Criminal (Vol. 4): Bad Night Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips
Jacob Kurtz is the focus of Bad Night, the fourth volume of Ed Brubaker’s wonderfully disturbing noir series Criminal. His job is writing the newspaper comic strip that shows up in Criminal (vol. 1): Coward. The comic, based on Dick Tracy, is entitled Frank Kafka, Private Eye, and it’s as puzzling as the stories written by Franz Kafka, after whom he’s named. Frank is put on cases that go nowhere with leads that could never result in understandable clues. As the comic opens, our cartoonist goes wandering the streets at night, as is his custom because of his constant insomnia. He goes into a diner and has an uncomfortable verbal exchange, a near-violent one, with the boyfriend of a woman named Iris, a red-headed woman who is this comic’s femme fatale.
The story’s tension begins immediately, as Jacob’s fears of violence alert the reader that his life is about to take a sudden turn, and given that Bad Night is a noir tale, that sudden turn is going to lead to disaster for all involved, but particularly for Jacob, whose thoughts on violence come to us via first-person narration: “Violence is chaos, and you never know what’s going to happen when you let chaos into your life.” With this first scene in the diner, chaos has entered Jacob’s life. But not for the first time. A long time ago, Jacob’s wife went missing and is assumed dead. He is accused by the cops of killing his own wife. What’s worse is that his wife’s uncle was Sebastian Hyde, the local syndicate boss we’ve seen in previous volumes, so when he thinks Jacob has killed his niece, he has his men cripple Jacob. So, his past makes him very afraid of any kind of violence.
In the present of the comic, when Jacob leaves the diner and gets in his car, he picks up a woman hitchhiking, and of course, she turns out to be the woman from the diner. When Iris passes out in his car before she can give him directions home, he is left with one option: He takes her back to his place and lets her sleep the night on his couch. But in the middle of the night, she comes to his bedroom and sleeps with him. And thus passes the high point of Jacob’s association with Iris. The next morning, before she disappears, he brags about once having been a counterfeiter, so he shouldn’t be surprised when Iris returns with her boyfriend, Danny, who is rather demanding in his need for Jacob’s services as a counterfeiter. He is held hostage in his own home. And what he is asked to counterfeit will only make matters worse. Jacob’s reluctant return to a life of crime will be a dramatic one as he gets in deeper and deeper.
One of my favorite parts of the comic is the way Frank Kafka — though he’s in Jacob’s imagination — shows up in the pages of the comic we are reading, putting Frank and Jacob in conversations. Frank usually tells Jacob to be tougher, more of a man, giving advice that a tough, hardboiled P.I. might follow in a classic novel by Raymond Chandler, but not advice that is very useful for a man afraid of everything. This comic is no Raymond Chandler novel, however. In Chandler’s works, his P.I. solves his cases and while often tempting fate, always comes out on top in the end, but in noir, the characters never escape their fate. Jacob’s life throughout Bad Night is a train wreck, but it’s a train wreck you’ll enjoy. The twists and turns in plot are some of the best of Brubaker’s career. This is a noir comic not to be missed.