By Jarrod Jones. “Listen, my children, my lost loves, o wandering souls back from the fog and field of battle, listen and I shall whisper my tales to you as you slumber…”
If a cursory glance at the latest magazine-sized edition of Criminal doesn’t tell you that you’re about to embark on something really special, then let those words lull you into a cozy complacency, because the following forty-two pages are going to be taking up your time for the foreseeable future.
Really, it’s the least any of us can do: To fully absorb this lurid tale-within-a-tale by Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, and Elizabeth Breitweiser is to appreciate sequential art at its very finest, and that, my friends, is exactly what we as comic book readers are here to do. Criminal: Savage Edition is a challenging, provocative, and downright reverent throwback to the seamier days when possessing a comic book like this could land you two weeks of spirit-crushing isolation. Hell, when a book like this rolls out, it’s up to us to jump all over it. It’s our goddamned duty.
While most kids are plenty keen on the trio’s beyond-stellar The Fade Out, those late to the game may not be aware of the absorbing world of Criminal – an act so erroneous that it may as well be against the law. And though it’s true that Criminal has been lamming it off and on since 2006, Criminal: Savage Edition is a beaut of a jumping on point. Actually, with its over-sized, pulpy interiors, a pair of nomadic savages adorning the gorgeous cover painted by Sean Phillips, and its on-the-nose advertisements featuring the “Awesome Secrets of Deadly Kung Fu”, Criminal looks and feels like a brand-new beast, even to the most ardent reader.
Criminal: Savage Edition not only offers a new, blood-spattered crime yarn, it offers readers something completely unexpected wrapped around this noir-ish saga: a swords-and-sandals epic of mythic proportions. Here, a jovial, blustering voice bellows quotation from a fictional book called “Song of the Dreamless Dreamers of Death,” the purported origins of a fictional warrior, Zanger the Savage. This is Brubaker having a bit of fun – a rollicking sort of which we haven’t seen since the days of Fatale – and his tongue-in-cheek impersonation of Robert E. Howard does the creator of Conan the Barbarian true justice while giving the entire issue an unnerving narrative depth. This is comics storytelling in the third dimension, and its effects are staggering.
The book’s table of contents only list the pages that feature the serialized saga of Zangar the Savage, leaving gaps for the present day exploits – or rather, the 1978 felonious derring-do – of Teeg Lawless, father of Tracy Lawless (of more contemporary Criminal outings). Those gaps may or may not feature other stories in this Heavy Metal-esque anthology, and if they do, it doesn’t matter: We can’t read them, and it seems that Teeg has no interest in them anyway. Zangar’s bloody escapades seem to be the only thing that resonates with the felon, a lost man who is as prone to violence as the Savage he appears to admire. His time in the clink prohibits Teeg from fully absorbing Zangar’s tale, and in-between caged blood-letting, he gravitates to the prison library with an infectious, childlike enthusiasm. (He even stops the librarian in mid-sentence to avoid a Zangar spoiler.) It makes this shit-head far more relatable than he has any right to be.
It’s a fine thing that Teeg gets his installments of Zangar goodness in quick bursts: The Savage’s chronicle seems to give strength to Lawless during his own tale of woe (a week without the book sees Teeg lose his spirit, as a ceaseless parade of would-be assassins close in), especially towards the end when our able-bodied convict secures an early release to settle some unfinished business. This is really the only time Zangar and Lawless’ stories run parallel to each other, but that symbiosis gives the book as a whole an added grit.
Brubaker and Phillips seem to work off each other with that same level of cohesion. When the writer’s tales take a more barbarous turn, Phillips is there to accentuate it with not just his no-nonsense realism (seen in Teeg’s world), but with the jet-black gristle of a Barry Windsor-Smith (where stalks Zangar!). Sean Phillips’ art is top-tier in any class, and with Criminal: Savage Edition, his adaptable visual style keeps the reader engaged while they bounce across narrative dimensions. Elizabeth Breitweiser’s shimmering colors keep Teeg’s sequences vibrating with an energetic hum. Whether Phillips is etching Lawless fighting for survival or leafing through a comic book, Breitweiser’s colors keep the story honest, visceral, and immediate. They’re a team that should never be apart.
The comic-within-a-comic instantly recalls the “Tales of the Black Freighter” sequence from Watchmen (it would be impossible not to think about it), and while Zangar’s legend doesn’t intertwine through Criminal as intricately as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seafaring romp, that’s really not the point. Through this rejuvenating motif Brubaker and Phillips craft a tale that gives Criminal one more grimy layer to the seedy world of Center City. Through the strength it provides, Criminal: Savage Edition leaves us with an irrepressible desire to visit that burnt-out burg once more.
Written by Ed Brubaker.
Art by Sean Phillips.
Colored by Elizabeth Breitweiser.
10 out of 10