Tag Archives: Criminal

Songs of Goodbye; Review of “My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies” by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips

Mannequin gaze from a femme fatale

Notice her tiger stripes of shadow? She’s deadly.

The newest window into the world of “Criminal” is fogged with sorrow & deception. Ellie (a.k.a. Angela) standing on a lonely beach serves as bookends to this noir comic. Her mannequin gaze invites us into the book and betrays the ice that must flow in her veins; she’s our femme fatale, a predator. The choice of setting is deliberate. The shoreline is a symbol of stark contrast – an area where the colors don’t mix and where there’s more below than there is above. What’s lurking in those depths? What lies beyond that horizon? This place is where Ellie contemplates the memory of her dead mother and a life she never knew. A life of love.

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies pg. 3

page 3

The story appears simple in the beginning: Two addicts (Ellie & Skip) stuck in rehab & falling in love. We want to believe it’s that simple. It makes sense to us. But it isn’t simple, and it’s clear from early pages that there’s only one way this will end. You see, Ed Brubaker gives us an untrustworthy narrator – what’s more, he tells us she can’t be trusted within the first few pages: “All junkies are liars on some level” she says. This conceit is exceptionally noir. It creates a level of discomfort that most readers aren’t okay with. We like our narrators to be honest with us. It’s easier that way.

“I don’t like pretending to be something that I’m not.” (she says as she pretends to be something she’s not for the rest of the book)

Barring a whole synopsis, sufficeth to say that Ellie’s goal is to seduce Skip and convince him to give up his father’s location (who’s been hiding in witness protection). She has powerful motives for doing so (a blood debt to settle), and when pleasure fails to win Skip’s trust, she has no choice but to turn him over to pain. She hates herself but it’s difficult for the reader to hate her. We actually admire her for the ‘honor among thieves’ aspect of her sacrifice. Ellie owed a debt and she paid it in full. (The inevitability & deception is beautifully tragic. Textbook noir crime fiction).

A central theme of the novella is how Ellie romanticizes drug abuse. She frequently turns to the works of fantastic musicians and artists and points out how influential drugs were in the development of their most impactful contributions. She argues that drugs weren’t only helpful, but essential to some of the greatest works of art known to mankind.

“What if drugs help you find that thing that makes you special?”

Her own mother was a heroin addict, and Ellie had problematic proximity to the practice of abuse during her formative years. Ellie saw drugs as deifying – a means of escape & transformation. She said that her mother floated like a beautiful bird when she dosed.

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies pg. 15

page 15

Music also permeates the story. Ellie speaks of a mixtape she found after her mother’s death. It was a cassette made for her father; songs of love & longing from parents she never quite knew. The tracks are all written by addicts, and ooze with sorrow, conflict, desire, & hope. For her, music is a time machine. Each song another injection of sweet nostalgia (isn’t music like that for most of us?) (Here’s a link to a playlist featuring the songs mentioned in the book)

“I was much further out than you thought, and not waving but drowning.”

A few years back my parents divorced. Their song was “Babe” by The Styx. It didn’t strike me until now that theirs was a song of goodbye. How could their relationship have ended any different? I wonder which of them chose it? Or if they ever contemplated the real meaning of the song? “My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies” is full of songs of goodbye. Goodbye truth, goodbye innocence, goodbye love.

Postscript – A note on the quality of this graphic novel:

I’m struck by the thickness of the no-gloss pages and the overall quality of the work as a whole. Sean Phillips is as good as I’ve ever seen him – perhaps cleaner in his line work than I’ve noticed in his other Criminal novels. The coloring style is a bit different but after an additional read through I felt that it works. It’s pastel in many areas and there are lots of page breaks where white space is left to breathe. This gives the appearance color splashes & and a highlighter effect. I wonder how conscious the creators were of this choice? It actually adds to the sense of incompleteness which comes through the narrative poignantly through Ellie. Ed Brubaker’s script is intentional and well-paced – in some areas reminiscent of Frank Herbert: where a character is thinking one thing, saying another thing, and acting out something entirely different. These multilayered moments can be difficult to follow if you’re unfamiliar with the style, but I feel that Brubaker executes this wonderfully (and the comic format is perfectly suited for the task).

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Noir Comics | Criminal: Bad Night by Ed Brubaker

Noir Comics Criminal Bad Night Ed Brubaker Sean Phillips

Criminal: Bad Night Cover (via islingtoncomic.blogspot.com)

Criminal: Bad Night by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips is the best volume in the series. This arc is the one that sent me over the edge from “series-admirer” to “series fanboy.” Phillips’ art is moody and personal, as dreary and sleep deprived as the insomniac protagonist, and Brubaker’s pulp style never disappoints. The book is riddled with plot twists and heinous discoveries, and is a first-hand witness of a man’s plummet into madness.

