Sean Phillips and Ed Brubaker make the best comics. Why? because the only four colours they use are black.
Their partnership had been bubbling along for years, slowly refining, seemingly waiting for their true mindmeld moment of resplendent glory. It’s so truly rare for a comics partnership to have this time, and breadth of projects in which to percolate. And it’s even rarer for the two in question to obviously use that time wisely, preparing, and then striking with ferocity.
They spent a few years on SLEEPER at Wildstorm and it is one of those comics that holds a special place for me. It exists in one of those golden bubbles of beauty within your life. I had finished my broke ass time as a university student, I had excess cash as a working man, and I was stepping back into comics. There was a big gap of quality work to choose from so I caught an LCS while on holiday and I spent a few hundred bucks. I returned home and in my bedroom/office devoured a few trades and out of that my love for SLEEPER was born. I can still remember the view, the way it felt like I hadn’t been about 5 years away from the four colour page.
SLEEPER was brilliant, and it’s certainly a noir in the sense that Holden Carver is definitely walking down a finite path and you feel it with every issue. I devoured that series more than once and it all felt like delicious entree to the coming of CRIMINAL.
For me, CRIMINAL is the main course of the Phillips/Brubaker banquet feast. It’s got all flavours, it’s the thing you waited for, and it is the book all else is judged against. It is crime perfection. Brubaker has stated a view of noir that very similarly rests in the same stone cold cradle as my own held thoughts/beliefs. Noir is about the fact you know you are doomed and you walk straight into it anyway.
With their opening mini [because CRIMINAL had not arcs but rotating minis within the same world] titled COWARD, we watched a very dark heist tale unfold and something special was transferred. But this was just a warm up. Because while it’s good, hell, pretty great, it isn’t their masterpiece. And when you can be as good as these two, you don’t settle or stop at a plateau and set up camp when you could be hitting that next tip a little higher, until eventually you are floating above the mountain and finding footholds in the ozone layer.
Next came LAWLESS and it also ends with a downbeat ending, though in a way a polar opposite to the first story. COWARD has our getaway lead caught by the cops whereas LAWLESS has our hard-hitting lead getting recruited by the wrong criminals. All bad things. All just priming the pump. And while the next go around brings us 3 one-shot tales of woe, it’s the fourth story of CRIMINAL that showcases a perfect noir and is my personal favourite of the entire run, though actually not their masterpiece [which we’ll get to, all in good time – don’t worry, a good noir eventually gets to everything, burning all to the ground, none are safe].
BAD NIGHT is the most pure noir Phillips/Brubaker deliver in CRIMINAL. It is liquid noir, it is the black hole resultant from a Large Phillips/Brubaker/Hadron Collider, it is so damn good. For me, it’s the noir manifesto taught through narrative.
We are presented the tale of Jacob, a down on his luck cartoonist with a nasty insomnia habit. He does his best to illustrate/write a little serial strip called FRANK KAFKA P.I. [a background Easter Egg throughout CRIMINAL which here finally gets unpacked more as we finally meet its creator] and he wanders his city by night and into the dawn where rest finds him as he passes out. Already, we can see his lifestyle isn’t conducive to making the right decisions and Jacob certainly doesn’t seem to understand what those are, nor does he seem to overly care. He talks about seeing his world “from the other side of the vanishing points.” He’s a broken and lonely man.
He meets a girl in a diner and things go pear shaped around her aggressive boyfriend and after a fight, and his flight from the scene, his internal monologue talks about why he had to jet, and it’s the perfect way to view the choices made so often, and so poorly, by noir leads:
“You never know what’s going to happen when you let chaos into your life…suddenly, just like that, someone is dead and your whole life is going to hell.”
And that’s exactly true, this is how it happens. It’s incremental. One bad choice begets another in the hopes to solve or rectify the first. It’s a progressive slide that doesn’t just land you dead, it gets you dying.
Jacob’s creation, Frank Kafka, has a square-jawed role to play in the story because he’s like a noir Jiminy Cricket on his creator’s shoulder telling him how he should have handled it. Which Jacob knows is the wrong way, he knows it’s absurd, because he even states that “In the strip, of course, Frank takes far more punishment than he dishes out, but that’s kind of the point.” Here we have Brubaker illustrating the core tenet of a great noir story in his own noir story, through his creation’s creation [yes, also his creation, you follow?]. Jacob is following muddy footsteps even though he knows, hell he engineers the fact, that “Frank is always in over his head, always making the wrong decisions.”
But who hasn’t chosen a little wrong before to let their life get a little wrong? Jacob bumps back into the woman, Iris, and takes her home after she passes out in his car. She then creeps into his bed and the night they spend together can only be hinted at. This is why we all choose the wrong, because the little wrong we get in return is so lascivious that it can only be intimated in hushed tones, making it all the more desirable as the brain fills in gaps it didn’t even know could be created.
