Criminal Special Edition

Criminal Special Edition
Written by Ed Brubaker
Drawn by Sean Phillips
Colored by Elizabeth Breitweiser
Published by Image Comics

“It’s fuckin’ jail, Wilson… Just assume everything in here is bad.”

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips are back where they belong.  The Criminal Special Edition (or Criminal Savage Edition if you get the magazine sized version of it) welcomes us back to a world of crime and deceit.  In March, 1976, Teeg Lawless was in jail, not for anything big but for something stupid like missing a traffic court appearance.  Already having served half of a 30 day stint in county, Teeg finds out that there is a price on his head when a white power inmate tries to shiv Teeg.  Teeg ends killing him with a rolled up 70s era comic magazine, like one of the ones that Marvel or Warren put out back then.  It’s been a few years since the last issue of Criminal came out but Brubaker and Phillips slip easily back into the old ways, luring us back into their crimespree.  

In many ways, Criminal owes a lot to David Lapham’s Stray Bullets.  Lapham’s 1990’s comics showed the destructive side of his character’s illegal choices.  His stories were always gripping but they were almost never alluring.  They took us down paths that we didn’t want to go.  Brubaker and Phillips’ work is almost the same.  Like Stray Bullets, there’s a nihilism at the heart of Criminal.  Teeg Lawless is not a hero.  In fact, Criminal has been a study in the difference of “hero” and “protagonist” as we develop affinities for the characters but never in anything approaching admiration for them.  Maybe it’s because there are no heroes that Brubaker and Phillips make their lead characters so recognizable.  Teeg is a criminal and has a life that probably very few of us do but he’s also a man who is just trying to survive.  Mirroring his story against the story of Zangar, a barbarian from a 1970s black and white magazine Teeg reads in prison, Brubaker and Phillips highlight just how romantic (used in the classical sense, not in the paperback novel way) Criminal can actually be.

Teeg is a character that’s just a slight bit too dumb for his own good.  He’s not stupid but he’s just blind to his own shortcomings.  And that’s probably something that could be said for almost all of the protagonists in Criminal.  They’re all men and women with grand plans but they don’t have the complete wherewithal to pull them off.  And that never stops them and that’s the magic of Criminal that hasn’t been on display in Incognito, Fatale or Fade Out (although it may be too early to tell in that last book.)  Criminal Special Edition may actually be the most optimistic issue of Criminal yet because Teeg is one of the savvier characters in the book because he’s also the one who knows himself the best.  Teeg doesn’t seem to have any grand thoughts of himself as anything more than the thug he is.

Phillips and colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser’s naturalistic artwork is able to carry so much of the story.  Coloring her first Criminal story, Breitsweiser’s greens, yellows and purples aren’t recreating recognizable lighting but they work very impressionistically to shade the mood of each scene and panel.  Original series colorist Val Staples really used the color almost more as a mood ring to heighten the emotional impact of Phillips’ artwork while Breitweiser softens that approach a bit while still influencing the way you interact with this comic through her palette.  The way that she approaches lighting with color makes you believe in the greenish glow of old phosphorescent lights or the washed-out sunlight shining on the prison’s concrete yard.

The Savage Edition

A portion of this comic is set aside to tell the story of Zangar, a black and white magazine comic character.  For this portion of the comic, Phillips is channelling the artists of the Filipino invasion back in the 1970s.  His work here, with its heaving inking, is reminiscent of Alfredo Alcala’s work.  Those portions of the story may be slight and add only a bit to the comic but they show off just how versatile Phillips is.  It’s like when he did his Dan Decarlo homage in Criminal: The Last of the Innocent and was able to alter his style to provide more depth to the story.  Here, the Zangar portions operate fairly independently of the main story and end up being more superfluous but they show off Phillips’ artwork and that’s always a great thing.

Criminal: Special Edition offers a glimpse back into the seedy underbelly that is Criminal.  Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips belong here in ways that they haven’t in any post-Criminal comics.  It’s these characters and these settings that bring out the best in these creators, offering them a world full of dreamers and schemers but offering little hope for any of them.  Maybe that’s why we like them; the deck is so stacked against Teeg Lawless in this life that maybe we want to see him survive jail just so we can see that there’s a bit of hope in this world.  This isn’t a comic where the characters are allowed much hope because they’ve got to do everything that they can just to stay alive.