Saturday, December 6, 2008

Criminal "Bad night"

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' "Criminal" has just concluded it's latest storyline, and considering that the book's going on hiatus while the authors develop the "Incognito" project, I thought it was a good time to look back on the storyline as a whole.

By now, it's apparent that "Criminal" is a critical darling, even though it's selling modestly, making it's readers always consider the threat of the book's cancellation. Fearing this, the authors have gone on and re-branded the book in the new volume, starting off with three inter-connected issues, that examined some of the previously seen minor players. Starting with #4, and continuing until the just released #7, the authors have once again dug their teeth into a more traditional neo-noir story, similar in execution to the two tales featured in the first volume of the series.

Once again, "Bad night" spotlights one of the bit players involved with the previous protagonist's shady dealings, which is a bit of a risky move. Having a creator-owned book in American superhero-dominated comics publishing is a very brave move, but the lack of editorial concern seems to have pushed Brubaker and Phillips to really try their luck, going against all the commercial considerations, with starting a new volume that does not immediately continue with either Leo Patterson or Tracy Lawless.

In fact, all of the "Criminal" arcs so far, expertly paced as they are, take as much time to read, as one needs to watch a movie. Continuing with this line of thinking, what the creators have given us three stories that can stand on their own, but are also meant to be continued at the later date. Craftily put, and soaking in just the right atmosphere, "Criminal" does manage to hide this quirk very well, but the "stop and start" manner with which Brubaker has told his story so far has certainly made it's mark on the book.

Getting to "Bad night" specifically, the first cover almost tells the story itself. The ones that follow are nice to look at, but the first one continues in the tradition of iconic covers that the preceding three issues started, although they were painted pieces to boot. Right on the first page one is treated with the heavy narration that serves to set up the story's feel, much alike to "the Watchmen"'s opening monologue. It's eventually revealed that it's no accident Brubaker started his story at that exact moment, but going from panel to panel, the reader can't escape getting back into the creators' capable hands, as the faces of Sean Phillips' scratchy and evocative figures serve as a great reminder of the strength of Marvel's lone realistic series.

Continuing on, we are eased into the captions, as they are our only way in getting to understand the main character Jacob's introvertive mind a little bit better. A former counterfeit, he has since changed his ways, and has become a reclusive writer/artist of the newspaper strip seen from the start of the first volume. We are taken on Jacob's daily routine, and can't help but sympathize with the self-pitying intellect forced into an insomniac's recluse. Staying true to the noir conventions, a femme fatale and hints of violence soon threat to break his exile, making us think that the story will proceed with the "will he or won't he" get back to his murky past.

And, that's where the book starts to show itself for the deeply-layered and heavily thought out piece of fiction that it is. We are treated with more and more information about Jacob's past, his wife and the tragedy that left him crippled, but even though he soon gets finds himself in midst of some very turbulent events, the twists just keep on coming. Thus, we are forced to deal with both constantly revaluating Jacob's complex character, all the while fearing for his life as the complex scheme in which he has run into keeps getting more and more familiar, as it starts relating more and more to the events that made him the man who he is today.

And that's the kind of book "Criminal" is. In "Bad night", Brubaker and Phillips keep with the more realistic take seen in the preceding three issues, making what's left of the violence past the numerous threats horrible and wrapped tight with foreboding consequences. The characters remain human throughout, struggling with neuroses and sexual impulses, as they long for another second chance, before making yet another mistake that makes it slip away again. The book retains the surface stylings of the genre, but just like men that hound them at every turn, the women are anything but perfect, as the objectification is skipped for a realistic take most signified by the strip-bar and the sad hookers that make their money there.

For all of the narration, Brubaker chooses his words expertly, and "Bad night" is never boring or cumbersome. Just the opposite, in fact, as the writer's so skilled at the way he tells his stories, that he repeatedly keeps the reader going with him until he pulls a twist on us, seemingly from nowhere, yet perfectly fitting the story he's telling. Sean Phillips, pressed as he is to deliver his story in small panels, makes the most of it, giving us all the claustrophobia and grime he is able to conjure with his pencils.

The pace is unrelenting up to the final panel, slowing down only for the moments of gradual realization as both the parts us readers and Jacob, try to get to the bottom of the mystery forced upon him. It's a very painful experience for the protagonist, though, as he is made victim to a series of events, seemingly interconnected with him. As they keep on piling, Jacob himself is urged to snap from the shell he's retreated in, as the links to his past are made more and more apparent. It's impossible to imagine this story being told through any other protagonist, but Brubaker and Phillips are more than capable of turning him inside out, along with the femme fatale Iris that he concentrates on saving, oblivious to the hurt directed towards him, for his past misdeeds.

Thus, "Bad night" ends up an expert character study, that starts protagonist viewing himself as a victim, and goes a long way towards making him responsible for the mistakes in his life, along with a healthy dose of irony heaped his way.

It's unfortunate that the book is forced to take a hiatus, as Brubaker and Phillips proceed to develop the "Incognito" mini-series, but we as readers have every hope that afterwards they will pick up on this excellent story and continue along the book's seminal "Lawless" arc.

"Criminal" continues to be one of the rare cases of solid storytelling all around, making for the book that stands shoulder to shoulder with Vertigo's "Scalped" as one of the best comics currently published in American market.

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