Criminal 1: Coward

The modern crime drama, which in terms of cinema seems to revolve around heists or gangs (since the glory days of the Mafia flick has been usurped by TV’s Sopranos) is somewhat lacking from the comics scene. Perhaps it’s a little too close to the superhero genre, which essentially end up being stories of crime and punishment. But for the mature, discerning entertainment consumer, the thrill and chaos of crime strikes closer to home when there isn’t a caped superhero ready to swoop in and solve the problem.

Coward - LeoCoward, then, is something of a departure. Drawn from the first five issues of Brubaker and Phillips’ monthly Criminal comic, Coward is a self-contained story about a successful but cautious career criminal who is persuaded to go on one more heist, with the promise of a fool-proof plan, an easy target and a stash of diamonds for his trouble. Of course, the beauty of the traditional crime story is that no-one should be trusted, plots can twist beyond the expected path, and few characters are safe from an unexpected and violent death.

Coward - victimBrubaker draws on this tradition and, while not veering far from its heart, manages to cook up a hard-boiled plot, crammed with untrustworthy criminals with little but their own interests at stake. The characters are far from stereotypical – despite featuring criminal cliches like the bent cop, the retiring master-criminal and the morally bankrupt crime-lord, Brubaker pushes them in unexpected directions with his ability to whip up a tumultuous plot.

Phillips’ artwork takes a gritty approach to the action and it’s welcome – his world is shadowy but believable, managing to provide a weight of dramatic atmosphere without pushing into over-the-top noir.

It’s a breath of fresh air to see fiction like this in the comics medium. It’s still mainstream enough to ensure what ought to be a broad, appreciative audience, without resorting to the comics standard of flying in a superhero to clear any mess up at the end, so let’s hope that more of Brubaker and Phillips’ stories make it through into this format.

More books by Ed Brubaker:
More books in the Criminal series:

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