Criminal: The Dead and The Dying is a completely magnificent noir comic. Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips have a raw chemistry that lends authority to their comics; You’ll feel like you picked up a piece of vintage noir crime fiction off the shelf next to Hammett, Chandler, and Cain. I know that I am a hopeless Brubaker fanboy but I believe that this series defends itself (so back-up haters).
In this volume, the story worms into the 1970’s and focuses on the lives of the “old guard” of Center City. This previous generation of criminals is just as dysfunctional, corrupt, and depraved as the current. We are made privy to decisions that created the outcomes experienced in the previous two volumes, and the curtain is drawn back on the complex connections between each of the characters and their underworld. Jake “Gnarly” Brown, Teeg Lawless, and Danica Briggs are painted in bold unforgiving strokes and chipped by adversity in one of the most heart-wrenching plot-lines yet.
Second Chance in Hell
From the previous volumes, Jake “Gnarly” Brown is known to be the barkeep/owner of The Undertow in Center City. This chapter of The Dead and The Dying bridges the gap between his “up-and-coming” career as a talented boxer and his eventual disgraceful post as the washed up operator of a seedy establishment. It’s revealed that Gnarly’s father was hired muscle for Walter Hyde in the 1950’s and led to his successful rise to the top of the crime world. Thus, for good or bad, the Brown and Hyde families became inseparably connected. Growing up, Gnarly was great friends with Sebastian Hyde (Walter’s son and future crime lord), but their relationship became strained when they both showed interest in the same woman: Danica Briggs. As Sebastian dove deeper into the crime world, Gnarly was unwilling to follow. Their schism ends in a whirlwind of violence that destroys a friendship and robs Gnarly of a promising career.
A Wolf Among Wolves
Teeg Lawless is a bastion of blind violence and the unfulfilled American dream. He returns from the Vietnam War to a country divided, an estranged wife, and children he doesn’t know. His spiral is painful trip through child abuse, infidelity, and alcoholism. Every moment he seems on the verge of killing or being killed, and worse he seems split on which he desires more. Working with the Hyde family, sleeping with Danica Briggs, blacking out for days, delivering beatings, and making getaways between pitiful tearful moments at home comprise this chapter. He represents the lost generation of men who died in Vietnam long before they came home.
Female of the Species
Danica Briggs is a femme fatale who was made by the racism and abuse she was forced to endure. Forced into addiction by thugs, she regains some semblance of self-control and power through the sexual manipulation of men. As in all noir comics, she is male-defined but Brubaker takes it one step further. He showcases the events that led her to her definition, and reveals that not only was her character male-defined but also male-created. Were it not for the horrors she was subjected to, she would have had a much different life; perhaps she would have had a normal life with Gnarly? The most intense scenes surround her pregnancy, and the scandals that stole her child.
Criminal: The Dead and The Dying is a tragic look at the frailty of human character and gouges at morality in an immoral world. The volume painfully depicts the cost of clinging to principles of righteousness in the poisonous fume of lust, greed, power, and sin. In the noir comics Criminal series, the characters that aren’t “dead” are certainly “dying.”