Criminal (Vol 1) by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips

Criminal Volume 1: Coward by Ed Brubaker In Ed Brubaker’s Criminal (vol 1): Coward, we get noir comics at their best. Until I first read the Criminal series about ten years ago now, I was still not persuaded that comics could be a great form of art. But once I read this series, I was convinced I should read more: I thought, if comics can be this good, then there must be many more out there like this one. And so my passion for comics began with the story of Leo, a thief who always has a meticulous plan of escape laid out before he will consider taking on a heist, and in the case of Coward, the heist will get his team five million dollars worth of diamonds from a police van carrying contraband. Leo, unfortunately, is known as a coward because of his escape plans. He is known as someone who runs away.

At the time we meet our cowardly lion, Leo has tried to stop being a part armed robberies because the last one he was in on ended with deadly results. And he still feels the guilt of the one time he escaped and left behind a friend who was dying at the scene of the crime. That day will come back to haunt him when he’s encouraged, strongly, to take on a new job by the widow of that dying man. The job is initially offered to Leo by two crooked cops, and by the time you add a few more partners to the list of criminals involved, the chances for double- and triple-crosses increases dramatically. And Brubaker includes these betrayals but does so in unexpected ways.

Why is Brubaker so good? Well, other than his use of unexpected twists in his plots, in this story he develops his characters in interesting and complex ways. Leo’s no softie, of course, but he has a soft-spot in his heart for the old and senile Ivan, who is the man who taught him his criminal craft. To make matters worse, Ivan is addicted to heroin, and Leo doesn’t want to cause pain to his friend who, because of the extremity of his senility, would never be able to understand why he was suffering the pains of withdrawal. Leo sees no reason to cut off an addiction in the last years of a man’s life, so at the time we meet him, he has merely been trying to scrape together enough money to pay for the heroin and hire a nurse (who doesn’t care about heroin use) to watch Ivan whenever he can’t stay with him. Ivan was so much a father to Leo, that Leo plays the part of a dutiful son. And Greta, the widow, is a caretaker, too: She is the mother of a young girl, and she wants to be a part of the heist so that she can help her daughter grow up away from the crime-ridden city. Leo’s and Greta’s doomed relationship could be lifted out of a great noir classic.

Speaking of noir classics, Brubaker’s writing can be favorably compared to James Cain and Jim Thompson in level of quality. The dialogue rings true, and the characters are believable in addition to being complex. Coward features excellent first-person narration, and it uses well one of my favorite devices in comics: He has the top-notch artist Sean Phillips tell a visual story in the first four pages that is not directly connected to the words on the page. In other words, Leo is telling us one story while we watch a different story unfold visually in the panels.

Brubaker, in his understanding of noir, a sub-genre of crime fiction, uses all the conventions one would expect, but he delivers them to us in surprising and new ways, as all the best genre writers do. Noir is no smooth road to a happy ending; the endings are bleak, but in Brubaker’s hands, the ending of Coward feels right and unavoidable. This sense of inevitability, this sense of approaching disaster, tells the bleak side of life we often want to pretend does not exist, but Brubaker makes us confront this ugly aspect of humanity. And in spite of, or perhaps because of, this bleakness, I can recommend this comic as the perfect noir tale. If you are a fan of noir and are not familiar with Brubaker, I envy you your first reading of this comic. I really cannot speak more highly of this book, and I lack the words to ever finish heaping praise on Coward, as well as on the rest of the Criminal series. You need to read this book, especially so you can find out if Leo can escape one more time.


  • 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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