Criminal volume 4: Bad Night


By Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips (Image Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-63215-260-2

Do you recall the early 1950s? I wasn’t actually there, but for comics fans it was a time of astounding promise. Every conceivable genre of funnybook could be found on US newsstands (except porn, I guess): children’s fantasies, teen comedies, licensed books, war, super-heroes, horror, science fiction and especially crime stories.

Bad guys living (and dying) bad lives were everywhere, and don’t even get me started on movies. Technicolor™ was still expensive so the concerns and sensibilities of the public were most commonly realised through gritty, grainy, moody Film Noir vehicles.

This populist pulp-paperback and B-Movie movement towards cynical post-war realism grew into an art form all its own while nobody was looking…

What has this to do with the book in question? Nothing really except that when this series first came out the comics industry was enjoying a mini-revival and resurgence of straight crime thrillers. Moreover, collaborators Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips were then forging a creative partnership that seemed incapable of setting a foot wrong: each stand-alone story arc building on the previous caper, getting tougher, stronger, meaner and better…

The entire series was repackaged and re-released as a uniform set of trade paperbacks in 2015 with this fourth captivating collection featuring Criminal volume 2 #4-7 (July-November 2008) – possibly the most experimental tale in the entire canon.

Jacob Kurtz has got a lot of rage to deal with. The mild-mannered sap was never an angel. In fact he used to be a pretty good counterfeiter. However, when his wife disappeared he was the cops’ prime suspect in her murder until the body finally turned up, clearly the result of an automobile accident.

In the meantime of course Jake had been targeted by remorseless, hard-line Police Detective Max Starr, who had gone totally old school on him to secure a confession the widower could not make. Those injuries healed pretty quickly but were nothing compared to what his wife’s mobster uncle Sebastian Hyde did to him…

Crippled, ostracised and a total recluse, these days Jacob spends his time and makes his living crafting the savagely ironic comic strip Frank Kafka, Private Eye, gaining petty points by making the cops – especially the funnybook version of Starr – look like utter idiots.

Still, things are tough. Kurtz is in constant pain and afflicted with crippling insomnia, and even when he does drop off for a couple of hours the idiot vigilante haunting his neighbourhood pulls some crazy stunt like torching a drug-house and another night gets shot to hell…

When all else fails, Jacob heads for the all-night Blue Fly Diner to pass the time reading and shooting the breeze with Bob and Pat

This one Bad Night, however, even that surcease is denied him as a young punk starts beating on the girl he’s with and Jacob is drawn in. Nobody thanks him for it; not the girl and certainly not cartoon super-Dick Frank Kafka who is always beside him, annoyingly telling the pen-pusher what a real man would have done…

Driving home in the pouring rain, Jacob picks up a drenched hitchhiker and is horrified to discover it’s the girl from the diner…

And so starts a devious and convoluted saga of sexual obsession, subterfuge, big scores, torture and vengeance as she seduces Jacob into theft and murder and far, far worse. Iris is a crazy lady with lots of problems and a body to die for, but she’s working to someone else’s hidden agenda and, after all the double-dealing and bloodletting peaks, the slick conspirators learn a dreadful truth: it’s Noir; everybody’s got a secret they haven’t shared yet…

What they should have wondered from the start is where would a counterfeiter-turned-cartoonist could learn so much about violent crime… and especially how to get rid of bodies?

Filled with twists, turns and even the occasional stunning plot-somersault, this viciously effective and deceptively scary yarn is dark, brutal and fearfully compelling: a tale of the other side of society which affords an irresistible view of raw humanity. These are stories that can’t be ignored… so don’t.
© 2008, 2015 Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips. All rights reserved.