Monday, August 25, 2008

Criminal Vol. 3: The Dead and The Dying

Criminal Vol. 3: The Dead and The Dying
by Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, and Val Staples
Marvel Comics 2008

Hillary Brown: Wow is this ever better than that X-Men relocation special. In other words, I'm starting to see what the big hoo-ha about Brubaker is, and what it boils down to is that he's an excellent writer. It's easy to do a weak job with pulp material, to fill it with spraying blood and cursing and asses, which is kind of what my experience reading 100 Bullets has been like so far. Not that I hate that book. I'm still willing to give it a chance for one or two more volumes. But I don't care about any of the characters or even remember who they are. I'm not sure what the magic is that Brubaker has to create that kind of connection with the reader, but he definitely has it, and it's on full display in this most recent collection of Criminal. I've only read one issue in isolation, and it was almost as compelling, but the way he weaves three stories together here, telling basically one big story from three different perspectives but without doing a straight-up revisiting of the same scene from different angles, well, it can't help but remind me of Pulp Fiction or, perhaps, the sources on which that film drew and all of Tarantino's films draw. Grindhouse film can be overpraised, but the really good stuff has a deep grasp of human motivations and desires, which is what drives this book. My only real problem with it lies in Sean Phillips's art. It's the first time I've encountered good panel composition (really good) and good coloring, but not liked the line work. And it's not that the latter is terrible; there's just something about it that bugs me, like a reaching for a gritty kind of look or something.

Garrett Martin: Yes, Brubaker is an excellent writer, and for further proof go track down Gotham Central, Sleeper, Captain America, Daredevil, and Catwoman. He's not flashy like Fraction or full of brilliantly insane comic book ideas like Morrison, but nobody writing for the big two can match Brubaker for plotting and detail. Criminal's his best work, an obvious labor of love for both creators that perfectly hits exactly what it sets out to do. And I think the lack of blood and swearing is a deliberate part of the book's influences and intentions; the old noir films Criminal pays tribute to couldn't pour out buckets of blood and cuss words, and even though pulp fiction could be more lurid than cinema, the written word reinforces that not seeing a sordid scene sometimes drives the image home more forcefully. So yeah, I think that explains the restraint, to a degree.

This trade includes the first three issues of Criminal's second volume, and it's probably the book's high point thus far. The first volume was made up of two five-issue storylines that had a few minor crossovers but were mostly self-contained. It wasn't really until these three issues that the expansiveness of Brubaker's vision came into view. Brubaker's not just mapped out the backstories of seemingly background characters like the bartender Gnarley, but apparently has planned out the history of crime in this city for at least a few generations. The spotlight may shift from one ostensible lead character to another, but the real focus of Criminal remains the modern city, and the atmosphere of crime that permeates both it and the families of the men who operate in that world. The first-person narration and tight focus on singular individuals grounds each separate storyline in clear-cut noir / pulp turf, but the wide-view provided by the on-going periodical format gives both Brubaker and the reader an opportunity to explore and experience more than just your stereotypical tough guy crime fiction schtick. He hits the genre notes perfectly, but it doesn't feel cliched, and that's a sign of a great writer.

And wow, I'm surprised you have problems with Phillips' artwork. It fits the tone perfectly, linework included. Like Michael Lark on Gotham Central, Phillips' art is cinematic in a good way, and a great fit for Brubaker's stories. Occasionally his character designs can look a bit recycled or similar (Teeg Lawless really does look exactly line Sleeper's Genocide Jones), but that's not a big deal. I don't think he's trying too hard for a gritty feel; it doesn't look forced, and his art is the same here as it is in his other comics. And the grittiness fits the material, anyway.

HB: I think it's that I really do prefer a clean line in my comics art, and while I agree that Phillips's work does fit with the tone, the scratchiness of the lines, which look like they've been done with charcoal, just kind of isn't my thing. Faces also tend to blur together a little more with this kind of thick, sketchy line, and you lose some detail and some character. You could say the same thing about the tendency of a lot of 1970s pulp filmmakers to shoot scenes without enough light. So, again, it may well be fitting.

