Written by: Ed Brubaker
Art by: Sean Phillips
Colors by: Elizabeth Breitweiser
The Criminal 10th Anniversary Special tells a story from the childhood of Tracy Lawless, star of Brubaker and Phillips's highly acclaimed second Criminal story arc, 2007's Lawless. In Lawless, the titular war veteran has gone AWOL to investigate his brother's death, only to return to the criminal underworld he tried to escape. That story portrayed Tracy Lawless as a not entirely sympathetic character. In the Criminal 10th Anniversary Special, we see criminal origins of Tracy Lawless, and it's as tragic and heart wrenching tale as you can imagine.
At the onset of this story, Brubaker and Phillips set the stage for the twisted father/son dynamic that is the basis for the story. On what appears to be a fairly normal, carefree summer night in 1979, Tracy is pumping gas, quietly singing to himself. A bystander, apparently concerned to see a such a young kid on his own, reaches out to the boy. The boy, seemingly a jerk, tries to deflect the man's attention. We learn why, too late, as Teeg emerges from a gas station robbery and lays a brutal beating on the man. Tracy was just trying to protect the man, and Teeg, not concerned for his son's safety but only that he may have left a trail, beats an innocent bystander to a pulp. And then he berates his son for it.
It's a dramatic and effective scene that tells a lot about the characters in this story. It's a microcosm of the larger story – expertly paced, unexpectedly brutal, and quickly snuffing out any kindness or warmth shown.
Tracy's father, Teeg (who has also appeared in previous Criminal stories) is a bad man – far worse than Tracy will ever be. Tracy at least has a code of honour, a sense of loyalty and responsibility. Teeg is just a user, a bully, and a thug. The story in this comic involves Teeg taking Tracy along on a job, not in order to spend time together or bond with his son, but as an accomplice and cover.
The story gets dark, and it becomes easy to see how a character like Tracy could end up in a life of crime. While he doesn't elicit a lot of sympathy in his appearances as an adult, this look into Tracy Lawless's childhood makes him an extraordinarily tragic and sympathetic character. He doesn't just drive his dad from job to job, he witnesses brutal beatings, murder, and his father's infidelity. He knows what kind of man his father is, and the effect it has on him is evident in how Phillips portrays Tracy with pained and disappointed facial expressions and body language.
Things get especially tragic when Tracy gets a taste of what a normal life could be like. He befriends Gabby, a girl in the town where his father is working. He knows it can't last and that life isn't for him – he pushes Gabby away, both to protect her and his own feelings, before finally relenting. Once it's time to move on, he does, and it's heartbreaking.
Brubaker and Phillips insert pages from a fictional 70's comic, Fang the Kung Fu Werewolf, throughout the comic. Tracy escapes into the comic (a late birthday gift from Teeg), to escape the harsh reality he finds himself in. It mirrors his existence in ways (as much as a comic about a kung fu werewolf can), with the selected scenes from Fang serving to punctuate the emotion of Tracy's situation. For example, Tracy rushes back to the motel to wait for his father, leaving behind Gabby. Meanwhile, Fang wishes he could break the evil Mystiko's curse and shed the werewolf lifestyle. It's a great technique and it's especially well executed as Brubaker and Phillips capture the essence of 70's black and white magazine titles like Deadly Hands of Kung Fu.
As always, Phillips masterfully illustrates the world of Criminal. Especially impressive is the range of emotion he achieves with Tracy. At times he's a typical 12 year old kid, fun loving and smiling or wide eye and innocent, at other times horrified at the violence he's witnessing or resentful and angry towards Teeg for the life his father has given him.
As Phillips typically illustrates highly detailed background, he and Breitweiser use an effective technique to underscore important moments - dropping backgrounds all together and replacing them with a stark black, or a spattering of colour, to highlight the effect of a violent act or a pivotal emotional moment. The violence is depicted in a way that makes it feel visceral and ugly - it's an important part of the story, and it's impact is felt.
As an interesting aside, Tracy provides some insightful commentary on comics while reading Fang, pointing out things I personally didn't realize this until I was much older than 12.
"This comic is weird. It reminds me of the ones my dad gets sometimes... But those have naked ladies and stuff in them. And this one, you just feel like it's about to have naked ladies all the time. Like it's a comic for kids pretending to be a comic for grown-ups."
Brubaker and Phillips have shown time and time again that they are masters of crime noir comics. The Criminal 10th Anniversary Special enforces this, giving the reader a tragic, dark story that's especially impactful, given what we know about the future of the young protagonist.