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Criminal Volume Two: Lawless

Posted: Wednesday, October 1, 2008
By: Dave Wallace

Ed Brubaker
Sean Phillips and Val Staples (colours)
Icon-Marvel
Collects issues #6-10 of Criminal

The second volume of Criminal sees Ed Brubaker craft an entirely new story with only tenuous connections to that of the first volume. Here he introduces the character of Tracy Lawless as the new protagonist, a former soldier who returns to his hometown in order to avenge his brother's murder. However, under Brubaker's pen, it's a far more unpredictable and multi-faceted story than that description makes it sound, with elements of romance, a whodunnit angle, and a further exploration of the rich tapestry of underworld characters and locales that the world of Criminal offers.

Unlike the first volume, Brubaker presents us with a driven and confident protagonist in Tracy Lawless--rather than the reluctant, self-doubting anti-hero that we saw in Coward's Leo (who makes a cameo appearance in this story). Brubaker uses Tracy's military background to quickly establish him as a trained and disciplined killer with the skills necessary to ingratiate himself into his brother Ricky's gang--and the patience to wait for his brother’s killers to reveal themselves before exacting his revenge.

However, Brubaker doesn't present Tracy simply as a cold killing machine. Through tender flashbacks that elaborate the tragic backstory of the Lawless family, Brubaker fleshes out Tracy’s personality and his relationship with his brother.

The story further benefits from the writer's smart approach to structuring his narrative, with certain scenes played out of chronological order for maximum impact, and certain nuggets of information withheld until the point at which they can be revealed most dramatically. In addition to the strong central plot, Brubaker peppers the story with numerous smaller moments that keep things interesting on a chapter-to-chapter basis. Whether it’s the testing of local police response times with an ATM heist, a scam to steal a church "charity" collection, or the natty demonstration of Tracy's getaway driving abilities, there are plenty of memorable scenes here that should satisfy lovers of the crime genre.

However, these set pieces are ultimately incidental to the emotional core of Brubaker's story as he makes sure to maintain his focus on his characters as the heart of the book. Still, the writer makes canny use of some of the more minor plot points to add depth and shading to the characters--such as Tracy's purchase of a very specific type of used car, in cash.

Brubaker uses the various criminal misadventures of Tracy and his female accomplice, Mallory, as a backdrop against which he can explore the increasingly complex relationship that grows between the two characters. He infuses Tracy and Mallory’s relationship with a frisson of sexual energy that's undercut by the tragic sense of inevitability that comes with the realisation that Tracy is falling for this woman whom his brother Ricky also loved.

In traditional noir style, everything catches up with Tracy in the end--and almost all of the plot strands are brought together by the time the climax of the story has played out. Even if it's not a neat or pretty ending, it's a satisfying one that pulls off the tricky balancing act of being reasonably unpredictable without being unfaithful to everything that's gone before.

Sean Phillips's artwork is an essential component of the book, without which it simply wouldn't succeed in capturing the same dark and moody vibe. Whilst readers of the previous volume will already be familiar with Phillips’s ability to render convincingly realistic urban environments, vehicles, and architecture, it's the artist's talent for visual characterisation that is really brought to the fore in this story, with Tracy Lawless characterised as much by his appearance as by any of Brubaker's dialogue. I was reminded of Arnold Schwarzenegger's performance in Terminator as Tracy's unrelenting physical presence and inscrutable facial expressions convey the same air of menace and confident power that Arnie's T-800 possessed--albeit with one or two occasional telling facial expressions that let us in on Tracy’s true inner feelings.

In stark contrast to Tracy is Phillips’s depiction of Mallory. Whereas Tracy is all square shapes and angular corners, there's a smoothness to Mallory's features that makes her stand out against the other members of her gang, and makes Tracy's attraction to her completely understandable--even though we know that there's more to her than meets the eye.

There’s also a short section of the book that sees Phillips adopt a very different art style to depict a violent flashback, during which Tracy is beaten by his father. The delicate, detailed, and un-inked pencils prove that Phillips is a versatile and gifted artist who has the ability to change his style quite dramatically to suit the subject matter. In doing so, he enables the scene to really stand out from the rest of the story.

Finally, the colours by Val Staples add a distinctive finish to the book's pages--never detracting from Phillips' linework, but adding a little extra definition where necessary. Staples sets the mood of each scene with gentle blues, purples, greys, and greens--generally employing fairly subdued shades, but punctuating them with occasional flashes of more vivid colour. Through his contribution, Staples subtly reinforces the general atmosphere of urban decay and degradation that pervades the book.

If the story has any flaws, it's that there's not a really satisfying conclusion to the plot strand involving Tracy's mysterious past (and the reason for his military tribunal)--and there's also an occasional reliance on cliché noir character tropes that leaves the story feeling slightly less original than you might expect.

However, it's arguable that the book is intentionally utilising these stock character types to evoke a timeless, classic noir sensibility--and it doesn't leave the story feeling generic or predictable, just familiar. In many ways, it comes off like a more reserved version of Sin City (not for nothing does this collected edition have an introduction written by Frank Miller)--but without the cartoonish caricatures or overblown, stylised dialogue of that book.

In a medium that so often seems to thrive on excess and hyperbole, it is a refreshing change to see a book that always opts for down-to-earth realism and genuine human emotion rather than overblown action sequences and overwritten, clunky dialogue. Phillips and Brubaker's Criminal is an excellent overall package that feels as though it's working its way towards telling the perfect crime story--and even if it's not quite there yet, Lawless still falls somewhere in the realms of greatness.



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