Written by Ed Brubaker
Art by Sean Phillips
112 pages, color
Published by Marvel
One the most dependably good comic series being published is Ed Brubaker’s and Sean Phillips’s Criminal. A series of crime comic mini-series, whenever a new Criminal comes down the pike you know you’re in for something good. With their new collection, Criminal: The Last of the Innocent, Brubaker and Phillips not only keep their comic well-rooted in the dark and slightly depressing real world, but also give us flashbacks to a slightly more idyllic setting, one that comic-book readers might be especially familiar with.
I suspect for most readers, the first time that Brubaker and Phillips shift Criminal: The Last of the Innocent into a flashback that is straight out of Archie comics, it’ll come as a surprise, and then feel like a gimmick. But what’s great about Criminal: The Last of the Innocent is that this storytelling turn is anything but a gimmick. Brubaker uses these familiar character tropes for something bigger, more than just "when Archie characters go dark." Instead we’re getting a story about how even those growing up in small-town America can end up in a darker, more dangerous adulthood… and that perhaps even as teens they were less than the innocent ones that they showed to the rest of the world.
Riley Richards is our main character, and as Criminal: The Last of the Innocent plays out, we get a long hard look at a man that was everyone’s role model, but ended up in a loveless marriage and up to his ears in gambling debts. Brubaker doesn’t just take the easy way out of "Archie marrying Veronica equals disaster" though; instead we see just how things would have gone sour, through both glimpses at Felix’s teenage years (and how even then she was more heartless than Riley perhaps caught on) as well as how both Riley and Felix would have drifted apart as Riley ended up breaking away from everything that he held true. Riley in a soul-crushing office job makes perfect sense in the setting that Brubaker has provided, and while at first some of Riley’s darker moments are a little jarring, Brubaker makes sure to always give us a perfectly reasonable (in Riley’s head) explanation for them.
Criminal: The Last of the Innocent also still has Brubaker’s trademark smarts throughout the story. When Riley decides it’s time to try and kill someone, we get a methodical, carefully plotted out strategy that not only gives Riley a strong alibi, but also squarely plants the blame on someone else. Watching it play out is engrossing, in part because Riley has set everything up so well, but also because it is that much more grim when you realize how many other people’s lives Riley is destroying in his quest to kill someone. It’s bad enough that someone will die, of course, but the callous nature in which even friends get ground to a pulp as collateral damage gives us that much more of a realization of Riley’s sociopathic nature.
Phillips draws Criminal: The Last of the Innocent with his usual excellence; I love his rough, scratchy style that he draws all of the main narrative in. It’s expressive and it makes the story feel real because of his strong attention to detail on both his characters as well as the backgrounds. Phillips shifts his style for the flashback sequences in this mini-series, though, and it was a great surprise to see that Phillips can draw Archie-style, too. With the clean lines and uncluttered pages, it paints a rosy picture of those earlier days, even if you’ve somehow never encountered an Archie comic before and aren’t picking up on the homage. Best of all, though, is how comparing the characters from one to the other, there’s no doubt whom you’re reading about. The two styles might have a huge gulf between them, but it’s that consistency from one to the other that makes it all work.
Criminal: The Last of the Innocent is a strong return to form for Brubaker and Phillips; it’s one of my favorite Criminal stories to date. Even if you don’t make the connection to Archie comics, this is a strong, well-crafted story that hangs tightly together from start to finish. And if you do get all of the in-jokes that reference that long-running all-ages comic? Well, it’s that much more entertaining as a result. If you’ve never Criminal before, this is as great a place as any to begin. Highly recommended.