*Criminal: The Last of the Innocent — Best of 2011

Many many people have had the idea of doing an adult take on Archie and his gang, but few have executed it with so much skill and insight. Criminal: The Last of the Innocent uses the familiar characters of the gawky boy, his dopey friend, the girl friend who wanted to be the girlfriend, and the desirable rich girl in a noir-ish tale about murder and reinvention. Plus, with contrasting visuals of dark present day and brighter, simpler pages that mimic old teen romance comics, this story plays to the medium’s unique strengths.

Riley Richards is taking a trip back home. He married the gorgeous, loaded Felicity (Felix) Doolittle and is unhappily working for her dad’s company, but when Riley’s father sickens and passes away, he returns to his hometown. There he catches up with old buddy Freakout (now a recovering addict, which accounted for his prodigious appetite) and girl-next-door Lizzie. Back in “good old Brookview, nothing changes… because nothing ever happens.”

Yet with all this familiar setup, Brubaker and Phillips are true to their pulp influences. Riley thinks of solving his problems of gambling debts and depression by trying to murder his wife and frame high school rival Teddy, who’d been having an affair with her. As the series progresses, we move from sympathy with him — who hasn’t felt at some time that they should have made a different choice in life or that they should have done a better job keeping up with old friends? — to repulsion to fascination as he becomes caught in his own web.

The story has depth because we feel like we already know these characters, making their backgrounds richer without taking up page count. The inserts, one-page flashbacks done in an older-fashioned art style, help a lot, since they resemble the same content we see regularly in Archie digests — only with much more adult punchlines. It’s the throwaway captions that I appreciated most, as when, narrating a reunion with Freakout, Riley notes,”We got so high once in 1968 that we actually tried to start a band.”

That brings up the real strength of this tale. The creators aren’t wallowing in “wow, it would be funny to show those characters and (bad language, sex, drugs)” mud-throwing for its own sake, darkening childhood favorites just for a laugh. It all comes together in a rich story that stands on its own, of a small-town boy tortured by his own appetites and unfocused desire for something different. The appeal of wallowing in memories is that you wonder if you could have done things differently. Here, Riley feels that, as does the reader.

The difference between this and its sources is that here, these characters aren’t timeless. Their adventures took place in a particular era, one we’re reminded of when Riley tells us he couldn’t date a black girl. Now, they’re faced with growing older and living with their choices, without a perpetual now or eternal reset button. Riley is running on a mix of nostalgia and ennui, never taking responsibility for his choices, wanting to escape into his past. It’s an indictment not only of his actions, but a certain kind of comic reader, but in a affectionate, “we could be that too” way. You can’t write an evisceration this satisfying without sharing the love for an all-American boy who turns out to be empty inside.


12 Responses to “*Criminal: The Last of the Innocent — Best of 2011”

  1. Ed Catto Says:

    Couldn’t agree more. The always wonderful Sean Phillips art always astonishes the eye.

  2. Rob Says:

    This looks like a really interesting story. Do you know how quickly these get collected? I’d be interested in checking it out.

  3. Johanna Says:

    Good question. I’d like to read it as a collection as well, but I don’t know what typical times are for Marvel’s Icon line.

  4. James Schee Says:

    Isn’t Criminal part of the Marvel Icon line? If so it should be collected quickly.

    I picked up #1-3 based on this review today, for cheap. Look forward to reading it tonight to see how it is.

  5. Johanna Says:

    I hope you enjoy it! I always feel responsible when someone actually acts on my advice. :)

  6. James Schee Says:

    Yes, for the first time in a little bit yours & mine tastes aligned on this. It was a nice thing to round out my reading after reading (& doing quick twitter reviews, shameless plug lol) of the new DC #1 issues out this week.

    Its a great little crime story so far, I hadn’t read any Criminal before this but it was really well done.. This is the way you do a nod to another comic without wallowing in nostalgia or feeling like a rip off. I’m really anxious to see where this all goes. It isn’t going to be pretty!

  7. Hal Shipman Says:

    I did the same as James – excellent read.

  8. Good Comics Out September 14: Nah Nah Nah Superheroes! » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] titles I’ve seen so far), but the most exciting Marvel release this week is the conclusion to Criminal: The Last of the Innocent (#4, $3.50). I’m very curious to see just what twists Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips give us [...]

  9. Adam Says:

    Wow, you guys are gonna be in for a treat then cuz there’s already been 5 other Criminal related series prior to this!

    Check’em out!

  10. Johanna Says:

    I’ve updated this post to reflect the collected edition, changed from the individual issues I originally talked about.

  11. Best Graphic Novels of 2011 » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] Criminal: The Last of the Innocent by Ed Brubaker and Sean PhillipsArchie noir, as versions of those classic characters are used in a tale of addiction, murder, nostalgia, and desire. A fascinating example of a story that only works this well in comics, given the allusions to familiar properties and the way the flashbacks are drawn in different artistic style. [...]

  12. Flashmob Fridays: Criminal: Last of the Innocent » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] I’d already reviewed the book (and named it one of my Best Graphic Novels of 2011), my contribution discusses my reaction to the [...]




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