Story: ED Brubaker
Art: Sean Phillips
The best crime stories are completely unrealistic and yet completely believable. There's no conceivable way that anyone could be smart enough, fast enough, and brave enough to solve all the cases that Lew Archer or Philip Marlowe have survived. But great crime writers come up with ways that encourage readers to ignore the improbability of the plot and concentrate instead on the thrills. Marlowe's wise cracks and snappy lines are so much fun to read, it doesn't matter that the mysteries he solves don't make any sense.
Ed Brubaker is a great crime writer and, like all great crime writers, he makes us believe in impossible plots. Consider the setup of Criminal #4, the latest issue in this gritty, blood-soaked series: Jacob, a one-time counterfeiter, becomes a newspaper cartoonist after the police mistake his wife's accidental death for murder. The cartooning leads to a dark and lonely life and, when Jacob isn't cloistered in his shabby little studio, he's sipping coffee at a deserted late-night diner. On one of those late nights, he meets a whiskey-soaked femme fatale who quickly exploits poor Jacob and his criminal past. Of course, all hell breaks loose.
Now, if I were to read this plot synopsis on the back of a DVD, I'm pretty darn sure I wouldn't spend five bucks to rent it.
But, like I said before, Bru is a great crime writer and he makes Jacob's unlikely story seem tragically believable. He accomplishes this largely by giving Jacob a compelling narrative voice. As Jacob recounts his life story, he quickly goes from being a lonely loser to being a loveable loser. There's something about this guy — his fears, his vulnerability, his vivid imagination that borders on schizophrenic hallucination — that makes him both sympathetic and interesting. In just a few pages, Bru introduces us to this new protagonist and makes us root for him as we see chaos overtake his life.
Obviously, this kind of powerful characterization relies on solid illustrations and strong layouts. And Sean Phillips does a superb job on art duties. His illustrations are at once realistic and darkly stylized, as if they were black-and-white photographs hand painted and intentionally distorted. Just as nobody other than Bru could ever write Criminal, nobody other than Phillips could ever draw this book, either. It's a perfect team-up.
Criminal #4 is another excellent issue in a series that's been nothing but flawless. If, for some crazy reason, you haven't been picking up this book, start now. This latest issue is a great jumping on point, introducing a new storyline with completely new characters. Really, check it out. You'll be thanking me for years, I promise.
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