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Graphic Novel Review: Criminal: Lawless by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

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Ed Brubaker is one of my favorite writers on the Daredevil monthly comic, which he’s still currently writing. He constantly produces razor-sharp dialogue, believable emotion, and enough twists and turns to keep me on my toes. He also had an incredible run on Catwoman. His recent work on Captain America (especially concerning the resurrection of Bucky Barnes as Winter Soldier and the death of Steve Rogers) catapulted him to national attention.

However, I enjoy Brubaker’s Criminal comics as much as anything he’s written. So far Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips have finished three graphic novels’ worth of material. The series won an Eisner Award in 2007 for Best New Series.

Brubaker and Phillips put stories together whenever they can, then run them as mini-series before they’re eventually gathered into graphic novels. I love the stories because they’re hard hitting noir tales about tough guys, violence, and constant danger. There’s not a superhero among them, and very few innocents.

Lawless is the second collection, and it’s a barbed-wire punch to the throat. Sleek and deadly as a bullet, the story of Tracy Lawless’s quest for revenge after his brother ends up dead rockets along to a climatic finish that belongs on the big screen.

Brubaker’s narrative, echoed by Phillips’s art, is interesting in this arc. Instead of simply breaking the story out from start to finish, Brubaker reveals everything in episodic chunks. He starts with an action, like killing a man on a rooftop and disposing of his body in a Dumpster in the alley, then circles back around to tell readers who the man was and why Tracy killed him.

Looking back through the graphic novel, I noticed how deliberate the reveals were. Brubaker dropped pebbles of plot into the pond of his story, then chased the ripples out for the readers till everything came together. The method is very effective, like getting a bite-size chunk of a mystery that allows you a look at only one piece of a larger puzzle.

Tracy’s background isn’t delivered in a large info dump either. Nor is everything completely explained. I still want to know what happened to Tracy and Ricky’s father, and even what happened to Ricky that put him into a life of crime. That’s because the character feel so real on the pages. Even though I didn’t get every answer, Brubaker and Phillips provide enough that I knew Tracy Lawless and the kind of guy he was. He’s the same kind of guy whose adventures I enjoyed in the pages of the Gold Medal novels I read while growing up. Evidently Brubaker haunted the same aisles in similar bookshops.

Ricky Lawless was a wheelman for a gang. He drove the getaway car. But after a heist goes bad, Ricky ends up shot to death. Tracy is a soldier, a man with a harsh past that has no problem killing people he thinks needs to be killed. The problem is, he’s not sure who killed Ricky, but he knows once he finds out he’s going to kill whoever it was. In the meantime, he has to infiltrate the gang, help break out one of the members from prison, and stay out of the clutches of a mysterious group of killers that have somehow gotten onto his tail.

The art in the book complements the story, providing mood and atmosphere. Phillips’ style and take on grungy metropolitan areas and action is fantastic. The layout of the scenes, the exposition of the surroundings and the snap-focus on characters, show just how easily the story could be rendered to cinema.

The language and story are harsh, so Lawless might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But fans of noir are going to feel right at home in these pages.

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