Criminal 1 by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

There are many comics these days that can be categorized as crime comics, but most of them include another genre convention. They involve super-heroes or former super-heroes, they investigate something supernatural or fantastic, or in the most famous case, Sin City, they are set in a world that never seems real, but never decides on how much unreality it should include. There are some traditional crime comics, set in an approximation of the real world, that eschew the fantasy that most mainstream comics, crime-related or not, participate in. This series appears to be one of those.

Many of Brubaker's past series have used the trappings of the crime genre in telling their stories: Sleeper, Daredevil, Catwoman, and Gotham Central to name the most popular. Some of his other series featured characters who were criminals, such as Deadenders and Lowlife. This book looks to live up to its title and avoid all the distractions from other genres. Straight-up criminals committing straight-up crime.

The first issue provides a promising set up for the series. We're introduced to our main character, Leo, and given just enough background to sympathize with this hardened criminal. The real joy here is the prose itself. Hardboiled without being overdone, Leo as narrator avoids the Mickey Spillane schtick that Frank Miller does so well and each supporting character is given a distinct voice in the the few pages that they appear. The foundation for the plot is laid, and my hope is that Brubaker can hold it together until the pay-off. A story like this can sometimes be masterful for the first two acts, then fall apart with a weak ending. I'm hooked from this issue though, and trust that my investment will be rewarded.

The storytelling is fluid, thanks to the comfortable rapport that Phillips and Brubaker have built up over their last collaboration, Sleeper, and they know when to get out of each other's way. In an issue that is 90% talking heads, Phillips manages to create an easy flow to the pages and keeps the reader in tune with the right amount of scenery changes and his unique rendering style. A Phillips character looks like a Phillips character, but he manages to keep them all distinct with his art as well. The issue carries a gorgeous cover, blood red and chunky orange, and the interiors are held together by the heavy blacks that allow Phillips to be good and fast. Phillips is a craftsman to be sure, but his pages hold the love of art and the search for truth.

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