Thursday, March 26, 2015


CRIMINAL VOLUME 1: COWARD by Ed Brubaker, illustrations by Sean Phillips (Image Comics, 2015)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Forget superheroes, mutant powers, and fantastical settings - this graphic novel is down and dirty all-too-realistic noir of the highest calibre. Brubaker and Phillips have created a world and story that evokes Chandler, Hammett, and MacDonald rather than Stan Lee's wizardry.

Leo Patterson is a fascinating criminal - brilliant at planning heists but with a cowardly reputation for running when things go wrong. Descended from a long line of thieves, he abhors unnecessary violence yet finds himself caught up in the maelstrom.

After his father died in prison Leo formulated his own rules to keep him out of there, including no junkies, no crooked cops, and no guns. Of course, all three rules end up broken when Leo finds himself forced into a heist of an armoured police evidence van carrying stolen blood diamonds. Double-crosses abound as Leo hits the highway and tries to survive on the run as some very nasty people, on both sides of the law, hunt for him and the stolen evidence.

I'm not a connoisseur of graphic novels, but I was very impressed by this tale from Brubaker, who has also written for iconic series as Batman, Captain America, and X-Men. It is a page-turning crime tale told by a great blend of pithy narrative and dialogue and stark imagery. The illustrations pop off the page.

Brubaker's words and Phillips's images create a seamy, abrasive atmosphere. We're plunked right in the middle of all the dirty chaos of Leo's life, and have to hold on for dear life as we witness his story unfolding. There are all the noir tropes - anti-heroes, mean streets, femme fatales, secrets and conspiracies, larger-than-life villains who operate in the shadows. But CRIMINAL is in no way cliched.

Instead, Brubaker stands on the shoulders of what has gone before in the noir genre, and brings it vividly to life in a fresh tale shared through the  graphic novel form. Suspenseful and exciting, with plenty of plot twists to keep readers engaged and entertained, and a central 'hero' who makes us care, CRIMINAL is just a very good tale, very well told.

Originally published in 2007, CRIMINAL ushered in a new era of gritty crime-based comic books, which had been absent from the genre for a long while. It's great to see it republished in this way now, hopefully reaching a new and even wider audience. Terrific storytelling.


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