Jacob picks up Iris, he takes her home, he lets her into his bed, he steps out to procure some coffee/pastry breakfast [what passes for nutrition on Planet Noir], in doing so he allows her the opportunity to rob him, but not before he brags about a counterfeiter past, which then prompts her boyfriend to return to enforce a ‘favour.’ And who is to blame? Jacob understands straight away, “My stupid choices, my stupid bragging. / My general stupidity…had brought this on. I had done this to myself.”
And there is your tombstone quote when the noir finally walks up behind you and knifes you with your own blade. I had done this to myself. That’s what always makes it so heartbreaking.Look back at every single step he took, all decidedly poor choices. All dominos in his slow demise.
Very quickly the heartbreak turns to a moment of allowed insanity as Jacob finds himself held hostage in his house by Iris and her boyfriend. When the boyfriend leaves one night to do some jobs she’s left guarding Jacob alone and they instinctually flirt, and he’s instantly smitten with her. This lady is holding Jacob hostage, she’s sleeping with her boyfriend in his house in wildly rancorous ways, and then she’s still flirting with him and he wants to believe that deep down she’s hostage in her situation and life, that there’s something real between them, that he can save her. Jacob is a fool and you know he knows it, he’s written himself before no doubt, but he can’t help himself. This is why femme fatales work so well in noir, there’s nothing like a pretty lady to make a man commit to the worst decisions.
“Soon I was even more lost than before…I was a primal urge. / With no thought, no fear, just naked desire. / But I didn’t care. / I didn’t care about anything but how she felt under me…”
As the thoughts above play through Jacob’s head, as he tears Iris’ clothes away in a sequence that’s just pure regret waiting to be understood, Frank Kafka stands beside and watches it all and it’s difficult to tell if he’s grimacing in tortured understanding or if he’s clenching his jaw tight to cheer it on in the only restrained way he knows how to party.
Once Jacob gets sucked into the undertow of the heist being pulled and starts to think he might be killed once it’s over [a thought seeded and fertilised by Iris], he considers killing the boyfriend to set them both free. She certainly makes it seem like she’ll be stuck if he doesn’t, which is a perfect way to play on that saviour chord to make Jacob pull the trigger on the wrong call, again. But like any good noir lead, Jacob is mostly good for getting pistol whipped and lead around on the collar by a woman, so he doesn’t take the opportunity. But Iris does. The hole he is in gets deeper and deeper and he’s hoping there might just be quiet salvation down below, so why not keep digging. Noir is such a fool’s game.
The second half of the story only gets harder to observe as you constantly see off ramps where Jacob could get out, but he continually pushes forward because he’s sure there’s a promised land at the end. Why would they build a highway straight down into oblivion? Why, because that’s the cruelest joke of all, you have the illusion of progress.
We see Jacob continue to mentally pursue Iris, they sleep together again just so he’s really on the line. They then go separate ways until, like two magnetically charged elements, they come crashing back together with force. Is Jacob being played by her? Do I even need to answer that question by this stage?
As the story winds up, we discover a number of home truths about Jacob that make us better understand just how responsible he is in his own demise. He was a terrible husband, who drove his wife away, who would have mental episodes, who was made of nasty things. It’s probably the way he still sees himself as the hero towards the end that drives the final nail into his coffin. He discovers a cop with a grudge and Iris have set him up, and in discovering this he gets an opportunity to turn the tables. Except he only wants to upend one half of the table, which obviously means everything just spills awkwardly, and mostly on himself. All because he continues to think there’s something real there with Iris. Delusional until the end, where his lens shifts and he finally sees the truth. Is this revelation too late? Again, look inside, you already know, man.
Jacob is the protagonist of his story and yet he is the strongest antagonist he faces. Such is noir. There might be cops beating on you, women exploiting you, your car careening off a cliff, but it’s all on your shoulders, and every heavy burden only serves to drive you down over time. In those final moments Jacob understands the velocity of noir, “there was no stopping.”
The story should end with Jacob dying in a fiery inferno, but you get the feeling that might be an end to all the tension, so instead he’s dumped into traction, alive with his disturbed thoughts, and everyone else abandons him. “I’m all alone.” he thinks as we leave him and the fact he finally also understands this is the very worst end that could come from him.
For my money, and it’s always good round these parts, BAD NIGHT is my favourite CRIMINAL storyline whereas THE LAST OF THE INNOCENT [which comes later, after THE SINNERS] is probably their masterpiece [though it’s an inverted noir, one where all the wrong choices work for the asshole and we desperately don’t want them to, and he lives happily ever after, bastard]. But if you are digging this post, or most anything I ever bang on about, and you haven’t sampled CRIMINAL then just get it all. Hell, get every single thing Phillips/Brubaker have done together because it’s all amazing from SCENE OF THE CRIME right up until the recently wrapped FATALE.
But for this one night, imbibe, and know BAD NIGHT is your narrative guide through the darkly invisible terrain of noir.