Type keyword(s) to search


Why We're Cautiously Optimistic About Amazon's Criminal Series

Will the nihilism, sex, and violence of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' Criminal translate to television?
  • Criminal (Images: Image Comics)
    Criminal (Images: Image Comics)

    When it comes to American crime fiction, you know the drill: Some hard-luck case, some tough guy, some boss. The first big score, one last job. Bad romance, the kind that gets people killed. Crime fiction is neon and shadows, cigarette smoke and cheap perfume. Gunpowder. Tropes as worn as a pair of old boots. Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' Criminal wears them proudly.

    Brubaker and Phillips launched their Eisner award-winning comic series in 2006 and have since created their own niche in the comics industry. When a Brubaker/Phillips book drops, it's accepted as both an event and business as usual. Their 30-year collaboration has practically become an institution; it'd be big-time news if they ever decided to go their separate ways. (1999's Scene of the Crime, for DC's now-defunct Vertigo imprint, was their first co-created work, and they’ve been going strong ever since.)

    Maybe it's due to that faint whiff of routine that Brubaker and Phillips are bringing Criminal to television. For almost two decades, their creator-owned series has plunged into the muck that coats its broken characters, those violent, hapless, greedy, and lonely souls who make bad choices — sometimes in haste, usually against their better judgment — the stuff of great stories. And there have been a lot of them. For comics readers, the rhythms of Criminal are well known.

    TV is a perfect venue for Criminal to make its next big move. The byzantine narrative structure it's constructed, not to mention its propensity for nihilism, sex, and violence, is unlike anything currently found on streaming. Criminal is as bleak as bleak can be. But will the quality of its celebrated roughness survive the jump to television?

    The prospects, even from this early juncture, look good. That most certainly has something to do with the participation of Brubaker and Phillips, both of whom will enter the live-action arena as producers along with their comics series. Could a Criminal TV show be great? With its creators in tow, well… those who know, know. This primer is for those who don't. Production on the series is still in the early days, but here's everything we currently know about Criminal, which could be Prime Video's next great comic book adaptation.

    When Will Criminal Premiere?

    There currently isn't an official premiere date set. Autumn 2025 doesn't seem far-fetched.

    Who Is Making Criminal?

    Ed Brubaker will serve as co-showrunner. The 57-year-old comics veteran (perhaps most famous for creating Marvel's The Winter Soldier with Steve Epting back in 2005) has several impressive TV credits, including Too Old to Die Young with director Nicolas Winding Refn, a writing stint on HBO's Westworld, and a job at Prime Video's upcoming Batman: Caped Crusader under animation guru Bruce Timm. Brubaker's showrunner credits will be shared with crime novelist Jordan Harper, who has done production work on (and written for) The Mentalist, Gotham, and Hightown. Brubaker and Harper will also serve as executive producers alongside Sarah Carbiener (Gen V), Phillip Barnett (Euphoria), and Criminal artist and co-creator Sean Phillips under the Amazon MGM Studios banner.

    What Is Criminal About?

    For a series old enough to shave and brimming with comic runs, miniseries, one-shots, and graphic novels, there is a lot of story in Criminal. It's a crime anthology that leans into the grizzled tropes of yesteryear's pulps and boasts a small armada of outlaws, grifters, washouts, gunsels, thieves, junkies, and other unsavory types, not to mention the poor saps who can't help but love them. There's lots of sex in Criminal, and lots more violence, besides.

    The chronology of Criminal is chaotic. It jumps around in time. Sometimes, it goes back decades, introducing new characters with each successive story while circling back on previously established ones. Brubaker and Phillips have constructed a large but eminently readable story about all the dead ends one tends to come up on in that criminal life. All its time hoppery might be due to Brubaker not being completely sure what Criminal was when he first conceived of it; in point of fact, Criminal was originally meant to be a movie.

    Brubaker mentioned in a 2012 interview with screenwriter Sean Hooks that the first Criminal story, "Coward," began as a screenplay. "I could never find the time to work on it," Brubaker admits. "I kept having other ideas for the character [Leo Patterson] and other ideas for crime stories, and really wanting to do a crime comic series. So I ended up taking the basic germ of it, and using that when [we launched Criminal.]" Leo Patterson would return in later stories (or pop up in flashbacks, depending), but the big story of Criminal would eventually belong to the Lawless family. (More on them in a bit.)

    Unsurprisingly, as a comic book, Criminal is spiritually closer to prose than cinema. Its DNA stems from the hard-boiled novels of Jim Thompson and Ed McBain and uses the space of the page to diligently build a generations-spanning saga that can't be replicated in live action so easily. If Criminal is to succeed as a TV show, its diligence to the expansive lore of the comics might have to take a back seat. Time will tell.

    Does Criminal Have a Main Character?

    Yes. And no. And yes. It does in the sense that each story features a lone wolf or an ensemble of tough customers, all of whom make bad decisions that leave fallout in their wake. Criminal the comic book spins standalone yarns among a wider dramatic tapestry. It's far too early to say what approach Criminal the TV show will take.

