Michael Carlson
9 min readSep 24, 2022

Books discussed in this essay: Criminal: The Last Of The Innocent (2011) Criminal: Wrong Time, Wrong Place (2016) and Criminal: Bad Night (2009) Criminal: Lawless (2010) Criminal: The Sinners (2015)

all by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

Once upon a time, comic book fans would point to the ways the medium’s story-telling could emulate the movies, even back to the Forties, say Will Eisner’s splash pages; the angles of his drawings’ point of view. In the Fifties there was Bernie Krigstein’s famous sequence set in the post-war New York subway, about the encounter between two survivors of concentration camps, drawn for Al Feldstein’s story “Master Race” in the first issue of EC’s Impact. It’s a noirish story, and it’s presented in many ways like a film noir. But it goes beyond that.

final panels for Bernie Krigstein’s Master Race

Five decades later, Art Spiegelman reviewed a collection of Krigstein’s work in The New Yorker, of all places, and while it’s worth searching that whole review out, one paragraph speaks directly to what impressed me so much about two editions of Criminal, the long running series of graphic novels written by Ed Brubaker and drawn by Sean Phllips which I happened to read recently. Spiegelman writes:

The two tiers of wordless staccato panels that climax the story have become justly famous among the comics literate. They have often been described as “cinematic,” a phrase thoroughly inadequate to the achievement: Krigstein condenses and distends time itself. The short chase that ends Reissman’s life takes up about the same number of panels given over to the entire Hitler decade; Reissman’s life floats in space like the suspended matter in a lava lamp. The cumulative effect carries an impact — simultaneously visceral and intellectual — that is unique to comics.

I have written before about Brubaker and Phillips’ noirs. Phillips gets the visual atmosphere perfectly, and think about how that sets the writer free. These graphic novels are condensed by the fact that so much description is given in the drawing; not just the settings, but the points of view, the relationships, and the movement. But I wrote reviewing Lawless (2010) that atmosphere is the first thing viewers always absorb when they watch noir movies; shadows and cigarette smoke are the touchstones of much modern…

Michael Carlson

Yank doing life w/out parole as UK broadcaster & writer. @carlsonsports. Covers arts, books, film, music, politics & uh, sports. Accept no substitutes