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"That's when Ivan explained it to me. About the rules and how they protect you...Sometimes even from yourself. You learn these rules over time, through hard experience. And you never write them down, but you never forget them. They're the rules that will keep you out in the world. Safe."
— Leo Patterson, "Coward"
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From writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips (who also did Sleeper and Incognito), Criminal is a deconstruction of the crime genre, through the lens of thieves and con-men. Each trade paperback is a separate story arc, which can be read on its own, but each is a part of the same universe and take place in the same city. The same background characters show up, with characters going to the same bar.

Volumes so far:

  • Coward: Five years after Leo Patterson survived the disastrous "Salt Bay Job," another criminal named Seymour and Jeff, a crooked cop, try to recruit him for a plan to heist diamonds from a police evidence truck. A notable deconstruction of A Simple Plan, when not only don't things turn out the way Leo thought, but they get worse.
  • Lawless: Tracy Lawless, the older brother of Leo's friend Ricky Lawless, gets out of military prison and goes AWOL to find out how his brother died. A deconstruction of Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
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  • The Dead and the Dying: Three stand-alone, interlocking stories set in 1972, setting up the backstory of the generation of crooks before Leo, Tracy and Ricky.
  • Bad Night: The writer of the comic strip Frank Kafka, P.I. gets drawn into a complicated scheme, involving impersonating FBI agents.
  • The Sinners: Continuing from the end of Lawless, Tracy Lawless investigates the string of seemingly perfect murders of the underworld's top men, while someone from his military life comes looking.
  • The Last of the Innocent: A Deconstruction of Archie Comics that follows former all-American teenager Riley Richards as he returns to his old hometown Brookview upon a family emergency and finds his memories of his carefree youth impacting on life with murderous consequences.
  • Wrong Time, Wrong Place: Teeg Lawless is trapped behind bars with a price on his head, doing anything he can to survive, while Tracy Lawless celebrates his twelfth birthday riding shotgun on a mission of death.
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  • My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies: Teenage Ellie has always had romantic ideas about drug addicts, those tragic artistic souls drawn to needles and pills have been an obsession since the death of her junkie mother ten years ago. But when Ellie lands in an upscale rehab clinic where nothing is what it appears to be... she'll find another more dangerous romance, and find out how easily drugs and murder go hand-in-hand.
  • Bad Weekend: Jacob looks after his former boss, comics artist Ethan Crane who is supposed to be honored at a comic convention. Ethan asked for Jacob for a certain reason.

Tropes found in Criminal:

