I’m listening to Bruce Springsteen as I write this review because that’s what Criminal: Last of the Innocent #1 reminded me of as I read it. The latest arc in Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ ongoing series of crime comics, Last of the Innocent feels a little less noir than previous entries and more like an examination of exhausted homecomings and faded glory days… building towards a crime story.
Last of the Innocent #1 is bookended by crime elements; in the beginning pages Riley Richards leaves the big city to return to his small hometown to visit his dying father, and along the way he runs into some goons who want to collect some hefty debts. At the end of the issue Riley decides that murder is the only way to take care of his big city problems. But in the middle Riley finds himself reunited with old friends and familiar locations, and finds himself contrasting his boyhood brightness with his modern darkness.
And those friends and locations are familiar to us too, even if this is the first issue of Criminal you’ve ever read (and it could be - each arc is essentially standalone). See, Riley Richards is a stand-in for Archie Andrews, and his small town of Brookview is Riverdale. Brubaker has done to the Archie Comics family what Alan Moore did to the Charlton Comics heroes, putting them through the real world ringer and then revisiting them a decade after their glory days. But this isn’t just a cheap gritting up of kid’s comic characters; Brubaker is using these brightly colored characters as a way to examine nostalgia, and Sean Philips presents the flashbacks to the ‘good old days’ in a classic Dan DeCarlo cartoon style.
That style isn’t just a strong visual indicator of the nostalgia flashbacks, it also seems to be part of what Brubaker is getting at. This is just the first issue, and I’ll be interested in seeing where he takes this element (if at all) in future installments, but at one point Riley lays down with a bunch of old crime comics from his childhood (the story is set in 1982, so Riley was a kid in the late 60s, early 70s). Archie Andrews was having adventures with Veronica and Betty concurrent with EC Comics publishing Crime SuspenStories, and Brubaker seems to be interested in drawing both together.
I’ve long found Ed Brubaker to be one of the most interesting writers in mainstream comics; when it was announced that he was bringing Bucky Barnes back to life in Captain America I was full of cynical doubt, but he proved me wrong, creating not only one of the most interesting and complex characters in modern superhero books but making him the center of a compelling storyline. The same went for the death of Captain America, which seemed like a cheap event but turned out to be a really great story (although I still have my problems with the way it was resolved. Something about the 50 foot Red Skull sits wrong with me). And he’s done the same thing here; on the surface a crime story featuring grown up Archie Comics characters sounds like cheap exploitation, especially when you factor in the Jughead character as a cleaned-up drug addict, or Reggie having an affair with Veronica, who Archie ended up marrying. Brubaker isn’t doing it for the shock value, though. In just one issue he’s made these characters interesting and real (Freakout, the Jughead character, is especially touching. I fully expect him to die), and he’s set up a story that promises to be entertaining in its own right, with the added benefit of being a smart examination of nostalgia, which he’s positioning as as much of a killer emotion as jealousy, greed or rage.
Criminal: Last of the Innocent #1 is in stores today, and is highly recommended. You don’t need to know a thing about the other loosely connected Criminal stories to jump right in. You should, at some point, read the other Criminal stories, though, simply because they’re really fucking good.