    Really, it could go one of two ways: a 1:1 adaptation à la HBO's The Last of Us, with the show hewing faithfully to the events (and the order of said events) of its source material, or something that takes a more conventional and streamlined approach. A Criminal show could center one of the many hardasses from the comics — whether that will be the case and who that lead hardass will be remains to be seen.

    For the sake of simplicity, the stories in Criminal tend to gravitate around the exploits of the Lawless family, namely the patriarch Teeg, his eldest son, Tracy, and Teeg's younger boy, Ricky.

    Teeg Lawless looms largest in Criminal. His legacy of violence echoes through his boys. More than that, the decisions he made and the jobs he pulled in the past affect the landscape of the present. As for Tracy, think of him as Frank Miller's Marv from Sin City: a large, stoic, and possibly nuts hardcase prone to getting his face redecorated, who doles out punishments while enduring more than his fair share. When Prime Video announces the casting of Tracy, Ricky, and especially Teeg, expect the news to be a big deal for Criminal die-hards.

    When Does Criminal Take Place?

    Depending on which Criminal story you're reading, it can vary. Stories have stretched back as far as 1972. The most recent story is set in 2016. The scope of a typical Criminal tale can be brief (as it is in "Bad Weekend," which runs across a couple of days in July of 1997) or encompass months (as it does in "Cruel Summer," the most recent Criminal arc, set in 1988). On a macro level, Criminal tells the generational story of one doomed family of criminals over decades. Its TV adaptation will likely do the same.

    So Hold On… Criminal Spans How Many Years??

    44, so far.

    Where Is Criminal Set?

    Center City, a fictional burnt-out burg. Think of it as Brubaker and Phillips' more tangibly human version of Sin City, where bad folks thrive amidst its crumbling and presumably corrupt infrastructure and hard-working folks hide behind closed doors and shut blinds. Center City is where the Lawless family calls home. And like Sin City, Center hosts a legendarily rough nightspot that brings together its criminal element: readers can anticipate a live-action recreation of The Undertow, a regulars-only watering hole where booze comes cheap, the atmosphere is heavy, ill-advised jobs are found, and love is lost.

    Will Criminal Make It to Air?

    For fans of Brubaker/Phillips, this isn't such a strange question. Kill or Be Killed, their 2016 crime-horror maxiseries at Image Comics, was once primed for adaptation by John Wick director Chad Stahelski back in 2017, only for the project to fizzle out and the rights reverted to the comic team. (Kill or Be Killed is still listed as "in development" over on IMDb, for what that's worth.)

    Velvet, the team’s ambitious espionage story, might have been their first big TV show — it was to be adapted by Lone Star's Kyle Killen for Paramount — but that also fell through the cracks. Considering Brubaker's current deal with Amazon, which lets him pitch projects to the studio, Criminal's success might dictate the future for Kill or Be Killed and Velvet — just don't hold your breath.

    The mood around Criminal is one of cautious optimism. Speaking with the Comic Book Club podcast in January, Brubaker revealed that Criminal still has "a few weeks left in the writers’ room for the first season" and remains upbeat about the show’s new future at Amazon MGM Studios. "This feels more real than it's ever felt before," he says, reflecting on his prior misses. According to Brubaker, Phillips takes an even more measured stance: "I'll believe it when I'm at the premiere."

    Where Do I Begin If I Want to Read the Comics?

    Criminal begins with “Coward,” but its second arc, "Lawless" (which introduces Tracy Lawless) is where its world comes into sharper focus. Follow “Lawless” with its follow-up, "The Sinners," which furthers Tracy's tale in a way that is hands-down one of the more nihilistic stories Brubaker and Phillips have yet told in the series, a tough, punchy Criminal experience.

    Criminal can get experimental with the comics format. For an example of how offbeat its impending TV show might turn out to be, read "The Last of the Innocent," an Archie-infused bad love story, or "The Savage Sword of Criminal," a magazine-sized edition that pays tribute to the works of Robert E. Howard.

    For folks who'd rather dip a toe in these murky waters, My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies is a peripheral but no less engaging story about a young woman learning the ways of crime the hard way, featuring some of the finest artwork from Phillips in the entire series. The graphic novel's dreamy pastel colors (from Sean's son, Jacob) serve as a thin candy coating over the molten blackness that has long defined Criminal.

    Those who brave the bleaker stuff can jump in anywhere in Criminal's bibliography. There are hardcover collections and trade paperbacks aplenty; just wander into any self-respecting comic shop or bookstore, and you're bound to crash into a shelf full of them. And, if you do, rejoice; there's something poetic about one's first experience with Criminal leaving a bruise.

    Jarrod Jones is a freelance writer currently settled in Chicago. He reads lots (and lots) of comics and, as a result, is kind of a dunderhead.

    TOPICS: Amazon Prime Video, Criminal, Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips