With Frank Miller and Robert Rodriquez set to deliver Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, the long-awaited follow up to 2005’s Sin City, now might be a good time contemplate other variations on the comic book crime story. I don’t mean that to sound dismissive of Miller’s Sin City universe, nor do I mean it to be dismissive of the work he and Rodriquez have done on the Sin City films. I liked the first film, and I’ll be in line to see the sequel. But Sin City shows the crime story done in an intentionally over-the-top fashion. It’s the crime story boiled down to archetypes and then injected with an ultra-violent, hyper-masculine comic book ethos. It’s noir as violent cartoon, with dialog so hardboiled James Cagney would have cracked up trying to say it.
If Hollywood gets around to taking on another comic book crime epic, I hope someone has the good sense to consider the Criminal books by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Here’s a series that’s about as gritty as any ever made—if made into a faithful film it would be a hard R—but it has an emotional resonance that’s lacking in the superhuman antiheroics of Sin City. In the Criminal universe, everyone is all too human.
An excellent introduction to the series is Criminal: The Deluxe Edition, a beautifully bound volume released in 2009. The book features three storylines from the beginning of Criminal’s run: “Coward” tells the story of Leo Patterson, a gifted knockover man as well known for his aversion to danger as he is for his flawless ability to plan jobs. Although Leo’s notorious for being a coward who protects himself by closely following a set of personal rules, in order to help a beautiful heroin addict named Greta he decides to break his rule about working with corrupt cops.
That, of course, turns out to be a mistake. “Lawless” follows an ex-service vet named Tracy Lawless who gets out of military prison in Iraq only to find out that his younger brother has been murdered. He ingratiates himself into the crew, determined to find out which one of them was responsible for his brother’s death. Lastly, “The Dead and The Dying” has three interlocking storylines—Second Chance In Hell, A Wolf Among Wolves, The Female of the Species—which collectively tell the story of a prizefighter named Jake “Gnarly” Brown; a Vietnam vet named Teegar Lawless; and Danica, a beautiful dancer who seems to find herself, at one time or another, involved with every criminal in town.
The world of Criminal is as dense as any series of novels. In the comic book medium, Ed Brubaker is really the master of this sort of thing. From his work on Batman (Gotham Central, The Man Who Laughs) to his complicated Winter Soldier storyline which formed the basis for the second Captain American movie, he’s demonstrated a talent for orchestrating multi-character story arcs. For my money, Criminal is his masterpiece. Most of its action takes place in Center City, which, as the series progresses, begins to take on the character of a real place. Virtually everyone we meet is either a crook or a cop, or is some ancillary of crooks and cops—drug addicts, lawyers, bartenders, strippers. At one time or another just about every character finds him or herself at the Undertow.
Over the course of these interlocking stories, themes begin to develop. The weight of family, for one—the way the sins of the father are passed down to the sons. (Leo Patterson, Tracy Lawless, and Jake Brown are all shouldering the burden of being the sons of their fathers.) Heroin, for another. The drug cuts a wide swath through Center City, affecting men and women, black and white, young and old.
If that makes it sound as if Criminal is a downer, it shouldn’t. Though this series has more on its mind than something like Sin City—which exists primarily to strike poses that we can recognize from previous film noir and comic books—Brubaker is a master at the quick set-up, the swift complication, and the violent resolution. Something like “Coward” is as entertaining as an Elmore Leonard novel, and the intricate plotting of “The Dead and the Dying” unfurls as meticulously as a Tarantino movie.
Of course, a major part of the general excellence of Criminal is due to the incredible art of Sean Phillips and the colors by Val Staples. One of the reasons Criminal would make a great movie is that its images derive from cinematic sources—classic noir like Out Of The Past, neo-noir like Blast of Silence, blaxploitation like Super Fly, and Hong Kong gangster flicks like The Mission. While tapping into all of these films, Phillips and Staples create beautiful comic book images all their own—images that can be cold, dark, sexy, or violent. There’s a starkness to the imagery but never to the point of abstraction. Center City and its denizens remain grounded in a certain gritty reality.
There has been talk of turning Criminal into a movie for years now. Variety reported last year that Kim Jee-Woon (the director of The Good, The Bad, The Weird) was set to make a film of “Coward.” As is always the case with these things, we’ll see. Kim is not the first director to be associated with a potential Criminal film project. Still, with the success of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and (I hope) Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, perhaps the time is just about perfect for a movie version of Criminal.