Capsule Reviews: Crime Comics

Though crime comics aren’t nearly as common as superheroes or zombies, there are always a couple coming out. It’s hard to believe that these are a relatively new thing, but Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips more or less created this subgenre a few years ago when their love of noir movies led to Criminal. There’s something about the shadowy underworld and veiled characters that fits right in to comics, though. Here are reviews of three recently-completed crime miniseries.

cover to Criminal: Last of the Innocent #1

Criminal: Last of the Innocent

Brubaker and Phillips’ Criminal is still leading the pack. The latest series, Last of the Innocent, may be the strongest one yet. Examining the intersection between nostalgia and reality in a way comics are uniquely appropriate for, this is a fascinating, fun, but thoroughly amoral story.

When Riley Richards returns to his home town for his father’s funeral, he gets the chance to compare his idyllic memories of the past to the hated present: He may appear successful on the surface, but Riley has mounting gambling debts and recently discovered his wife was having an affair. Of course, the past he longs for isn’t the perfect all-American boyhood, either. Shown with flashbacks in the style of a subversive Archie comic, Riley’s youth was filled with sex, drugs, and betrayal. Still, it’s easy to see why he looks back on it fondly, even if he’d obviously be unsatisfied now no matter which side he’d taken in the Betty-or-Veronica question.

The creative team walks a fine line by appealing to the reader’s own sense of nostalgia, even though they (hopefully) can’t identify with a sociopathic villain like Riley. This gives the story a personal connection even as Riley’s plan to kill his wife and “fix” his life spirals further out of control.

This has all the expected elements of a Criminal story: The artwork meshes cinematic noir with comics. The characters are all different brands of evil, with the only hope of justice coming from the ways they work against each other. And because it focuses on the underworld of a single city, characters from previous stories show up here, though never in a way that will confuse new readers. But Last of the Innocent also stretches itself in new ways, and not just with the clever Archie gimmick. It is one of the first times the series has examined bigger questions instead of just getting caught up in a good story, and the even the reliable bonus pages – essays on classic noir works – shift focus to talk more directly about the creators’ own nostalgia and influences. Also importantly, the ending escapes the formula that many of Brubaker’s previous plots seemed drawn to, reminding us that we really can’t know whether to expect a happy or sad ending when reading a chapter of Criminal. It is the perfect rejuvenating move for this consistently great series.

Grade: A

cover B to The Rinse #1

The Rinse

If Criminal  has done one thing wrong in inspiring new crime comics, it’s that it set too high a standard. Gary Phillips’ recently completed miniseries The Rinse, for example, is a perfectly good crime story that never comes close to meeting the expectations that Criminal’s fans might have. For all its advantages, it never rises above its own clichés: Jeff Sinclair is a money launderer with a heart of gold, who lands the biggest deal of his life right as a no-nonsense government agent sets her sights on him. He must protect his hapless client from the standard goons looking to reclaim the money while keeping an even lower profile than usual. Everyone’s fighting abilities are equal to their general competence, regardless of whether, for example, a crooked accountant would really be used to car chases and fistfights. The quirks that define each character are right on the surface, from the hero’s over-sized ego to the dame’s (of course there’s a dame) New Age mysticism. And completely unlike Criminal, the ending finds everything wrapped up neatly, with each character generally getting what they deserve.

It’s too bad that the story never throws a few more curveballs, because it really is well-done. It’s tightly paced and interesting, with the plot threads all juggled flawlessly. Artist Marc Laming produces slightly stiff scenes and poses, but has strong storytelling skills and clear characters. The narrator explains what is going on and how his trade works in a patient detail that seems a little convenient for such a secretive trade, but it keeps the reader up to speed. Most of the time, it’s easy to get caught up in the story without nitpicking.

If Criminal is patterned after the gritty, heartbreaking noir films of the past, The Rinse seems more likely to be picked up by a studio today. It’s a slick action piece unlikely to inspire the next generation of creators, but it’s a safe, comfortable bet.

Grade: C+

cover to Who Is Jake Ellis? #1

Who Is Jake Ellis?

One could debate whether Who Is Jake Ellis? should be categorized as crime or action, especially given its sci-fi element. It’s stylized look and doomed, hunted hero definitely feel noir, though. Jon Moore is the only person able to see a shadowy figure named Jake Ellis, and Jake advises him on his actions in a life of crime. They make a perfect odd couple, with Jon being an ordinary, unskilled guy who can pass as a master criminal as long as he does exactly what Jake says. It is fun to watch, as the in-story commands give a purpose and direction to action scenes that would otherwise be silent and hard to follow. Also, since Jake can see everything around them, Jon has a reason to make the perfect, spur-of-the-moment decisions that would seem a little too lucky in other action stories.

Nathan Edmondson’s writing can be workmanlike at times, but he makes the excellent choice of framing the plot around a short, action-packed series of events. Opening up several years after Jon and Jake started their life of crime, they find their rise to the top suddenly reversed. They are on the run from practically everyone, and Jon is not competent enough to handle this situation. The tension between the two is as big a danger as their opponents. Jake decides their only chance is to go on the offensive, and figure out exactly what was behind the shadowy conspiracy that caused them to meet.

This really stands out due to Tonci Zonjic’s artwork. Spare but confident linework and bold coloring give this a slightly exotic feel. The individual pieces of each panel are so simply as to feel cartoony, but each full scene is balanced and complete. Like a sketched-out movie poster showing a dramatic scene, it’s easy to see the real people behind the iconic scenes.

Who Is Jake Ellis? feels a little incomplete, as if it should have had more to both the beginning and ending. I don’t see any way the plot could be satisfyingly stretched to either of those, though. Despite that, the writer and artist work to each others’ strengths, and there’s nothing else quite like it on the shelves. Edmondson and Zonjic are both talents to watch.

Grade: B-

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