Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Review: CRIMINAL #1

Comicbook sex god Sean P Phillips was kind enough to furnish me with an early copy of CRIMINAL #1 for review, and review the life out of it I jolly well shall!

For a comic that didn't exactly set the sales charts alight when originally published, the cult of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillip's SLEEPER has grown and grown. Its title proved to be some sort of horribly ironic self-fulfilling prophesy: a low selling comicbook, it soon became a critical cause celebre, and then went on to have a second life as a successful collection of trade paperbacks. It was one of those few mainstream titles smart enough to appeal to Comics Journal readers, and full enough of action-packed super-powered antics to appeal to Wizard readers. A bonafide crossover hit. So much so, that the new book by this creative team must be one of the most anticipated books in a long time to feature absolutely no spandex longjohns shenanigans.

That said, CRIMINAL #1 does bear comparison to SLEEPER to some extent. For a start, in both books, Ed Brubaker does a great job in making the reader sympathize with a cast of characters who are ultimately morally repugnant. In the case of SLEEPER, this meant quickly coming to care for a bunch of supervillains who were capable of yer actual evil. Yet still we cared when these people were betrayed. or tortured, or had their hearts broke. But we were never allowed to forget they were also violent, cruel, twisted. Basically, in the noir moral maze of SLEEPER, Brubaker played the readers' emotions like a violin. Mmm, mixed metaphor.

In CRIMINAL, this empathic leap is less extreme - these people aren't villains, aren't evil: they're career criminals. They've made careers out of stealing and lying, but aren't necessarily defined by those acts, anymore than any of us are defined by what we do for a living. Ordinary people, whose lives are complicated by the choice they've made: to live outside the law. As such, this cast reminds this reader of the small-time crooks who populated Brubaker's earlier indie comics. They don't thrive living this life, they survive. The anti-hero, Ivan, is the antithesis of your standard comicbook protagonist. He shys away from violence, he hates guns. His first instinct is always to run from confrontation, physical or emotional. I suppose in terms of crime comics, he's the Elric to Marv from SIN CITY's Conan.

The plot of the book then takes a turn for the expansive: the promise of a big score accelerates everything - we head into something comparable to Elmore Leonard territory. The stakes are getting higher, and a sadistic cliffhanger promises further, darker twists into the outer rings of a SIN CITY style hell. Hell, even the prominence given the "Frank Kafka, Private Eye" newspaper strip-within-a-strip would also tend to suggest there's even further layers of this onion to come. Dark, existential layers. Mmm, onion rings.

Of course, Brubaker's script would be unable to appear so nuanced without an artist like Sean Phillips. Phillips is a master of facial expression like few other in comics (I'd put his old pal Duncan Fegredo and Steve Dillon up there, too), so when his characters show doubt, we feel it. When they show guilt or despair, we feel it. We can see that glimmer of hope in their eyes, and we also see it when it's extinguished. And we feel all that, too.
So there ya go, that's the real reason comics aren't full of blathery exposition these days. It's because of the skill of artists like Sean Phillips.
He can do the big stuff, like the heist-gone-tits-up at the start, and the small stuff, like the care the protagonist Leo takes of his father's Alzheimer's-and-smack stricken partner Ivan (who's a great breakout character, by the way - here's hoping we see more of this old goat). The sequence where we're introduced to Ivan's friend Donnie is fantastic in its subtlety - Phillips' camera placement is immaculate. As we meet him prone, pretending to have a epileptic fit, the camera is above him, framed in a very Hitchcockian shot. As he proceeds to work the crowd with his begging act, we see a crowd shot, with a multitude of mixed emotions on the faces of his marks. Again, the panel is framed to perfection, with Donnie's supplicant hands reaching up from below (rather Eisnerian, that 'un).

I'm guessing those of you that preorder comics are already waiting for this - SLEEPER was nothing if not a blogger's comic. The rest of you: order SLEEPER on Amazon tonight, then prepare to march down to your Local Comic Shop in October and demand your copy of CRIMINAL #1.