For the uninitiated, Criminal is a long-running series of mini-series: Noir comic book stories generally told in 4-issue sets that are not interrelated (although they often feature the same background characters). Today’s post on the greatest comics of all time, part of my now weekly series here, will discuss the most recent (and in my view, best) volume of the series: Criminal volume 6: The Last of the Innocent.

Like all of its predecessors, Criminal Vol. 6 is well-written in perfect Raymond Chandler style, and expertly drawn with shadow and grit by Sean Phillips (think Michael Lark, but with more mood and less motion). But what sets “Innocent” apart is its heavy reliance on flashbacks to the principal character’s childhood. The tale takes place in the 1980s, when “Riley” is in debt to some gangsters and in need of easy money with no questions asked, but all of the events (and supporting characters) are shaped by what happened during the 1950s–a time period illustrated (and written) in a plain, straightforward “Archie Comics” style. All of the Criminal volumes are intricately plotted, but the flashback device here adds a layer of emotional complexity not present in the earlier volumes. We get to see the corruption of the “innocent” times, made more jarring by the use of clear, “innocent” art.

In addition, volume 6 is more “literary” than prior volumes. We see a man going through the stages of betrayal: The betrayal he learns as a child; the betrayal he experiences from his wife’s infidelity, by which time he is largely inured to the the effects; and the betrayal he himself commits in response to a world that seems to be uncaring and violent. In the end, he has to make decisions about his past to determine how to fit in, how to reconcile all the broken parts of himself. I won’t give it away, but some will say that the ending is “pat,” but not to me: If you’ve been reading the series and paying attention, it’s the only one that makes sense.

And if you read and enjoy volume 6, you might want to read the other entries in this terrific series. So…

BRUBAKER AND PHILLIPS “CRIMINAL” SERIES, RANKED:

6. Bad Night (2008). By far the worst of the lot, and the only one that I can’t even recommend. The characters seem undeveloped and illogical.

5. The Sinners (2010). Featuring recurring character Tracey Lawless and a brainwashing priest. This one is a little too far-fetched, but still a solid read.

4. The Dead and the Dying (2008). Three characters’ stories told over three issues (the shortest of all the Criminal books). Tracey Lawless is one of the characters, as is his father, Teeg, and recurring crime kingpin Sebastian Hyde.

3. Lawless (2007). The first Tracy Lawless story, and a fantastic, pulpy thriller.

2. Criminal (2007). Volume one introduces Sebastian Hyde as the most terrible kind of manipulative crime lord. Violent, twisty, tough and street-smart–a fantastic comic and one of the best crime comics of all time.

1. Last of the Innocents (2011).