Page 45 Review by Stephen
"I wasn't done reading that yet, you fat fuck..."
If you don't want to sneeze tea all over your keyboard then either remove the keyboard to a safe distance before reading that page... or try going dry for ten minutes.
A perfectly representative, accessible and self-contained introduction to the twilight world of CRIMINAL in which we finally get to meet Teeg Lawless, the often referred-to father of Tracy.
He's not the smartest con in the can having landed there - whilst en route to collect what would have been some considerable cold cash from an armoured-car stick-up - over a simple failure to appear in traffic court. He stopped off for a beer then beat up a biker who didn't press charges but, yeah, Teeg got sent down instead for a failure to appear in traffic court.
So he's stuck on the inside, instead of keeping his commitment to Sebastian Hyde - whom you do not want to piss off - to eliminate a councilman who's blocking a construction contract which Hyde's set his heart on. And Teeg's trying to keep his head down, he surely is, by reading the latest instalment of ZANGAR, THE SAVAGE. But he doesn't half get interrupted every five fucking seconds.
Which is a funny thing to ask a criminal.
Seems there's a price on Teeg's head and Hyde swears it ain't him but he won't offer protection, neither. Almost immediately they're coming at Lawless from all directions - in the canteen, the laundry room and showers - and Teeg is trapped in there with them. It's relentless. So what, as they say, is actually up?
I wish every comicbook artist would make reading as easy, fluid, accessible and addictive as Sean: monologue or dialogue across the top, with the image below. Also, there's an immediate sense of time and place: I love Teeg's hair.
As ever Brubaker has something to say about human behaviour - not rash generalisations but specific tendencies or patterns within individuals. With Teeg, it's that this sort of structure in the slammer or army actually serves him quite well. Too much freedom gives him too many choices and too many opportunities to choose wrong. He really is Mr Bad Decision.
As to ZANGAR, THE SAVAGE, Phillips provides a dozen or so pages emulating the magazine-sized black and white barbarian adventures printed on paper so low-grade that they'd yellow and brown before you'd get them back home. I can only imagine how much easier it has been to apply computer-generated zip-a-tone than it used to be using a scalpel.
I warn you right now that Phillips has pulled no punches and that the art is as battered and brutal as the inmates themselves, and you will find within the dreaded Injury-To-Eye (And Almost Everything Else) Motif over and over again.
Still, he hadn't finished reading that, you fat fuck...
So we come to the second instalment - the 10th Anniversary Special - and a reminder that CRIMINAL is the best crime in comics, along with the same team's THE FADE OUT and David Lapham's STRAY BULLETS. I have, without fail, reviewed every single edition of all of those, and relished doing so.
How was your childhood?
"It's easier to be a fictional character.
"How sad is that?"
Not as sad as the ending, as an almost unheard of act of kindness in twelve-year-old Tracy Lawless' bleak young life is flushed down the pan, along with all its potential. Out of fear.
Looked at from another angle, however, it is perhaps the one ray of hope that young Tracy might turn out okay against all nature-and-nurture odds, because it's not for himself that he fears. It's for a local girl who's befriended him on the streets of a small town where, as a stranger, he sticks out like a sore thumb even whilst under an alias.
"I'm not supposed to be doing this. 'Mike Johnson' isn't supposed to have fun.
"And he doesn't get to make friends. Friends get remembered."
Oh dear. We've already discovered what happens to those might remember Tracy. Brubaker deliberately sets this up on the very first pages so that it informs everything else that follows, throwing a terrible pall over anyone who comes near the boy.
This includes Lana, one of the individuals that Tracy's Dad is out searching for. Because of this looming threat one fears, rightly or wrongly, that Tracy may have doomed the smiling shop assistant simply by identifying her. Tracy himself recognises this almost immediately afterwards. It's not exactly a Judas moment, but it's certainly made all the more poignant by their mutual, momentary affection which elicits the other act of kindness and their eyes light up. So it might as well have been a kiss.
Mike Johnson, by the way, is that fictional identity Tracy is forced to adopt whenever he's travelling on the run with his career-criminal dad. He shouldn't have been roaming the streets, he should have stayed safely shut away in the motel reading the comic which his father Teeg stole for him (which is nice), but Teeg hadn't come back in the evening nor in the morning, and that's pretty much par for the course. The boy's got to eat.
What follows is a rough scrap of a friendship scraped from the car crash of Tracy's neglected childhood before he witnesses that which a twelve-year-old son never should.
There's a telling line early on from Tracy, referring to himself being taught to drive his dad's getaway car last year as "just a kid" as if he considers himself an adult now. But he's neither one thing nor the other: he's not his father's adult accomplice because he's not been let in on what the mission is; yet if he's still a child what on earth is he doing behind the wheel and changing number plates? What is he doing - worst of all - understanding his father's fucked up priorities?
Sean draws the boy all droopy-mouthed and saggy-shouldered - weighted and weary beyond his years, far from care-free and truly troll-like. His eyes would be scathing if they could summon the energy but they are instead so heavy, so sceptical, expecting nothing. Which is just as well. It's what makes the brief burst of reignited hope and rekindled vivacity in the shop with Lana so unexpected and arresting. The boy can actually smile - he can beam! - if engaged with at all.
But that's as nothing to the central panel in a single page which is one of the finest I've seen in comics. It is the epitome of wide-eyed, awe-struck enchantment as Tracy's face comes electrically alive, spellbound by the DEADLY HANDS OF comic which straddles the same worlds he does between adult and child.
"This comic is weird...
"It kind of reminds me of the ones my dad gets some times...
"But those have naked ladies and stuff in them.
"And this one, you just feel like it's about to have naked ladies all the time.
"Like it's a comic for kids pretending to be a comic for grown-ups."
Of course it is. It's a mischievous tribute to a Marvel Comics combo of SHANG-CHI, MASTER OF KUNG-FU and WEREWOLF BY NIGHT (very seventies indeed, Daddio!), pages of which are paraded in front of you in all their tanned, aged-paper glory by Sean Phillips in immaculate impressions of expressionist Paul Gulacy the for sub-lunar werewolf sequences and of the far more conservative Sal Buscema inked by the likes of Mike Esposito when the angst-ridden protagonist reverts to puny Peter-Parker-like form. It's all in the eyebrows.
I like what Breitweiser's done with both the daytime and evening colours here: it's something completely different to FATALE or THE FADE OUT for this is set is in such a small town that it's virtually deserted after dark. There are no fancy-schmancy multicoloured neon bar signs projecting onto the street: in the evening the only monochromatic glow comes from the few sickly sodium lights and they don't light anything up properly. In the daytime the colours may be muted and mundane but they do at least look relatively healthy and safe by contrast.
I don't know whether Brubaker of Phillips decided which comics would be racked in the grocery store's spinners but whichever it was we evidently shared similar summer holiday experiences.
Speaking of similar summer holiday experiences, hats off to both for the kids' visit to the second-hand bookshop - the only place you'd find old comics back then. Phillips has almost beaten Bernie Wrightson at his own game for internal clutter. I could feel the binding of every single book on those shelves, but of course Tracy's not interested.
"I'm just looking for comics."
We're all just looking for comics.