Criminal – The Last of the Innocent
The Last of the Innocent has the kind of concept at its core that drives writers crazy; it’s instantly gripping, bafflingly original and worst of all, so damn simple that we all should have thought of doing it so long ago but sadly never did. Set sometime in what one assumes is the Eighties this book, the fifth in the series of stand-alone crime stories Criminal, picks up the characters of classic comic-strip pioneer Archie as adults and explores what their lives may have looked like if they were to ever actually age. Now look at that last sentence closely because you may well have missed a key-point; the latter half on its own may well have been interesting but what makes this such a killer conceit is that the story of the sweetest kids from the sunniest town in America is now being told in one of the seediest comics on the stand. What the hell happened here?
Time. Time is what happened here. Though there was of course death, darkness and despair during the time of Archie’s original run it was never to be seen in the era’s popular artworks and so our idea of that time is one of a suburban utopia and the printed panels presented that same image. Then came the seventies with all that period of time entailed -I don’t have the time to even begin listing those cultural changes here – and we became cynical, so when it came time to craft another image of ourselves as a culture we did so without any of that idealism, drafting in wrinkles, warts and all. Though that may sound like – and may well be – pretentious pseudo-philosophical posturing on my part, it is also the idea at the core of this book. The story here is then much bigger than any one series, so those unfamiliar with either Archie or Criminal shouldn’t simply ignore this title for that reason; this story stands alone and stands very, very strong.
The approach that Innocent takes towards this idea is an emotional one, almost an antithesis to my earlier dry rant. When we join the characters they are all, in one way or another, at their darkest points; having all found out the hard way that real life is not as rosy as they once remember it being. Sex, spouses, step-fathers, shitty jobs, substance abuse issues and manslaughter all act add complications to what is already becoming a very complicated world to live in. Despite the difference between their lives now and then they are all still so driven by what happened back in High School, it is those days that define them even now, those days that haunt them even now. Phillips fills us in on this brilliantly, providing flashbacks that are painted in the art-style of the original work, but in a daring twist the content of these cartoonish sections is just as mature as it is in the modern day; the brightness is just a facade, the darkness has always been there.
On the surface this is a smartly scripted Coen-esque crime story of a good man going exponentially bad, ruining and even taking the lives of those closest to him to further his own happiness, but there is so much more to it than that. His story is really one of a man trying to grow up and the tragic consequences of that action. What he’s actually doing is shedding the parts of his life that are still bound to his School days so that he can finally form a new, updated image of himself in the same way that we, as a society did back in the seventies. The final page of the story shows us this with a beautiful, subtle swapping of art styles that alone is worth the price of purchase. Ultimately though, despite all our desperate yearnings to the contrary, we don’t want to grow up; maturity brings with it only madness, melancholia and a yearning for the days of Innocence. Blake knew it way back when and Brubaker knows it now, we are a nostalgic species and so nothing we do can ever be as good as what we once did, our lives are a series of diminishing returns.
So Last of the Innocent then is a real fun read for the whole family, right? Well it almost kind of is; I dare anyone to read that first chapter and not return for the next one, so intensely gripping is the surface read. This is an amazingly written story whatever you may want from it: it’s an emotionally evocative drama, a suspenseful thriller, a hilarious black comedy and beneath it all is this potent stream of philosophy and ideas that you’ll ingest without ever even knowing. So give the book a shot, it’s easily one of my favourite reads of the last year. I myself am going to go and give it a re-read right after this, though of course it will no doubt be nowhere near as good the second time around; I mean this rave is really just written about how good I remember the book being back then.