Now that Criminal: The Last of the Innocent has ended, is there anything we can do but go back and examine Ed Brubaker’s initial statement that this was the best Criminal series he and Sean Phillips have done?
Since Brubaker and Phillips began Criminal, the book has been an opportunity for the duo to explore the old crime story tropes that have become so ingrained in the pop culture consciousness. The essays in the backmatter exploring various crime works of different media may not have been penned by the creators, but they work as a guide of the intent nonetheless. The basic argument is that there is potency in the familiar, that through the tweaking of even the slightest aspects of what we know can result in something altogether unique and new.
And that’s what Last of the Innocent has been: the most unique and new Criminal story yet, filtered through one of comics’ own longest running forms paired with a distillation of one of its most long standing criticisms. This story has been Criminal on overdrive, a story so perversely simple and yet so stunningly ambitious at once that it serves as the ideal representation of what Criminal has always been.
In some ways, the story itself ended last issue, with Riley seemingly getting away with the crime of the century. This issue instead serves as an epilogue, giving us a glimpse at how Riley is utilizing his “innocence” and providing little narrative hiccups that make the reader question whether Riley will get away after all. But that aspect of Riley’s fate was decided long ago and the question isn’t whether he’s going to get away with it, but what he’ll actually be getting away with. Riley’s intricate murder plot was intended as a time machine, a method for bringing him back to his idealized past, as much as it was intended as a lucrative venture. Killing his wife Felix partly out of his hatred of what she had led him to become, partly out of financial interest and partly out of sheer boredom, Riley’s story is less about the thrill of the kill than it is about the hollowness of his own existence.
So the real fear, the real tension in these final pages comes from the idea that Riley may realize none of it was worth it, that he has achieved nothing and that his new life with Liz isn’t all that different from his old life. All that leads to a very melancholy ending for the book in some ways, with Phillips’ art turning murkier, Dave Stewart’s coloring matching that muted mood with dark, hollow colors even as the bright, Archie homages factor in more and more. In a very real way, Riley is forced to kill off an element of his past, and though he overcomes every obstacle thrown his way, the Phillips and Stewart eagerly show how that darkness is surrounding Riley everywhere he turns, even if it doesn’t quite have a hold on him just yet.
That makes the book’s final image all the more interesting, as Riley’s visual representation finally returns to the Archie-tinged past he covets. Brubaker’s script is brilliantly open ended, but the threat raised before the issue’s end — that Riley will slip up sooner or later, it’s only a matter of time — is a very real one, it’s just Riley’s inability to see beyond his own interests that’s keeping everything rose colored at the moment. To a certain extent, Brubaker’s own threat to “take the innocent days of youth and put them through all of Wertham’s worst fears” is never clearer than it is at that moment, Phillips vividly expressing the exact image of that perverted take on nostalgic innocence as Brubaker’s script ends on a “happy” note.
Brubaker and Phillips could have ended the story last issue and it would have been brilliant, but with this epilogue we’re treated to the full scope of their ambition, a bold perpetuation of that little bit of innocence Riley clings to, hoping some of it will “rub off” on him even though he and by extension we are well aware that it won’t last. It’s a glimpse at the marriage between golden hued past and deceptive present that Riley is forcing his reality to become and it leaves us readers in a state of limbo, similarly unable to move beyond the fabricated state Riley has imprisoned himself in. And in that high concept consolidation of seemingly disparate ideals, Brubaker and Phillips have gone beyond merely offering the best Criminal series yet, they’ve offered up one of the finest examples of the potential of comics and the possibilities represented in all its myriad styles and tones and structures.
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.