Criminal by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips has long been one of all-time favorite works of fiction in any medium, and the greatest crime is that I’ve never written about it since discovering it around thirteen years ago.
My first exposure to this prolific creative team was the Sleeper series, which was either the first or second time Brubaker and Phillips worked together. Set in the same “universe” as the WildC.A.T.s (created by Jim Lee) and featuring the villainous mastermind Tao (created by Alan Moore), Sleeper was an unsettling combination of the two main elements which gave rise to the superhero genre: crime fiction and science fiction.
But Sleeper had little use for superheroes, beyond guest-starring Grifter. Instead, it focused on the adventures of villains doing covert operations for shadowy organizations. Subverting the superhero genre, Brubaker treated Sleeper like a pulp crime story with a first-person narration by a deeply broken, hardboiled protagonist you would expect to find in a noir detective novel.
When I discovered Criminal shortly thereafter, I was thrilled to see what Brubaker and Phillips could do with a pulp crime story without any of the superpowers and sci-fi. I joined the ongoing series around the time the first storyline was wrapping up, so I got a subscription and enjoyed the rabid, edge-of-my-seat anticipation of every new issue.
But it’s hard to say why I love this series so much. It’s hopeless, bleak, and downright depressing. Anything resembling a character’s redemption arc is sure to end in tragedy and tears. Everyone is either broken, or despicable, or both. Characters tend to be either victims of abuse, or abusers, or both. Any brief moments of happiness are either doomed, or illusory, or both. The world of Criminal is an inescapable hell that destroys everyone, even the most powerful and the most innocent.
Maybe my fascination with the series is related to that part of the human mind that can’t resist looking at a crash on the highway. That sick part of our monkey brains that slows down to see the carnage until the road is backed up with gawkers for miles. It’s probably the part of our minds that is responsible for slasher flicks and so-called “disaster porn”, the part that craves horror and violence even in otherwise well-adjusted people who normally avoid such things. Maybe Criminal channels that aspect of human experience into fiction where it’s safe, where no one really gets hurt. You can gawk at a fictional train wreck and not feel guilty.
Criminal is also a remarkable feat of storytelling. You can read any one of the self-contained stories on its own or, as Brubaker often says, in any order at all. The stories feature numerous recurring characters connected by the strands of their web of crime, and the stories are not delivered in chronological order. You might meet someone in one story, then discover their childhood in another. Someone who dies in one story might appear years earlier in another.
Through it all, narrative captions tend to focus on one character’s internal experience or monologue per issue, sometimes describing the action that appears in the panels, but more often a step removed from the story that Phillips tells visually, giving insight into what characters are thinking or feeling. You also see certain events from multiple perspectives—sometimes from issue to issue, and sometimes from story to story. This approach amplifies the feeling that all events are connected and inevitable.
Criminal influenced my approach to storytelling when I started writing fiction, but the criminals I write about revel in their lawless lifestyles. They experience horror, but they mostly enjoy being on the wrong side of the law and doing what they do. They have fun!
Any fun that Brubaker’s criminals enjoy is a short-lived uptick on their downward spiral to despair and disaster. If you’re looking for happy endings or uplifting messages about the human condition, Criminal isn’t for you. The most fortunate characters end up dead, and the least fortunate keep on living, trapped in Brubaker’s sprawling saga of doom, degradation, and mutual destruction.
But the series is so well-constructed, so impenetrably dark, and so well-told that I find it impossible to avert my eyes from the wreck, and I have read and re-read each story many times. I think the saving grace, what makes it possible to wander into this cruel, noir world, is that so many of the characters evoke sympathy and empathy. Many of Brubaker’s villains tend to have some spark of humanity that makes them relatable. They are rarely evil for the sake of being evil, like so many poorly done “bad guys”. Instead, they have been twisted and morally deformed by the awful events of their lives.
Even a complete scumbag such as Teeg Lawless, who often beats and abandons his two sons, is shown to believe that in his own fucked-up way, he thinks he loves his kids. His deranged and damaged brand of “love” is not one I would wish on any child, but it’s consistent with the way that even the worst villains in these tales tend to think of themselves as some kind of heroes, even when they are so incredibly wrong.
That’s something we need to think about more often but has become increasingly rare. It is now easier than ever for delusional people to find similarly deluded people in Internet echo chambers and rally around causes that range from nonsensical to dangerous. It has become increasingly easy for people to embrace messages of hate in the name of love, to proclaim treason as patriotism, to promote lies they accept as truth, and to advance anti-social policies under the guise of freedom.
We could all use a bit of self-reflection to step back and ask ourselves whether or not our heroic stances are, in fact, villainous. When writing a good fictitious villain, the best authors know that the villain should be a hero in his or her own narrative about the world.
But that isn’t something that’s only true in fiction. It works in stories because it expresses something true about real people. I often look back on my life and am filled with regret for things I did and mistakenly thought were right at the time, only to realize later that despite being a hero in my own story, I was the villain in someone else’s, and things I believed to be right were so very, very wrong.
Criminal warns this is a universal aspect of human experience, and if there is any moral compass or lesson to be learned from Brubaker’s tragic tales, it is that we need to question our own ideas, assumptions, decisions, and sense of justice. If we don’t, then we will remain as trapped as the characters in Criminal, and nothing good can come from that.
Collector’s Guide: Criminal is spread out over the first ten-issue series, the second seven-issue series, the third twelve-issue series, the four-issue The Last of the Innocent, a single-issue Special Edition, a tenth-anniversary Special Edition, a standalone graphic novel, and the standalone Wrong Time, Wrong Place, for which I can’t seem to find a link. Various TPBs and “deluxe” editions have collected parts of it, and they range from easily found to difficult. I would love to see a definitive Criminal Omnibus collecting the entire thing in one or two volumes, but that has yet to happen.