Brubaker and Phillips' Criminal: Crafting a crime masterpiece

By Taylor Pechter — A common adage in pop culture is everyone is the hero of their own story, no matter if the person is inherently good, bad, or somewhere between. From 2006 to 2016, writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips redefined the landscape of crime comics with a multi-volume anthology series simply titled, Criminal. The stories within followed the exploits of criminals, from bank robbers to a boxer turned mob enforcer, asking readers to sympathize with horrible people before showing them that even bad guys are human.

It’s this humanity that is the key to the entire series. This week, Brubaker and Phillips returned with their latest volume of Criminal, which marks the eighth overall (read a review of this week’s Criminal #1). The new comic has, unsurprisingly, been met with a wave of critical acclaim, so much so I think it’s already appropriate to call it a success. With so many fans enjoying the series’ latest story, I’d like to take a look today at past volumes, their plots, and some thematic throughlines that appear.

Brubaker and Phillips’ Criminal Vol. 1: Coward

Leo Patterson is a crook trying to turn things around. After a botched heist, he tries to quit the business. With his dad behind bars, his mom dead, and his drug-addled uncle living with him, Leo’s life is not in the best place.

As he says, “I am scared of ending up like my father. Scared of dying where I most likely belong... in prison. But the way I see it… if you aren’t afraid in our line of work then you aren’t thinking. And I won’t work with people who don’t use their brains before bullets… as a rule at least.”

This lesson about rules is what drives Leo’s story as he is lured back to heists by a former associate of his father. The job is to rob an armored car carrying a briefcase of blood diamonds. The heist eventually hits a snag. A firefight ensues, and Leo’s partner, Greta, is shot. To make things worse, the take wasn’t diamonds—it was a briefcase of uncut heroin. As the story winds down, Leo’s uncle dies from overdose after finding the heroin despite Leo hiding it. Greta also dies from her wounds, and Leo confronts a corrupt cop that was involved in the heist, which eventually leads to his death.

Overall, Leo’s story is one of guilt, regret, and failure to live up to expectations. It’s guilt that ultimately leads to his end.

Brubaker and Phillips’ Criminal Vol. 2: Lawless

Tracy Lawless is a man out to find the truth. After spending 18 months in prison for desertion, he escapes and seeks the story behind his brother Ricky’s death. To obtain this info he joins Ricky’s crew and grows close to Ricky’s former flame, Mallory. As they grow closer, however, he only grows more dedicated to his mission. This eventually drives them apart, and Mallory joins a coven.

Throughout the story, Ricky has flashbacks about his brother along and his relationship with his father, Teegar “Teeg” Lawless (who appears in this week’s new Criminal #1). These flashbacks show how both Tracy and Ricky grew to be different and ultimately the same. When Mallory spills the truth during the ending, it hits it home. Ricky’s story is a somber one: A boy hardened by his mobster father surviving on the streets, joining a heist crew, falling in love, and getting in over his head. He gets the score and tries to leave town only to be gunned down by the person he loves. However, instead of vengeance, Tracy instead practices atonement—he lets Mallory go and accepts her actions.

Overall, Tracy’s story is one of coming to terms with and ultimately accepting the truth. It is also a tale of no matter how much you try, you can’t escape family, even when there is no one left but you.

Brubaker and Phillips’ Criminal Vol. 3: The Dead and the Dying

Unlike the previous two volumes, Vol. 3 includes three intertwined stories.

The first focuses on prize boxer Jake “Gnarly” Brown and his rise through the ranks of the Hyde criminal empire. This story follows his exploits along with his employer, Sebastian Hyde, son of influential mob boss Walter Hyde. As time goes on, Gnarly and Sebastian grow apart after they both fall in love with the same woman, Danica. To make matters worse, Sebastian impregnates Danica, increasing that rift. As Gnarly lays in a hospital bed at the end of the story after an ambush by Walter Hyde’s men, he gives Sebastian his final words, sending him on his way as he languishes in the hospital.

Overall, Gnarly’s story is one of friendship, loyalty, and betrayal. After Sebastian impregnates Danica, he feels betrayed, not only by his employer but by one of his closest friends. His life as a boxer is also over, giving him nothing to return to.

The second story follows Teeg Lawless as he returns from Vietnam and re-enters life underground, soon learning he owes a debt to a casino owner. Teeg has to collect two thousand dollars in two weeks or else face consequences. As the story continues, Teeg struggles in fast jobs such as knocking over gas stations. Nearing the end, he contemplates what his life would be like if his kids ended up like him.

Overall, Teeg’s story is one of a father’s dedication. Most of his inner thoughts are about his wife and kids, and how they would react to his life as a criminal. Much like his child Tracy’s story in the previous volume, the thread of family is key to this one as well.

The third and final story centers on Danica, a dancer, who was a girl growing up Christian house. She eventually fell into drugs, got kicked out, and became a dancer. As she grows older, she learns how to use her sexuality. This helps her gain the attention of Sebastian Hyde. From there, her story intertwines with that of Gnarly Brown.

Overall, Danica’s story is one of outgrowing the naivety of youth and becoming an adult. Not only that, it is one of love and its effect on people.

Brubaker and Phillips’ Criminal Vol. 4: Bad Night

This story focuses on a struggling comic strip artist who is haunted by his own creation. In it, he is suddenly thrown into a complicated situation after a mob handoff goes wrong. Jacob Kurtz is an insomniac and former counterfeiter whose wife was killed when she lost control and drove off a ravine.

