While Cruel Summer is a collection of issues of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ acclaimed series Criminal, it absolutely stands on its own. Specifically, Cruel Summer provides backstory for the Lawless family patriarch Teeg Lawless and shows the unraveling of the Lawless family throughout the fateful summer of 1988. For those who have read earlier volumes of the story, this will help color in the missing parts of Ricky’s past. For those unfamiliar with the larger world of Criminal, this is a great jumping on point.
Ricky Lawless and his best friend Leo Patterson are main characters in the larger world of Criminal, but here they are just 15 years old, dealing with growing up with criminal fathers. Where Leo’s dad Tommy is careful, contentious and smart, Ricky’s dad Teeg is short tempered, easily manipulated and often drunk. Ricky’s older brother Tracy enlisted to avoid jail, his mother drank herself into a coma, and only Ricky was left at home to take the beatings Teeg doled out when he was at this worst. In the summer of 1988 Teeg met Jane and life as Ricky knew it changed forever. His dad spent money they didn’t have, dreamed of bigger scores than he’d ever attempted before, and was living a life Ricky couldn’t understand. Jane never stayed in one place long, burned a lot of bridges and never considered settling down. When she was with Teeg though, there was so much danger and excitement all around them she truly felt alive and decided to stay. She took him on almost as a project, ready to mold him into the person she thought he could be. “Teeg Lawless was in love and it was the worst thing that had ever happened to him… He was sure of it.” He was happy for the first time he could remember, but Jane asks tough questions like “What’s the point of stealing if you’re not gonna take enough to really live?”
These chaotic, lost, damaged people are all trying to find a way to live around one another or in spite of one another. Teeg is trying to prepare for the biggest job he has ever tackled, Jane is planning a future for them on a beach and Ricky is busy resenting them both for pushing him aside. On top of all this, a private investigator hired to track down Jane gets caught up trying to rescue her. Dan Farraday survived Vietnam, but he has never really acclimated to life after. He is deeply damaged and becomes obsessed with saving Jane from the man who he was sure was a threat to her, Teeg. This pressure cooker environment squeezes every character right up until the explosive climax you would expect from Brubaker and Phillips.
Speaking of Brubaker and Phillips, I am already officially on the record saying that they one of the best working teams in comics today and this book is no exception. Any library with an interest in crime related comics should already have some of their work on the shelf. Some themes that recur in their books show up here, such as Vietnam, mental health, family trauma, and a world of small time crime that spins out of control. This book feels a little longer and broader than some of Brubaker’s other work. It has more room to breathe and expand elements of the story that might otherwise be sacrificed for sake of a breakneck pace so common to these noir type tales.
There is the kind of vices-and-violence found in this sort of crime story that puts it pretty squarely in the Adult category for any library thinking of acquiring it. While there is only minor drug use and nudity, there is plenty of language and gun violence. It really does have the feel of a 1970s-80s gritty crime film and some of the credit belongs to Jacob Phillips whose color work makes this understated, yet distinct. If a library adds Cruel Summer to their collection, be prepared for patrons to come back asking for more Criminal books, as it is a riveting and engrossing world.
By Ed Brubaker
Art by Sean Phillips
Publisher Age Rating: Mature
Series ISBNs and Order
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)