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SUNDAY SLUGFEST: Criminal: Last of the Innocent #1

Posted: Sunday, June 5, 2011
By: The Comics Bulletin Firing Squad

Ed Brubaker
Sean Phillips, Val Staples (c)
In Last of the Innocent, the latest entry of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' ongoing Criminal series, we meet Riley Richards, a man who left a quaint little town life to head to the big city with his rich but frosty wife Felicity. With his father in poor health, he's returned -- but will business really be as usual?

Morgan Davis:
Rafael Gaitan:
Danny Djeljosevic:

Morgan Davis:

You can draw a connecting line through nearly all of Ed Brubaker's work, no matter the genre or concept. That connecting line is constructed from the motif of nostalgia, a concept that Brubaker continuously returns to, whether it's the Winter Soldier in his Captain America work or the way nostalgia's danger permeates Brubaker's crime writing. Brubaker's Criminal series, though, might be the most nostalgic of Brubaker's catalogue, both in terms of plot and aesthetic.

Paired with Sean Phillips, whose delicate, vintage style recalls poster art of the '50s, Ed Brubaker has made Criminal one of the best crime series in existence in large part because of the way he and Phillips have played with the genre's own nostalgia. Reconfiguring the clichés and tropes of crime lit's most celebrated era, Brubaker and Phillips have crafted something that's simultaneously reverential and refreshingly different, a series that looks forward and backward at once.

The latest Criminal entry, The Last of the Innocent continues that dual perspective and once again nostalgia is sitting front and center. While The Last of the Innocent makes some major aesthetic departures in segments that recreate the look and tone of Archie comics, those departures themselves are in the service of nostalgia. Specifically, Riley Richards is utilizing nostalgia as a way to escape the failure his life has become and to keep the emotions concerning his father's impending death at bay.

Whether Riley is turning to the comics of his youth for comfort or slipping inside his own head to think of a better, less complicated time, his drug of choice is that same nostalgia floating through Brubaker and Phillips' canon. Phillips is joined by Val Staples on colors to make the change smooth and true, locking into an artistic groove that is close enough in design to make the reference known but still immediately familiar as Phillips. Equally impressive is how easily Brubaker adapts to the Archie format, beginning the sections with faux-Archie titles like "Life with Riley" and ending the reference pages with punchlines that are clever and effective without distracting from the story.

Brubaker and Phillips are by this point such a tightly synchronized team that it's easy to pleasantly lose yourself in their groove, admiring the strength of their partnership. It's the combination of their voices that makes the Criminal series so special, the seductiveness of their shared affinity for times past and their ability to make that affection work in a modern context. Like magicians, Brubaker and Phillips excel at distracting you from the mechanics of their craft in order to better pull you into their story.

That's of vital importance in The Last of the Innocent, which eases readers into a false sense of security, causing them to forget that they are in fact reading a Criminal entry and that happy endings are not on the menu. The Last of the Innocent's ending isn't a twist, per se, but it is a bit of a shock and requires a willingness from readers to trust that Brubaker will unveil the details in a manner that's true to the character he's set up in Riley. That it hinges on a plot device familiar to even the most casual noir fan is all the more fitting.

Brubaker and Phillips work is so strong, though, that even if they were to unfold this story in a way we've seen before the book would still be a powerful if clichéd effort. But given the experiments in form that Brubaker and Phillips are conducting and the track record of these two, it's likely that we'll be the fortunate receivers of yet another groundbreaking piece of crime lit that plays with our sense of nostalgia for a time when noir was new.

Rafael Gaitan:

I don't sweat comics or shorties. While I do enjoy a good amount of comics and literature (as well as women), it takes a truly transcendent piece of fiction to get me to get sprung. Criminal is one of those titles. I read Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' masterpiece as single issues when the first arc, “Coward,” was released in 2006. More character study than procedural, Criminal is a brilliant take on crime comics, and easily one of the greatest titles ever published in that or any medium. The latest arc, Last of the Innocent is a heartbreaking look at a life ill-spent. The genius of this story is that it treats nostalgia as the big score, the unattainable object that will fulfill the protagonist's every desire.

Brubaker has spoken in several interviews, including this fascinating one with Tom Spurgeon, that this story comes from a personal place -- he began writing it as his father passed, and he found odd comfort in old comics and Crime SuspenStories while he was home. This trait gets assigned to Riley Richards, our broken-spirited protagonist. The issue mostly follows his return from the city to see his ailing father, but we learn enough to know he's in trouble. He gambles, he lusts, and his life is in shambles -- a cheating wife, a debt to the mob. As Riley passes through the lives he left behind, we see his memories represented in the style of youth comics, expertly rendered by the ever versatile Sean Phillips. The material in these segments is anything but child-friendly, though -- using such a soft lens to view such harshness is a truly inspired choice and a clear sign that this title is a cut above.

Brubaker's dialogue remains as sharp and clever as ever, flowing fluidly and intriguingly without feeling overly stylized -- perhaps the best neo-noir stuff written today. It's darkly comedic but with hints of genuine sentiment. A scene where Riley wonders how long he should stand around at a funeral is both tragic and truthful. Brubaker has a gift for naturalistic exchanges, and the relationships he creates in these pages feel aged and lived in already. His plotting and scripting are focused and informative -- we become so engrossed in these people's lives, we begin to feel for their problems. We learn them from little things, like the way Riley stares at the literal girl next door, or the way childhood friend Freakout suggests getting a drink, despite being in substance counseling.