One night at a diner, he sees a woman and her boyfriend fighting. This woman is named Iris and her boyfriend Danny. Danny is abrasive, a trait that is a main lynchpin of the story. As Jacob confronts him, he is egged on by Frank Kafta, Private Eye, who is actually his comic strip creation, basically a perverse Jiminy Cricket. As time goes on, Danny and Iris plan on using Jacob’s counterfeit techniques to forge an FBI ID so Danny can hand off the money to the Triad.

Things go south, however, and Iris not only shoots Jacob but also shoots and kills Danny. She is rattled and decides to leave Jacob. However, she also has a deeper secret. As the story ends, Jacob finds that Iris was in fact working for the police undercover. As they drive off, Jacob loses control and drives off a cliff, killing Iris and severely injuring himself.  As he lies in his bed, all wrapped up, not only is his life as an artist over, but his creation Frank Kafta also leaves the room.

Overall, Jacob’s story is one of accepting loss and overcoming demons. His wife’s death and his subsequent blame for it shook him to his core. This trauma leads him to create the Frank Kafta character, a specter throughout the story. As the story ends, Kafta leaves his room, leaving Jacob to finally learn to move on.

Brubaker and Phillips’ Criminal Vol. 5: The Sinners

This volume sees the return of Tracy Lawless. As notable crime figures, including Sebastian Hyde, drop like flies, Lawless is sent to find the killers. To make matters more complicated, a CID agent is hunting Tracy for his military desertion charge. Not only that, Tracy is also having an affair with Hyde’s wife. As the search unfolds, his main lead is a priest named Father Mike. As Tracy gets close to answers, everything catches up to him. Not only does the CID agent find him, Hyde also gains more suspicious of his actions. Eventually, the truth of Father Mike is revealed.

Overall, Tracy’s story continues to be one of family and the effect a father has on sons. It is also one of truth and accepting your place in the world. Throughout the story, Tracy continuously feels shame over becoming more like his father. He fears that his father’s self-destruction will eventually lead to his own discovery of the fate of his brother.

Brubaker and Phillips’ Criminal Vol. 6: The Last of the Innocent

The past is often remembered as a time of innocence. You mess around with friends, hook up with crushes, and maybe try things you shouldn’t. In reality, the past catches up to you, pretty much always, and the past can be harsh.

That is the tale of Riley Richards in Criminal Vol. 6. Riley was one of the most popular kids in the city of Brookview. Along with friends Liz, Felix, and Freakout, he formed a close group. Things become difficult when Riley starts getting wind of a possible affair between his now-wife Felix, and Teddy, his childhood rival. He plans to kill his wife. The story of Riley is told expertly not only in the modern day, but also through Archie-esque flashbacks that show a more whimsical side to Riley’s memories. This is a credit to Sean Phillips, who creates a great disconnect between that time and the present day. Not only that, bur Dave Stewart also provides colors that contrast perfectly with the dark palate that Val Staples puts forward in the present day. After Felix is murdered, Riley grows closer to Liz and Teddy sits behind bars, convicted of the act.

Overall, Riley’s story is one of nostalgia and its effect on the mind. The past is always looked upon as happy-go-lucky. As he remembers these moments, he soon realizes that his memories are wrong, and most of the time, life deals you hands you can’t win.

Brubaker and Phillips’ Criminal Vol. 7: Wrong Time, Wrong Place

It’s easier to be a fictional character. How sad is that?

This goes through the mind of young Tracy Lawless as he flees with his gang after throwing a rock through an attic window. This question also drives the narrative of this seventh volume of Criminal—Wrong Time, Wrong Place. There are two stories collected in this volume, one of Teeg Lawless’s time in jail prior to his release, and the second of a sort of road trip which includes his teenage son, Tracy.

While both stories are simple, Brubaker weaves in a unique storytelling device: the comics both of them read. Teeg reads a Conan-esque character named Zanger while Tracy reads a Kung-Fu and Teen Wolf hybrid named Fang, the Kung Fu Werewolf. Both comics inform who the men are, directly reflecting their personalities and development. Teeg is a criminal through and through. He doesn’t take anything from anyone and you better not get in his way. On the other hand, Tracy is a teenager with a criminal dad he hates and doesn’t want to become. Sadly, as this story closes, we as readers know from other volumes that Tracy’s life is destined to be just like his father’s.

Overall, this final story hits home with a father-son dichotomy that has appeared often in previous volumes. The story of the Lawlesses is a tragic one, driving much of one of modern comics’ all-time great series.

In conclusion, Criminal is the premier crime comic series by the premier noir creative team. Ed Brubaker crafts tragic stories with relatable characters inhabiting a dark world. This dark world is illustrated perfectly by artist Sean Phillips, aided along the way by colorists Val Staples, Dave Stewart, and Elizabeth Breitweiser. Phillips not only adds grittiness but also experiments with style, adding new aspects to his art in each volume. All in all, Criminal stands out as not just a masterwork of noir, but a masterwork of comic book storytelling in general. We’re lucky to have it.

Read more of Taylor’s writing on our comics analysis page.

Taylor Pechter is a passionate comic book fan and nerd. Find him on Twitter @TheInspecter.