When Criminal: The Last of the Innocent was in the preview stages, Ed Brubaker said that part of the intent of the series was to "take the innocent days of youth and put them through all of [Dr. Fredric] Wertham's worst fears," hence the series' title being an allusion to Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent. With the series showing a darker future for a gang of Archie Comics-like characters, it would at first appear that Brubaker meant that The Last of the Innocent ramps up the sex, violence and drug use but in issue three it starts to become apparent that there's an even more complex meaning behind that quote.
Wertham's real worst fear wasn't necessarily wanton moral depravity but instead the idea that beneath seemingly innocent, sheepish books lurked wolves. The controversial doctor was of the opinion that comics were infested with sinister intent, that they were created to pervert the adolescent mind and seduce them with the idea that crime pays. As we begin issue three of The Last of the Innocent, Riley Richards has seemingly pulled off the perfect crime, his wife Felix dead by his hands and his alibi airtight thanks to his efforts in ruining his best friend's hard earned sobriety. Riley appears to have won the new nostalgic life he longed for, the life where the gang is back together and all his poor choices are swept away. Riley, in short, has bought into the idea that crime does indeed pay.
But where Brubaker's concept of innocence being run through the gauntlet of Wertham's worst fears really succeeds is in dropping hints that Riley, our Archie surrogate, has been a wolf all along. While Riley's sociopathic tendencies have been hinted at since the beginning of the series, Brubaker makes them clearer here, with Riley's visit to his Felix's lover Teddy culminating in an exchange wherein Teddy confesses that Felix used to say that Riley was "empty...when no one was looking, [he] didn't even exist."
Brubaker is suggesting that the very traits that make someone like Riley so popular-- his confidence and swagger, his competitive streak, his ability to get whatever he desires-- are also the things that make him such an efficient criminal. Of course, Brubaker isn't hoping to pervert any young minds with this book, regardless of what someone like Wertham might argue, but to instead plant a seed of doubt about those iconic characters, to make readers question the very nostalgia that some of them crave just as much as Riley.
Through these three issues, Riley has stopped at nothing to bring back his golden age. He has ruined his best friend and has manipulated everyone around him, including his new love interest Liz, a girl that he similarly manipulated before he was married to Felix. Riley's belief that the world revolves around the past is so pervasive that Sean Phillips' pencils have even begun to show that world leaking into the current one. The issue actually begins with Riley asleep as Brookville is shown in an Archie style, before Riley wakes and the world is returned to the Criminal house style.
For Brubaker the danger isn't in sex and drugs and violence but in an unwillingness to advance, to make do with what you have and live your life rather than pursuing how things used to be. The attempts to turn "the innocent days of youth" into something altogether untouchable and idealized are the real enemies in the world of The Last of the Innocent and it's through them that a darkness that always existed is unleashed. That Brubaker and Phillips are unleashing this masterful exploration of that theme in the medium of comics, a medium that is perhaps more tied to nostalgia than any other, is perfect. The same effect simply could not have been achieved elsewhere, not without Phillips chameleonic mimicry of the reference material or Dave Stewart's impressively realized color juxtaposition or Brubaker's freakish gift for crafting something devastatingly new and exciting and comfortably vintage all at once.
So it's fitting that this work should be tied to Wertham, a figure who sought to condemn comics by refusing to believe that there could be more to them than sensationalism. Saturated as Last of the Innocent might be with Wertham's worst fears, it's also far better at conveying morality than any close minded demonization could ever hope to be.
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and a staff writer for No Tofu Magazine. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon.
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