Monday, 23 February 2015

Criminal, Volume 2: Lawless Review (Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips)


Tracy Lawless is on the hunt for his brother’s killer. But his brother, Rick, was mixed up with some ne’er do wells who are planning a Christmas heist. Tracy’s got to infiltrate the group and figure out who offed his little brother - and make them pay!

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Criminal is my favourite title from among their many collaborations (Sleeper, Incognito, Fatale) but I think this second volume is the least in the series. It’s definitely hard-boiled noir, kind of like a more realistic version of Frank Miller’s hyper-stylised Sin City, but the story isn’t as gripping.

Tracy’s hunt for his brother’s killer feels like a subplot instead of the main, and his search is very slow and unfocused. He gets into his brother’s old gang and then basically goes along with their plans. His “search” doesn’t feel in the least bit urgent and it’s almost surprising when he does discover his brother’s killer at the end. Compare it to Sin City: The Hard Goodbye where Marv is relentlessly killing his way to the truth, and it’s like Tracy barely has any drive at all!

Meanwhile, Tracy’s just going with the gang’s plan, a storyline which isn’t all that great to read. Sure there’s a car chase here, knocking over an ATM there, sleeping with the femme fatale, but it seems rote and it’s not a whole lot for a full-length story. It doesn’t help that the characters feel like cliches and Tracy himself, despite the numerous flashbacks to a troubled youth, isn’t that interesting a protagonist. Brubaker tries though, making him this tough guy who also occasionally does some kinda good things, eg. killing bad guys. Like a lot of Criminal’s cast, Tracy’s a little bit of good and bad so there’s a frisson of unpredictability to all of his actions.

I’m always impressed with the ease with which Brubaker’s created the Criminal world. In just a few pages the Undertow bar feels very lived in, Brubaker focusing on a child waitress who has the run of the bar to draw us into the atmosphere of the place. That authorial confidence and originality, along with Sean Phillips’ ink-heavy artwork, is why the series is so well-regarded. And Phillips’ realistic art style is certainly good in this one. The snowy Christmas backdrop mixes with the noir for a very moody setting which is perfect for the book.

Lawless isn’t a terrible comic by any stretch but for a revenge story it’s surprisingly slow and plodding, and doesn’t grab you like other Criminal books do. I did like that the ending is counter-intuitive to the standard revenge arc, which usually ends with the killer getting theirs, but you can see the twist coming after the childhood flashbacks start coming thick and fast towards the end, asking the reader to wonder about Rick’s character, who is largely unknown for much of the book - was he a good guy or a bad guy and, if the latter, do you want him to be avenged?

The Criminal books are great because Brubaker spins some great stories with the most unpleasant cast, and the series as a whole is definitely worth checking out. It’s especially a good time now as it’s being republished by Image after being out of print for a while. Lawless though ain’t flawless.

Criminal, Volume 2: Lawless

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