Definitely not a happy ending
Bad Night Part One by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
When I first heard of Ed Brubaker, I immediately didn't like the guy. I was reading some magazine or website where he was doing an interview about the Catwoman book that he was going to be working on. He called out Brian Michael Bendis, and basically said that Catwoman would outsell Powers as the best crime comic on the stands. As I mentioned in a previous column, Bendis and Powers are two of the reasons that I'm so crazy for comics. I thought that the challenge was disrespectful and unfair, since Catwoman was already an established character being published by one of the big two. It also didn't hurt that Darwyn Cooke was penciling that book. Cooke was the man behind the graphic novel that inspired the recent critically-acclaimed Justice League: New Frontier animated film.
That first impression of this guy was very inaccurate. I've read a bunch of stuff that he has since put out, and I want to express a formal apology to Mr. Brubaker for my initial response. He's worked on some other pretty high-profile books including Captain America and Daredevil, all of which is trememdously awesome, and really gives the characters a sense of depth that they've (IMHO) lacked in the past. He also wrote a kick-ass series for WildStorm called Sleeper, about an undercover operative lost out in the cold. While that series was going on, it was always at the top of my read pile every week. I would recommend going and checking out the trade paperbacks, but really only if you're somewhat familiar with the history of the WildStorm universe. It's sort of entrenched in WS continuity, so it's not as accessible as some of the other stuff I'm going to try to cram down your throat.
As good as all of that other material has been, I think his shining work is in Criminal. God damn it, this book is so good. It's all crime-noir and probably some of the best ever. Quoting Comicbook Resoures from the back cover of this issue - "Criminal is the best crime comic ever published, and we should just count ourselves lucky that Brubaker and Phillips keep finding new ways to prove it."
Every issue of Criminal has everything that makes crime-noir stories so intriguing. Of course, there's crime, there's violence, there's sex, betrayal, dark imagery, plotting, plots failing, mysterious backstories, the dim light of small hope. And each element is used so creatively. Check out this image of the chick here: notice how her face is not entirely shown, but at least partially covered by shadows? That's total classic noir and this one panel is completely indicative of how Sean Phillips' art is able to convey the mood of the tale being told.
We see so few storytellers doing anything like this in any medium. Sure, there's still some publishers printing novels and magazines covering the genre, but it's a shame that it's not so accessible and appreciated. The last bit of noir that most people have probably been exposed to was Sin City. While Sin City was kick-ass in its own right, it was still pretty over the top. Everything that Brubaker and Phillips do in Criminal is subtle, which leads to it being more real and tangible. The feeling of realism adds to how tragic the stories feel.
Oh, yeah, don't read any issues of Criminal if you like happy endings. Don't expect anything to be wrapped up in a neat little bow. The stories don't necessarily end, much like life. A lot of times, someone will just get his/her respective ass kicked, stabbed, shot, betrayed, etc. and that's that. There's no resolution. There's no revenge. There's no "he got the girl in the end", unless the girl is addicted to crack and would be better off in jail or rehab than with him. In fact, you may like the books more if you enjoy seeing fictitious characters getting teefs knocked out or losing everything they've worked so hard for. Don't read Criminal as escapist fiction to get away from the real world, because it is the real world. Okay, maybe it's not your real world, if your real world is fairly mundane. But it is the real world in that it's stuff that happens daily according to those cops shows on MSNBC and A&E.
So far, there are three Criminal trade paperbacks that you should be able to get from your local comic shop or even major book store. They are Coward, Lawless, and The Dead and The Dying. Even those titles are noir. The beauty of each is that you can read them all on their own. You don't have to have read any of the other stories to appreciate any of them. They are tangential to each other and some of the characters appear in more than one story, much like Sin City, but you can read them in any order.
You have no excuse to not be reading this book. People in previous columns have indicated that their comic shops are too far away. You can order all of the trades from Amazon or some such for 30% off of cover price and get free shipping. If you come up with an excuse, I may have to send one of Brubaker's bruisers to your place, have him tie you to a chair, then pull out your fingernails one at a time. Wow, that is intensity in ten cities.
Who should read this book:
People who loved Sin City.
People who are fans of hard-boiled crime fiction.
People who are liberal but love listening to right-wing talk radio.