Reviews and Recommendations by Mel Odom, Professional Writer

CRIMINAL: COWARD by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

Cover Image

Ed Brubaker is an award-winning comic scripter who has written about superheroes and superheroines (Batman, Catwoman, Captain America, Daredevil). However, the man has a heart carved from the deepest, darkest noir. His criminals and anti-heroes sing with muscle, malice, and desperation, lifting from the pages to hold readers hostage to their own need to know what’s going to happen next.My first brush with Brubaker came through a four-issue comic series from Vertigo – the adult, edgy line published by DC Comics. I enjoyed the private eye feel of the story and couldn’t help comparing it to Raymond Chandler novels. I’m certain that’s what Brubaker intended.

However, with Criminal: Coward, the first volume in Brubaker and Sean Phillips’s ongoing series, the storytelling drives drastically into Humphrey Bogart and Jim Thompson territory. Leo Patterson is the kind of guy Bogart would have portrayed on the screen and Thompson would have written about in his crime novels.

See, it’s not enough that Leo is a professional criminal. He’s also trying to take care of Ivan, his father’s one-time criminal associate. Years ago, Leo’s dad and Ivan raised Leo in a life of crime, taught him everything he needed to know to become a professional pickpocket. Leo graduated from that and became a heist artist, stealing from banks and armored cars, cracking places and organizations that were supposedly impenetrable. Now Ivan’s a junkie and struggling with Alzheimer’s, and no one else is there to take care of him.

That part of Leo’s motivation for everything that follows is magic. No matter what he does, he’s trapped, struggling and trying to take care of Ivan. The old man doesn’t make it easy, either. He’s constantly chasing off the nurses Leo is forced to hire to take care of him. Leo talks about family a lot, and that’s what much of Brubaker’s exploration of the criminal element in this series seems to be about. All these families seem inevitable, and they’re all inextricably tied up with each other.

I enjoyed the way Brubaker and Phillips start the graphic novel in mid-bank robbery, with the wheels coming off and everything going wrong. A sense of immediacy instantly pulled me in and I was hanging onto every frame of Phillips’s gorgeous art as the dice continued to roll snake eyes on the robbery.

Brubaker’s first-person narrative is awesome and reminded me of all the old Gold Medal novels I scavenged from secondhand stories while I was growing up. When I wasn’t determined to grow up to be a private eye and rescue damsels in distress, I wanted to be an anti-hero and steal from the truly bad guys. The worlds in those stories are extremely small, but everything is critical, balancing on the knife-edge between life and death.

As the story progresses, Leo gets blackmailed by Seymour, a crooked cop. Everyone who’s familiar with noir knows this is a bad deal. Leo says no thanks and walks away. Until Greta, the widow of one of Leo’s old partners, steps back into the picture and forces him to throw in with Seymour’s gang.

I don’t want to go much more into the plot because Brubaker provides a rollicking ride with plenty of twists and turns I didn’t see coming. His dialogue is great, and the character motivations for everyone involved is multilayered and well portrayed.

I can’t say enough good things about Phillips’s art, either. The style is loose and flowing, and Phillips uses shadow and darkness like a lethal weapon. He draws (literally) the reader into a grim and gritty world.

So far there have been two graphic novels released in the Criminal series. I’ve read them both, the second one Criminal: Lawless first, actually, and didn’t notice any plot spoilers. There are a couple things, though, but I got around them okay. Brubaker keeps his world of criminals and baser emotions tight, though. So far all the major characters of the series have been in each other’s lives for years. In the third graphic novel, it appears Brubaker is going back to the 1970s and revealing even more backstory. I’m looking forward to it.



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