Better Late Than Never – CRIMINAL Volume 1: Coward

With so much awesome stuff coming out all the time, sometimes it takes a while to catch up. Maybe you’re reading a big event awhile after it ended. Maybe you just caught a movie everyone was talking about a few months ago. So what? It’s Better Late Than Never.

Written by Ed Brubaker
Art by Sean Phillips
Published by Marvel / Icon

There are several storytelling genres that I am fond of, but for my money, nothing beats a good hardboiled crime story. From the films of Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino to the gritty novels of Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane, I love a good violent tale featuring a flawed but somewhat relatable protagonist. Having said that, I really have no excuse for not checking out Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Eisner Award-winning comic Criminal sooner than I did. This book perfectly melds the gritty environment of film noir with more contemporary properties like The Sopranos, and if the entire run is even half as great as the first volume, “Coward,” then I am in for a real treat.

Covering the first six issues of the original Criminal comic, “Coward” tells the story of Leo Patterson, a small-time hood who shuns the bigger scores in favor of easier, lower-risk ventures like pickpocketing, an activity in which he excels. His reluctance to go for the big jobs has caused many in Leo’s neighborhood to see him as a coward, which doesn’t bother him much because, in his mind, cowards live to see another day while braver men are either gunned down or rot in prison. He is content to lay low and make whatever money he can to support himself and his late father’s good friend Leo, an elderly heroin addict who stays with him. Leo is propositioned by his old partner Seymour and a crooked cop named Jeff to help them rip off an armored car, and he refuses at first. He quickly changes his mind when he is confronted by Greta, a recovering drug addict and widow of one of his old partners. The job doesn’t go as well as planned, and both Leo and Greta wind up escaping with the loot, which they find out is a large stash of heroin. They end up hiding out in Leo’s place, trying to come up with a plan before they are both killed by either Jeff or the druglord who owns the stash.

Plotwise, there’s nothing in “Coward” that stands above your standard noir tale, but Brubaker’s whip-smart dialogue and Phillips’ gorgeous art perfectly capture the essence of the genre on the page. The story is told from Leo’s point of view, which is a standard noir trope, and like the best of those stories, Leo’s inner monologue tells you everything you need to know about the character and his motivations. The reader recognizes and even accepts Leo’s flaws, making him a much more sympathetic character than perhaps he even deserves. When things really start to go wrong for him and Greta midway through the trade, the reader is already emotionally invested in both of their stories and is willing to follow Leo as he breaks free of his self-imposed  code of non-action near the end of the story.

Ed Brubaker has long been one of my favorite comic book writers, from his remarkable runs on Captain America and Daredevil to his amazing work on Catwoman and Gotham Central. This introductory arc of Criminal is every bit as good as my personal favorite of his books, the excellent Wildstorm series Sleeper, which was also drawn by Phillips. While all of Brubaker’s work features elements of pulp novels and film noir, Criminal Volume 1 gives him a chance to fully explore the many themes and elements of the genre with an artist who perfectly captures its essence on the page. Every panel of Phillips’ work on this book resembles a poster to an old film noir or the cover of a hardboiled crime novel, only slightly modernized to fit the current era. “Coward” is one of the most purely enjoyable trades I’ve read in quite a while and has convinced me to track down every single volume of Criminal for even more noir-tinged goodness. 5 out of 5 Missing Bags.

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Who ARE these people!?

Ben Gilbert is an avid comic and movie fan, father of two amazing kids, and husband to one awesome chick. He resides in the hills of East Tennessee and still doesn't quite know what he wants to be when he grows up.

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  1. This is a genuinely perfect crime story. So damn good.

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