The crime drama often struggles to find equilibrium. On one end, there are crime stories that can often romanticize or glamorize the crime world. On the other end, crime dramas can often be exploitative and grimy for the sake of being sensational. Criminal: Coward is one of those rare crime stories that finds the perfect equilibrium between the two, thrilling without ever feeling adventurous and grimy without ever being exploitative.
Cowards’s protagonist is a key element in allowing the story to maintain that balance. Leo is an unusual criminal. He has a set of rules he follows at all times. It’s not this method that is strange, but the content of his rules such as he won’t do a job he doesn’t lead and he refuses to use guns. Leo’s unusual nature allows Ed Brubaker to write a story that is able to pull off something truly masterful.
As Leo navigates the world of criminals, he enters into many familiar characters. The woman with a shadow hanging over her head, the dirty cop with the skeptical partner, and the loose cannon. However, as the story unfolds, these characters do not always turn out as one might expect. These are not types, but complicated, psychologically whole characters pushed to the ends of themselves.
Part of what separates the world of Criminal from many crime stories is how the characters are often mundane, everyday people simply trying to survive. This leads to a set of character that are sympathetic and human. The world of Criminal is filled with characters in various forms of desperation. Criminal life is not so much a choice, but something they’ve felt is their only path through life, the only way to make ends meet.
Sean Phillips’s art reinforces many of these ideas. Most of Phillips’s drawings go for a more realistic and detailed look. The attention to detail, particularly with human figures, is a strong feature of the artwork. The wrinkles of a shirt, the lines of a furrowed brow, and the glint of an eye are the kinds of tiny details that make Phillips’s work visually rich and grounded.
The coloring is also a key feature for the tone of the book. Muted purples and blues along with sickly greens and pinks permeate the book and add that sense of grime and oppression to the world of crime. Elizabeth Breitweiser’s coloring style is perhaps one of the unsung, key elements of Brubaker and Phillip’s work. She adds that extra sense of atmosphere and style that makes their comics feel uneasy.
Simple images say just as much—if not more—than any words that come out of the character’s mouth. A woman smoking a cigarette in the midst of a serious conversation or Leo descending a set of stairs in the midst of a rain convey a lot about the characters and the world they inhabit. It’s that strong adherence to the power of visual storytelling that makes Coward such a compelling and memorable work.
As a work of crime fiction, Criminal: Coward is a magnificently crafted, unusual work. The atypical protagonist and the complex characters inhabit a world that is neither romantic or pulp. It’s the mundane world where, when pushed against the walls, extraordinary means are taken. The result is something fantastic and exemplary in an often messy and complicated genre.