By Bo Stewart — Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips tell the best crime stories in comics. Period, and it’s not even close. This creative team has forged a partnership over many years and dozens of volumes of comics (their recently concluded series Kill or be Killed made our top comics of 2018). They understand each other perfectly, and it’s a joy to see how this deep creative understanding ultimately deepens the words they create. It’s on full display here for their latest book, Criminal #1. Simply put, missing this comic would be criminal (please forgive me).
There’s something distinctly satisfying about Brubaker/Phillips comics, in that they somehow manage to provide the exact right amount of content. I never feel short changed, but the comic also never overstays its welcome or ends up feeling bloated. In the single-issue format, that kind of satisfying consistency is quite the accomplishment. These guys are so good that, in my opinion, comic readers take them for granted. This issue serves as a reminder that this creative duo tells the stories with the best pacing in comics.
Criminal is long-form storytelling at its finest. Instead of focusing on a single character or narrative, the creators lean into the world they have created for inspiration. Previous volumes of this book have each focused on a single character or event set within the Criminal sandbox, a sprawling epic that covers decades of crime and generations of criminals affected by it. The world of Criminal is well established, fully deserving of the old the world is a character axiom. It’s a sandbox that the creators clearly enjoy playing in, and, if this issue is any indication, the world of Criminal won’t run out of worthwhile stories any time soon.
Full disclosure, I have not read the entirety of the original Criminal run. The four (of seven) volumes I have read were all amazing, though. I was a little hesitant about starting this new run without having first finished the others, but, rest assured, newcomers to the series will have no trouble keeping up. Each volume has been its own standalone story and it appears as though the new run will follow suit. These stories inform one another, but they are in no way dependent on one another.
This latest Criminal #1 focuses on Teeg Lawless. Previous fans will immediately gravitate towards the protagonist because Teeg is a figure that has loomed large over the series (his sons Tracy and Ricky Lawless are main characters of previous volumes). This is a story interested in the cyclical nature of crime and how strong it’s grasp can be. Crime doesn’t just affect the individual criminal, it infects entire families. The gangster’s son becoming a gangster is a tale as old as time, but one that will always be ripe for exploration.
Phillips continues to improve (if such a thing is even possible), and his line work has never been more detailed. Teaming up with colorist Jacob Phillips (who is his son) brings a different dimension to the art. Heavy use of blacks and neons (you know, noir stuff) really lends itself to the storytelling. It reminds me of Mat Hollingsworth’s colors on Wytches but without the paint splotches. I have no reservations just coming out and saying it: this is Phillips’ prettiest book yet.
Overall: Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Criminal #1 is a perfect continuation of a crime series that ranks as a modern classic. If you enjoy crime fiction, in any format, this one is an absolute must read. 9.5/10
Writer: Ed Brubaker
Penciler: Sean Phillips
Colorist: Jacob Phillips
Publisher: Image Comics
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Bo grinds for the Man by day so he can create comics by night. He is the lesser half of the Stewart Brothers writing team and can be found on Twitter and Instagram @stewart_bros