Sean Phillips' art is gorgeous and detailed -- it nails the atmosphere and the sentiments Brubaker is going for effortlessly. Phillips' kinetic pencils always convey facial expressions and subtle movements with the utmost integrity, and he renders both the people and the places of Brookview with an impeccable sense of style. His soft touch on the present is in sharp contrast to the way he draws the grimy Center City, and it shows his innate talent all too well. Val Staples colors equally complement Phillips' art, rendering the glorious sheen of memories as beautifully as he does the ugliness of the characters' moderns lives. He colors a P.O.V. shot of a woman with the same rosy palette that he does for the nostalgia scenes, and it reflects the character's feelings with great subtlety and knowing. This particular moment might be the highlight of the issue -- if there's any doubt that these guys get what it's like, it's quickly quelled.

The book is still a crime comic, so the ending of this issue is both stark and set-up. As Riley comes to a decision regarding what will bring his life some sense, we equally fear what will come and anticipate it with great aplomb. Criminal is a masterclass in how to do crime in comic form, and Last of the Innocent is perhaps the zenith of Brubaker, Phillips and Staples' efforts. Easily the best issue of the week and perhaps the year, there's nothing that packs a simultaneous punch to the jaw and a blow to the heart as much as Criminal.

Danny Djeljosevic:

To refer to a different Tom Spurgeon interview, Abhay Khosla once said, "It'd be nice if more people were dedicated to making the 'Great American Comic' than a 'good gangster comic.'" As a comic book writer, that line reverberates through my head 24 hours a day -- it's a nice, lofty ideal to aspire to, a reminder to always aim a little higher than the current caliber of pop comics pablum. 'Cause you gotta impress comics critics, right? Either way, it's possible to satisfy both: with Criminal: The Last of the Innocent, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips deliver an awesome new installment as part of their ongoing crime comics epic that will surely go down as one of the Great American Comics.

On a surface level, The Last of the Innocent goes a little something like this: What if Archie married Veronica and wanted to murder her? Of course, we must express the thought through analogues: Riley Richards heads back to his hometown of Brookview for what may very well be his father's last moments on Earth as he slowly succumbs to stomach cancer. Riley ends up reconnecting with the people from his high school years, like his girl-next-door flame Lizzie and his food-obsessed stoner friend Freakout. Riley's current life in the city is in shambles -- he's living a life of women and gambling and rising debts, not to mention that he knows that Teddy is fucking Riley's wife, Felix. It's not going well, and this return to his idyllic small-town origins only serves to remind him of all the horrible shit waiting for him back home.

To pitch The Last of the Innocent as "Archie grows up" makes it sound like some teenager's asinine goof, doodling comics on lined notebook paper (wide-ruled, of course) about Archie and Jughead smoking weed and shooting people because you're 16 and that shit is funny because Archie is kids' stuff. Not so much, I'm glad to say. To use a stale comparison, Brubaker's grittification of Archie is almost like what Alan Moore did for superheroes with Watchmen, bringing a silly childish thing into adulthood to comment on it. It's hard not to see some meta-commentary where these now-adult pseudo-Riverdale kids look on with disdain at some Love & Rockets-esque punks in their old diner hangout. After all, this comic takes in 1982, the same year that Los Bros. Hernandez unleashed their seminal indie comic -- one known for having characters that actually age. This is no coincidence.

However, The Last of the Innocent transcends intellectual meta-exercise. One gets the sense that Brubaker has an honest affinity for these characters -- and it's easy to see these kids' situation as being trapped in a cruel comic book dystopia where they never age, are never allowed to advance past their turbulent, hormonal formative years. By thrusting them into adulthood and into his harsh Criminal universe, he's setting them free, allowing them to actually live rather than perpetually live out the same will-they-won't-theys and endless barrage of pop quizzes and sock hops until comics are over as a viable conveyance of entertainment. That's Ed Brubaker's gift to you, Mr. Andrews and co. -- no more homework.

Brubaker is no stranger to the semi-autobiographical, and knowing the real-life elements illuminates the book in interesting ways. I don't feel comfortable repeating said autobiography for the sake of a dopey review, but Brubaker talks about it with John Siuntres on the Word Balloon podcast if you're really interested in all the details. The important part is his engaging with some Archie comics from his childhood as an adult -- the same way that Riley digs up some old crime comics at his parents' house and soon comes to the decision that's going to drive the plot of the book. All because, like Brubaker and Phillips' style on the meta-level, life and comics have become conflated.

It's a two-way street. As Brubaker takes his childhood comics and complicates them by transfiguring them into an adult Criminal story arc, Riley/Archie seeks to simplify his adult life by emulating his own childhood comics. The collision of the two is the comic you hold in your hands -- the one gorgeously rendered in Phillips' moody, ink-heavy art and Val Staples' red light district storefront colors. Riley wants to go back to the way things were, but to do that he has to play Ed Brubaker's game.

Phillips also draws flashbacks, switching up his art to resemble a vaguely Bob Montana Archie Comics house style to further drive the point home. Brubaker writes some "adult" teenage moments into these flashbacks -- venturing into the kitchen high to find your dad getting a midnight snack, clandestinely giving your girlfriend head -- which only serve to underscore the rose-colored memory we all tend to carry of our pasts when we get nostalgic.

The best part about the first issue of Criminal: The Last of the Innocent is how little the crime parts figure into the story so far, especially considering the title of series. The character work is so strong and Brubaker's script so thought-provoking that I can read this issue without feeling unsatisfied and can write about it without dropping the usual mitigating first issue review stock phrases like "this is all setup, so I'll reserve final judgment for future issues." It's a meaty first issue that doesn't feel like it needs to satisfy some well-worn genre formula, so I don't have to reserve judgment. I'll call it now and risk pulling a reverse-Pauline-Kael-on-Star-Wars: Criminal: The Last of the Innocent will be an instant classic.

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