I figured with such a rush of super heroics we needed to take a break from all the costumes and glamour and switch it up a little bit. Take a couple of steps off of the explosion pole and look at some smaller, low key books whose main focus is telling great and compelling stories.
Well, all of the comics I write about do that, so, let me try rephrasing it.
For a few weeks, we’re going to take a few steps away from the superhero comics and look at some great, non-costumed comic books.
There. I think that works out for the better.
Now, once you step away from the capes and costumes, you will actually find that comic books have quite a bit to offer when it comes to other forms of fiction. Just like prose, there is horror, action/adventure, fantasy, science fiction, comedy, and even drama. They all take advantage of the medium’s nearly limitless possibilities.
See, unlike film or even prose, graphic novels have what can be considered an “unlimited budget”. They create the images for you and they do not have to be restrained by word choice or monetary support. If a writer can think it and an artist can draw it, it is going to happen.
Some of the most beautiful and intricately planned science fiction creations have come from comic books. Let’s not forget horror. A perfectly timed sequence can create terror like you never imagined.
I wish I could explore all of these and provide examples, but I prefer to leave you with these thoughts and expect that you go and find something new for yourself.
No, today is a little simpler. I’m going to talk about one of the more intimate stories that take use of the medium very seriously and use it to tell a story of crime and cowardice.
Today, we look at author Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips’s crime masterpiece Criminal: Coward.
Now, this will not be the only example of Criminal that you can find on the shelves. On the contrary, the title “Criminal”, applies to most of their collaborations. I believe it is to keep a unifying sense of story style and world creating. The characters are never the same, but the substance will always ring familiar.
See, Ed Brubaker became known for writing outstanding crime comics. For a time, though, he was locked up by DC Comics writing in the world of Batman. This was his chance to explore something far, far worse.
Originally published in 2006, the “Criminal” franchise was a way for Ed Brubaker to break away and do something different. Up until then, including his work not at Marvel or DC Comics, most of his work had been about characters redeeming themselves.
In Catwoman, he wrote about a woman that insisted on finding the balance between good and evil and where that line was. In Gotham Central, his series that focused on the Gotham City Police Department, many of his characters were constantly looking for way to prove their worth.
Finally, and probably the most notable, was his move over to Marvel Comics where he wrote the famous issue of Captain America’s death in #25. He wrote about Captain America’s replacement (a secret I will not share here) and how they intended on using this identity to atone for past sins.
It was a tried and true formula that Brubaker handled wonderfully.
Then came “Coward”, the first storyline in the “Criminal” universe.
Within the realm of writing the “Criminal” stories, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips set out to tell crime stories that were not in the vein of typical crime stories. For example, if I told you right away that “Coward”’s central story revolves around a heist, you would already be imagining the lead character in your mind.
Suave. Debonair. Sophisticated.
Not at all Leo.
Leo, our main character, is what you would call a coward. A thief that leaves his companions in the middle of a gunfight to survive and live another day.
See, Leo has rules. His rules are survival.
And when he’s approached by a corrupt cop for a heist job, we are taken into his world. Sure, the team is normal. The corrupt cop leading the team is as grizzled and old-school as possible. His partner, an up and comer named Jeff, is your cliché muscle cop. In the first few pages, they try to recruit Leo for a job. Clearly, he’s out of that line of work, but one event after another leads him back in.
Now, summarizing the job is not what I meant to do here. It’s a story that needs to be read to be enjoyed to its fullest. See, as much as a coward as Leo is, once old rivalries and enemies are brought in, we see what kind of man Leo really is.
Now, as for the artwork, what else can be said about Sean Phillips?
Seeing as how I have not said anything, maybe now is a good place to start.
My experience with Sean Phillips is very limited. I’ve only read a handful of books and was never really blown away by what he could turn out. With this, though, he seems to really come alive.
I guess his realism that he brings would be the best aspect. His character acting and panel layout are exquisite too.
Sean Phillips artwork helps itself out with its simplicity. Comic books today are so focused on bombastic and explosive storytelling (which might be great for some, I know I enjoy it.) However, each page follows a simple layout of six panels. Just six little panels to tell a story.
Now, sometimes that breaks apart into smaller pieces, but if you look at each page, they follow the same outline.
So, why would they do that?
Because Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips were less focused on the craziness of modern comics and set out to tell a noir, classic in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock and any-clichéd heist movie you can find.
In a good way.
It’s cheesy-noir goodness that makes you root for the bad guy and has you think, if you were a coward, what would you do.
In addition to writing for the column “Comic Matters” for the Tucson Citizen website, Bobby Acosta is also a 5th Grade Elementary school teacher, frequenter of local comic book shop Heroes & Villains, and explorer of the importance of comics. He recommends each and every comic he writes about.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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