The Dead and the Dying, written by Ed Brubaker and illustrated by Sean Phillips, is the third volume of Criminal, and it marks the point where the series really hit its stride. This is where Brubaker and Phillips began to experiment further with their storytelling – both narratively and visually – as well as expand the scope of the underworld they began building in Coward and Lawless.
The changes are apparent from the first page – the first ever splash page in a Criminal story. While opening with a splash is common to the point of being formulaic, here it feels revelatory. The first two Criminal stories were presented entirely in panels on three tiers. This builds a claustrophobic atmosphere that’s perfect for the series’s noir tone, and it reflects the hopeless and doomed lives of the characters. It’s also important to note that those three-tier pages don’t slavishly follow a standard six-, nine-, or twelve-panel grid. Phillips breaks each tier up into however many panels of whatever size is needed to achieve his goals. One panel for big, cinematic moments, and as many as five to slice up the beats of an intense conversation. Time speeds up or slows down accordingly, just as it seems to do in life.
But the opening of The Dead and the Dying places its characters – one pointing a gun, the other pleading for his life – at the bottom of the page, against a star-spangled night sky. Paired with narrative captions about “those moments where time and life collided and made a mark that won’t ever go away,” the image creates a sense of drama and intensity that sucks the reader in immediately. It also establishes the themes the rest of the story will explore, as bad memories drive the characters forward through a dark and uncaring world shaped by events beyond their knowledge or control.
While the first two Criminal stories used flashbacks, the main narratives were set squarely in the present day. The first four pages of The Dead and the Dying take place in the 1950s, and show how the criminal hierarchy seen in the first two books originally came to power, before bringing the reader to 1972, the setting for most of the story. And that’s where the storytelling begins to differentiate itself from what went before. While Coward and Lawless utilized fairly traditional, linear narratives, The Dead and the Dying is more complex. It’s told in three chapters, all set in 1972, all concerning the tragic love triangle between Jake “Gnarly” Brown, Danica Briggs, and Sebastian Hyde. However, each chapter works as its own standalone short story. The first chapter shows events from Jake’s perspective, the third from Danica’s, and the middle chapter from the point of view of another character, Teeg Lawless. While this technique is obviously similar to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, there is a core difference: Jake, Danica, and Teeg don’t give us contradictory accounts of the same event – instead their stories weave around each other and intersect at crucial points to create a larger and more complicated story. In a way, The Dead and the Dying is a perfect example in miniature of what Criminal has become as a whole – a series that plays to the strengths of both single-issue and serialized storytelling, using intimate, individual stories to build a larger world.
Of course it’s Sean Phillips’s art, colored here by Val Staples, that makes all of this work. I mentioned how Phillips’s three-tier grids add to the noir tone, but his heavy use of black ink is even more crucial. He relies heavily on spot blacks, as well as thick, dry brush strokes that simultaneously add density and texture. The world of Criminal feels rough, dark, and moody, and combined with the rich range of emotions and expressions Phillips gives the characters, it allows Brubaker’s words to really sing. And those words are chosen with all the care of a hitman lining up his shot. His straightforward, naturalistic dialogue and narration is hard edged and unsentimental, which allows the characters to express genuine emotion without it coming off as forced or mawkish.
Phillips is also an expert at knowing when to let that textured world fall away, stripping away backgrounds at crucial moments to put the story’s emphasis solely on action or character beats, aided by Staples’s relatively flat, bold color choices. The scene in which Jake sees Danica for the first time in years is rendered in sepia tones, except for the red of her dress. In another scene, the background goes red when Danica’s boyfriend assaults a man in a jealous rage.
While the opening splash page is a traditional technique that feels like something new in this context, there is an excellent sequence later on that is more genuinely experimental. In the second chapter, Teeg’s alcohol and drug fueled memory loss is portrayed by completely blacking out panels, while still maintaining the general rhythm of panels in the story. The blacked-out panels are used to intercut between scenes of only one, two, or three panels, presented without context. It’s a perfect way to recreate the disorienting experience of a bender, putting us inside Teeg’s damaged mind. Among the panels depicting random violence, drug abuse, and cheap sex, one stands out in particular. Teeg is a veteran suffering from PTSD, and a single panel depicts a Vietnamese village burning, corpses lying in the dirt. And so the bender scene manages to pull the reader directly into Teeg’s subconscious.
Criminal is one of the greatest long-form comics of all time, and Brubaker and Phillips’s partnership is one for the ages. They know exactly what kind of story they want to tell, and they know how to play to each other’s strengths in order to deliver that story with maximum impact. The Dead and the Dying marks the point where the series and the collaboration shifted into high gear, and it’s a perfect place to jump on for the ride.