Leo has a great mind for planning heists, and seeing all the angles of a job.  But he also has a strict series of rules that he has created for himself.  He feels those rules have kept him out of prison, though they have lead others to label him a coward.  When he’s lured into a risky jewel heist involving the widow of one of his former partners, Leo finds that he’s about to break almost every one of his rules.

Tracy left the rough streets of his home city years ago for a life in the military.  But he left his brother behind.  Now, his brother is dead and Tracy has come home to find out why.  But there are a lot of ghosts to be found on the streets of the city, and Tracy is about to discover that his dead father casts a long shadow.

Jacob is a cartoonist whose character, Frank Kafka, PI, is a no-nonsense tough guy.  Jacob is a different type of man: a lonely, broken-down, chronic insomniac who hasn’t recovered from the death of his wife (and the ordeal that followed in which he was blamed for her death).  But a chance encounter at a diner in the wee hours of one dreary morning are about to bring his not-quite-buried past rushing back for him.

Leo, Tracy, and Jacob are just a few of the compelling characters of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ amazing comic book series, Criminal (which I mentioned a few months ago, in one of my posts about great comics).

Before beginning to read their latest Criminal story, The Sinners, I decided to go back and re-read the series from the beginning.  Doing-so only further solidified my belief that Criminal is one of the greatest comic book series being published today.

Criminal is a collection of hard-boiled noir tales.  Some stories run for 4-5 issues, while some stories are just a single issue long.  The protagonists shift from story to story, although there is a great deal of interconnectedness to be found (as characters and locations from one story frequently pop up in surprising ways in later tales).

Ed Brubaker spins tough, take-no-prisoners yarns.  While Criminal has focused on characters of wildly different types and personalities (the “coward” Leo, the tough and brutal Tracy Lawless, the boxer Gnarly, the hurt and vengeful Danica, etc.), what these characters all have in common is that, as we watch, their lives take several turns for the worse. Criminal isn’t a comic book about super-heroes, and it isn’t an adventure where supposedly ordinary Joes act all super-heroic (what I like to call the Bruce-Willis-in-Die Hard syndrome).  None of these characters are extraordinarily smart, or extraordinarily cunning, or anything like that.  While some of the protagonists possess unique skills that (sometimes) can help them out of a tough spot, Criminal is a street-level series without any easy answers.

Don’t mistake that description to mean that there’s no emotion to be found in these stories.  Criminal may depict the collision of damaged, often unhappy lives in a cold, tough world, but I’ve found that all of the protagonists of the series — even the most unlikable ones — still manage to grip the reader right where it hurts.  I found myself investing, to a really surprising degree, in the lives of each of the main characters.  I kept wishing for them to make different decisions, or to be able to find better roads out of whatever unfortunate situation they’ve found themselves buried neck-deep in.  That the characters often disappoint me, but that I love them no less, is part of the genius of Mr. Brubaker’s writing.

Not to mention Sean Phillips’ astounding art.  There’s a rough feel to Mr. Phillips’ illustrations — a stylized look to his depictions of people and places, most of whom are drenched in shadows — that is absolutely perfect for the crime stories being told.  Mr. Phillips is a master of the comic book page.  The man, it seems, can draw anything, and his storytelling is exquisite.  There is never an ounce of confusion as to what is happening from panel to panel, or as to who is who in the series’ large ensemble of characters.  Mr. Phillips’ drawings (just like Mr. Brubaker’s scripts) imbue powerful LIFE into all of the characters, enabling them to, it often seems, reach up off the page to grab you by the throat.  And this man can draw a background.  Not in the sense of being one of those artists who will necessarily draw in every single window-pane on a 50-story building, but more in the way that his line-work can perfectly evoke any location, be that a grimy diner, a rich man’s study, a street-corner deli, or any other spot in the unforgiving steel canyons of the unnamed city in which most of the stories in Criminal take place.

At this point, it seems to me that Brubaker and Philips have become one of the great comic book teams.  Criminal is indelibly the product of the fusion of both of their skills, and it would be impossible to imagine the series with any other collaborators.  (Though speaking of collaborators, I must also take care here to mention the perfection of the work of colorist Val Staples, whose subtle, understated colors give Criminal its final touches of grime and grit.)

It’s a great time to be reading comic books, with so much amazing work out there today to be enjoyed.  I’ve written about some of the industry’s great recent works (click here to read about another brutal crime series, 100 Bullets, or here to read about the wonderfully fantastic — but no less as tough — series Planetary), and Criminal stands proudly among those seminal works.  Go read it.  (The series is structured so that each story stands alone, but I’d suggest you start with the first collection, Coward.)  What are you waiting for?  This is crime fiction at its finest.