Lawless: Criminal Vol 2 review
Frank Miller likes it; but what does James make of Ed Brubaker's Lawless?
Coming from a long line of indie creators now drafted into the mainstream, Ed Brubaker, author of Lawless, is responsible for a hefty chunk of Marvel’s output. That sort of role requires an exclusive deal, and that invariably means that the indie spirit isn’t really allowed to flourish. Hence, Marvel’s Icon imprint – the original home of Lawless – which gives creators a license to try out their own, non-Marvel related ideas while still under contract.This is the deal that allowed Brubaker to bring us Lawless – the second volume in his creator-owned series, Criminal. Even more than most comics, Criminal is designed to be picked up at any volume and contain a complete story. Certainly, that philosophy has succeeded in this case – having no prior knowledge of the characters or events in Vol. 1 was no impediment to understanding in this, Volume 2. Perhaps some characters recur, perhaps not – if it’s happening, it’s purely a bonus for people who are following the entire series.
In fact, all I knew about Lawless beforehand was that Frank Miller likes it, because he wrote the introduction to this volume. It praises Brubaker’s understanding of crime fiction, as well as artist Sean Phillips’ ability to accurately depict a man being shot. That’s ridiculously high praise from a man who, whether you love him or hate him, undeniably wrote and drew some of the industry’s most enduring and popular crime comics ever. Any comparisons with Sin City this situation invites are fair – Lawless can hold its own against them, and Brubaker himself puts it best, saying that unlike Sin City, when someone jumps off a building or gets hit by a car in the world of Criminal, they do actually die from it.
A few pages into the book, it’s immediately clear that that Lawless is on another level to most of Brubaker’s writing. The premise – a man escaping the military to try and find out how his brother was killed – is set up so cleanly and quickly that within minutes you’re so embedded into the world inhabited by the characters and you barely even realise you’ve been the subject of a massive infodump. Locations, characters, the protagonist’s history and his new identity – it’s all skilfully woven into the story so that you don’t notice any laboured exposition.
Like any crime fiction, it’s driven by mystery and thriller action, with fairly timeless takes on the genre tropes in full effect – there’s a femme fatale, gunfights, car chases, and grizzled old men who spend their twilight years looking over one shoulder. Tracy Lawless is the hero of the piece, though that’s a very strange way to put it – within the first few pages he’s already murdered someone while on the trail of the truth, as well as stolen a bunch of money to set himself up with a new identity to infiltrate his late brother’s gang. He’s not so much morally ambiguous as he is, er, a hardened, remorseless crook. There are attempts to explain why this is, but certainly, no attempts to justify his actions – it’s simply what he’s good at. Of course, he needs to be when he finds out that the money he stole was counterfeit, and that the police, as well as the people he took it from, are starting to close in…
I won’t spoil the ending – it kept me guessing right up until the last second, especially since there’s no reason to expect any character to come out of it alive. Brubaker’s superhero work might be occasionally rough around the edges, but placed back in his element, it’s no surprise he’s earning Frank Miller’s praise. Utterly fantastic.