Criminal Volume 2 #2 - 'A Wolf Among Wolves' - Brubaker, Phillips and Staples
Story - Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' Criminal is quite rightly seen as one of the best comics of the last decade, and every issue of the series is excellent, but there is one issue that for me, stands above all the others, and exemplifies every thing that is great about not only this particular series, but the genre of crime comics, and heck, even the medium of comics itself. This issue is the 12th issue of the series as a whole, and is the story of Teeg Lawless and his messed-up world.
Before this issue, Teeg was a background figure in the series, the father of Tracy Lawless, the main character of the 'Lawless' and 'The Sinners' storylines, and his brother Ricky. At the same time as telling compelling noir stories, Brubaker had been painting a rich world with a mysterious past, and the 3-part storyline this issue forms a part of is the first time he had really delved into that past, taking us way back into 1972.
But this isn't a goofy Austin Powers in Goldmember style 70s, there are no flares here, it's all to real. Teeg Lawless has recently come back Stateside from tours in Vietnam, but that doesn't mean his gambling debts have gone away, he has to find 15 million dollars in 2 weeks or his family are dead, so desperate, he gets involved with the wrong kind of person, and the wrong kind of woman. This is grim stuff, and it is typically noir, but the way this story is told raises this story to the next level.
Brubaker's narration is third person, and this detached style really works, you're inside Teeg's head, but not quite. This style has become rare in comics recently, with most preferring first-persion inner monologues, but it helps set Criminal apart, and evokes those classic novels to which the series owes so much.
I think what sets this issue apart is how it uses the comics format to it's fullest, doing things that even movies can't do, the juxtaposition of panels with dialogue, when Teeg sees a dismembered head from the War speaking with his wife's voice is a great example, and the black panels showing Teeg's blackouts whilst on a wild bender are another, just so effective in how some nights can go. I especially love it when in amongst the scenes of partying, we get a single panel of the Vietnam War. It goes uncommented, but a picture speaks a thousand words here, and it really does illustrate why Teeg has this reckless streak, and is a powerful expression of the impact of War, I don't think any other medium could have done that and had it be so impactful. There was a scene in an episode of HBO's excellent Boardwalk Empire, where the character of Jimmy Darmody is on a train, and the sounds of the tracks subtly shift to the sounds of World War 1 that is similar to this, but not quite the same. Comics in action.
Even when the storytelling is a little more linear, this issue is still nigh-perfect, the dialogue is razor sharp, and there are several amazing scenes of violence. It's a testament to Brubaker that he fits so much into one (admittedly longer than the standard) issue of a comic, unlike so many other 'done-in-one' stories, this really does feel worth it.
But of course, this issue isn't really 'done-in-one', it forms a triumvirate with the previous issue and the next, with each issue giving us a different perspective on the events within. It's brilliantly done, each issue stands alone, but when you read all 3 chapters it becomes something more, you learn who exactly the 'Femme Fatale' Danica is, and why she sets up the robbery of Hyde, you learn about Hyde himself. This is a popular technique, with Jason Aaron (who provides an excellent article in this issue) using it several times in Scalped, and Ed Brubaker excels at it.
Overall, this is just a fantastic comic, it does things with the mechanics of comics that couldn't be done in any other medium, but it doesn't feel too experimental or pretentious with it, it's a rock-solid crime story all at the same time, and while it stands alone, it also proves not only a great part of a three-part story, but a crucial building block in the world of Criminal, providing insight into the recurring character of Tracy Lawless and what makes him who he is. It's an example of continuity in comics working well. It's the best issue of the best comic on the market. What more can I say?
Art - Well, I suppose I can say more about Sean Phillips, who is just awesome in every which way, It's hard to even express how perfectly his art fits with this story, so think I'll just list some of my favourite moments of his art here; the panel on page 3 of Teeg's face looking haunted as his wife interrupts him, that's post-traumatic stress disorder right there, in one panel. The panel of Teeg's face when he overhears his son talking about soldiers going 'boom boom boom' is more of that same PTS. The panel of Danica biting Teeg's lip as they have sex. The cutaway panel of the car when Teeg slashes Danica's neck, somehow not clearly seeing the violence makes it worse. The last page of Teeg walking into the Undertow bar is iconic stuff. It's rare that any single story has so many stand-out moments for an artist, but Phillips is integral to this book.
Best Line - 'When Teeg Lawless came home in 1972, he brought the war home with him' It's the first line, and it perfectly encapsulates the story into one sentence.
10/10 Yeah, that's right, 10!