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Published on February 25th, 2015 | by Noel Thorne

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Criminal One Shot Review

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Last year Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, among the comics world’s finest creative teams, signed a unique five year deal with Image: green light their own projects while retaining complete creative freedom and of course all rights to their work. It’s exciting not just because of the nature of the deal but because their first book for Image was The Fade Out which is my new favourite of their many collaborations. And if that’s the first who knows what we’re going to see in the coming years?

As part of their deal, arguably their most famous title, Criminal, is being republished by Image in newly redesigned paperbacks. To celebrate Criminal’s re-appearance at their new home, Brubaker and Phillips have released their first Criminal comic in some time with this extra-long Criminal one shot, aka The Savage Sword of Criminal.

For the uninitiated, Criminal is a noir crime drama series mostly set in the latter half of the twentieth century in America and focusing on those on the wrong side of the law. It’s realistic, dark, and grittier than a 1980s Alan Moore comic (well, almost). What it’s not is what’s on the cover (assuming you got the one I’m talking about): a half naked barbarian and sorceress wielding swords in the corniest of fantasy settings! It’s surprising, in a good way, to say the least and another indicator of the kind of freedom the pair have at Image. A large magazine-sized fantasy story mashed up with Criminal? Why not!? And it works too, really, really well.

The story itself is pretty straightforward. Set in 1976, lowlife Teeg Lawless got wasted and glassed some guy in a bar so he’s doing 30 days in county lockup. But someone wants him dead and there’s a price for his corpse. Suddenly Teeg’s plan of laying low and reading fantasy comics (featuring plenty of bewbs) isn’t possible as he fights for his life!

In between Teeg’s battles behind bars are the fantasy segments as, in his moments of respite, he picks up different copies of the same issue to read. It’s a comic within a comic! And though Brubaker writes the fantasy in a melodramatic Silver Age style and Phillips draws it in black and white (or nicotine white as it actually looks), it still manages to feel like a Criminal story.

criminal_01

It’s dark and violent, the main character is an angry loner on the ropes, there’s a femme fatale, and their lives don’t change at the end – they’re doomed to act out these grim stories forever because of who they are. In that way it also partly mirrors Teeg’s story at the same time – a double layered tale successfully played out in two different genres.

Like all of the Criminal books, this one-shot is a standalone story. If you’ve never read the series before, you can check it out here to get a taste of what it’s like or you can start at Volume 1 and work your way through to Volume 6. Or you could read them totally out of order, it doesn’t matter! If you do read it in order though you are rewarded in seeing certain characters and places pop up here and there. Brubaker and Phillips really do create their own self-contained universe with Criminal.

Such is the case with this issue. If you’ve read the series before you’ll recognise the name Lawless. Teeg is the father of Tracy Lawless, the anti-hero of the second Criminal book, and, if you read them side by side, you’ll notice how pieces of this story slot into the other one. Names like the mob boss Sebastian Hyde crop up meaningfully in both, the Undertow bar makes an appearance, and we see the full tragic story of the Lawless family.

The Savage Sword of Criminal is a fine introduction to the series for new readers and an excellent celebration of it for returning fans. Well written, beautifully drawn, it’s simply a good comic and an experiment that works. It’s by turns fun and gripping with a protagonist who makes you uncomfortable – it’s Criminal alright! It’s also worth checking out if only to see how a comic is used as a weapon (what did they print them on back in the day, plastic?!). Welcome back, guys! So we can expect the Conan announcement soon, right?

criminal_01b

Publisher: Image

Writer: Ed Brubaker

Artist: Sean Phillips

Colourist: Elizabeth Breitweiser

Noel Thorne

Probably reading comics as you're reading this.

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