Immortal tiger-force-at-the-core-of-all-things Jack Kirby famously said that “comics will break your heart.” Drawing its inspiration from the indignities suffered by past generations of comics creators, Criminal: Bad Weekend delineates what that heartbreak looks like.
It seems like a film featuring characters created by Kirby, Stan Lee, Bob Kane, or Steve Ditko soars across screens every month. While movie studios have largely gotten better about giving comics creators credit on-screen, the people name-checked at the end of, say, Spider-Man: Far From Home may still be struggling to make ends meet.
The labour on most big-name, superhero properties gets done on work-for-hire terms, with the lion’s share of profits going to the corporations that own the trademarks and copyrights. Creators owning and profiting from their own work is a relatively recent shift and the lives of many comics creators would have been changed for the better if they had the option to share in the success of their work.
Our reality is also one where we still don’t know much about the tragedies and triumphs studded through the lives of most comics creators. For every in-depth bit of sleuthing around Ditko, there’s a void of awareness around stalwarts like Jim Aparo, Sal Buscema, Glynis Oliver, or Al Milgrom.
Thousands of people have pulled all-nighters, suffered joint pain, and strained relationships to do their jobs in comics’ grinding assembly lines. Most of them have gone unsung and, even for beloved geniuses of the form, it’s incredibly rare to be able to retire gracefully like George Perez.
Hal Crane, the main character of Criminal: Bad Weekend, hasn’t retired gracefully. He’s a grumpy old man who has very uncool interactions with cosplayers and fans. Written by Ed Brubaker, drawn by Sean Phillips and coloured by Jacob Phillips, the graphic novella reunites Hal with his old assistant Jacob, who’s reluctantly agreed to chaperone him around a late-1990s comic-con. The tension between Jacob and Hal simmers throughout the whole book, which revolves around Hal’s quest to get some payback for stolen art and wounded pride at a convention where he’s just supposed to be getting a lifetime achievement award.
Hal Crane looks, to my eye, a little like Gil Kane, the inimitable artist who did star turns on Green Lantern, Spider-Man, and tons of Marvel and DC characters. Hal’s outsize saltiness recalls elements from the life of Vince Colleta, the irascible Marvel inker who shook hands with Mafia bosses and wrote an infamous letter when editor-in-chief Jim Shooter was fired.
But he’s clearly an analogue of many different creators, with a life story that feels like a greatest hits collection of the hardest gut punches suffered by comics artists. Creating properties and doing designs for animation studios harkens to the real-life experiences of comics icons Alex Toth and Jack Kirby, whose energy helped give Jonny Quest, Superfriends, and Thundarr the Barbarian their unique sparks.
Brubaker stubbornly keeps doing comics while also working as a screenwriter on shows like Westworld and Too Old to Die Young. He’s seen superhero comics and adjacent genres take over the zeitgeist and deftly peppers in sly commentary that gestures at the pleasures and pains of that pop culture shift.
On one hand, fans and creators don’t have to be embarrassed about loving fictional characters anymore. On the other hand, creations all too often eclipse creators and it’s always painful to hear beloved writers and artists become footnotes to a billion-dollar opening weekend gross.
Every made-up unethical deal that Brubaker has Hal walk through, like signing unauthorised collectibles, underscores the actual shadiness of corporate machinery that’s chewed up creators. Sure, Hal could not do some of this illegal stuff but the fact that he has to is the more salient tragedy.
Fans of Sean Phillips’ artwork will already be familiar with his proficiency at drawing an incredible range of human expression, body language and sartorial quirk. But Phillips finds new joy in these pages.
Bad Weekend overflows well-observed backgrounds that really channel the energy of a fan convention space and you can feel how much fun Phillips has in paying homage to the comics-strip and animation art of past masters. That fun gets multiplied by Jacob Philips’ colours, which give Bad Weekend a lurid sheen that’s queasy and appealing all at once. The palette of tones recalls the four-colour separation processes and cheap newsprint of yesteryear, a visual reminder that nostalgia can make us happy or sad in the wrong dose.
It’s hard to read Bad Weekend and not see shades of latter-day Stan Lee in Hal Crane. Most people who know Stan Lee nowadays know him as a tireless cameo-crazy grandfather of superhero storytelling. But that persona was a character of his own creation, the superpowered alter ego of Stanley Lieber.
Bad Weekend reminds us that mainstream comics is full of other creators who are characters in their own rights and it’s a bummer that we don’t know more about their lives and the circumstances they lived through.
Criminal: Bad Weekend is out now in brick-and-mortar and digital storefronts.