Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist: Sean Phillips
Colorist: Jacob Phillips
Publisher: Image Comics
Review by Jim Allegro
Ed Brubaker (Kill or be Killed) brings us the seedy side of the comicbook industry in Criminal #2. The recent crime-noir series from Image Comics shifts gears this month to tell the sordid tale of a legendary (fictional) comic book artist, Hall Crane, who asks his unsuspecting former assistant to help him commit a crime. Their fraught relationship is also the prism through which we glimpse the sexual harassment, greed, fraud, suicide, and other unsavory behaviors that marred the comicbook industry’s early history.
I am not a big fan of comicbooks about comicbooks. They are often burdened by indulgent references and obscure in-jokes. In Brubaker’s case, he is too invested in the details of his own profession to tell an interesting story. He spends too much time setting up Crane’s profile as a resentful crank that signs his name to forgeries and treats female cosplayers like prostitutes. As a result, the point of the comic – criminal behavior and its consequences – is slow to develop. Brubaker chooses to fill that narrative space with the relationship between Crane and his former assistant. We learn that Crane treated the younger man poorly, insulted his work, which encouraged his protégé to later drop out of the industry.
Brubaker’s not-so-subtle point is that our idols disappoint us in the end. This sobering truth would be more effective were it not wrapped in a heavy thought piece about the industry. Make no mistake, comics lost their halo a long time ago and Crane, though fictional, hits home in many ways. I would prefer to litigate these issues in podcasts, blogs, documentaries, and so forth rather than in the comicbooks themselves. Referential stories such as these feel to me like a sign of dying industry feasting on its own reputation rather than a vibrant source of original stories. By way of caveat, though, it should be noted such storytelling in not new to the Criminal universe. It has appeared in Bad Night and Wrong Time, Wrong Place.
Regardless of how you feel about the story, the artistic team continues to create an atmosphere of fear and anticipation. I love the way that colorist Jacob Phillips expertly shifts tones and hues to match the emotional tenor of Brubaker’s writing. The colors that frame Hal Crane shift from light blues to warm purples and hot reds as we learn more and more about the protagonist’s contemptible demeanor, and, in a cliffhanger at the end of the issue, the crime that he wants his assistant to help him commit.
I am a Brubaker fan and an enthusiast of the Criminal epic, but this particular issue is a PASS.