Review: Criminal Vol. 4: Bad Night trade paperback (Marvel Comics)

[Guest reviewer Zach King blogs about movies as The Cinema King]

I'm halfway through the six Criminal collections, and the series has been so delightful that I'm considering purchasing the deluxe edition hardcovers even though I've been borrowing the shorter trades from my local public library. At $50 each, though, they're quite expensive, so a part of me has been continuing to read the series to see if the quality drops enough to warrant not buying the deluxe editions.

With the fourth collection, Criminal: Bad Night, I haven't found that qualitative drop-off the cynic in me has come to expect. Instead, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips ... well, what can I say about how good this series is that I haven't already said about the first three volumes?

In Bad Night, we get the scoop on Jacob Kurtz, the cartoonist behind the inscrutable Frank Kafka, PI, strips. Presumed guilty after his wife disappeared, Jacob has become an insomniac and a slave to his work; though his innocence was proven when his wife's car crash was ruled an accident, Jacob is dogged by a cop who hates him, to say nothing of the ghostly presence of Frank Kafka himself. As a former counterfeiter, Jacob is kidnapped by one-night-stand Iris and her thug boyfriend Danny, finding himself at the epicenter of a mounting stack of bodies as his tenuous grasp on sanity begins to slip.

Maybe I'm the only one who missed it, but the fact that Tracy Lawless's counterfeiter buddy from Lawless is also the artist behind Frank Kafka came as a great surprise to me, one of those great epiphany moments that I have come to cherish with Criminal. Brubaker continues to fill in gaps by proving just how interconnected all the parts are, and his notes on Center City must look something like Batman's map of Leviathan (from Batman Incorporated [vol. 2] #3). It's like Sin City done realistically; each successive volume expands the web, making Criminal ideal fodder for a TV show now that neo-noir seems to be making a comeback.

Brubaker's use of Frank Kafka is of particular interest because the comic-within-a-comic doesn't fit into the larger story the way you'd expect. Since Watchmen and Tales of the Black Freighter, we've been trained to expect some sort of meta-commentary within the story. In Bad Night, however, it's a breath of fresh air when Jacob admits that the "total artistic freedom" that comes from his contract with Sebastian Hyde (yep, the same Sebastian Hyde we've seen throughout Criminal) has led to a strip that doesn't make much sense. Instead of going the easy route, Brubaker makes Frank a second psyche for Jacob, spending time with him like an invisible friend.

Likewise, instead of rendering Frank realistically to give the book an ambiguous is-he-or-isn't-he angle, Phillips's artwork makes Frank as cartoonish as possible, his permanent scowl and oversized fedora like something straight out of Dick Tracy. Phillips adjusts his style to make Frank an exaggerated caricature in grayscale, cluing us in that Jacob's sanity should always be in question. For Brubaker and Phillips, Frank is the Tyler Durden of Bad Night, and letting us know in advance that he's not real allows the reader to enjoy the book more effectively. It also builds to a fantastic payoff when Frank appears to shoot someone, where any narrative slight-of-hand is betrayed by the artwork, which clues in the reader if they're not taken in by the surreal narrative.

That's not to say that Phillips is slouching on the realism of the comic. Rather, he continues to do great work with facial expressions and body language, particularly in the case of sad sack insomniac Jacob. Phillips also does a great job with Iris, ostensibly the first true femme fatale of the series (after The Dead and the Dying did a phenomenal job humanizing Danica Briggs). Now, I'm not the world's biggest fan of cheesecake art -- Guillem March is about all I can take in my book -- but take a look at that cover. Phillips paints a gorgeous nude Iris, cloaked only in a pink sheet that accents her red hair. This image is a perfect one, since it tells us what kind of a character Iris will be -- especially when we see the gun in her hand.

As with all the other trades in this series thus far, this fourth volume was a one-sitting read -- not that the book was incredibly short or breezy, but because I quite literally could not bring myself to set it aside. And an evening spent reading Criminal Vol. 4: Bad Night is anything but.


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