Required Reading is DoomRocket’s love chest, where each week one of our contributors goes crazy over a book they just can’t seem to get enough of. Intrigued to find something new? Seeking validation for your secret passions? Required Reading gets you.

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By Arpad Okay. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a comic called Criminal is a series about bad men. Well, this year’s Criminal one-shot takes the tin anniversary and shoots the moon with the worst of them: the deadbeat dad. Some men aren’t cut out to be fathers and have kids anyway, and worse yet, sometimes they try to bring them up. Those kids — kids like Tracy Lawless — grow up fast and hard.

This is a road trip through the underworld, a tour of stalled-out towns and sour faces. Sean Phillips makes it snappy. His clean lines are perfect for getaway cars, but also for bringing out the art deco in the filling station dad just ripped off. Bold, but also delicate enough to produce powerfully nuanced expressions, almost imperceptible but still tale-telling changes in the face. The smirk Teeg Lawless wears as he calls his son a little pussy turns almost instantly to exasperation, any hint of humor burned away by the constant rage boiling beneath. But Phillips can also show us a tenderness Teeg seems incapable of admitting to — it’s in his brow, on his chin. Lawless is a monster, but some small part of him loves his son.

Nothing is easy in Criminal. Teeg is a person, not some evil fairy tale ogre. Just a terrible parent. They’re certainly out there; Criminal tells a shocking story to remind us that children bear witness to atrocities whether we like thinking about it or not. Why is Brubaker and his team putting us through the wringer like this? It has something to do with lycanthropy and kung fu.

Fang

A second comic lies within Criminal, one that young Tracy reads as his dad takes him on the hunt. “Deadly Hands”, the story of a werewolf martial artist, is a bit of comic book romance. First, for the era of newsstand comics, where you’d step into the middle of a story featuring your favorite hero because it was the only issue in stock. Reading comics without knowing about the continuity and going along with it anyway. “Deadly Hands” betrays another of Criminal‘s passion: the raunchy horror comics of yesteryear aimed at an audience that is at once both childish and inappropriate for kids. Criminal pines for the novelty shop, where its gag gifts and its French postcards gather dust.

“Deadly Hands” is magic in the hands of the kid who never smiles. Tracy might be twelve, but Teeg has made him old. Tracy’s a survivor now. But he’s also human. It’s a story as old as time. The right person comes from out of nowhere like a break in the clouds and everything else comes to a halt. With the right kind of partner in crime (a bibliophile), Tracy decides to stop being a man on the run and allows himself to be a boy on the hunt for more comic books. Only problem is, just because you want to find another issue of “Deadly Hands” doesn’t mean it’s going to get found, so to speak. This is where bad dad and wolfman connect. One side realizes hard-to-find merchandise comes with a high price, bending the rules means putting the people you bend them for at risk. The other choice is letting responsibility go, to escape from troubles instead of facing them. In Tracy’s case, to just be a kid.

Alas, Teeg is always there to burst the bubble. Criminal takes the hard road, it shows us what we write off. I did it myself in this review, a passing remark about how children bear witness to horror all the time and then switch tracks to werewolves. Criminal doesn’t let you go — it shows you the atrocities. Kids are still kids, sometimes they make the childish choice, and then people get hurt for real. Stone-cold reality comes crashing down around you, and the closest thing you get to closure with the family Lawless is the chilling knowledge that most of the people you’ve come to care for have yet to die.

Image Comics/$4.99

Written by Ed Brubaker.

Art by Sean Phillips.

Colors by Elizabeth Breitweiser.

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