By Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips & Elizabeth Breitweiser
Taking a break between projects, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips return to their acclaimed Criminal series with a 10th Anniversary one-shot. Similar to last year’s excellent Criminal Special, this one centers on the reoccurring Teeg character. The difference this time, though is that the story is told from the perspective of his son, Tracy. This sensibility add a new flavor to the familiar ambiance of gritty, low-level nefarious undertakings. Noir is a genre which can easily slip into cliché, yet, Brubaker’s ability to populate his tales with compelling personalities prevents the material from ever growing stale. Instead, he and his artistic collaborators produce another engrossing comic.
When readers last saw Teeg, he was fresh out of prison and already back to his dodgy manner of employment. The Anniversary Special opens three years later in the summer of ‘79. Teeg has taken to the road with Tracy for reasons that remain, to the adolescent at least, rather mysterious. Sure they occasionally stop off in small towns to make inquiries or commit a burglary necessary for paying their way to the next stop-off point. What frustrates Tracy, however, is the lack of any larger aims. “If I knew what we were doing this might be like a mission or something . . . but I’m just along for the ride.” Which is not strictly true. Tracy has his uses crawling through windows or swapping out license plates. Still, none of these tasks appear to win him much favor with his father. Through it all, Teeg remains withheld at best, snarly and nasty at worst. And that is when he is around. It is not unusual for Teeg to disappear for days at a time, leaving Tracy alone to fend for himself.
One of these extended parental absences makes up the bulk of the story, as Tracy meanders about the town of Eel Valley. Brubaker does an excellent job of getting inside the young man’s head as the typical emotions of his age are made even more complicated by having a father like Teeg. At this point in life, Tracy has little sentimental feelings about his father. The man is a crook and Tracy knows it; whatever Teeg is scheming cannot be good. This is in contrast to Teeg who is under the impression that all of this disruptive child-rearing is adding up to some grand life lesson. Perhaps he likes to think of himself as a hard-knocks father figure out of “A Boy Named Sue”? Either way, the irony remains that the adult is living in more denial than the son.
As with the previous Criminal Special, Brubaker mixes his hard-boiled tale with snippets of a fictional comic book. In this case, it is the chronicle of Fang, The Kung-Fu Werewolf. This marriage of two popular Marvel titles of the day (Master of Kung-Fu & Werewolf by Night), seems like such a natural product of the 70s, the reader wonders if that was when a younger Brubaker first dreamt it up. Fang’s adventures have a feel that matches nicely with much of what Marvel was producing in that period, right down to the fumbling attempts at slang and cultural relevance. The main difference is that Fang’s publisher is a bit freer with the amount of female skin allowed on display.
However, Fang does more than provide some affectionate poking at the quirks of another decade. Just as the Conan parody/tribute in last year’s Special offered a commentary on its protagonist, so does Fang. In the Mighty Marvel Manner, Fang is also Dane Draven “frantic college student.” Dane has a hip roommate Renny who is dating Mona, who Dane is secretly infatuated with, but figures, even if she were available, would be way out of his league. Ultimately, this friendship costs Renny his life, forcing apart Dane and Mona. The price of being the hero is solitude.
Tracy strongly identifies with this portrait of the outsider. He believes that he is forced by circumstances to live a lonely existence. During his wanderings in Eel Valley he befriends Gabby. Together they pass the time exploring the town. They have a natural chemistry which, while bracing at first, soon softens into friendship. They make an appealing pair and the reader hopes that Gabby can shine a little bit of light into Tracy’s life. However, just as Mystiko’s curse keeps haunting Fang, Teeg’s shadow looms over his son. Tracy feels that he must push Gabby aside for her own safety. Regardless of how hapless he may appear at times, Teeg has a code and the first item on it is to never leave an impression. Friends are discouraged, while witnesses, well, things do not typically end well for them. To encourage Gabby’s attentions would only bring her to Teeg’s. Thus, while it might be a relief to briefly play at being a normal kid, eventually reality intrudes. In this way, Tracy sees himself as a dangerous monster, just like Dane.
As always, Phillips does a fabulous job conveying the atmosphere of Brubaker’s script. His rough lines captures the agitated unease of the characters. Neither Teeg nor Tracy ever truly relax is which is relayed by Phillips’ tense figures. The shadowy, noir vibe is reinforced by Elizabeth Breitweiser’s stellar coloring work. Whether it be washed-out daylight scenes or gloomy nights, the art of Criminal offers Tracy little relief from his inner turmoil. In fact, his external surrounding strongly reflect his internal disquiet.Meanwhile, Phillips effectively shifts his style in order to illustrate the heroics of Fang. In these sections, his line is softer. The action sequences are also more dynamically staged than the quick bursts of violence which punctuates Teeg’s business. Seeing both manners side by side reminds readers of how talented an artist Phillips is. He is able to render two contrasting, yet also complimentary, styles within a unified story. Indeed, towards the end of the issue, the pair blend together in a single page which is among the most resonant of the week.
In such a way, Phillips and Breitweiser express the sentiments of Brubaker’s story. Working together, the three collaborators produce an engaging, poignant tale of two-bit crime and a twisted childhood. It is left up to the reader to ponder how equal these two injustices may be.