Maybe some kind of line graph would represent this best? The older I get, the happier I am that stuff like this exists, while the less happy I am to actually read it. Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips are reliable craftsmen whose works I've been enjoying since a little lad, and given that the comics industry still offers the enticing package of "Nothing" to its laborers as post-professional security, I'm glad the two have carved out Criminal as a niche to do their sundowning in. Since 2006, the frequent collaborators have spawned an admirably diverse portfolio of works together, but they've never failed to return to this series, which is distinguished in its thirsty ass market by the resolve with which it doesn't put a twist on its formula. The title says it all: Criminal is nothing more or less than Brubaker and Phillips's attempt at rendering the addictive formula of the crime-noir novel in comics form, and at this point its bibliography is on its way to being as imposing as that of any Ed McBain or Ross McDonald.
Anything that runs so long and smoothly must be at least kinda fun and kinda lucrative for those involved, so good for these guys! I've liked some shit they did, and as long as batting Criminal out keeps making sense, they've earned the privilege. Too, the mainstream comics marketplace seems puzzlingly fearful of a genre that powers entire publishers and storefronts even in this epoch of post-literacy (and Sin City's perenniality), so if two pretty cool creators want to step into the breach I'm for it. Still, as one might suspect from the above, I can take or leave most Criminal comics. My engagement with them over the years has centered entirely around whether or not I was employed at a comic store - that is to say, whether or not I was experiencing boredom in an environment where I could get paid to read them without paying. For the past few years I figured I probably wouldn't be reading any Criminals again - but then I got paid to read one without paying again, and found myself perusing the eleventh issue of Image's current ongoing Criminal series (the book has heretofore been structured as a series of discreet miniseries), which comprises part 7 of the "Cruel Summer" story arc.
I was worried I'd be lost coming in so cold, but Brubaker's frequent, terse, and declarative narration pulls all the weight of situating readers comfortably in the middle of his story's action. This being said, it does have a puzzling tendency to switch back and forth between past and present tenses whether or not there's a flashback sequence going on, and if anything, Brubaker does his job too well. There's not much in this issue, at least, that indicates why its content exists as a comic and not a novel - a cardinal sin in my book, even if its creators still manage to put forth a pleasant read. It's even more confusing given that the whole point of Criminal as an enterprise is comic-izing a form whose prose existence is so robust. Each page is laid out in the three-tier/widescreen template that's been stale since the moment Darwyn Cooke finished codifying and perfecting it in New Frontier, and the interplay between words and pictures makes no attempt to move past Comics 101. Brubaker tells us some crooks change into phony security guard uniforms and Phillips shows us beefcakes buttoning shirts and donning ballcaps; Brubaker tells us they walk across the parking lot and there Phillips shows them going between cars, in the same two-shot framing as before. The substance of it does nothing to get your blood moving, even if it does a good job of proceeding apace.
There are a few reasons a comic like this could be forgivable. Brubaker and Phillips aren't trying to reinvent the wheel here, after all - they're transposing a much-beloved idiom from one medium to another, and there's something admirable in simply doing that in as affect-less a way as possible. But what makes crime novels compelling is the unhinged feel of their plotlines, the blind alleys and trap doors their characters are forced to traverse along the trail to rewards whose lure is self-evident. If they're not original, they have to be ingenious, and this particular issue of Criminal is a pretty transparent read-through of a far superior work - Richard Stark's Parker novel Comeback - with just enough details changed to get by. That Comeback is itself erected on one of Stark's more boilerplate foundations, echoing George LaFountaine's Two-Minute Warning and Jim Thompson's script for Stanley Kubrick's The Killing, does not improve matters - nor does the fact that the aforementioned Darwyn Cooke made better comics than this in his own series of Parker adaptations, probably the most notable of the medium's other notable 21st-century flirtations with the crime genre. This comic has only its own merits to bank on.
But even putting all that aside, there's room for a comic like this one to really thrive. Some of the most enjoyable comics out there are derivative stories elevated above the material they were squeezed from by bravura visual treatments - which can certainly occur within the basic structure Phillips gives this issue's pages. For this critic at least, beautiful drawings are the single thing that make comics most worth reading. Phillips is both stylist and technician - his brushy, blocky style is recognizable at a glance and able to carry the weight of just about any content - but he rarely makes drawings that elicit pure sensual pleasure. To my mind, Phillips's best Brubaker collaboration is Sleeper, an early-2000s superhero noir that managed to incorporate much of both genres' coolness, and admirably few of their cliches. Working with a striking page structure derived from Jim Steranko's Outland, Phillips' brawny, distended figurework perfectly sold the physicality of a crew of thugs whose bodies carried more power than the human form was designed to safely wield. Marvel Zombies, the big commercial hit of his career, tapped the same well with shambling grace.
When it comes to Criminal, however, Phillips's drawings of regular old people simply feel anonymous. Too, in his many years with Brubaker, grinding out one monthly 20-odd-page comic after the next, his style has degenerated into something that often simply constitutes a collection of tics. His occasional use of photo reference (always something I thought he pulled off rather well) isn't much in evidence here, but bad habits that trace back to it are - in quieter moments his figures feel off-balance, lurchy, and in the action sequences there's stiffness, not urgency. Even figures jumping out of their skins as firebombs suddenly explode in a trash can next to them seem more perturbed than flabbergasted. Characters' heads, which sitting atop Phillips's drab, quotidian costumiery carry all the personality we'll get from them, are always drawn slightly too big for their bodies, as if the added detail has made them bulge. Phillips's style screams noir, and he ably pulls off what's asked of him, but he never really nails anything. These are three yards and a cloud of dust comics: they matriculate when they should explode. Even a meat-and-potatoes sequence of a snitching fixer getting his just desserts via full-auto AR burst is given all its punch by colorist Jacob Phillips, whose moody but electric contributions, all faint neon and mottled haze, lend the comic much more visual interest than its actual drawings do.
I take no pleasure in pointing out the flaws in this book - Brubaker and Phillips both seem like genuinely okay guys, and it's a far worthier effort than the truly terrible other mainstream comic I've read this month. And I worry that in taking this one issue out of context I might be missing something crucial, something that would legitimately elevate it to a higher plane of quality. But that's cheating, and Brubaker's narration takes such determined pains to describe everything his plot is doing that if I'm missing something the fault is really truly his. And then the issue ends and I turn to the backmatter pages that Criminal was one of the very first mainstream comics to feature instead of ads, where in the dawning days of the book I can remember its author passionately inveighing on behalf of old mystery paperbacks and noir films, the stuff that made him want to do this comic in the first place - and now there's hey, we've got some new collections of our old comics coming out this month (they look great), and hey, I took in the second Netflix season of End of the Fucking World (it was great)! But, man, Brubaker has actually read the End of the Fucking World comic, and then you turn the page again and here's a remembrance of Tom Spurgeon as heartfelt as anything The Comics Journal published... and what can I say? They've earned the right to make this thing, and they're still earning it. I'm happy it exists. And I'm not gonna read the next issue.