"Lawless: Part One"
Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artists: Sean Phillips (p&i), Val Staples (colours)
Publisher: Marvel Comics/Icon
Despite picking up the first five issues of this book, I'll admit that I haven't completely warmed to Criminal yet. The title's first arc, "Coward," started promisingly but didn't exactly wow me with its reasonably predictable conclusion, and the relatively slow pace and lack of a really interesting protagonist stopped me from enjoying the story as much as I expected. Still, I have a great deal of respect for Brubaker and Phillips' approach to the book, publishing it through an imprint which isn't going to make them a lot of money and pouring a great deal of effort into what was always going to be at best a niche title, albeit one which is obviously a labour of love for both creators.
However, this issue - which kicks off a new storyline - shows a marked improvement over the last couple of instalments, with an efficiency and immediacy to the writing which was lacking from previous arc. Not only is this a new story, but it also utilises a completely different cast of characters, making it a highly accessible jumping-on point for new readers and a breath of fresh air for those of us who have followed the book since issue #1. This is an admirable approach for Brubaker to take, as it forces the writer to be creative and imaginative within the noir/crime world that he's created, pushing him harder to come up with an original angle or a novel storyline for each new arc rather than letting the book fall into an overly familiar pattern. The titular Tracy Lawless is instantly more compelling than "Coward"'s Leo, despite the fact that he appears to be a less complex character than the protagonist of Brubaker's first arc. Of course, that will probably change over time, but the character's initially militaristic, emotionless, calculated, and almost robotic exterior gives him a harder-edged, more dangerous vibe which is far more attention-grabbing and compelling at this early stage. However, although he may appear to be a cold-hearted killer, Brubaker hints at a conscience buried beneath his harsh exterior, and I'm looking forward to the writer peeling back his layers as the arc progresses.
"Lawless" replaces the twisty-turny heist-gone-wrong template of the first arc with a more straightforward revenge thriller (although I'm sure there'll be a fair few heists thrown in in future issues), in which Tracy seeks out the murderer of his younger brother, narrowing his group of suspects to a tight-knit band of criminals with which his brother used to associate. Whilst this month's instalment is mostly set-up, it's all accomplished with a minimum of fuss, and the writer keeps things interesting by dropping in a few scenes of backstory which flesh out Lawless' history, serving with the army in Iraq. Brubaker constructs a deceptively complex narrative structure which drops us into the middle of the story before backtracking to the beginning, peppering the book with flashbacks, before finally arriving at a point of high drama which promises to kick the story into a higher gear next issue. It might sound complicated on paper, but the execution is so smooth that the whole thing flows very naturally from one page to the next and is never confusing despite the amount of information that readers are expected to absorb.
Brubaker's style of writing creates a heavy noir vibe which is slightly reminiscent of Sin City but without taking things to Frank Miller levels of exaggeration, ensuring that - despite its relentlessly serious and grim tone - it never feels like parody or pastiche. Cold, detached voice-over captions reinforce important character facets without clobbering us over the head with them, and a strong sense of atmosphere is generated by Sean Phillips' confident artwork. Since Phillips isn't the most realistic artist (his work feels very true-to-life in terms of capturing character nuance and real-world detail, but it's always stylised, with heavy shadow and thick lines), Val Staples' colours have some work to do in grounding them in a relatable world, and they're more effective here than ever. When it comes to the pale lights of the city night, the grimy stuffiness of an underground bar, or the icy coolness of a snowy alleyway, Staples' colours contribute a huge amount in creating the necessary mood, and it really helps to sell the reality of the book.
This issue also features a letters page in place of the usual mini-essay on film noir. It's always interesting to see other readers' responses to titles you enjoy, and the fact that these reactions are included in the pages of the comic itself (with comments from the creators) somehow makes it feel more connected than the anonymity of internet message boards that serve a similar purpose.
This is a strong first issue of a new arc which already promises to be more involving than the previous five issues. Those readers who have enjoyed the series so far will find a lot more to enjoy here, but if you haven't tried Criminal yet, this is a good place to start.
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