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‘Criminal: The Last of the Innocent’ Mixes Murder With Nostalgia in a Brubaker Master Class

Writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips are one of those duos that explode onto the scene and force themselves right into your line of sight. While their collaboration on the excellent Sleeper wasn’t their first work together, it was a revelatory display of what a writer and artist in perfect sync could do. They more recently topped themselves with Criminal, a much-lauded (and much-awarded) master class in crime comics.

With today’s launch of its newest arc, Criminal: The Last of the Innocent — a book that Brubaker says might be the best thing he’s ever done — Brubaker and Phillips are back to put a boot in the butt of crime comics, but this time, they’re adding something new into their crime comics recipe: poisonous nostalgia.
Nostalgia is often a factor in crime stories, but rarely to this extent. Rather than featuring a P.I. who ponders his regrets while neck-deep in a whiskey bottle, or a dame who runs off with an old love, The Last of the Innocent is explicitly about the gulf of years and mistakes that sit between The Way Things Are and The Way Things Used To Be. The Last of the Innocent is about the city versus the town, adulthood vs childhood, and the rot that lurks just beneath the skin of one and festers on the surface of the other.

When his father gets sick, Riley Richards leaves the city and returns to Brookview, a small burg that’s the very picture of Anytown, USA (there’s even a malt shop), to visit him. Brookview is sunny, folksy, where Riley grew up, and the exact opposite of the city. The city is filled with temptations that Riley just doesn’t seem to be able to turn down, and that lack of self-control has gotten Riley in hot water with the wrong people. His visit to Brookview is no break from the stress of the city. He still needs to come up with some cash by Monday.

The Way Things Are is represented by the city, first and foremost. The most positive thing anyone says about the city comes early on, and it’s essentially Riley saying, “Boy, I sure do like gambling and cheap sex in bathroom stalls.” The city makes people into jerks, someone we see when Riley and his wife Felix make everyone come to the city for their wedding rather than having one back home. Riley says that it “feels like it’s always raining in the city.” More than anything, perhaps, the city represents distance from the good times, your family, your childhood, and your happiness. The city is where betrayal rests its head, and no one gets away scot-free.

Riley’s childhood in Brookview is The Way Things Used To Be. The modern-day Brookview is toxic by proxy since visiting there doesn’t really help him escape the realities of the city, but he spends a significant amount of time there reminiscing. He meets up with old friends and marvels at how much they’ve all changed. Phillips breaks out a clear, flat style for the flashbacks to Riley’s adolescence, resulting in a look that’s a little bit Archie and a little bit John Romita. Rather than the squeaky-clean antics we’d expect from such a clear style, Riley and friends do drugs, have sex, and cause trouble. It’s a lot like how you’d expect Archie to behave if he wasn’t stuck in an idealized status quo.

Riley is understandably obsessed with the good old days. They weren’t perfect, but particularly in the context of his current life, they were great. He had good friends, good times, and good stories to tell. Now that he’s back in his hometown, it’s easy to see how far off the rails his life has gone. Nothing fits right now, from his too-small room to his single bed, and he’s completely out of his element. He’s only at ease when he’s killing time with old friends and living in the past.

I consume a lot of crime stories, whether movies or fiction, and I’m used to motivations like revenge, greed, or lust motivating crimes. The way Brubaker and Phillips paint nostalgia here is powerful and almost unbearably easy to relate to. We all know what it feels like to suddenly recognize that gap between who we are and who we wanted to be, or that sinking feeling that settles deep in your gut when the crushing weight of real life finally registers.

Brubaker and Phillips have managed to crank out five volumes of Criminal over the past few years, and The Last of the Innocent is off to a fantastic start that’s comfortably above the already high bar set for the series. In fact, it has a good chance of being the best arc yet. Riley manages to be pretty sympathetic despite his somewhat understated failings, and it’s very easy to empathize with his sudden attack of toxic nostalgia. Read Tom Spurgeon’s great interview with Ed Brubaker for some insight on the origin of the series, and trust me when I say that you should definitely pick this book up today.

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