Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist: Sean Phillips
Collects: Criminal #1-5
Published: Marvel/Icon, 2007; $14.99
Leo Patterson is a coward. At least, that’s what everyone thinks, and not without good reason. Leo is an expert at planning heists, but he’s also an expert at escaping disaster when his plans go horribly wrong. The first volume of Brubaker and Phillips’ Criminal picks up on Leo’s story five years after the “Salt Bay job,” a failure so terrible that Leo has left the big-time and now operates as a simple pickpocket. But when he’s approached by a corrupt cop and another survivor of the “Salt Bay job” for his help in knocking over a police van, everything changes. Leo is initially hesitant at the idea of working with a cop, but ultimately agrees when he learns that Greta, another old friend, will be in on the heist as well.
As it turns out, Leo’s misgivings are justified. The cop is actually working for a drug lord who wants one of his thugs, a man named Delron, released from police custody. The web these characters weave is intricate, and it provides for a very satisfying number of double- and triple-crosses. The job goes horribly wrong, of course, and Leo gets away as usual (along with Greta) – but this time, for a change, he actually escapes with the score in his own hands. What follows is by far the most interesting part of the story, as Leo and Greta try to evade the people who set them up.
Coward borrows from a number of other works in the crime genre, but not in a lazy or uncreative way. Delron, for instance, recalls Loren Visser, the villainous private detective of the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple, but somehow manages to be even more sadistic and patently evil. The story includes most of the tropes of modern crime fiction, from extreme violence and torture to sex and drug addiction. While Brubaker doesn’t emphasize any of these elements with particular inventiveness, the way they come together is original and interesting. This is because the internal conflicts that define the two main characters are inextricably tied to these genre conventions – while Leo is a brilliant criminal strategist whose mysterious cowardice seems to stem from a violent past, Greta is a recovering heroin addict who seems one bad decision away from losing everything all over again.
Adding to the dramatic tension is the fact that more than just the main characters’ lives are at stake. For years, Leo has taken care of Ivan, an elderly heroin addict with Alzheimer’s; similarly, Greta has a daughter who needs her. Over the course of the book, Leo and Greta also develop feelings for one another that extend beyond their criminal partnership and even friendship. The question that drives most of the book is how Leo and Greta can possibly extricate themselves from the situation they’ve been thrown into, and even if they do, how they can make their lives right again.
In a way, Coward is sort of like Casablanca. While Casablanca is one of the best films to have been produced within the limitations of the classic Hollywood system, the first volume of Criminal is an exceptional melding of story and art rooted firmly within the crime genre. It’s not as brilliant as Casablanca, to be sure, but in a similar way it tests the boundaries of convention even if it doesn’t quite rise above them.
I have yet to read beyond the first volume of Criminal, but from what I’ve heard, Coward is just the first part of a deeper, overarching plot, much like the opening volumes of 100 Bullets. But even if that’s the case, the book is self-contained enough that it reads perfectly well on its own, and I would encourage anyone interested in the crime genre to give it a look.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5