Shiny Shelf

Criminal: The Sinners

By Mark Clapham on 03 November 2009

Having finally reached my regular comic shop and picked up a six-week backlog, I’ll be catching up on recent comics all this week with a series of short reviews.

First up: ‘Criminal’. Considering how much Shiny Shelf used to bang on about Ed Brubaker, it’s either remarkable (or very telling in terms of how often we’ve updated the site in recent years) that we’ve never reviewed ‘Criminal’ before.

As with Marvel stablemates Brian Michael Bendis and Matt Fraction, Brubaker does good work on Marvel’s characters but is even better when working on his creator-owned projects – that’s not to say that he’s any less committed to ‘Captain America’ or ‘Daredevil’, it’s just that those books lack the spark that comes from a writer writing exactly what he wants to write.

‘Criminal’ is a series of linked stories set in an unnamed American city, with each one-shot or arc telling a self-contained noir story that works in its own right but also contributes to a bigger picture, one of inter-linked families, crime empires and shared seedy hangouts.

The world of ‘Criminal’ is more realistic than its crime-comic peers, having neither the overarching conspiracy of ‘100 Bullets’ or the melodrama of ‘Sin City’. It’s nonetheless very much it’s own world, a world drawn from decades of noir and noir-inspired storytelling. Sean Phillips artwork, always precise but with a suitably rough edge from heavy, scratchy inks, ties the series together visually, aided by Val Staples’ moody but vibrant colours.

That cohesion of genre and artwork is helpful, as within that context Brubaker tells some varied stories: heists, revenge yarns, period sports dramas and, in the previous arc ‘Bad Night’ a hallucinatory, claustrophobic nightmare.

After the intensity of ‘Bad Night’, ‘The Sinners’ is a lot more straightforward and action-packed, panels of flashback throwing in snapshots of sex and violence through the entire issue. We’re back with Tracy Lawless, ex-military man, troubled badass and unlikely white sheep of the disreputable Lawless family. I’m not sure whether it’s just familiarity, a genuine shift in tone, or just comparison to the other scumbags who populate the book, but Tracy seems positively amiable this time out, funny and sympathetic even when he’s gunning dudes down in the street.

Tracy also gets to be a more conventional protagonist than most ‘Criminal’ arcs, as he’s assigned a mystery to investigate. Just in case that seems too conventional though, it’s worth noting what a square peg Tracy is for the role, and the detective work is only given to him because he makes for such an insubordinate assassin.

It’s a great story, with a couple of twists in the last few pages that promise that, even by ‘Criminal’ standards, this one is going to end messily. Phillips and Staples absolutely kill on the artwork, from a street level view of an assassinaton target, illuminated by the bright light of his office as Tracy watches him at night, through to the mixed emotions on an old gangster’s face as he talks to his trophy wife.

‘Criminal’ is also one of a select few titles that makes an effort to add value to the individual issues, with interviews and essays in the back. Not only are these interesting in themselves, illuminating some of the influences behind the comic, but Phillips illustrates each main essay, which is a treat in itself.

‘Criminal’ is a great comic. The previous arcs are available as paperbacks, and there’s a large hardcover of the first few stories also coming soon, but that shouldn’t stop you jumping on to the regular book with ‘The Sinners’ if you haven’t already. It’s your only chance at absolution.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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