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Review of Criminal: The Sinners

Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.

Criminals across the city are being murdered. No one pays the killings much mind at first; violent lives ending violently isn’t a surprise. When a couple of organized crime leaders are killed and left to be discovered, though, the other criminals with something to lose take notice. Sebastian Hyde, determined to keep his grip on organized crime, knows he can’t look weak by letting his allies get murdered without permission. He sets his moody, wayward button man, Tracy Lawless, to the task of finding out who ordered and carried out these executions. Even though he’s a soldier by training and not an investigator, Lawless takes the job on the condition that it’ll clean the slate between him and Hyde.

With little in the way of leads, Lawless begins his amateur, clandestine investigation, which involves the constant threat of violence, asking questions of people living in a deceptive, secretive underworld. In the meantime, even more criminals of note are gunned down. As Lawless searches for the killer, he is unaware that the Army C.I.D. has sent Special Agent Yocum to recover him and bring him back into the service, meaning Lawless is being trailed even as he’s trailing those responsible for multiple murders across the city.

Cover to Criminal: The Sinners, art by Sean Phillips.

Cover to Criminal: The Sinners, art by Sean Phillips.

Wash This Sinful World Clean

As indicated by the title, this volume deals with fallen people trying to make their way in a corrupt world. Tracy Lawless is hardly a saint, what with him cheating with Elaine Hyde and being willing to use trickery and violence to solve his problems. He does keep his word, though, and along with not wanting to kill people just because he’s told to do so, he appears less despicable than most of the other characters. Sebastian Hyde is controlling and spiteful. Chester seems to enjoy the criminal life. Father Mike comes across as especially vile for recruiting children into his deranged campaign for vigilante retribution. In particular he works as a good foil for Lawless as both men are veterans who are using skills they’ve learned and adapted from their wartime lives now in service of illegal activities in the civilian world (issue 5). Lawless must recognize this similarity, which is why he thinks war is where he belongs (issue 5). There’s no room in a regular life for the kind of destructive violence Lawless knows is in him, creating a tragic sense that people like him can never belong anywhere, which is the same sentiment seen in stories that share this worldview, such as The Searchers, Shane, Logan, and Seven Samurai.

To go along with the religious iconography, the religious overtones surface throughout the graphic novel, most overtly with Father Mike using Christianity and children in his allegedly righteous crusade to reclaim the streets. The kids he employs are set against Sabrina Hyde, who is silly and spoiled but not evil, and her brother, suffering and dying of cancer in the background of the whole story, condemned to pain and death for no reason. There are also some discussions and actions, with varying degrees of subtlety, that explore the idea of trying to live with dignity in corrupt or degrading circumstances. As Criminal is a series of noir crimes stories, the characters who try to do the right thing frequently suffer. Tracy Lawless, who admits to not always doing the right thing, also accepts his own torment, saying on multiple occasions that he did it to himself and that he deserves it (issue 5). From the start, readers are meant to question who, if anyone, is innocent, especially when the identities of the killers are revealed.

Accompanying this theme is the constant question about inevitability in the Criminal series. Many characters wonder if things could be different, and the final thoughts in this volume return to this question. Lawless reflects on his failures as a man, a brother, and attempted protector, realizing, “And he knew that was why Evan had gotten to him. Another sweet kid pulled under the endless tide. It was always dragging them out... to oblivion, to nothingness. He wished he’d never come home” (issue 5). Lawless believes this path was set out before he even returned home in volume two, and there are numerous other symbols throughout, such as the Undertow Bar, all suggesting this same grim predestination.

Cover to an edition of Criminal: The Sinners, art by Sean Phillips.

Cover to an edition of Criminal: The Sinners, art by Sean Phillips.

The Endless Tide

While this volume can stand alone, its themes and characters are deepened and made better by having read some of the prior volumes in the series. While the quick exposition explains some of the connections between characters it does miss some of the flavor, such as when Hyde says to Tracy things like, “You really are just like your dad sometimes” and “First time I wanted to shoot your dad was over a woman, too” (issues 1, 5). This relationship between Sebastian Hyde and Teeg Lawless is explored, along with the kind of men they were in their youth, in Volume Three. Volume Two explains the how’s and why’s of Tracy Lawless returning to the city. This broader scope helps to underscore the theme of inevitability as readers can see how choices made in the past still carry weight generations later, possibly suggesting characters like Tracy and Sebastian were no less doomed than Elaine’s son, dying of cancer through no fault of his own. Reading at least those earlier graphic novels enriches this one.

The art and color by Phillips and Staples respectively always set the mood and pull the reader along at the right pace. It lacks some of the dynamism and nontraditional panel layouts of superhero comics, and it isn’t as over-the-top as Frank Miller's Sin City, but it doesn’t need to be. The art fits with the story, giving readers exactly what they need.


Brubaker, Ed; Phillips, Sean. Criminal: The Sinners. Image, 2015

  • Criminal | Image Comics
    The bestselling crime series CRIMINAL returns to print in strikingly designed new editions from Image Comics, starting where it all began with a new take on noir that turned the heist story on its head and created a whole new underworld for BRUBAKER