Criminal: Lawless

After starting the series with the unusual and refreshing Coward, Lawless treads on more familiar grounds in the criminal world. Writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips still find a way to craft their own brand of noir-infused crime while playing with a lot of clichés of the genre.

Tracy Lawless is about as rough as you can get. After being convicted for a crime, he decides to join the army instead of doing jail time. Upon returning home decades later, he discovers that his brother Ricky died during his last crime job. Posing as a driver looking for a heist, Tracy decides to infiltrate his brother’s own crew and find his brother’s killer.

Playing on the primal quest for vengeance, Tracy is given a tiny bit of the moral high-ground as someone seeking to satisfy the laws of justice. However, Brubaker from the onset makes Tracy a despicable character. His introduction as a character is killing a man for no apparent reason other than that he disgusts Tracy. The audience still wants Tracy to bring his brother to justice, but at no point is there any delusions about Tracy being a good person.

By setting the context of this quest for vengeance within the family, Lawless becomes a backdrop for exploring how criminal life and tendencies are often perpetuated through family. The titular family name is a family of violence and crime. Tracy and Ricky’s father was a violent man and Tracy only escapes Ricky’s dark, violent downward spiral through his life in the army, which allows him for a more controlled, directed expression of violence.

What’s radical and shocking about this examination of the criminal world is the burden of guilt and remorse placed upon these reprehensible characters. The moral weight of the acts committed by these characters weigh upon them and begin tearing away at their psyche. As perverted as it sounds, violence is a temporary release from this moral weight.

Lawless is a morally complicated, conflicted book. It’s a world full of reprehensible characters, but also characters that are broken and ooze with human fragility. These are not the cool, emotionless antiheroes of the movies, but the flawed heroes of Greek tragedies.

Of note on the art side is Val Staples returns as the colorist. While the color style is quite similar to Coward, the colors are a bit less of the sickly hues that made Coward as uneasy and unsettling. It still has a similar effect, but it’s not quite as jarring and dramatic as Coward’s look.

Lawless isn’t quite as good as its predecessor, but as a continuation of the series, it’s an excellent book. The way it plays on tropes of the genre but evolves into something more complex and sympathetic creates for a crime story that is far more human and compelling that the standard fare.

© 2015 James Blake Ewing