Criminal is a crime/ noir comic by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips and the first volume, Coward, focuses on the character of Leo. He’s a thief who’s good at planning heists, but is also extremely cautious to the point where people think him a coward. He’ll walk away from a job if it doesn’t feel right and he’s willing to go home empty-handed rather than risk getting caught and ending up in jail. He’s seen it happen many times before, has almost been caught himself, and knows it’s because people get greedy and don’t know when to say no.
So when a crooked cop approaches him about a job with a big payout Leo turns him down. Unfortunately he also has obligations and debts to pay and desperately needs the money. Against his better judgment Leo agrees to do the job and very quickly find himself in a much more dangerous and risky situation than he realized.
Criminal, Volume 1: Coward, is the first volume in a series of self contained stories and it follows the previously mentioned Gateway to Comics golden rule. You can read this independently of any other comic and don’t need any prior knowledge of the characters or the context.
The creators of this comic are huge noir fans and the writer, Ed Brubaker, knows all of the character archetypes and storytelling techniques that are common to the genre. He takes these elements and uses them to create something new, interesting and most of all unpredictable that leaves you guessing right up to the end. You don’t have to be a fan of noir or crime films to enjoy the comic, but if you generally like gritty crime stories then I think Criminal will definitely appeal. Recent TV touchstones in the same style include The Shield, The Wire, and The Sopranos. Criminal shares common elements with these shows, including organized crime, crooked cops, and uncompromising storytelling.
Each volume of Criminal focuses on a particular character and they all exist in the same world and take part in an unnamed city in America. The stories also build on one another to create a tapestry, and a character who was previously seen in the background or referred in conversation, could become the protagonist in the next story.
Coward follows Leo in the present, but throughout the story, and in the other volumes, characters reference other times and you get a real sense of history to the characters and the underworld that makes it feel more realistic. The stories in Criminal are brutal and completely grounded in the genre, so you won’t suddenly see someone develop superpowers and save the day. Bad things happen to good people, the good guy (if there is one in a world made of grey) doesn’t always win and the ending is not always a happy one. The result is a fascinating and thrilling read where all bets are off and somewhere in the back of your mind you know that anyone could die at any time, which only heightens the tension.
At the very beginning of Coward, Leo speaks about his father who was a career criminal and how as a boy he learned at the knee of other criminals. He and other boys in the neighborhood saw a lot and understood little until they were much older, and in some ways they were indoctrinated into the criminal underworld. While I didn’t immediately sympathise with Leo, it helped me understand him as a person and how hard he is struggling to break free from the vicious cycle of crime he was born into. He doesn’t want to be just another punk with a gun holding up liquor stores who eventually gets caught and sent to prison. He also doesn’t want to end up like his father, who died in prison, which is one of the reasons why he is so careful all the time. But there’s a lot more to Leo than meets the eye, as there is with all of the characters, and over the course of the story layers are peeled back when the heist goes wrong. We find out what kind of a man Leo really is, what he is so afraid of and, once again, I never saw it coming.
Criminal is an excellent series that has attracted fans from all walks of life including a number of crime authors and people connected to the TV and movie business who are involved with, or are big fans of, crime and noir, such as Tom Fontano, the creator of Homicide: Life on the Streets, who wrote the introduction to Coward.
To date there are five Criminal trade paperbacks and there will be others in the future.