Noir Comics Criminal Bad Night

(via comicsforserious.blogspot.com)

Here’s an overview of the plot:

Jacob Kurtz is a nearly crippled widower with a past proclivity for counterfeiting. He spends his days writing a serial-style comic called “Frank Kafka” for the local paper and his nights trying fruitlessly to sleep. He’s completely caged by his loneliness and unwavering routine. His health problems are largely a result of an undeserved beating he received when it was believed that he murdered his wife, in reality she had been the victim of an unfortunate car accident that left her body hidden for months. Now, Jacob is a recluse who’s seeking nothing by privacy and four hours of sleep a day; if he can get it. So absorbed in his own timeless drudgery, he’s completely  unprepared for the one Bad Night.

Noir Comics Criminal Bad Night

(via comicsforserious.blogspot.com)

He visits a local diner nearly every night, takes his normal spot at the bar and checks the day’s paper for his latest “Kafka” installment. Behind him in a booth of their own, a man shouts obscenities at a woman and perches on the edge of violence. Tensions inevitably flare, but are quickly defused when the couple are expelled from the restaurant. Jacob puts this strange encounter from his mind, but is quickly reminded when he drives past the woman from the diner walking home in the rain. The inciting incident for the whole noir comic is when he decides to offer her a ride.

Noir Comics Criminal Bad Night

(via comicsforserious.blogspot.com)

I could do a whole noir definition run-down on this graphic novel, but it’s the fourth book in the series and I’ve already done it for the three previous. Ed Brubaker who is a master noir story-teller, he doesn’t need me to point out why. It’s noir, okay? Trust me. Better yet, trust Brubaker and Phillips. Additionally, I don’t want to ruin the plot of this one. It’s one of those books you wish you could go back and experience again for the first time. Once you know the end, you see it from the beginning.

Noir Comics Criminal Bad Night

(via comicartappreciation.tumblr.com)

Bad Night is one of the greatest written examples of a femme fatale in the genre. She’s text-book perfection as far as plot goes, and Jacob’s interactions with her couldn’t be better. This book is cerebral noir, most of the action happens between the ears, and it’s that much more frightening because we’ve been down those dark corridors in our own psyche. The only difference is, Jacob believes in what he finds there, and swallows wholesale the rationalizations and imagined conspiracies. But we never do that, we’re smarter than that…aren’t we?

Please read Criminal: Bad Night. If you only read one noir comic ever, please read this one.

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Noir Comics | Criminal Volume 3: The Dead and The Dying

Noir Comics Criminal The Dead and The Dying

the final chapter of my deluxe edition (pictured: Teeg Lawless)

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.

Noir Comics Criminal The Dead and The Dying Cover

The Trade Paperback Cover

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.

Noir Comics Criminal The Dead and The Dying Second Chance in Hell

End of a Friendship

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.

Noir Comics Criminal The Dead and The Dying A Wolf Among Wolves

The End of a Marriage

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.

Noir Comics Criminal The Dead and The Dying Female of the Species

The End of a Life

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.”

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Film Noir | “Criminal” by Ed Brubaker Bound For Film


Criminal is going to be a movie.

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Noir Comics | Criminal Volume 2: “Lawless”

Noir Comics Criminal Deluxe Edition Cover

My copy of the Criminal Deluxe Edition

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.

Noir Comics Criminal Lawless Tracy and Ricky

Tracy and Ricky Lawless

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?

Noir Comics Criminal Lawless Femme Fatale Mallory

sexy tendrils of smoke caressing her skin...

4. Misogyny

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).

5. Redemption

“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.

Noir Comics Criminal Lawless Tracy

infiltrating his brother's old crew.

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.

7. Eroticism

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.

Noir Comics Criminal Lawless Teeg's Abuse

the pain of an abusive father never subsides.

“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.

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Noir Comics Giveaway | Criminal Vol. 1 Winner!

Congrats to Jessica C. ! She is the winner of Noirwhale’s very first Noir Giveaway! I’ll be putting Criminal Vol. 1 in the mail today! Here is here Noir Definition:
“Beautiful dark shadows neon lights Smoking Anti-Hero detective seductive murderess.”

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Noir Comics Giveaway | Win a Free Copy of Criminal Volume 1 !

Noir Comics Criminal Coward Brubaker Giveaway

This noir comic "Coward" by Ed Brubaker can be yours!

