By Todd Allen
Ed Brubaker’s and Sean Phillips’ Criminal series is the rarest of treats: a comic that I can count on showing up in the library a couple weeks after if comes out. Like clockwork. And it doesn’t seem to matter what city I’m in. Sure enough, there’s a copy of Criminal: Last of the Innocents in my hot little hands. Except, this isn’t your normal installment of the franchise.
Oh, it starts out like normal installment, with an unhappy and increasingly desperate character and then it takes a sharp turn into left field. Or rather it doesn’t. Part of this volume examines the age old themes of “you can’t go home again” and regrets stemming from choices not made in the past. In this case, the lead character Riley Richards is deeply unhappy with what should have been his successful, storybook life. As he’s drawn back to his hometown, things become too much and he starts to take a Criminal direction to better his perceived situation.
OK, that’s a plot. Nothing that unusual so far, right? The thing is, when Riley gets home and starts remembering the good old days, the art style switches to something resembling the art style of Archie comics. Except, they’re a little more PG-13 than Archie. And then you realize Riley Richards kinda sorta sounds like Archie Andrews. And the people in his hometown of Brookview resemble the residents of Riverdale. Only seedier. And yes, the dorky kid who’s always eating everything in sight turns out to have a drug and alcohol problem, just as the jokes go.
Now this is where you think you might be reading a parody of Archie. You’re not. It does not take that sharp turn into left field. That’s the brilliant thing about this. Don’t get me wrong, you _could_ look at this as “Murder in Riverdale.” The archetypes are close enough for that. The thing is, Brubaker and Phillips don’t go for laughs. It’s played like a straight crime story. The Archie-esque style of the flashbacks heighten the sense of disconnect between the hopeful future outlook of suburban high school and the failed aspirations of adulthood. Oh, you might get a chuckle out of the flashbacks or the archetypes put into this type of a story, but most likely it will just make the story feel even creepier to you. More… dirty.
It isn’t easy integrating the realm of parody into a serious crime story and keeping it serious, let alone enhancing the depth of emotions. That’s what Brubaker and Phillips have accomplished here. Archie Andrews by way of Tom Ripley, willing to go to extreme lengths to change his life and not get caught would be overstating something that’s a bit understated, but it will do for Cliff Notes analogy.
Very highly recommended. (Ed and Sean? Good luck topping this one.)