Written by Ed Brubaker
Art by Sean Phillips
32 pages, color
Published by Marvel Comics
Protagonists don’t always have to be bound by the traditional “good guy” definition. It’s something that Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips understood in their series Sleeper, about a government agent trapped in an undercover role as a villain. With their new series, Criminal, they remind us that compelling fiction can star the sort of person you wouldn’t necessarily want to associate with.
Leo’s a natural for his profession, and that profession is stealing. Part of that means that you need to know when a job’s worth taking, and when you need to walk away. When a cop offers up Leo a tip on how to steal five million dollars worth of diamonds, it seems like too much of a set-up to be true. But with Leo’s commitments to the few people in his life, sometimes it’s just too hard to say no.
Brubaker kicks off Criminal with an introduction to Leo’s world; you know where Leo stands from the very first page (in case the cover wasn’t a tip-off already), giving us a look at a victory and a failure. It’s a nice look at just what Leo does, because it lays a lot of groundwork for the reader, showing that even if some people succeed others can fail, and that failure can have grave consequences. It makes the danger of Leo’s job real, and helps explain some of Leo’s motivation. He knows just what can happen when you pick the wrong job, and what he’s getting himself into. The rest of the comic continues to introduce us to Leo’s life, taking just the right pace in bringing the different elements and individuals onto the page and letting us really understand the main character. It’s important because I think that readers will find the more they learn about Leo, the more they’ll appreciate him. He’s not necessarily the sort of best friend you’ve always wanted, but for someone who is the titular criminal of the book, he’s someone you want to know more about, someone whose life is quite interesting.
Don’t mistake all this space devoted to character development this for a lack of forward motion in Brubaker’s plotting, though. There’s still a lot going on in terms of the overall story, with new layers of information and revelations in store with each page. By the end of the first issue, Brubaker is all but directly assuring the reader that Criminal will never be a simple, everything-is-as-it-seems story, and that’s part of the appeal.
If you’ve seen Phillips’s art before, it’s no surprise that it works well here. Phillips is the sort of artist who does a great job at bringing the average person to life on the page; Leo’s just a normal looking guy with a bad haircut and a slightly unremarkable face, but he’s always instantly identifiable on the page. Phillips doesn’t need to depend on ornate costumes or uniforms to make everyone look unique, and the visuals of the cast here are all strong. It’s also worth noting that while the coloring work from Val Staples looks great here, part of the advance preview I read for Criminal was strictly black and white, and Phillips is someone who clearly doesn’t depend on color to make sure his art is understandable; it was just as easy to follow in an unfinished state.
The action sequences in Criminal also function well; while this isn’t the sort of book that you expect large knock-down, drag-out fights every issue, it is important that when everything hits the fan that you’re able to easily follow what’s happening. Phillips as always has a real eye for moving the reader across the page from one panel to the next. It’s always a logical progression of action, zooming in and focusing on just the right elements that there’s never any doubt as to what happened. In an art form that at times seems to favor the overly ornate and intricate, it’s a refreshing reminder to know that there’s always room for a good classical style that is ultimately more effective than most others in the field.
Brubaker and Phillips have worked well together in the past, and Criminal is another strong addition to their joint library. I think it says a lot about the strength of this first issue that this is the sort book that one can see going on for a very long time. There’s an amazing amount of potential already realized here, and it makes you eager to see the next installment. Criminal may steal your heart, but it’s the kind of theft that you can’t help but welcome. Criminal #1 debuts in October 2006.