One thing that Brubaker seems particularly good at is making the reader see that big picture without overwhelming him/her. It's not clear from the beginning of the book--if you don't know anything about it to begin with--that the three stories it contains are related at all, and it's something you notice slowly at first and then in a rush, and it's just really beautifully done. Even if you go to great trouble creating and populating an entire comics world, it's all for naught if you just dump your reader into it and expect him/her to understand everything that's going on. Brubaker may rely a little much on narration, but that's not something I necessarily have a problem with, especially when he manages to keep the characters' voices fairly distinct. So do all the other issues take place in the same city?

GM: These three issues were specifically promoted as stand-alone issues, in order to be more accessible for new readers, so I think I was especially slow to notice they were all related, and maybe thus even more impressed. And yes, the entire series thus far has took place in the same city, which I'm pretty certain has never been named. The three story arcs thus far all cross-over tangentially, with one's lead character or his relatives being referenced or popping up in the background of the other. The stories remain self-contained, though, and these little bits of business just add value to the regular and observant reader. We're not discussing Criminal #4, but I know you've read it, and just as an example, the Franz Kafka PI comic strip has appeared several times throughout the series, and the strip's creator, who's the lead in the story arc that starts with #4, appeared briefly in the very first storyline. I don't know if they mentioned he was the guy who made the comic, though. It's satisfying when these tiny details align and you have that moment of realization, but they alone don't make Criminal a great comic. Or shit, a great story, regardless of medium. They do speak to the breadth and depth of Brubaker's planning, though, and how seriously he takes this writing biz. He's not just tossing out warmed-up, generic fluff; he's got a vision and knows exactly where he's going.

And yeah, Phillips' scratchiness does sacrifice a bit of detail, which might be why his muscle-bound dudes with short blond hair look identical. Still, I think his art is pretty damn great, and Criminal wouldn't be the same book without it.

So is this only the second thing you've read by Brubaker? This and Uncanny X-Men #500?

HB: Yep. He's one of the big names that I haven't really tackled yet, although not for lack of interest. The closest I've come is reading some of Bendis's Daredevil before Brubaker took over. If anything, it's probably because he's written a lot of books with long histories, meaning that it's harder for the novice to dive into his work. Maybe this grasp of multiple existing storylines (which I'm assuming he has; who knows? Maybe he sucks at it) that's led him to write things like Captain America (his best-known work?) and Batman is a strength that's just as visible in his more independent work? Or maybe I'm extrapolating from too little evidence. My guess is that Criminal is actually the perfect way in to Brubaker, unless Sleeper is even better. Is it? I hear they're making a movie out of that one.

GM: I haven't read all of Sleeper, but I feel comfortable calling Criminal a better comic. Sleeper is not a conventional book, but does trade on superhero conventions, and thus isn't quite as accessible and focused as Criminal. Another one of Brubaker's hallmarks is recasting superhero books into subgenres that fit his strengths as a writer; Captain America as an espionage thriller, Immortal Iron Fist as a pulp adventure serial, a Batman book that's actually a street-level plainclothes detective story, etc. Similarly, Sleeper was an undercover cop mystery book with a superhero gimmick, and although it's a great book, you still get the feel that the superhero element was only included because of the market Wildstorm targets. Brubaker doesn't have to compromise with Criminal, or jump through any stylistic hoops to recalibrate the material.

HB: Yeah, as I was reading it, I found myself thinking more about movies and books than about comics. It's not exactly Raymond Chandler--Brubaker's voice isn't as loopy as that--despite the frequent blackouts in the middle story (one of my favorite devices in the book), but it's Dashiell Hammett-ish. That is, while Brubaker's stuff isn't un-comic book-like at all (it uses plenty of smart visual elements), it's definitely more literary than almost anything else I can think of that's published by the big houses.

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