Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Criminal: The Last of the Innocent has been described as the most messed up “Archie” reimagining ever published, and that assessment is catnip for readers who frequent Riverdale. But this widely praised arc, trade Vol. 6 in the Criminal noir series, is much more than an exercise in taking beloved archetypes to hell. Brubaker and Phillips have crafted a harrowing portrait of unhappy adulthood and the longing for youth’s fleeting golden moments. If you’ve been alive long enough to collect a few scars and regrets, you don’t need any investment in Archie’s crew to fall under the story’s spell.
It’s the ’80s, and narrator Riley Richards is reluctantly leaving his home in the big city to visit his ailing father in picture-perfect Brookview. But not before assuring a bookie that he’ll be back in time to pay a big gambling debt. Fortunately, Riley has access to a lot of money. His wife is Felicity Doolittle (Felix for short), the gorgeous, loaded vixen he’s known since childhood.
And quelle surprise, theirs is a troubled, distant marriage with a prenup attached. Riley feels trapped, but not enough to walk away from the millionaire’s lifestyle to which he’s become accustomed. “I like being rich,” he says at one point. “People say money can’t fix your problems but in my experience, that’s bullshit.” A gambling habit is expensive, and VP positions at Doolittle Industries don’t grow on trees.
Being back in his hometown of Brookview triggers in Riley a powerful longing for the idealized old days of reading comics under trees and doing bong hits with his best friend, Jugh … uh, Freakout, now a recovering addict with a tenuous hold on sobriety. Phillips’ use of different art styles to differentiate the past from the present is brilliant. The stylized, sunny scenes from the ‘60s stand far apart from the darker, realistically rendered moments 20 years later.
There’s a sharp edge to the proceedings in those throwback panels, though. Felix calls the shots sexually and knows how to manipulate her suitors, just for kicks. Burdened by a crummy homelife, Freakout is always stoned and therefore comically hungry. “We got so high in 1968 that we actually tried to start a band,” Riley remembers. (A group of studio musicians was assembled in the late 1960s to perform as The Archies.)
Determined to hit the “reset” button on his life, especially after reuniting with the grown-up girl next door, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Gordon, Riley makes a series of calculated, horrifying decisions that he carries out with disturbing ease. It’s impossible to know until the very end whether his plans work, but by then, a heap of irreparable damage has been done. It’s not that he’s entirely without remorse. Riley’s just so pathologically self-centered that he’s willing to ruin others in the process of getting what he wants.
Thanks to Brubaker’s strong writing, it’s really not that hard to imagine these analogs for Archie, Betty, Jughead, Veronica and Reggie in HBO situations. Anyone can take formerly squeaky clean characters and drag them through the mud for shock value. Brubaker brings them to life his way and uses them to build an engrossing nail-biter that stands on its own. He also artfully weaves in secondary players like Miranda, a famous African-American singer Riley wishes he’d had the courage to date back when she was the only black girl in Brookview. Paging Nancy and Chuck!
The dysfunction gets a little too thick once or twice, most notably in a late reveal involving the former high school principal. However, Criminal: The Last of the Innocent is a tragic tale extremely well told and illustrated, one that compels you to read it in one hungry sitting. It haunted me so much that I had trouble sleeping, but I can’t wait to read it again. Grade: A+