Criminal (vol. 2): Lawless by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips

Criminal (Vol. 2): Lawless by Ed BrubakerIn Criminal (vol. 2): Lawless, Ed Brubaker tells a noir story of family loyalty. One brother — a criminal — dies and the other seeks justice, doing what he can to be an avenging angel on the wrong side of the law. When we meet Tracy Lawless, he’s been in the military, and for some unexplained reason, he’s been thrown in the hole for eighteen months (we do get the explanation later in the book). When he gets out, he is told that his brother, Ricky, died ten months earlier in February. Nobody bothered to tell him because when they put him in isolation, all communication between him and the outside world was cut off. But as soon as he finds out Ricky’s been murdered, he heads straight home seeking some kind of justice.

He is sucked into the Undertow, a bar where criminals hang out (it was originally called the Undertown but the “n” burned out back in the 50s). Once there, he puts to practice his military training to blend in and be patient, slowly circling Ricky’s old crew, who are clearly looking to make another score. Tracy’s job is figuring out how to work his way into the crew, earn their trust, find out who killed his brother, and then put a bullet in this person. Along the way, Tracy is quite liberal in his use of a gun, going on a bit of a killing streak during the time he is putting himself into position to get payback.

While he works his way into the crew’s confidence, there are some bad men search for Tracy, who made one mistake on his way into town: He stole money from the wrong people, and these criminals keep coming out of the woodwork to kill Tracy. He dispatches one man after another with ruthlessness. He keeps just ahead of them to get his job with the crew finished, but his past will come back to haunt him, a frequent convention in noir fiction.

With Ed Brubaker, nothing is as simple as the basic plots of his books sound: Tracy’s loyalty to his brother is misplaced to a certain extent. After all, Ricky was a criminal and just might have done something to deserve his death — maybe it wasn’t anybody’s fault, or maybe it’s more than one person’s fault. Perhaps it was an accident. Whichever it is, things are not what they seem, and Tracy is operating more out of lingering guilt than anything else — guilt for escaping home and leaving Tracy behind in his criminal surroundings. Family can be our ultimate downfall, according to this story. Family includes fathers and sons as well as brothers in this book, and both Ricky and Tracy were raised by a cruel man, Teeg Lawless, who wanted them to be tough and follow him into crime. He gets his wish in ways he could never have imagined.

This is a story about seeking truth and the harm that can come when we get what we wish for. Tracy, who went to the military to escape a life of crime, finds himself back where he started: Deep in the criminal life with a crew of people who don’t trust each other, and they shouldn’t, considering Tracy doesn’t even tell them his real name much less anything else about himself. But one person will trust Tracy more than they should, and that will lead to Tracy’s downfall.

I love this series, and if you like noir, this volume is a must-read. Though a few characters make cameos from volume one, Criminal (vol. 2): Lawless is a good standalone book. Though if you like the character of Tracy Lawless, I highly recommend reading Criminal volumes five and seven next; they continue to tell Tracy’s story, including giving us more information about his childhood and his father Teeg (there’s also one short story about Teeg in volume 3). The woman in this story, Malory, helps make this comic one of my favorites, but you’ll have to decide for yourself how much she fits into the mold of the femme fatale we expect from noir fiction. Brubaker, as always, subverts the conventions of noir as much as he invokes them, and Lawless is no exception. This book is not to be missed.


  • Brad Hawley

    BRAD HAWLEY, who's been with us since April 2012, earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia.

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