Ed Brubaker on His Burgeoning "Criminal" Enterprise

Wed, December 12th, 2007 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Dave Richards, Staff Writer

On sale now: "Lawless," the latest collection of "Criminal" stories, featuring an introduction by Frank Miller

The lives of killers and thieves are often short, ugly, and brutal, but as writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips have proven with their hugely acclaimed series "Criminal," from Marvel Comics' Icon imprint, such people make for compelling comic books. A legion of fans has already discovered "Criminal" in the pages of the monthly book and in "Coward," the first collection released last year. Now, Brubaker and Phillips are giving new readers two chances to discover their Eisner Award-winning series. The first comes today with the release of "Lawless," the second "Criminal" trade paperback. The next chance comes in February when Volume 2 of "Criminal" launches with an al- new #1 issue and format. For all the details, CBR News spoke with Brubaker about all things "Criminal."

When Ed Brubaker began penning "Lawless," he had no idea the story's star, Tracy Lawless, would so quickly become one of his favorite creations. "Most of the characters I write talk a lot or narrate themselves a lot," Brubaker told CBR News. "With Tracy I felt like I was approaching a complicated character from the outside. All the flashbacks in the arc were fun to do but it was also about trying to write minimally and with a certain detachment because Tracy's detached from just about everything. He's the son of a cold blooded killer and thief who grew up to become a cold blooded killer himself in a lot of ways, yet he can't abide any abuse of the women around him. He's just a real complicated character and because he's so bottled up inside he was a lot of fun to write."

Chester scene from "Lawless"
It's Tracy's activities in "Lawless" that draw the attention of one of the most powerful recurring characters in "Criminal," Sebastian Hyde. "He's the richest man in town," Brubaker explained. "He's not a Kingpin, he's more of a corrupt businessman who has his hand in a lot of different pies. There's a book called 'The Outfit' about how the Chicago Mob influenced society and how it ran as a business even though the business was mostly crime but they also helped get JFK elected. Hyde is the top guy in an organization like that. He's the guy that no cop or politician wants to cross. He's untouchable.

In "Lawless," readers also got their first glimpse of the enigmatic Chester, the chief enforcer of Sebastian Hyde. "Chester is a smart operator and a very tough guy. Could he take Tracy Lawless in a fight? Who knows? Maybe we'll find out some day," Brubaker said. "Chester is a character who just sort of sprung to life on the page. He became this very smart character. Around town if he walked into a room it's the same as if Sebastian Hyde did.

"He was just going to be another guy but suddenly there was this whole history between him and Jacob, the cartoonist who helped Tracy make his fake IDs," Brubaker continued. "Chester is the one who crippled him and we'll find out why later. It's kind of a complicated story."

Sebastian Hyde scene from "Lawless"
Sam West, the alias Tracy uses in "Lawless" is a nod to two of the pen names of crime fiction writer Donald Westlake. Fans might have noticed some more homages to the work of some of Brubaker's favorite crime fiction writers in the arc as well. "Most of the town names are all nods to crime fiction," the writer confirmed. "Bay City [the home of most of the characters in 'Criminal,'] was what Raymond Chandler referred to Santa Monica as whenever he was writing about L.A. Santa Teresa was the town Ross Macdonald has his character Lew Archer based out of. And Center City is the town where the movie 'The Driver' with Ryan O'Neil takes place."

Another legendary author whose influence can be felt in "Criminal" is Brubaker's friend Frank Miller, who wrote the introduction to "Lawless." "Frank's much busier now that he's in film but we have the same lawyer," Brubaker remarked. "So I gave my lawyer a copy of 'Coward,' the first 'Criminal' collection, to give to Frank. I had mentioned if he'd liked it I'd love to get an intro from him but I was expecting a process. Instead I got this intro from him out of the blue. So it was awesome."

"Lawless" closes out the first volume of "Criminal," and when Volume 2 launches in February, 2008, the series will come with better paper, contain more content and cost only fifty cents more. Explained Brubaker, "Magazines re-launch with a new volume all the time and since we're expanding to 40 pages an issue, adding more to both the main story and the articles section, it just felt like that. I really consider 'Criminal' a magazine. We're still comic-sized and the trade paperbacks are collections of the stories we serialize but the total package are the individual issues.

"Criminal" re-launches in February, 2008 in a new expanded format
"Each issue is its own thing with the articles, the letter pages and those great illustrations of Sean's that you can't get anywhere else. If we're going to expand upon that it just seemed to me like why not do a new #1 issue?"

