Ed Brubaker may be best known at this point as the guy who killed Captain America (and, okay, still writes the best darn Cap comic, maybe ever); but for years, he’s also been working on crime comics for Marvel’s creator-owned Icon imprint, including the critically acclaimed series Criminal. A succession of stories about the seedy underbelly of the world, each takes a very different focus and look at what drives man – and woman – to crime.
A new storyline, “The Last Of The Innocent,” hits stores on June 1st, and without spoilers, we’ll say that it’s probably our favorite kick-off to a Criminal series yet. Steeped in comic book minutiae, but without losing any of the blisteringly whip-smart noir feel of previous series, Last of The Innocent would definitely be on our “do-not-miss” list for this next week, even if we weren’t lucky enough to snag a copy from Brubaker himself.
To give you a little preview of the book, we chatted with the writer about the genesis of this new story, what keeps bringing him and others back to crime fiction, and a shocking reveal about the future of Captain America:
MTV Geek: Okay, so let’s kick this off… This new volume of Criminal is basically just the most messed up Archie story ever, right?
Ed Brubaker: I don't want to get into too much detail, because I want readers to experience the story without too many preconceived ideas, just like you did. But my childhood love of Archie and Richie Rich and Little Lulu certainly informed the initial idea, as did Dr. Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent and EC's Crime Suspenstories and Mad. But the true heart of the story is more of a Patricia Highsmith-esque sort of tale... A regular guy driven to murder.
Geek: For those who are looking to pick this up, or have never picked up Criminal before, what’s this new series about?
EB: For me, it's that it's the ultimate crime comic. And by that I mean, we're attempting to do a story that works best as a comic, using the language and history of the medium at the same time, to try to tap into our readers own childhood memories as they read it. It's a crime comic about nostalgia and obsession, and who is more obsessed than lifelong comics fans? And as always, each Criminal arc is a fresh starting point, so it's always new-reader friendly.
Geek: Let’s talk about the decision to juxtapose two very different styles of art. It’s jarring – in a good way – to see this cartoony style in the middle of what is, ostensibly, a noir book.
EB: That's part of what I mean by using the language of the medium. We all read stuff like Archie and Swing with Scooter or Richie Rich or Tin Tin as kids, and at the same time, for me, I personally see my childhood as a very pure and innocent place, which it probably wasn't. But it felt like it. So, with this story, I made the decision to show all the flashbacks in a kids comic style. It's part of the larger theme, too, of showing these innocent kids growing into Dr. Wertham's nightmares of what kids in the 50s would turn into. It's something I find fascinating, I guess.
Geek: That said, there’s not a lot of crime, initially, in the book, where you usually start off a series in the middle of a seedy underworld. Was the idea here to see more what drives a man to crime? Or is that off base?
EB: No, that's exactly the idea. At least, the idea that drives the main plot. But we do see that Riley, our main character, is shown from the start to be involved in a lot of seedy shit, including big gambling debts to Mr. Hyde in the city. We even see Teeg Lawless early on in the issue. But yeah, it's a different kind of crime comic. It's a slow burn, but it's got a heavy share of crime and mayhem coming.
Geek: There’s also a very personal focus to this series, and this first issue in particular… Whatever you’re comfortable with, could you talk about that a bit?
EB: Sure. I'm as comfortable as I'll ever be talking about it, I guess. But the idea for this story came to me when I was sitting at my father's deathbed. I was suddenly finding myself wishing I could return to my childhood, and for me, that was about comics and cartoons and Rankin and Bass and the 60s and 70s... And I started thinking about Seduction of the Innocent and the ideas just collided a bit, I guess. But yes, while there are a lot of Easter Eggs and analogs - that's part of the language of comics and its history - but the story itself is probably the most personal thing I've ever written. I also think we're trying to take what we do to another level, by incorporating so many layers to this piece.
Geek: Getting back to the first question in a less jokey manner, you can certainly draw analogues between these characters and other fictional characters. Are you worried that might distract from the story, or does it just help to allow an easier entry point for the characters and their motivations?
