Every “cool point” I’ve ever earned with the small press scene is about to fly right out the door/go down the grain/get flushed away/pick your cliche when I admit, right here and now, that I fucking love Ed Brubaker and Sean Phllips’ Criminal. Always have, always will. Not in some lame ironic way. Not as a so-called “guilty pleasure.” I just plain dig the hell out of this comic. I’ve found the duo’s other projects to be a mix of the pretty good (Kill Or Be Killed), the pretty average (Fatale), and the pretty damn lousy (The Fade Out), but Criminal remains the straight dope for fans of comics noir. When I heard they were resurrecting it, and blowing off the lame “story arc” format that afflicts pretty much every other title on LCS shelves in favor of short-form stories, one-shots, and the like — in other words, doing whatever they wanted — I was doubly excited. For this week’s Round-Up column, we’ll be looking at the first two issues of the title’s new iteration, as well as the first two of another Image crime (I guess?) book. Jeff Rougvie and Moritat’s Gunning For Hits.
Don’t let the fact that returning character Teeg Lawless is the protagonist in Criminal #1 put you off if you’ve never sampled the book before; this double-sized (but still priced at “only” $3.99) debut is exceptionally “new reader friendly” and, honestly, fairly straightforward — Teeg’s kid has ripped off the wrong guy and now the old man’s gotta set things straight by any means necessary. That means scraping together a big score out of thin air, but fortunately the death of an old “friend” leads to the opportunity for, perhaps, an unexpected windfall. Brubaker’s script is lean, mean, and loaded with every genre trope you could hope for minus the femme fatale, and if Phillips’ grim n’ gritty art has ever looked better, I’d be hard-pressed to say when that was. The addition of his son Jacob on colors proves to be an exemplary choice as he really knows how to lay the hues on top of pop’s work, and all in all this is the most thoroughly satisfying Brubaker/Phillips jam in effing years.
Or was, at any rate, because if anything Criminal #2 is even better. Going back to another earlier well, Brubaker does a complete 180 here, leaving the story from the first issue hanging and jumping right into what is apparently a two-part tale about a down-on-his-luck legendary comics artist (let’s just call him what he is — a Gil Kane stand-in) who enlists the services of one of his former proteges who’s now a petty thief in order to get his pound of flesh after a lifetime of bad choices led to him hustling off valuable original art for pennies on the dollar. An earlier “arc” of this series played in this same sandbox, cleverly mixing actual comics history and personages with “names-changed-to-protect-the-innocent” stories that have been circulating for decades, along with a healthy does of complete bullshit. Puzzling out which is which is a big part of the fun, but even absent that admitted (but highly effective) gimmickry, this is just a solid small-time crime yarn with, once again, killer art that shows you every ring on the bar napkin, every liver spot on the old guy’s hands. Not as hefty in terms of page count as the previous ish, but you still get plenty of comics and backmatter for your four bucks here.
Switching gears just a bit, but still in the same general vicinity genre-wise — at least I think — we come to Gunning For Hits #1, which only boasts a standard page-count, but packs more into those pages than, seriously, anything else out there. Billed as a “music thriller,” scribe Jeff Rougvie knows this landscape well, and how much of record-label A&R man protagonist Martin Mills’ exploits are either directly cribbed and/or extrapolated from his own time in the industry is an interesting thing to ponder as you make your way through these densely-scripted pages. Martin’s flying high in this 1990s-set story, riding a hot streak, but just how far will he go to sign a promising new act — and if he does get their ink on his contract, is it really them he’s after, or are they a convenient stepping stone to scoring the profitable back catalogue of a legendary glam-rock recluse? Throw in a few telling hints about Martin’s shady past (as if his present is entirely on the up-and-up), and some solid art from Moritat that shifts styles effortlessly between contemporary-looking stuff and old-school Sunday newspaper strip-style cartooning, and the end result is probably the strongest debut of the year, with one major caveat : there’s a lame and mind-numbingly retrograde caricature in here that I took to at the very least play into, if not actively reinforce, the most tired anti-Semitic tropes around. From where I’m sitting, at any rate, it looks as offensive as it reads, and I could scarcely believe it made it was into a comic book in 2019. Hell, I don’t think it would have slipped past editorial 30, even 40 years ago — and yet there it is. I grew up reading Crumb, so this kinda shit slides off my back more easily than it probably should, but if you were to choose to walk away from this comic in disgust, I can’t say that I’d blame you. That being said —
It’d be a damn shame if you did, though, because that would mean you’d miss out on Gunning For Hits #2 ,which is even stronger than its predecessor. If you think Martin’s a dick — and who are we kidding, he kinda is — wait until you meet his best friend, the kind of loathsome-but-weirdly-likable lowlife flush with cash that was a fixture of the entertainment industry (as in, every entertainment industry) in the 1980s and ’90s. Martin’s plans are coming more fully into view here, even if his past is muddier than ever, but you get the sense that everything’s gonna collide with spectacularly devastating results for everyone but our man himself, who’s probably already calculated the one and only angle to emerge from his largely self-created mess smelling like a goddamn rose. Thick with intrigue, sleaze, and music-biz cliches — plus some seriously slick art — this is Rougvie, Moritat, and colorist Casey Silver hitting a mean stride admirably early in their run. Greatness isn’t just “around the corner,” it’s already here. Lots of backmatter to give you extra value for money, too.
And that’s a wrap. Next week’s Round-Up will likely see us back in our familiar small-press stomping grounds, but until then I’m obligated to remind you that this, and every, review on this page is “sponsored by” my recently-launched Patreon page, which offers thrice-weekly exclusive rants from yours truly on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics. Your support there enables me to continue providing free content here and at my trashfilmguru movie site, so please consider joining up today at https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse