Yuge, tremendous spoilers for this issue and ‘Cruel Summer’ overall
Writing about comics on a website makes me want to come across as eloquent; to not just express my thoughts and feelings in blunt ways. But after reading the end of ‘Cruel Summer?’
While there’s a lot of narration, probably too much, explaining what every character is thinking, the punch this finale has can’t be denied. All of the important character threads and arcs that seemed to be forgotten to dry on a wire all tie together.
Awakening from a shotgun hit, Teeg finds that he’s still alive. He just got a chest full of bath salts. Dan Farraday has dragged Jane to his car with the heist money. Unfortunately, this isn’t the strongest opening with the heavily slathered-on narration.
But then we switch to Jane’s perspective, which makes the text blocks necessary. Farraday clearly thinks he’s the “good guy.” A “nice guy” rescuing this poor damsel in distress from the monstrous ogre, Teeg. Is he rescuing her? Well, kind of? I mean, we’ve seen from the very, very beginning how, for a lack of a better term, cruel Teeg can be. He’s not a good man. But in the Brubaker/Phillips world, like the Coen’s, greed and avarice bubble in all.
It reminds me of how Tennessee Williams describes his characters from A Streetcar Named Desire: “There are no good or bad people…some are little better or a little worse, but all are activated more by misunderstanding than malice…nobody sees anybody truly but all through the flaws of their own egos. Vanity, fear, desire, competition—all such distortions within our own egos—condition our vision of those in relation to us.” (I got that quote from the excellent book, The Contender: The Story of Marlon Brando by William J. Mann.)
So Jane fights back. Let’s not forget she’s no innocent lamb herself. I even described her as a femme fatale in previous issues. But in this moment, in this finale, she is not the antagonist. The “good guy” is. Does it make logical sense to attack the driver of a car? Hell no. Logic police can complain all they want. But in this moment, we’re right there with Jane. Like Teeg, we’re shaking our fists (crinkling our comics), gripping the seat (or the pages), growling: “GET HIM JANE.”
If that’s not brilliant writing right there that plays with the audience’s empathy and alliances, I don’t know what is. “F*cking men” indeed, Jane.
After a horrible car crash that breaks the samey-same panel layout to great effect (even spending a whole page to homage the end of The Killing)…we settle down in grief with Teeg. And once again, I’m thinking, man, why is there so much narrative text again? Some narration helps cement us in Teeg’s headspace, but this is too much. Where is this going? And then…Ricky feels guilty. And he tells his dad that Jane’s demise was his fault. “And then the world exploded.” To reiterate:
It almost makes me wonder if the text blocks are there to lull us into a false sense of security. We get so occupied reading that we lose track, ever so slightly, of the ramifications of the character’s actions before…bam.
Even Jacob Phillips’ colors are tamer this time around. Well, until they’re not. Again, this choice feels like an intentional one between the whole creative team. Jacob has given us a barrage of blaring, sickening neon and garish colors so when he pulls back, we inwardly sigh in relief—only for him to sucker punch us when we’re not paying attention. Point is, I would pay so much money for a creative commentary edition for every page and panel. Maybe Criminal isn’t quite as dense as I’m theorizing, but I care enough to wonder.
This just goes back to the classic position of artists and consumers. The artist can intend and plan or not plan whatever they want. But once it goes out into the world, like Robert Altman said, it turns into a sandcastle being taken off to sea. And Criminal is worth the extra mental leg-work.
There are certain elements that I could spin into negatives, like the excessive blocks of narrative text or the fact that Jacob Philips’ colors aren’t as bold and beautiful as previous issues. But the story, the characters, and the narrative mis en scene hit me so hard, it put me in major meditative, reflective mode to the point where I wonder if these flaws are actually intentional. Overall, I can’t wait to go back and reread ‘Cruel Summer’ now that its finale has erupted to see how the pieces fit together before Brubaker and the Philips’ glorious tore it all apart.