Criminal (Vol. 3): The Dead and The Dying Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips
The Dead and The Dying, the third volume in the Criminal series by Ed Brubaker, continues the noir tales that began in volume one. In this series, we get the background on a few characters we’ve already met in the previous two volumes, and we are reminded that in the world of noir, the meaner you are, the more likely you are to end up on top, at least in the criminal underworld. The Dead and The Dying gives us three stories: One about Gnarly Brown, a heavyweight turned bartender, and about Sebastian Hyde, Gnarly’s friend and heir to his father’s criminal empire; one about Teeg Lawless, a pretty criminal down-on-his luck and in debt to dangerous men; and one about Danica, the femme fatale who connects all the characters we meet.
Jake Brown, better known as Gnarly, was first introduced in Criminal (vol 1): Coward: He’s the bartender of the Undertown, known as the Undertow by the criminals who frequent it because the “n” is burned out on the neon sign. And it certainly is an Undertow, pulling under and out to sea all the lost souls of the city. In “Second Chance in Hell,” the first story of The Dead and The Dying, we get his backstory, which begins with two fathers: His and his friend Sebastian Hyde’s. Back in 1954, Sebastian’s and Gnarly’s fathers took over the crime world in the city, and Gnarly’s father, Clevon, became the right-hand man and bodyguard for Sebastian’s mean-spirited and cruel father, Walter Hyde. Gnarly was raised on the Hyde estate with Sebastian, so they grew up as friends. The rest of the story bounces back-and-forth between the present of 1972 and 1967, when they first met Danica Briggs, our femme fatale. When they both fall in love with Danica, the repercussions will reach a climax in 1972, when Danica, Sebastian, and Gnarly are involved with each other once again. And the fallout explains to us how Gnarly went from being an up-and-coming heavyweight champion to being a bartender years later in our present of the 2000s.
In the second story, “A Wolf Among Wolves,” we get to find out what happened to Danica and the previous bartender and owner of the Undertow. The story takes place at roughly the same time as the story in 1972 about Gnarly and Sebastian, but the events focus on a different character: Teeg Lawless, the father of the two brothers — Rick and Tracy — whom we met in Criminal (Vol. 2) Lawless. Teeg has come back from “two tours in country, the second as a sniper and a scout,” and he left owing $2,000 to Mr. Barber, the owner of the underground casino in town. The interest has been running the whole time he was gone, so now he owes $15,000. He has no idea how he’s going to get the money, but if he doesn’t, then his young boys will be killed as punishment for his delinquent debt. He sees a chance and thinks things might turn out okay, but then he ends up in trouble with Sebastian Hyde, who is even worse than Mr. Barber. Our femme fatale, Danica, plays a key role in the events.
In the third story, “Female of the Species,” we get to know Danica even better. I like that Brubaker humanizes our femme fatale, and he does so much humanizing that we realize she’s less the femme fatale she seems at first than simply a victim of men and their egos. Danica’s background is revealed: Not just how she got caught between Gnarly and Sebastian, but also what she did after she left the city in 1967 and went out on her own. We discover also how she gets hooked on drugs. Finally, we find out the sad truth behind her return to the city to be there in time for the destructive events that play out in 1972 in the above two stories.
These stories are well-written, and they are woven together masterfully by Brubaker. As always, his characters are well-developed, and they run into each other in explosive ways, just as one would expect from a noir tale. Never look for a happy turn of events in a noir tale: Characters get what they deserve plus some. And since we begin to empathize with some of them, we feel their heartbreak as we read their life stories. Why is noir so appealing? I have yet to find a satisfactory answer to that question. Perhaps we like noir for the same reasons we like to stop and look at a car wreck. Perhaps we sense some truth to stories that reveal the darker side of humanity. Whatever the reason, if you are a fan of noir, you will be a fan of Brubaker’s if you keep reading his Criminal series. This third installment — The Dead and The Dying — does not disappoint.