Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips make great comics. That is a fact. There is no room for debate. They are a dynamic duo that has delivered hard boiled stories of crime, superheroes, spies, horror and currently, the dark underbelly of 40’s Hollywood. But to me, they’ll always bee known as the men behind Criminal, the creator owned title that started it’s life over at Marvel’s Icon imprint. Now that Ed and Sean are making their home at Image (for another 4 years, in fact) they’ve brought the world of Criminal along with them. The original stories that made up the series have been re-issued in new trade paperbacks. But that’s not all, they’ve also got a new Criminal story for you too!
Available in both regular and magazine style editions, this Wednesday saw the release of a Criminal one-shot where Brubaker and Phillips bring back the grimy world of crime that they’re known for but also pay tribute to the fantasy comic mags of the 70s. Long time fans of the book will recognize our main character. Teeg Lawless is a low level crook who successfully pulled off an armored car heist but still found a way into the slammer. He’s doing a 30 day contempt charge in the county jail for beating up a biker on his way to getting his cut of the money. 3o days in jail is nothing new for Teeg and he should be able to do the time standing on his head. But things aren’t so easy as he finds out that a number of inmates are gunning for him. A contract has been put on his head by someone on the outside and there’s a number of contenders who’re looking to collect. So Teeg’s counting down the days while he simultaneously fights for his life and tries to figure out who put the hit on him. Thankfully, he’s also got his favourite comic, Savage Sword, to distract him from time to time.
Like many stories that’ve used the “comic within a comic” device in the past, this one-shot plays with the parallel between our “hero” Teeg’s situation and Zangar, the hero of Savage Sword. Zangar is dealing with betrayal and a mysterious person in the shadows who wishes him dead. Teeg is trying to stay alive in prison and also find out about a mysterious figure who’s trying to get him offed. The Savage Sword even foreshadows some events that happen in Teeg’s story. It’s a device that when used well, adds another layer to the story. And yes, it is indeed used well here.
As a long time fan of Criminal, it was enjoyable to see more with Teeg Lawless, including a brief cameo by Tracy Lawless (the Protagonist of both Lawless and The Sinners). There’s a few little asides and tips of the hat to the Criminal world that avid readers of the previous stories will pick up on. But even if this is the first Criminal comic you pick up, there’s still so much plot and character for a first time reader to sink their teeth into. It’s a gritty prison drama mixed with a swords and sandals fantasy. Brubaker takes noir characters from two very different creative realms and weaves their motivations seamlessly and creates an almost mirror universe between the two.
The artwork by Phillips is spot on as always. Here, he gets to play with two different aesthetics – the black and white fantasy world of Zangar and the drab, concrete environment of the prison. He does an excellent job of capturing the authenticity of the 1976 comic mag with it’s flat looking characters and exploitation sensibilities. Teeg’s world has a harder edge that takes great advantage of shadow and depth. His style shines through both and there is a harmony between them. Phillips work already emulates the 70s style in tone anyways so this was probably a walk in the park.
What really drove home the “70s fantasy mag” element was the letters page and ads in the back of the book. Instead of the normal Criminal letters page and back matter that we’ve become accustomed to, the guys decided to accurately spoof the old letters pages that you would read back in ’76 and they enlisted a number of writers to help them out with this. Gerry Duggan, Kieron Gillen, Kurt Busiek, Mike Drucker, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Chip Zdarsky all provide letters and the guys respond accordingly. What’s great is that the letters are all about Savage Sword and the ongoing adventures of Zangar. Whether it’s the guy complaining about the lack authenticity to the source material, the girl who feels there’s too much boobs in the book or the guy who feels there’s not enough boobs, all the letters read like they would’ve in a magazine from that time. It’s a fun little extra that added some “realism” to the comic magazine look they were paying tribute to.
If you’re looking for a fun read that’s filled with both criminals and savages, or if you just need something to tide you over until the next issue of The Fade Out hits the comic racks, the Criminal Special Edition One-Shot is right up your alley. Be sure to pick it up at the local comic shop near you.
If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!