If you’ve ever doubted the unspoken psychic ties between myself and King Geek himself, Austin Zook, you ought to know that we both purchased–independent of one another–pieces of Ed Brubaker’s CRIMINAL series within a 5-day span.
With that out of the way, I recommend Cruel Summer, written by Ed Brubaker and drawn by Sean Phillips.
With And Without Context
According to the afterword, Cruel Summer was intended as a bridge between two eras of the Criminal series: tying up Teeg Lawless’ loose ends and illustrating the origin story for Ricky Lawless.
When I left Barnes & Noble clutching my prize and cracked open this graphic novel, I was blissfully unaware of this until I’d torn hungrily through its pages and began foraging for more.
This all to tell you that Cruel Summer operates beautifully as a standalone piece. You need not understand the lore of the Criminal series to appreciate the tragedy laid out in this graphic novel’s pages.
The star of Cruel Summer is its broad concept.
Brubaker describes crime as a series of ripples, spreading freely, colliding with one another and radiating back to their epicenter. No single action exists without its consequences, and no matter how distant those consequences may seem at first, they always come back around eventually.
Through his tale, Brubaker sets ripples of four primary character into motion, and the readers get to watch as they bounce back and fold in on themselves with fatal results.
The primary driver of the story is Teeg Lawless, father to Ricky. Teeg, a career criminal, falls madly in love with a con-woman, who convinces him to trade in petty thefts for grand heists that will allow the two of them to live out their fantasies. Meanwhile, the woman, Jane, is being pursued by an infatuated private eye, bent on whisking her away from her brutish lover and his life of crime.
Undercutting all this, Ricky is finding his sea legs as a criminal, ripping off houses and arcades with his pal Leo.
Brubaker’s understanding of his characters and their motives gives him the threads with which to weave a tapestry of descent into gritty, bloody tales of no return. This tapestry, as its woven, makes each character both relatable and hateable in their own ways.
In particular, Ricky’s fumbling attempts to regain some control over his life in all the wrong ways is a compelling coming-of-age story you’re not going to find advertised on Netflix.
The final moments for select characters are wrenching. In these moments, Brubaker and Phillips operate as one to wallop readers with a lead-packed fist.
That leads me into a point I’d like to make, but frankly am having a hard time articulating. Phillips’ artwork is beautiful in a very classic graphic novel way. But in that sense, it’s not… innovative?
For much of the novel, the art serves as a vessel for the story instead of a standout medium itself. Nothing in particular about the art jumped out at me…
I can’t say whether Phillips used genre-classic art on purpose to fly under the radar until it really, truly mattered, but if he did, he succeeded.
There are two or three moments, consisting of 2-3 pages, where the story and art converge so perfectly, they force you to stop and catch your breath. This appreciation-via-deprivation far outweighs any underwhelmed feelings I had about the art prior. A net win for Phillips, to be sure.
The Final Verdict
I purchased Cruel Summer at 5:45 p.m. I had finished it before 8 p.m. It’s compelling. It’s gut-punching. It’s brutal. It’s beautiful.
It’s a Buy. A Goddamned Good Buy, too.
For more recommendations on what to read and what not to read, check out Geek Guy Buys: Read!