The following is my review of the second installment of the noir comics series Criminal by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Mr. Brubaker has said that the reason he created Criminal was so he could write several noir crime fiction stories featuring unique characters under the same umbrella. So it is with this second trade paperback in the series. The characters of the first are either gone entirely or make fleeting appearances throughout. Because this story differs enough from the first, I’m going to run it through our noir definition so far:
1. The Seedy Underworld
We return to Central City in this trade, a blacker shadow of New York than we are typically comfortable with. The Christmas season is our time-frame, though it’s lacking in spirit and cheer. The most prominent returning hub is a bar called The Undertow (originally called The Undertown, but the neon ‘n’ has been out for years). Symbolism drips from the name alone, because we can infer that those who visit such a dive are being “towed” deeper into the underworld.
2. The Anti-Hero
Tracy Lawless has just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq with a chip on his shoulder. That chip being the murder of his little brother Ricky. The pain Tracy feels is caused more by the guilt of past sins against his brother than by the murder itself. He has always felt that he abandoned him to an abusive father and a bed-ridden mother in a selfish act to crawl out of that hell. He’s in Central City for revenge and closure, closure that he may never find.
3. The Femme Fatale
Mallory. She may be linked to the murder of Tracy’s brother Ricky, she oozes sex appeal, and there is no end to her cigarette supply. Need I say more?
Misogyny in this noir comic is hard to write about without dropping spoilers. But let me just say that the same theme of emasculation presents itself where our femme fatale is concerned. Tracy is warned that he should be wary of Mallory’s advances, because it may in fact lead to his downfall… (Also, it’s somewhat implied that she has an insatiable sexual appetite. Think Angelina Jolie’s character in Gone in 60 Seconds, turned on by crime, raunchy in the extreme. Very misogynistic writing).
“Lawless” is drenched in the theme of Redemption. But I would argue that it is a selfish brand at best. As much as Tracy may believe that he is attempting to redeem his brother from unjust murder, he is truly craving redemption for himself. Throughout the entire story he is driven by guilt not by love. Criminal volume 2 is about redeeming a damned family.
6. Loss of Innocence
Tracy and Ricky share the trauma of an abusive childhood. Their father, Teeg Lawless, is one of the most brutal sonofabitches ever to pass through Central City (We learn his story in volume 3 of Criminal). His horrendous impact on his children casts a pall over the entire plot. You can’t “get” Tracy without “getting” Teeg.
Rounding out this near perfect example of noir crime fiction, the theme of eroticism does present itself in several ways in “Lawless.” I will mention two of them: 1) The leader of the Ricky’s old gang is really into S&M (you don’t see anything crazy, but it’s implied) and 2) the femme fatale Mallory at one point dons a nun costume for some sexy foreplay with Tracy.
“Lawless” is a feather in the cap of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ noir comics catalog. The art was better than “Coward,” and the script was masterful. Well done. (Below is one of my favorite pages, split into three different images. The getaway is taking place on Christmas Night, and the red and blue color motif was breathtaking). My Criminal Deluxe Edition is from Amazon.com.