It’s probably weird to some people that superheroes could be a warm-up, rather than an end goal, but that’s kind of the approach that the team of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips took.

They worked through the natural application of noir to superheroes; be it through a down on his luck former cop, a burnt double agent, or an ancient warrior reincarnating across time. And gained an ease and comfort working together, to go out and pitch something new. Something creator-owned. Something…Criminal.

That’s when Ivan explained it to me, about the rules and how they protect you…”

The first five issues of the first volume of the series, collected as Criminal – Volume 1: Coward, by Brubaker, Phillips, and Val Staples, introduced us to Leo Patterson. Telling the tale of a heist, and how it could all go horribly, horribly wrong.

After a job that went bad years before, Leo is pretty much out of the big game, coasting on pick-pocketing and identity theft to get by. He gets pulled back in for a major score, mostly out of responsibility and guilt. What follows are a series of tense twists and turns of the tale as more develops and we see what the ramifications can be when Leo doesn’t necessarily live by his rules to the game. There’s a wonderful oppressive inevitably that hangs over much of the work.

While the story stands on its own, it acts as a gateway into the world of the Lawless clan and all of the moving parts associated with them. If, at least, tangentially. The characters of Teeg, Ricky, and Tracy Lawless are definitely critical to the overall world, Coward comes at it from an oblique angle. It sets up the shared world, I’d consider it something akin to how David Lapham constructed Stray Bullets or many of Elmore Leonard’s novels.

Other Brubaker & Phillips collaborations sometimes wear their influences on their sleeves, here it’s a bit more of an amalgam. You can see some Leonard in a couple of the characters. A tragedy that comes with the noir genre itself. You could maybe point to tones of Donald Westlake, James M. Cain, or Jack Ketchum, but I think this wisely steers clear from one thing. Instead creating something that is its own. A world where different flavours of crime fiction can flourish.

It’s easier than I thought it would be. But it’s always surprised me how much easier killing is than it should be.”

A very large portion of the success of Criminal comes down to Sean Phillips. His artwork and design sense are unparalleled. It starts with the painted covers to the individual issues, that hearken back to the covers of the pulps and crime fiction paperback originals. Travels through the stylistic shifts to a Chester Gould inspired comic strip. Weaves through the variety of character design that populate the world. Bathes itself in shadows and texture. And manifests in the pacing and structure of how he lays out a page.

With rare exceptions, Criminal is told in a very deliberate layout. Chapter breaks often start with a title card. Every page has three tiers within the same dimensions. Not every tier has the same amount of panels, nor do they always adhere to a grid (so we’re not getting a 9-panel grid every page), but it gives the story a frame within which to operate. There’s a steady flow that manages to keep the story grounded, even when the proverbial crap hits the fan.

It’s interesting to see how the colours start on Criminal. Val Staples uses a fairly naturalistic palette, darker earth tones, tones of blue and purple, that fit the noir atmosphere of the book, without being too stylized. It’s definitely a contrast to what eventually happens as the colourists change. There is a quite nice dream sequence where Staples applies a soft focus glow to the colours that give it a kind of washed out painted look.

Turns out dying is a lot harder than killing.”

Criminal – Volume 1: Coward by Brubaker, Phillips, and Staples is a noir masterpiece. It’s heart-wrenching and compelling, reminding us of an inherent oppressive fatalism to this side of the crime genre. Revealing a world of loss, betrayal, and depravity. And it lays the foundation for much more to come.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of Criminal, and even of Brubaker & Phillips’ collaborations, but I think like that’s also one of the things magical about their work. There’s a wide breadth and depth to what they’ve created together and it makes you want to read more. In my case, read it again and again.

And I feel it also does something even greater than just that. It makes you want to search out more in the genre. To investigate their influences and favourites. To check out the Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney movies. Dive through the Lew Archer, Travis McGee, and Parker series. Embroil yourself in some Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. And plumb the depths of darkness that the noir genre (and beyond really) has to offer.


Classic Comic Compendium: Criminal Vol. 1 – Coward

Criminal – Volume 1: Coward
Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist: Sean Phillips
Colourist: Val Staples
Publisher: Marvel Comics / Icon (original issues) | Image (current collections)
Release Date: October 4 2006 – March 7 2007 (original issues)
Available collected in Criminal – Volume 1: Coward and Criminal: Deluxe Edition – Volume 1

Read past entries in the Classic Comic Compendium!