By Zack Quaintance — This new run of Criminal is, without question, a comics fan’s comic. The book’s writer, Ed Brubaker, was recently on John Siuntres Word Balloon podcast discussing how part of his goal with it is to create a series that begs to be read monthly. Through three issues, Brubaker and long-time collaborator artist Sean Phillips have certainly done that. Criminal #1 was a tour de force in graphic serial storytelling, with an extended length that enabled the team to tell a rewarding and complete story, while at the same time seeding ideas for subsequent issues to follow up.
Criminal #2 subsequently saw an abrupt shift to a different time and a different set of characters than the first issue (though the protagonist should be well familiar to readers of previous volumes of this anthology comic). Criminal #3 is now the second part of an arc started in the preceding issue. This structure for the trio of opening issues firmly bucks the recent trend throughout comics of writing distinct four-five-six-issue arcs that are perfectly suited to be compiled in a trade paperback. Bucking that trend does exactly what Brubaker discussed on that podcast: it gives comics buyers a pressing reason to pick up the book each month. I know I have been.
The second reason that Criminal #3 firmly entrenches this book as a comics fan’s comic is that it occupies the same thematic ground as Criminal #2. In this two-part arc, a surly and deeply unpleasant veteran/semi-legendary comicbook artist is bent on recovering some artwork he tells his apprentice has wrongly been taken from him. There are twists, to be sure, and I won’t go into them here, but I will say that there are a plentiful number of nods to industry insiders, long-time fans, and comicbook historians. It all adds up to an immersive and quisi meta reading experience.
This issue is also a bold one. Brubaker and Phillips have an all-time great writer-artist alchemy, and they’ve had it for years. They don’t rock that boat here by trying anything structurally experimental or thematically edgy. What they do, however, is take a read of the current comics landscape and come back with somewhat of a defiant statement within the context of an expertly-told and very organic story. What I mean is that like all of us who way way waaaay into the world of comics, they’ve been hearing the gloom and doom of mercurial sales numbers and voices predicting the end of everything from paper comics to the direct market to superhero stories that span eight continuous decades.
They’ve clearly heard it all, and rather than writing an opinion column or going on a podcast—things we’ve seen and heard veteran creators, retailers and industry watchers do ad nauseum—they have an actual story stand as a refutation. Hell, at one point the curmudgeonly artist who’s seen it all even comes out and says Comics have been dying since 1954, kid...don’t let that stop you...
Hearing that reassurance related to the medium I love in the context of a story that shows what it’s capable of had a different and much more poignant impact on me. It seemed to be encouraging, not only for me as a review/aspiring creator, but for the continuing existence of stories of any type in the face of a changing economic reality. It seemed to say that the security in exchange for stories has never been a given, has never been an easy thing to achieve, and yet art has been made anway. If you want to do this, do it. The rest will figure itself out, for better or worse.
Overall: Criminal #3, like the rest of Brubaker and Phillips’ latest series, is a real comics fan’s comic, filled with insider touches and meta commentary, all encased within the duo’s all-time great creative chemistry. This book is a must-read, every damn month. 9.6/10
Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist: Sean Phillips
Colorist: Jacob Phillips
Publisher: Image Comics
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Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as BatmansBookcase.