Review by: SixGun

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Size: pages
Price: 11.99

Whenever someone is trying to describe their love for some
independent, relationship-based comic book they inevitably fall back on the explanation
that “the characters are so real, I can see parts of people I know in each and
every one of them!”. And while that type of praise is indeed warranted, the
ability to craft convincing and relatable characters being a true mark of a
great creator, I can’t help but feel a bit ho-hum about such a description.
Sure, that’s great, I’m really glad that some people find themselves drawn to
comic books where the main attractions are ones that they can see bits and
pieces of themselves and others they know in. But that’s just not my cup of
tea. I live my life, I interact with the people I know, and I don’t have any
real desire to spend my entertainment dollars rehashing my everyday existence.

That’s not to say I don’t look for realism in my comic
books, far from it in fact. I’m the kind of person who freaks out when Nick
Fury’s gun in Secret Invasion is
more like some fourth grader’s doodle than any real piece of military hardware.
I’m the kind of person who drops comic books that are filled with characters
that don’t act like normal human beings. I’m the kind of person who seeks
realism out above most other considerations. But the realism I seek is an
escapist’s realism. I want to be transported into another world that is still
my own. I want grand adventures that I could never hope to have and I want to
see them had by characters that I swear seem so real that I could find their names after a few minutes scrolling
through my Google news feed. I don’t want people that I know; I want people
that I hope to never know.

I want Jake “Gnarly” Brown. I want Teegar Lawless. And most
of all, I want Danica Briggs.

Earlier this year Ed Brubaker re- launched his creator-owned
comic book Criminal. The second
volume was billed as a “Second Chance in Hell” (the title of the first issue)
that ostensibly served to get new readers to jump on board and lift up the
title’s Diamond orders. Reaction to the re-launch could be pretty easily
divided into three camps. The die-hard fans who didn’t care one way or another,
as long as they got their Criminal,
the fans who balked at the new numbering, and then the guys arguing over who
would win in a fight between Kilowag and
Thanos who  only know Ed Brubaker as
the guy who took the X-Men back into space. I was in the first category, if
Brubaker was a color, I’d bleed it. But after sitting down and really digesting
the first three issues of volume two in a single sitting I’ve come to the
conclusion that the new numbering was a really good decision in the long run,
because Criminal 2 is playing in a
completely different ballpark as the first series.

As far as I’m concerned, the first 10 issues of Criminal were the best comic books
coming out during their year or so of release. But at their very best they were
just brilliantly executed genre pieces, Brubaker’s ultimate realization of the
noir trappings that had so defined his superhero work for years. Although
filled with subtlety, (who killed Teeg Lawless? If you can answer that, then
you read vol. 1 quite closely!) the books were pulp. Pulp isn’t bad, pulp is
good and pulp is fun. But Pulp isn’t literature, and literature is something
that I think comics can be if done with enough thought and care. In interviews
leading up to the Criminal
re-launch, Brubaker talked about how the first three issues of volume two were
the hardest things he’s ever done as a comic book writer, about hours spent
looking at a computer screen at a loss as to what to do. It makes sense,
because for the first time he wasn’t writing good pulp, he was attempting to
write literature. And you know what? He succeeded.

This first arc was collected last month with the title The Dead and the Dying, which (just
like the last two arcs) refers more to the characters within than to the plots
they find themselves entangled. While this has been more or less suitable as Criminal has always been about its
characters, the plots of both Coward and
Lawless were both out in front as
being fairly crucial to the books’ quality. With The Dead and the Dying plot is essentially put aside as main
characters Jake Brown, Teegar Lawless and Danica Brown step into the limelight
to let their sad and messy stories spill out onto the page.

One of the main things bandied about as one of Criminal’s main draws was its
“universe”, which consists mostly of the fictional Bay and Center Cities and
the people who make them complete and utter hells. The way the universe
manifested itself was… neat. It was
cool that the cartoonist barely noticeable in Coward made Tracy a fake ID in Lawless,
but for the most part these shared existences were unessential to the overall
stories. But for The Dead and the Dying,
Brubaker made a statement that his universe mattered, and he constructed a
story that needed it to exist.

In 1951 Jake Brown’s father shook up the Bay City gang scene
in such a way that it would stay changed for half a century. He did it by
making a choice, a choice to help rather than kill a friend. Nearly 20 years
later that friend ruins the life a young girl who makes it here lives’ goal to
destroy that friend’s son. In many ways The
Dead and the Dying
is this girl, Danica’s, story. She’s the thread that
ties this vicious circle together and she’s the hook that pulls in (Lawless main character) Tracy Lawless’
veteran father Teegar into said sphere. There is a plot here, and it’s really
quite demanding. Owing more to films like Memento
than those like Out of the Past,
Brubaker expects more from his readers in this story than he ever has before.
But for those who stand up to the challenge the reward is so much greater than
anyting that the average comic book can give. Danica’s frightening grin as she
takes Teegar into bed in issue two makes her statement in issue three that he
“puss is a deadly weapon” a chilling truth rather than a funny quip. Sebastian
Hyde’s mountains of insecurity in issue one make his feigned signs of machismo
in issue two heart wrenchingly sad rather than pathetic.

But as I said earlier, the characters make The Dead and the Dying something that’s more than just great. And as their
drama unfolds on the page you can’t help but see just how strikingly real these
almost alien beings can be. I’ve never boxed, never killed people for living,
never been addicted to heroin or known anyone who has. And yet I know that the
people whose lives I’m seeing torn to shreds could be real if only because their
stories made me feel something. NO comic book had ever made me cry, but on the
last page of issue two, I got a bit watery; no comic had ever made me feel
sick, and yet the entirety of issue three gave me such an emotional rattling
that I really didn’t feel altogether well.

The Dead and the
isn’t always an easy read; it’s painful at times and depressing at
others. But it will make you feel something, and in the end, that’s what makes
it something spectacular.

Story: 5 - Excellent
Art: 5 - Excellent

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