EB: I have no idea, honestly. Analog characters are part of a rich history of comics and novels and film, which is why I decided to do this. The goal is to make sure the story works even if the references mean nothing to you. I hesitate to make the comparison, but you know, Watchmen makes sense whether you heard of the Blue Beetle and the Question or not. And Yojimbo and Fistful of Dollars work independent of each other, and the work they're both tributes to, Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest.
Geek: Let’s talk more generally: six or so Criminal volumes in, what keeps drawing you back to crime comics?
EB: Who can say? I am just a crime writer at heart, I guess. I like to write in all genres, but this is the one that for me holds the most sway. And let's face it, there are very few crime comics out there, so the field is pretty wide open for me and Sean.
Geek: How has the collaboration between you and Sean Phillips developed over the course of working on this series – and Incognito for that matter? What’s changed? What’s stayed the same?
EB: Sean is a good friend and my most constant collaborator, but nothing has really changed too much over the years. We know more of what the other will do with a scene or story, maybe, but Sean still insists I not tell him where any story is going, so he's always the first reader of the scripts.
Geek: How about with Val Staples? I think we’ve been seeing more colorists getting credit where it’s due, lately, which is great, but what does Val bring to the title?
EB: I think Val brings a certain tone to the colors that very few colors would try. We don't do a lot of rendering or effects, so Val's choice of color palette and the times where he does bring in an effect really help make the book work. I love the way he'll bring impact to the violent parts with flat reds, and things like that. It's just a different approach than a lot of books us, and it really helps us stand out among the pack on the shelves.
Geek: Noir, in general, seems to be in vogue, particularly with the recently released L.A. Noire video game… Why do you think we’re seeing this resurgence now?
EB: I think anytime the economy is in the toilet, crime and noir tend to do better. Because more and more people are wishing they could knock over a bank or kill their landlord, so they do it vicariously through reading and watching movies and playing video games. Although, I could be totally wrong about that.
Geek: Talk a little bit about releasing this book through Icon. I know a lot of fans think, “Oh, it’s just like Brubaker ‘releasing’ Captain America,” but I also know it’s not nearly as simple as all of that. What’s involved in getting Criminal out there, on your end?
EB: It's a bit like being the publisher, in that there's a lot of risk involved. Marvel doesn't pay us page rates or anything like that. And we choose our paper stock and set the print runs. Marvel does a lot for us, make no mistake about that, but it's not like putting out an issue of Cap. That's one of the main reasons I do so much promotion and add all the extras to the back of the single issues. And I always tell people, if you love this comic, then buy the single issues. We're reader-funded, really. We've been very lucky in doing well enough to keep going year after year, but it's by no means been easy. Thankfully, we've built up a healthy fan base for our work who seem very passionate about supporting it.
Geek: Do you see any crossover from your more mainstream work to books like Criminal?
EB: In readership? Sure. I meet a lot of fans at conventions who discovered my work because of Cap, and now read Criminal and Incognito and Gotham Central. There's no end to that. I don't think we'd have been nearly as successful without me becoming known through my higher profile Marvel work. And Kirkman giving us a 5-page color preview in Walking Dead certainly didn't hurt, either. I don't thank him for that enough.
Geek: What, in your mind, separates an idea you could use in a book like Captain America, from an idea you could use in Incognito or Criminal? Other than “crazy AIM scientists,” of course.
EB: That's pretty much it, actually. Except in my mind, I view Cap like writing a costumed version James Bond or 24 or something. You want big villains and big plots, but at the heart of it, there has to be characters people care about, and a mystery or suspense plot. My Cap is very much a spy book, underneath the surface.
Geek: Lastly, for a reader who only knows your main Marvel U work, and doesn’t really have an interest – at least now – in crime comics, why should they pick up the next issue of Criminal?
EB: Because if they don't, I will kill Captain America again. And this time, I mean it.