Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’s latest installment in their Criminal series, Cruel Summer, takes a step back from the grand machinations and schemes that make noir entertaining and focus on the individual characters and their struggles. As a sort of prequel to the Criminal line, it magnificently sets up why these characters become the people of these stories.
For the uninitiated, Criminal is a set of noir comics that follow different characters but are all set in the same universe. Cruel Summer focuses on the regularly mentioned but absent during the main series, Teeg Lawless. This character has always been important to the story but never portrayed until now.
The book begins with Teeg having his bail posted by his son, Ricky, who got the money by pretending to be the grandson of a wealthy senile man and stealing his diamond necklace. Not wanting his son to turn to crime, Teeg relentlessly beats him in punishment. To add to his rage, Ricky’s exploits have angered local crime bosses who were friends with the old man and say that Teeg must come up with $25,000 to compensate for the necklace and the trouble.
What comes next is a story told through multiple perspectives that all, to a degree, explore one question: what is “getting better”?
The book suggests that many ways in which people signal “getting better” are illusions for actually digging deeper into trauma and bad behaviors. Teeg first tackles this idea when he attends a funeral and notes how everyone acts like the deceased was a good person when everyone attending hated the person when they were alive.
Teeg, at his core, loves his son and wants both of their lives to be better, but all he’s known is pulling heists to make ends meet. He continues along this path until he meets Jane, who, like him, has lived a life of crime but has much higher ambitions. He falls head over heels for her and begins accepting her philosophy of doing large jobs that allow them many months of frivolous spending and merriment.
However, Ricky puts it perfectly stating well into the two’s relationship:
Everything here is better than the shithole they moved out of, the home he spent half his life avoiding. But this place isn’t home at all… It’s just some house they can’t afford. Someone else’s life.
Although Teeg thinks his life has gotten better for him and Ricky since he found Jane, nothing has changed besides the appearance of no longer being in a bad place. Similar messages pop up in the arcs of Jane, the private investigator pursuing Teeg, Dan Farraday, and Ricky’s best friend, Leo.
Jane’s views can be summed in one line:
I think that’s the best time to spend money… when it’s just a hopeful glint on the horizon.
She convinces herself life is getting better because she has an increasing amount of money to spend with each job, getting her closer to that dream of the heist that will allow her potentially years of relaxation.
Meanwhile, Private eye Dan Farraday hides his entitlement through a perverted sense of justice that he thinks will come from rescuing Jane, and Leo has his unique philosophy of becoming calmer and able to do what has to be done as he crosses more lines in his life.
Sean and Jacob Phillips, being masters at their craft, also match these themes in their art. Many scenes where characters are drunk or musing on their love and ambitions are tinted in pinks and lavenders like they see the world in rose-colored glasses. Masterful lighting and coloring ensure readers will realize when everything is an idealized vision of the characters or the grim, harsh reality of their lives.
Color is deeply important to this story. Sometimes the magenta is tinged with blue like the ideal is mixing with the melancholy, and at other times, the panels are a kaleidoscope of color, intensely increasing the intensity. It all blends seamlessly with the heavily shaded linework to create more emotion than the words alone.
Brubaker and Phillips took a heartfelt approach to one man’s denial and eventual downfall and embedded it with a relatable message: One can’t simply seek pleasure to avoid the dark parts of their life. It has to be addressed and worked on to be fixed. Otherwise, all that will remain is damaged goods with a new coat of paint.