The other reason for a new volume and new #1 issue of "Criminal" is to generate interest in the series from new readers and new retailers. "Obviously, when you relaunch with a new #1 you're trying to increase sales to a certain degree," Brubaker said. "I'm happy with what we're selling now, it's more than what I expected by about 25 percent or so but I still feel like there's people out there who want the book and can't find it. I keep trying to find ways to promote the book and boost sales without doing variant covers and stuff like that because I don't feel the book we're doing is that kind of gimmick book. It's a book for readers. So by taking advantage of the press, the critical acclaim and relaunching with a new #1 issue maybe we'll be able to snag some of those retailers who are on the fence about the book or some of those readers who've heard a lot about the book but haven't actually seen it."

"Criminal" vol. 2 begins with "Second Chance in Hell," the story of Gnarly, the owner of The Undertow, a bar seen frequently in the comic. Sebastian Hyde features in the story, as we learn he and Gnarly grew up together. "Most of it takes place in the early '70s," Brubaker said. "It doesn't go into modern times at all. The story is about the end of his boxing days, his relationship with the Hyde family and a girl that he Sebastian Hyde both knew."

Sean Phillips cover painting for "Criminal" (Vol. 2) #2
"Second Chance in Hell" takes place almost thirty years ago but readers will find the Gnarly of the '70s to be very similar to the man he is now. "I don't think he was ever that drastically different," Brubaker remarked. "I think he was a guy who always tried to do the right thing but turned a blind eye to the corruption of the world around him because he worshipped his dad. To him his dad was the toughest guy in the world.

"We'll learn Gnarly's father was the personal bodyguard of Hyde's father for most of his life. So he sort of grew up around that family. It's sort like in the '50s when a rich person would have a chauffeur who would live in the guesthouse and their kids would all play and grow up together even though they're from completely different worlds that don't intersect much.

"It's a really intense story. Some of the stuff in it is stuff I didn't anticipate writing. But when you have a main character who is black and his best friend is white you have to deal with race to some degree."

"Criminal" (Vol. 2) #2 cover with trade dress
Gnarly's story is the first of three stand-alone flashback issues of "Criminal" volume 2. "If you do read all three of them, there are moments where the stories overlap or something happens in the background of one that's the centerpiece of the next story," Brubaker explained. "But each one can be read as its own story."

The second flashback story involves Tracy Lawless' personal boogieman, his father Teeg Lawless. "Sean [Phillips] posted three or four rough versions for the cover of issue #2 on his blog and they totally kick ass," Brubaker gushed. "It's our first real glimpse of Teeg and it's pretty fucking brutal. I wasn't really crazy about the idea but I trusted Sean. When I saw the cover I was like, 'Oh my god!' It was just amazing. The story involves Teeg and his return from Vietnam and reintegration into the life of crime he came out of."

The third flashback story is told from the perspective of a femme fatale type character. "I always wanted to write a story where the Femme Fatale was the sympathetic lead," Brubaker explained. "You usually see them from the perspective of the guy they're screwing over or the men they're using. So I always thought it would be interesting to write from their point of view."

The writer is still deciding which story will come after the three initial issues of "Criminal" vol. 2. "I've got three different stories sort of fighting for placement," he said. "I've got the sequel to the first 'Criminal' arc, 'Coward']. I've got Tracy's next story and I've got a story completely separate from those. So I'm really struggling to find a balance. I wish I could write these stories twice a month but I've got too many other books to write and they need some time to gestate."

"Criminal" (Vol. 2) #3 cover sketch
Brubaker also has an abundance of ideas to fill the expanded articles sections of the new "Criminal." "I'm going to try and do a mix of stuff," he said. "So far everything has mostly been about old crime movies. There probably will still be a lot of stuff like that but in the first issue I have an interview with Charles Ardai who runs the Hard Case Crime publishing imprint. We talk about how he formed it and why. I'm also talking to [writer] Max Allan Collins about doing a round table with me and him discussing [pioneering comics artist] Johnny Craig.

"I want to run the gamut from books to comics to films and even TV shows. We'll have ten extra pages to fill every issue, so I'm trying to find ways to reward people who buy the individual comics. I'm happy that people buy our trades and I love that our first trade has done well but we can't continue to do those unless the comic sells well. So I want to give comic readers a package worth buying each time and the way to do that as far as I'm concerned is to make the total magazine something people look forward to and something they feel like they get their money's worth from."

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