“Coward” was the first noir comic that I ever read, and it was the catalyst for my love of the genre. I owe Mr. Brubaker more than he’ll ever know for that. I’ve met him a couple times, signing at Emerald City Comic Con 2010 and 2011, and he is a terrific guy (basically my hero). So, just as Ed Brubaker gave me the gift of noir, I wish to pass it on! Starting now and running until midnight this Sunday June 12, 2011 is NoirWhale’s first Noir Comics Giveaway! If you would like a chance to win this trade paperback (pictured above) here is what you must do:

1. Subscribe to Noirwhale.com by clicking on the “I’m ready for noir!” button in the right-hand sidebar. (just under the noirwhale tag cloud).

2. Post a comment on this post of your very own Noir Definition in 10 words or less!

Submissions will be accepted until midnight Sunday June 12, 2011, so don’t delay! Please note that you may only comment once, and the winner will be determined and their noir definition posted on Monday June 13. I will mail the free copy of “Coward” to the winner at my own expense! Keep sharing more noir, and check back on the first Monday of each month for my next noir giveaway!


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“Coward,” a Criminal Edition of Noir Comics

Noir Comics Coward Criminal Brubaker Phillips

one of the greatest noir comics ever created

Those of you who interact with me on a daily basis know that my affection for Ed Brubaker‘s Criminal series runs deep… too deep… like, suspiciously deep. All I can say is that I see it as a crown jewel in the realm of noir comics. Perhaps my infatuation stems from the fact that “Coward” was my first, and you never forget your first (that was more sexual than I intended). The best part about reading Brubaker is that you can tell that he is a huge noir crime fiction fan, and that he is as invested in his characters as you are. Perfectly counterpointing his creative narrative is the seedy pulpy art style of Sean Phillips. Seriously, this creative team could not be more elite. We are talking Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan style noir comics team up.

So, I’m settling into a bit of a tradition here on noirwhale.com: the first part of any series that I review will be held up to the noir definition as has been previously described. I believe this will give us a great foundation for evaluating any work in the noir genre.

1. The Seedy Underworld

Noir York City. Present day. Crooked cops, crooked schemes, and a pay day around the corner. Superb.

Noir Comics Coward Criminal Setting

just a taste...

2. The Anti-Hero

Possibly the best character in any noir that I have read, Leo Patterson plays with the reader’s emotions because he is so dang likable. He takes care of his dead father’s best friend Ivan (an Alzheimer/Heroin addicted old man) with a tenderness that can only be described as familial. Also, he cares for each of the people he works with, and he won’t take chances with their lives. He isn’t a risk taker, and he follows his own code to a fault. Because of this, Leo has gained a reputation in the criminal underworld that is two-fold: Some say he is the best thief in the business and others say he is a coward.

“Prisons are full of assholes who valued their own lives only slightly more than other people’s. And I’m not ending up on death row because some moron listened to too much hip hop growing up.” -Leo Patterson a.k.a. “Coward”

3. The Femme Fatale

A dame what goes by the name of Greta is the femme fatale for this noir comic. While she plays the typical role of causing the anti-hero to compromise his code, she also becomes the catalyst for the new code which he adopts at the end of the trade (no spoilers this time). She also is always portrayed (and treated by Leo) as an equal, a confidant, and a partner, which is definitely a stretch for our noir definition. A revision required perhaps?

Noir Comics Coward Criminal Femme Fatale Greta

the plot (like so much smoke) thickens...

4. Misogyny

One of the most interesting aspects of this noir comic is its lack of traditional misogyny. Ivan, the demented old man that Leo cares for, is the only one who seems to show any disrespect for women. I think there is method in this because I believe that Brubaker wrote Ivan into the story as a representation of the “old-school” noir crime fiction, a time when women were objects instead of equals. Ivan represents a dying age, and his misogyny looks childish compared to the genuine respect and care for Greta displayed by Leo.

“Does what it take to survive change you —  to the point where you are no longer who you are? To the point where, though your body survives, the deepest part of you — the human part– does not?” -Tom Fontana

5. Redemption

Leo grew up in the world of noir crime. Back in the old days, his father Tommy and his “Uncle” Ivan ran the most successful pick-pocket crew in New York City. But now things are different, and Leo is struggling to come to grips with all of that. His father was shanked to death in prison, and Leo is terrified of ending up the same way. Ivan, Leo’s only living representation of that bygone era (and by extension his father), is a constant reminder of how things will never be the same. “Coward” is a classic story of a son striving to redeem his father by escaping his own seemingly predestined fate (Luke Skywalker).

Noir Comics Coward Criminal Greta Leo

babies and bullet holes

I love this book. I love this series even more. READ IT! (I got my copy of “Coward” a Criminal Edition from Amazon.com) Also, check back with me the first Monday of June! I’ll be making a big announcement concerning “Coward”!

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