Monday, September 14, 2009

A love letter to Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

Sometimes its easy to see patterns in what you like. Garth Ennis is writing a new book? I'll check it out. Steve Dillion is drawing it too? Well, that makes it "the team that brought you Preacher". But this post isn't about Ennis and Dillion (expect that post in the future). No, this is about the noir loving, femme fatale fearing duo: Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. As each issue of Criminal reminds us, the secret ingredient is crime. And these two definitely share a passion for the genre that shines through in each of their collaborations.

Here's a look at what they've done so far, with a peak at the wonderful things to come:


Batman: Gotham Noir
Publisher: DC (2001)
If you like: What if? comics, alternate universe reads, Jim Gordon centric stories.

This Elseworlds one-shot shows us Gotham as imagined in the late 1940's. It isn't a stretch to see the caped crusader in this time period, especially considering that Batman was created in 1939. The most compelling aspect of this book is its focus on Jim Gordon, portrayed here as an alcoholic WWII  veteran. No longer a member of the Gotham city police force, he scrapes by as a private dick, also taking on the occasional odd job. The plot serves as a solid example of Ed Brubaker's affection for the down and out man. Batman has more of a peripheral role in this story, and there's an interesting history between Bruce and Jim Gordon in this incarnation. As someone who discovered this issue in the back issues long after its inception, I found it was worth the read, if only to see how much Sean Phillips' artwork has developed over the years.  In comparison to his current work in Criminal and Incognito, this seems more like an experimental effort than his current mastering of the crime noir genre.

Sleeper
Publisher: DC / Wildstorm (2003)
If you like: Incognito, Blade Runner, Tech Noir, superheroes + noir.

Well I don't have much to bring to the table about this work, as I have yet to read the whole series. Being a fan of Criminal and Incognito, and also hearing heaps of praise for this book made me go out and get the first trade paperback, but I'm only about two issues in. Many people have compared Incognito to Sleeper, and its easy to see why. Both deal with morally ambiguous characters who are leading double lives, inhabiting the seedy criminal underworld while walking the straight and narrow. This work reminds me of a term coined by James Cameron to describe Terminator: Tech Noir. It isn't noir in the traditional sense, since the main character in Sleeper has supernatural abilities. Rather, it feels like a crime comic book with a bit of noir and sci-fi infusion. Again, I have yet to read this whole series, and this is based solely on first impressions. A few issues in, and its good read thus far!

Criminal
Publisher: Marvel / Icon (2006)
If you like: Crime stories, Sin City, Goodfellas, early Hitchcock films.

I'm going to set the bar pretty high for anyone who hasn't read Criminal: it is one of the best comic book series I've ever read. This book has been edge of your seat good. Can't wait for the next issue good. First new book I'm reading on Wednesday good. And unfortunately, it's kind of a hard sell. Whenever someone asks me for a new book to read, I always steer them towards Criminal. It's hard enough getting people to read things that are out of their norm, but it's even harder when a book embodies such a specific genre. There is little ambiguity: this is a straight up crime noir series.

Each story arc focuses on a different set of characters, but as you go from one plot to the next, you will see some recurring characters, continued themes, and familiar places. The first arc, and trade paperback, is titled "Coward". It follows Leo, a man who knows how to get out of tough spots. He's an ideas man, the brains behind heists; until one goes terribly wrong. He escapes, but his loyalty to himself gives him a bad rep. You quickly learn that not all of his motives are as selfish as they seem. And like any good noir tale, there is plenty of booze, drugs, deception and sex to get you hooked. You'll be a noir junkie in no time. 

I won't go into too much detail about the additional stories, because if you aren't hooked by "Coward", well, maybe you just don't have the stomach for Criminal. But it only gets better from here, people. The most recent story arc, "Bad Night" was not only excellent, but unpredictable, as well. A trademark of the pulp novels that Brubaker loves so dearly is their ability to get weird very fast. And things definitely get weird, but they also stay firmly grounded in reality. In addition to taking you to unexpected places, "Bad Night" is definitely one of the sexiest story arcs of Criminal thus far (see above image).

Before I send you rushing out to your nearest comic book story to pick up Criminal Volume 1, I will say the back issues are worth the extra bucks. Brubaker and Phillips know how to treat their loyal month-to-month readers. Each issue contains articles (with illustrations from Phillips, see below) that review obscure television shows, movies, and books that are influential to their work, and prime examples of noir in every form.  It is a wonderful "thank you" to the fans, and really serves as a unique reason to buy this book in issue form as these articles are NOT in the trade paperbacks.


Incognito
Publisher: Marvel / Icon (2008)
If you like: Sleeper, Fight Club, characters leading double lives, Bad Santa (haha).

Incognito is a series that follows Zack Overkill, a former villain who is currently in the witness protection program. Forced to work a dull office job and take drugs to suppress his super-strength makes Zack act out: by becoming a vigilante? Even he is baffled by his do-gooder desires. This series shows some excellent potential; little is revealed about Zack's past in the first few issues, and we are introduced to some wonderful supporting characters, including an ice-queen co-worker who unwittingly lusts for Zack in disguise while hating his worker bee day job persona. I'd love to see this series through for another story arc, but some of what I've seen written makes it sound like six issues is all we may get.

Criminal was put on haitus since this series began, and even though Incognito has been excellent thus far, I would have much rather enjoyed some more Criminal. However, Criminal will be rebooting this fall, and by rebooting I mean focusing on the same characters from earlier plots, and just renumbering the series (for the third time!). It is worrisome, as renumbering is often a ploy to get new readers on board for a series with lagging sales. Hopefully that is not the case, as I would hate to see Criminal leave us anytime soon! Here is a link from Sean Phillips blog for 6 page preview of Criminal: The Sinners #1

6 page preview of Criminal: The Sinners

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