That Familiar Darkness: Criminal, Volume 1

Criminal, Volume 1: CowardCriminal, Volume 1: Coward

Written by: Ed Brubaker
Art by: Sean Phillips
Colors by: Val Staples

Published: February 10th, 2015
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Crime, Thriller
Format: Paperback
Length: 128 pages

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips are one of the most consistent and compelling teams in comics, and Criminal show some of their early promise. I’ve never read any of Brubaker’s superhero books, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of his work with Phillips for Image Comics.

Criminal is one of their earlier collaborations, originally published by Marvel’s creator-owned comics imprint, and recently reprinted in a deluxe edition by Image Comics. Criminal is oftentimes cited as a masterpiece of the genre, but in this first volume, it feels like Brubaker and Phillips aren’t quite stretching their wings.

I get the impression that later volumes of Criminal are a bit more surreal and/or experimental, but the first volume is completely grounded. In fact, it feels downright familiar if you’ve read anything by Richard Stark. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I think my enjoyment of this book may have suffered in comparison with their later works, i.e. Fatale and The Fade Out.

Criminal’s first volume tells the story of Leo, a career criminal known both for his strict rules for every job and his uncanny ability to get away clean when the shit hits the fan. When a dirty cop convinces him to arrange a heist targeting a police evidence van, things inevitably go south in a bad way and Leo is left to pick up the pieces.

I feel like I’ve seen the story beats in this volume a million times, but Brubaker’s writing and Phillips’ art help elevate it into something more than generic. Criminal might feel familiar, but the execution is top-notch.

I enjoyed reading this volume, and I’ll definitely pick up the next volume at some point, but it’s definitely not my favorite book by Brubaker and Phillips. So far, Fatale still wins that prize.

LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Tell Your Story to the Trees: Trees, Volume 1

Trees, Volume 1 CoverTrees, Volume 1

Written by: Warren Ellis
Art by: Jason Howard
Published: February 24, 2015
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Graphic Novel
Format: Paperback
Length: 160 pages

Trees has a simple premise and a massive scope. It asks: what would happen if aliens invaded Earth and then completely ignored humanity?

The book opens ten years after massive alien “Trees” landed on and crushed cities across the globe. The invaders never tried to communicate with humanity, and there were no obvious signs of life inside their impossibly tall alien pillars.

Many people fled from under the shadows of the Trees, but those who remained found new ways to live. New societies formed in these most unlikely of places, and this volume tells some of their stories.

The book shifts back and forth between perspectives in a handful of far-flung locations, including an artist’s colony in China, a research station in the Arctic, an Italian city in the grip of warring fascist mobs, and a border skirmish in Somalia.

Although Trees doesn’t match the tone or worldview of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the narrative here is similarly ambitious and deeply concerned with the particulars of human behavior. This is, I think, the first time I’ve read a volume of an ongoing series that included eight issues in its first arc.

That scope and ambition is commendable, but it also means that the larger plot doesn’t have much forward motion. The Trees are essentially an enormous backdrop for more intimate, character-driven storytelling. The most compelling story told in this volume is about young love in a dangerous place.

However, despite the focus on character-driven stories, Ellis introduces so many characters at such a fast pace that I couldn’t tell you any of their names without referring back to the book.

Also, the pacing in this first volume is very measured, which makes me wonder how many issues Ellis and Howard have planned for the overall series. It looks like Trees is on hiatus and has been since December of last year, but Image says issue #14, which completes the second story arc, releases later this month.

As for Jason Howard’s art, it is chock-full of expressive characters and beautifully rendered cityscapes. My only real criticism is that several of the female characters look very similar, so I initially had a hard time keeping them straight in my mind.

If you’re the impatient type, it might be best to hold off on reading Trees for now, but if you’re into personal stories with a global backdrop, it’s definitely worth checking out.

REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Ugliness All Around: Todd, The Ugliest Kid on Earth Volume 1 by Ken Kristensen and M. K. Perker

Todd, The Ugliest Kid on Earth Volume 1Published: August 20, 2013
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel
Format: Trade Paperback
Length: 96 pages

Todd, The Ugliest Kid on Earth is an odd little series about a kid named Todd surrounded by terrible human beings. It’s not exactly surreal, but it is nonsensical in a way that is clearly meant as darkly comedic but mostly just feels sloppy. The main character, Todd, is a little boy who wears a bag over his head at all times because, we assume, he is incredibly ugly.

In this volume, Todd gets in trouble with the police when a child-murderer decides he’s too ugly to kill and gives him dolls (evidence) instead. A gung-ho police detective arrests Todd on the basis of this “evidence” and immediately puts him in prison with a bunch of hardened criminals… because that totally makes sense, right? Todd is a sweet little kid who likes chasing butterflies and now he’s in prison dealing with the Aryan Brotherhood. Comedy! Todd makes friends, learns about prison life, and narrowly avoids terrible harm on every other page.

This book, pitched as comedy, mostly just seems unpleasant and cruel. Almost all the adults in Todd’s life are uniformly awful; the only adult who isn’t terrible to him is another prisoner who kills one man and carves “snitch” in another’s forehead. The joke, see, is that Todd is so nice and everyone else is so awful.

The writing tends to forgo logic or believability in the name of “satire”. Characters behave in completely ridiculous, unbelievable ways for the sake of comedy. The author puts Todd in terrible situations because I guess it’s funny to see a nice, oblivious little kid get mistreated.

As for the art style, it’s certainly distinctive, but it mostly seems designed to emphasize the ugliness of the various characters. I guess that’s also part of the joke: Todd might be ugly under that bag, but we see nothing but ugliness and hate around him, so he obviously isn’t that bad.

HATED IT
HATED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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