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Review of Criminal: The Dead and the Dying

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Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.

Cover of Criminal: The Dead and the Dying, art by Phillips.

Cover of Criminal: The Dead and the Dying, art by Phillips.

This volume of Criminal acts as a connected series of short stories that work, after a fashion, as prequels for some of the characters and the setting of the previous two volumes. Readers see the power shift in the criminal underworld and the repercussions, opportunities, and dangers it presents to everyone involved, even people who are not or do not want to be career criminals. Jake sees the chance to leave behind his father’s history as a killer and organized-crime heavy to be a professional boxer, while his life-long best friend, Sebastian, wants to have all of the perks from having a crime boss father without having to do any of the hard, vicious work to maintain it. Teeg Lawless returns from Vietnam psychologically worse for wear, and he throws himself into desperate criminal work to try and pay off his debts and save his wife and children from torture and death. Weaving through all their stories is Danica, working her own game and looking for revenge against Sebastian, her one-time lover whose family betrayed and scarred her. Nearly all these stories take place against the backdrop of 1972, with its urban poverty and social turmoil in attendance.

Aside from its appropriately grim and moody art, this volume lives and dies by its characters and themes. The prior volumes had clear central narratives: Coward its main heist and aftermath, and Lawless its revenge story. These plotlines created the framework for the dark and often nihilistic minds and development of the characters. The Dead and Dying lacks this central plot, favoring vignettes of three different characters. Three stories mean there’s more room for the perspective of these three characters to develop over time. The story is similarly told out of order because perspective is more important here than plot. Characters try to justify what they’re doing, and it’s for the reader to judge them all, especially since readers can see the results of their choices from the chronologically fragmented narrative.

Image from the start of Criminal: The Dead and the Dying, art by Phillips.

Image from the start of Criminal: The Dead and the Dying, art by Phillips.

Undertow

From the first page there is a theme, rather than a plot, that connects all these stories. Everyone zeroes in on a moment where everything changes, and since it’s noir, the change isn’t ever for the better. Jake starts by recounting this moment for his and Sebastian’s fathers before his narrative brings him to his own, sticking up for Danica even though, “we both know what it means” (31). Teeg, already damaged and a danger to himself and others, is an interesting case because he gets blackout drunk with such frequency that he misses those moments for sure. However, when he tries to return his share of a bad heist and “trying to do the right thing” promises to get the rest back, the readers see that this moment was where everything changed for him (61). He’ll come to a similar realization tragically late for himself and his family, the repercussions of which reverberate through Lawless. Danica, too, pinpoints the moment where her whole life changed and put her on a road to ruin (80). Eventually, she owns and embraces the trajectory of her life and decides to ride it like a rocket of vengeance aimed at Sebastian and his family because if she is doomed to suffer she will make sure the people responsible also suffer and are humiliated (100). All characters start out looking for a way to a better life that a moment that changes everything can promise, but the actions many characters take suggest they are or believe they are caught and propelled by forces they cannot control, that choices are often illusory.

Second Chances

The art of Phillips matches perfectly with the stories told. Color provided by Val Staples sets the mood, and the panel layout is always easy to follow. Teeg’s flashbacks and nightmarish visions are vivid and startling, and Danica’s dreams are hazy and unsettling when set against her gritty, disturbing reality. An interesting twist that ties in thematically happens with Teeg’s blacking out and the panels show it, moments of consciousness scattered amid the void. The layout is simple, inspired, and effective. Danica, too, readers know is doomed because in her first appearance, the lighting makes her appear almost exactly like the empty-eyed corpse she becomes (12). Everything fits and feels right for these neo-noir stories.

Readers can start with The Dead and The Dying because the stories all take place chronologically before volumes one and two. They all work together to build a disturbing world with sympathetic though often unsavory characters. The whole Criminal Series is worth getting into for fans of crime comics and fans of noir stories.

Source

Brubaker, Ed; Phillips, Sean. Criminal: The Dead and the Dying. Image, 2015.

© 2020 Seth Tomko