CRIMINAL, VOL. 1: COWARD by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips — a Review

CRIMINAL, VOL. 1: COWARD by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips is the story of Leo, a pickpocket and heist-planner. Leo’s success is the product of his rules. Although some consider him a coward because of these rules, Leo has survived while others have been killed or jailed. Leo is persuaded to join a scheme, and of course, things go to hell, and he must break all of his rules.

I normally go for genre comics, but because the CRIMINAL series has earned a lot of praise since it debuted in 2006, I decided to give it a try. It reminded me of the movie “Heat,” in which the cold, isolated, damaged criminal mastermind finds himself taking part in a heist that goes to hell, only to make matters worse by breaking the rules that made him a mastermind in the first place. And when I finished COWARD, I was left wondering if a comic was the best medium for this story. I wondered by Brubaker didn’t turn this into a screenplay or a novel due to its straightforward, hard-boiled, somewhat predictable plot.

I mean, like any heist story, there’s violence, sex, drugs, and double-crosses galore. But the artwork was simple and stark, with a subdued color scheme. I wasn’t struck by its creativity or beauty. And while that may have been an intentional riff on the severity of the story, I didn’t think it added anything to the story.

And as for the story itself, Leo is set up as this criminal genius, but after the heist goes bad, he’s left asking himself “Why didn’t I see this?” and “How did I miss that?” It’s not like the people who double-crossed him were extra smart or sneaky. Leo just slipped up. So, in my mind, he’s not a genius. Without any explanation of these slip ups, I felt lied to. Why is Leo worth reading about? He’s just like every other criminal. The fact that the plot was a bit predictable didn’t help things either.

On top of that, every time I got to a scene with the drug kingpin, I wanted to skim because the kingpin’s dialogue was written in a clumsy, heavy handed manner. It felt fake, almost like a white suburban kid trying to imitate and/or make fun of black slang.

Like I said, COWARD isn’t my typical comic fare, so maybe this review is a product of my unfamiliarity with the material. I think it’s a decent heist story, and there is some clever use of foreshadowing. But for me, COWARD ultimately didn’t live up to the hype.

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