out more of their work.`