  • Anti-Villain: Many characters, particularly Leo and Tracy. Neither of them are angels, but they take no pleasure in the awful things they do.
  • Art Shift: Used frequently in "The Last of the Innocent" when Riley flashes back to his idyllic youth, complete with Archie-style visuals. It makes one last switch at the very end to punctuate Riley finally getting what he wanted...after getting away with murder three separate times.
  • Asshole Victim: Teeg Lawless. Delron, Jeff, Seymour and Roy-L.T. Oh, and Sebastian Hyde. And everyone Father Mike's soldiers killed.
  • The Bartender: Gnarly, who turns out to have his own Dark and Troubled Past, in The Dead And The Dying.
  • Batman Gambit: Leo's an expert at making these, and always includes a way for him to escape.
  • Betty and Veronica: Deconstructed in "The Last of the Innocent", and in particular deconstructing the Trope Namer; Riley Richards, a clear analogue of Archie, after years of unhappy marriage to the shallow, manipulative and adulterous "Veronica", realises he really should have stayed with the "Betty" instead. His solution to the problem... gets ugly.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Leo may look like a coward, but don't hurt the people he cares about. Ever.
  • Bitter Sweet Ending: The best we're likely to get thus far.
  • Broken Bird: Danica. It's hard to imagine someone more broken.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Delron gets off on this. Tracy Lawless isn't above it if he decides the victim deserves it
  • Con Man: Plenty of characters, including Leo, Ivan (Leo's father's old partner, a master pickpocket succumbing to Alzheimer's and heroin addiction), and Leo's friend Donnie - who milks crowds by faking epileptic attacks, despite the fact he is epileptic.
  • The Chessmaster: Played straight by crime boss Sebastian Hyde, and subverted by Leo, who is a master planner, but his fate is sealed and no rules can save him from his own true nature.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Pretty much everyone.
  • Dirty Cop: Jeff.
  • Downer Ending: ALL the frigging time. The Dead and the Dying takes the cake, but 'The Sinners' comes close.
  • Evil vs. Evil: Gnarly is the closest to a truly good person in the cast, and he does his best to not get involved.
  • Expy: Delron seems to be an even nastier version of the mob enforcer played by Joe Don Baker character in the 1970s Film Noir Charley Varrick.
    • Most of the characters in "The Last of the Innocent" are grown-up versions of characters from Archie Comics transplanted into a noir setting and subjected to a process of deconstruction. A private detective also appears who is a grown-up version of Encyclopedia Brown. There's also a businessman who appears to be a grown-up version of Richie Rich.
  • Fiery Redhead: Greta
  • Foreshadowing: Leo starts off explaining how his father broke his own rules and how Leo's not going to do that. What do you think happens towards the end of the storyarc?
  • The Generic Guy: Felix disparages Riley as someone who fades into the background whenever you aren't looking at him. Gets a very nasty Call-Back when Riley gets away with everything he did.
    Riley: ...the last person — maybe the only person — who really knew me is lying on a slab in the Brookview city morgue. So now I can be whoever I want.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Teeg's Villain Episode uses this.
  • Generation Xerox: A recurring theme, as the modern day characters try to avoid the roles of their criminal parents. The local bar isn't called the Undertow for nothing.
  • Karmic Death: Happens here and there. Notably to All the bad guys of 'Coward' courtesy of Leo. Sebastian Hyde and Father Mike receive theirs thanks to Tracy's plans.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • Riley Richards in "The Last of the Innocent" gets the girl, gets millions of dollars after screwing his father-in-law out of his business and all signs indicate that, despite the suspicions of the private detective hired to investigate his wife's death, will get away with murder and causing the death of his childhood best friend.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Seymour knows just how to push Leo's buttons, while Sebastian Hyde turns an embarrassing situation around to end up with Tracy Lawless in his pocket.
    • Riley Richards
    • Despite countless crimes, Hal Crane is forgiven by many in the comics community.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Hal Crane ended up being a scab, offering to replace his hero, Archie Lewis, after Lewis demands more ownership and health insurance. Lewis found out, and crashed his car with Hal inside. Hal survived and is forever haunted with guilt at being responsible for causing his mentor's death.
  • Not-So-Harmless Villain: Leo is the one who killed Teeg Lawless. He goes on a royal rampage at the end as well.
  • The Plan: Leo comes up with these in his spare time. Seymour and Jeff pull one on him, however.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Volatile Ricky is one explosive Red to the stoic Tracy's Blue.
  • Secret Secret-Keeper: Freakout knew the Brookview Stalker was actually Principal Beezwax, but he kept mum because he eloped with Mrs. Murtry, whom he was fond of. He promises Riley that he'll keep his secret too, but Riley can't trust a tweaker, even if he is his best friend, and makes sure he dies of an overdose.
  • Signs of Disrepair: The "n" on the local Speakeasy's sign burned out in the 50s, and the Undertown has been known as the Undertow ever since.
  • Sinister Minister: Father Mike, who indoctrinates young men as soldiers in a war on crime.
  • Show Within a Show: Frank Kafka, P.I., written by Jacob K., a Shout-Out to Franz Kafka and his type of stories.
  • Spiritual Successor: To Frank Miller's Sin City.
  • Sympathetic P.O.V.: Considering the series title, it's unsurprising that most of its cast has pasts blackened by crime and violence, but most of them are portrayed as making hard choices in difficult situations. Amazingly, Teeg Lawless, Tracy and Ricky's violent, alcoholic thug of a father, is called a monster by everyone who knows him, but the story that focuses on him depicts him as a tragic figure, hopelessly out of control in his life and in constant pain without understanding why.
  • Technical Pacifist: Leo is by no means a pacifist, but he dislikes guns and refuses to work with them. As he puts it, "And I won't work with people who don't use their brains before their bullets..."
  • Villain Episode: Teeg's chapter in The Dead And The Dying.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Roy-L.T. to Jeff's partner. Father Mike to Evan.

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