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Cat's Cradle: 'Cruel Summer' is cruel entertainment

Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips have been creating some of the best noir and crime media in recent memory. Their Reckless series is a fresh take on Pulp Hero. Over time, they’ve developed an interconnected series of delinquents and comic book creators. The narrative tissue that connects them? Crime.

Recently, the creator’s series Cruel Summer has been collected into paperback, making it widely accessible through local libraries. The comic is structured around a series of vignettes that build to the death of the main character, Teeg Lawless. 

Starting in 2006, Criminal has hinted at the death of this series mainstay. Telling stories before and after his death, the timeline of the Criminal series has been divided: pre and post-Lawless. It’s an example of normative determinism that works in favor of the piece. 

Criminal was originally published under the Marvel Icon banner, where creators could explore unique and adult-oriented comics with full creative support. Brubaker developed a name for himself with work on X-Men and creating The Winter Solider. While Sean Philips lent his styles to Marvel Zombies series.

Together, the pair went back to a genre of comic diluted by years of genre cross-pollination: crime. It wasn’t uncommon for Batman to solve “super crimes” involving eccentric “heists” and “riddles.” However, crime moved away from its noir roots⸺the inter-human⸺that Brubaker/Philips drew upon.

From the start, Criminal is unique. In the first volume, “Coward,” we meet series mainstay Leo as he plans a heist that goes wrong. Having a stylized art and punchy dialogue, the series could easily be forgotten as a simple story of revenge. 

Brubaker’s writing conveys character nuances and interpersonal histories, while Sean Philip’s use of tenebrism develops a sense of mystery. Characters' eyes, muzzles and cigarettes flash from the dark for sharp reveals. Philips simple art and Brubaker’s winding text add a narrative element to the piece in line with a Richard E. Starke novel.

Cruel Summer is no exception. Collecting an assortment of issues from the series re-launch, the story follows a single narrative arc: the death of Teeg Lawless. The death being established from the outset allows the graphic novel to breathe. Each individual issue follows a different character and theme: detective story, teen crime and heist. By the conclusion each element of the book forms a cohesive image.

What stands out about Cruel Summer is Jacob Philips' work on colors. Ever since his debut with My Heroes have Always Been Junkies, he’s been a part of the Brubaker/Philips team. Contributing a pop art style that stands in dynamic opposition to his father’s controlled lines and shadows.

Jacob Philips brings a sense of color to the space that most colorists ignore. He adds a gradient of style that is often blocky and surprising. Panels become more dynamic. A character in their car is brought to life.

The orange of the cigarette end, the red light of another tail light, the after image of street lamps, a dark blue of a back seat and face in shadow. Jacob Philips brings a color to the page that looks haphazard. It conveys a scene or mood in an impressionist style.

Cruel Summer is the next chapter in the long-running crime series that brings a lot to love for new fans and old, while in a similar vein maintaining a long tradition of crime fiction. Given the steady decline of the genre over time, Criminal is a rare surprise in the comic scene that audiences can’t go without.

Benjamin Ervin is a senior studying English literature and writing at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Benjamin know by emailing him be425014@ohio.edu.

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