Pick Of The Week: “Criminal” #1

By | January 10th, 2019
Posted in Pick of the Week, Reviews | % Comments

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have proved themselves a tour de force in the world of modern comics, and their collaborations were ultimately popularized by their crime series “Criminal”. A series of graphic novels documenting the tumultuous lives of the Lawless family, it was Brubaker and Phillips doing what they did best. Now the series has returned in a monthly series format. Can the pair recapture the magic that made “Criminal” such a formidable book all those years ago?

Cover by Sean and Jacob Phillips

Written by Ed Brubaker
Illustrated and lettered by Sean Phillips
Colored by Jacob Phillips


Hot off their bestselling series KILL OR BE KILLED and their original graphic novel MY HEROES HAVE ALWAYS BEEN JUNKIES, crime comic masters ED BRUBAKER and SEAN PHILLIPS finally return to their most-demanded title — as a new MONTHLY SERIES!

In this double-sized (at no additional cost!) debut issue, Teeg Lawless is back in town. But he finds himself in more trouble than ever, thanks to his delinquent teenage son — and this time, fists and bullets may not be enough to solve his problems.

A perfect introduction to CRIMINAL and its dark, exciting world, this series will also include back page art and articles to bring readers more fully into the noir experience.

Old fan or new fan, Brubaker masterfully pulls you back into the story world of “Criminal” with a wink-nudge meta style line: “And everything was just like he remembered. Even though he hadn’t been to this house in years.”. Brubaker brings back the Lawless family with the youngest, Ricky, busting into the house of an elderly criminal named Mack the Monster and stealing his prized possession. Ricky clumsily puts on an act as Mack’s grandson, with Brubaker using Ricky’s terrifically bad cover story to keep tensions high and spread genuine fear through the readers. Brubaker builds the tension up more by having the narrator tell readers about how Mack bludgeoned a jewel store clerk to death with the back of his pistol, and smoothly having Mack transition from slightly senile to vividly reminiscing about the old days, scarily brimming with life. It’s a terrific opening sequence that climaxes in a brutal, violent beatdown from an adrenaline-filled Ricky to the surprisingly powerful Mack, showing that Brubaker can deliver a full, well-rounded story sequence in only the first part of this tale.

What we also get from this first issue is a reminder at how expertly Brubaker can handle a cast of uniquely despicable characters. The first Lawless that we meet, Ricky comes off as a little bratty and angsty, and he certainly holds all these traits. Yet we also see a touch of loyalty and altruism as we find out he stole the diamond necklace to get bail for his father’s imprisonment, adding a layer of complexity to him before casting him to the side for a moment. Then we get to the meat of the story, with longtime protagonist Teeg Lawless. As always Brubaker portrays him with a level of familiarity and cliche, but never enough that it’s grating, and more complex undertones to make him feel truly unique. He’ll go from beating his son within an inch of his life for stealing the diamonds, and then turn around and attempt to find a cool twenty-five grand to save him from high-class criminals, all the while sleeping with his dead best friend’s wife yet feeling a sense of remorse and unfulfillment for doing so. The background characters don’t feel paper thin either. The pawn store owner Frankie feels disappointment in Ricky’s career path, yet still retains a sense of loyalty to Teeg to the point that she’ll offer up the money and recommend that his son Ricky return the diamond before things get out of hand. Even Arvin’s wife Sharon, who sleeps with Teeg, doesn’t have a sense of nastiness or a stereotypically sleazy nature about her. Her actions and dialogue before and after the event make it seem like she’s really just helping out an old friend.

Not enough praise can be sung about Sean Phillips’ perfectly toned art in this issue. Phillips has a unique style that feels stylized and simplified, yet in each panel, there’s a level of detail that will surprise you and have you staring for hours. From the moment you open this book, you’ll get a sense of this in how Phillips sets up a scene. The first page has the typical setting: an old-fashioned mansion looming beside some dead tree branches, and an interior with abandoned look furniture draped in sheets. It’s set amidst moments where Phillips cleverly pairs back the activity in the panels, like when we see Ricky talking to Mack set against a backdrop of almost all-consuming darkness. This level of control continues throughout the issue – when visiting Mack’s past, we get some fantastically detailed scenes of old-timey Japanese estates, yet the most striking panel might be the first where Mack is hit by an opponent, with nothing but the wrestling ring and a dark interior behind him. Then we get scenes where Phillips balances out Brubaker’s wordiness by seamlessly mapping out the entire scene to a splash page, occurring when the narrator recaps most of Arvin Burns’ life as a criminal. Phillips clearly knows how to table set, yet can balance that with the use of negative space to land some truly heavy moments.

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Few people can make cartooning such detailed emotion into characters look so damn easy like Phillips can. His art adds an extra level of visual complexity to characters that support the narrative and dialogue that Brubaker uses. Ricky Lawless seems to have a constant scowl of some form on his face, looking like he has something to prove but hates the world for the situation he was born into. Similarly, his direct antagonist Mack the Monster has the gentle movements and body language of a senile old man, yet when he starts to really dive into his past, Phillips gives him a wide-eyed eccentricity that makes him terrifying. We can see forms and shadows of this look reflected in the rest of the criminally-orientated cast, most blatantly in Teeg Lawless. This gives him a constantly unpleasant look but makes him unmistakably and classicly Brooklyn-esque, in combination with his tilted, toothy scowl. One character I think Phillips really sells is Sharon, the widower of Arvin. She has a cool, calm collected nature to her yet remains distant and emotionless, showing that she might have felt something by the passing of her husband, but years of being witness to his actions make her capable of holding her emotions under wraps and looking generally dismissive.

Like the recent “My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies”, Sean Phillips’ son Jacob handles the coloring in this issue, and it makes for a vibrant, candy-like treat. Phillips balances a range of color palettes with ease, starting the first scene off with a dark, horror-esque tone coated in shadows and lit up by warm lamplight. We then slip into a noir style flashback, with excellent use of grey tones to feel like it was taken straight from a 40s cinema. The rest of the issue is done in a highly stylized and starkly contrasted 80s palette, feeling more Miami Vice than The Big Sleep. My favorite sequences occur in the bar and in Sharon’s home. Phillips uses bright, acid-tinged purple and blues against a stark black background to give a very seedy yet dayglo feel to the scenes, especially in Sharon’s home. The coloring texture in these scenes is beautiful, using a rough, pastel feel to brings a level of authenticity and rough-edged nature to the scenes. Phillips more than proves his capability as a high-end colorist in this issue, and I can’t wait to see more from him.

As many would have expected, “Criminal” #1 proves to be a masterclass in crime comic book storytelling. Ed Brubaker brings back everything that made the original graphic novel line fantastic and translates it to a monthly serialized format. Sean Phillips brings a level of control to the table that can sublimely set a scene or strip right back so that readers can truly feel the impact of a single moment. Jacob Phillips brings it all to superb, vibrant life with 80s tinged palettes rendered with a rough, pastel-like texture that fits the tone perfectly. Don’t skip out on this series debut.

Final Score: 9.2 – “Criminal” #1 lives up to the lofty expectations of its predecessors, bringing back the high-tension stories, masterfully controlled art and candy-tinged coloring in a new monthly serialized format.

Rowan Grover

Rowan is from Australia. Aside from sweeping spiders in an adrenaline-fueled panic from his car and constantly swatting mosquitoes, Rowan likes to read, edit, and write about comics. Talk to him on Twitter at @rowan_grover about anything from weird late 90's/early 2000's X-Men or why Nausicaa is the greatest, full stop.