There’s a curious mystery at the heart of Criminal: The Last of the Innocent: who or what is the “innocent” in question? While the first issue set up the central conceit of this volume of Criminal — namely Riley’s belief that killing his wife Felix will free him from the stagnation his life has become — Issue Two deals with the execution of that plan and the “innocents” his plan will have widespread repercussions for. Ed Brubaker’s script deftly handles the movement of that plan and he provides us with a few possible options for who or what the titular “innocent” is.
From a real character standpoint, the “innocent” may be seen as Riley’s childhood friends, who truly suffer for his actions. As Riley puts all of the components of his murderous plot into place, he uses his friends as props, harming them in ways both physical (poisoning his cop buddy Brock) and psychological (knocking Freakout off the wagon of sobriety). While Freakout may not be an ideal candidate for innocence with his descent into addiction, the innocence of his recent sobriety is abruptly shattered by Riley’s actions. Brock is a less defined character and since his damage is physical, the innocence broken with him is the innocence of naivety, of trusting Riley and wishing to help him.
Yet even more appealing is the idea of Riley’s childhood friend/former lover Lizzie as the true “last of the innocent.” Brubaker’s script sets Lizzie up as a beacon of innocence for Riley, a figure he can desire from afar because not only is she the opposite of Felix in every imaginable way, she’s also someone Riley initially rejected despite her best efforts. In one of the series now signature Archie tributes, we’re witness to Lizzie’s dabbling with “criminal” antics in the past, as she develops a foul mouth just to get herself closer to Riley in detention:
But even that minor acting out ultimately isn’t enough to win Riley over. Riley, in fact, rejects Lizzie specifically because of her innocence. As teenagers, Lizzie was obtainable for affection but unobtainable from a physical sense, unwilling to move at Riley’s pace:
As Riley indicates in the issue, choosing Felix wasn’t just a matter of social climbing, as Lizzie believes it was, but also a matter of satiating his lust. Riley may have even allowed Lizzie to believe the former in order to preserve her innocence, to save her from attempting to copy Felix in that fashion as well.
That final point also acts as evidence that Brubaker’s intention with the title wasn’t one of characterization but instead mentality. Every aspect of Last of the Innocent is built around the juxtaposition between Riley’s teenage years and his adult life. Sean Phillips does a masterful job illustrating this with the strong contrast between the clean, bright Archie style of the teenage years and the hard, gritty Criminal style of the adult life. Riley’s adult world is dull in color in comparison to his adolescence, Val Staples granting the former a pastel palette that reeks of optimism and excitement. Riley isn’t just killing Felix because he can’t stand her any longer, he’s killing her because he thinks that the action will kill his adulthood itself.
Riley believes that the only way he can return to the bright optimism of his youth is by killing the choice he made, erasing its existence and retracing his steps back to the “last of the innocent” that remains, Lizzie. In lesser hands this kind of story could have been riddled with cliches and clunky, but Brubaker and Phillips have crafted something haunting and beautiful, a work that’s universal yet jarring. Criminal: Last of the Innocent is beyond noir and is instead a work that every adult should be able to sympathize with, what appears to be a tragic love letter to youth and a murderous hate letter to the act of adulthood is something more complex — it’s a meditation on the very human need to seek perfection, to constantly seek out an unrealistic life no matter the cost.
When he’s not writing about the cape and spandex set, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and a staff writer for No Tofu Magazine. He also translates for “Partytime” Lukash’s Panel Panopticon.