Criminal: The Last of the Innocent
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.