Nostalgia powerfully pulls at us, especially as we get older. Deriving from the Greek words nóstos (homecoming) and álgos (pain), nostalgia relates to a longing for the familiar that has passed away. However, the authenticity of that past is not reality. It exists as a mental construction, one that plays up the feelings of youth and innocence while hiding the realities of the past. This is what Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Criminal: The Last of the Innocent (2015) addresses. It plays with and satirizes readers’ nostalgic desires.
Set in Brookview, The Last of the Innocent draws upon comics such as Archie to present an image of an idyllic, suburban American past filled with white teenagers who are innocent and good. The panels move from these Archiesque images to a more gritty and contemporary style in the present, where we see Riley Richards murder his wife Felicity (Felix) and frame her lover Teddy.
Even within the panels that depict a 1950s-1960s era Brookview, Brubaker and Phillips play with notions that the post-World War II era exuded innocence. One such sequence, “Riley’s Gal Pal, Felicity,” occurs immediately after Riley’s father’s funeral. The full-page sequence only contains seven panels, including the title. It begins by showing Felix getting ready for prom and her father entering the room saying he thought he heard Riley in the room. Her father does not like Riley, because of his class position, and he tries to talk Felix into not seeing him by offering her a raise in her allowance. She says she likes Riely, but agrees to not bring him around the house if she gets the raise.
On the surface, this exchange and the setting do not seem too far out of the ordinary for a show like Dobie Gillis, Donna Reed, or Leave it to Beaver. The exchange just appears to be a father and daughter disagreeing on the merits of a boy that she wants to date. The sequence ends, though, with two panels that show what happens when Felix’s father leaves the room. In the first, we see an hidden person say, “Boy, Felix. . . ” In this panel, Felix looks down and starts to lift her dress. The final panel shows Riley coming out from under the make-up table with his hand underneath Felix’s dress, fingering her. Felix asks, “Hey, did I say to stop?”
This sequence, presented in a manner that recalls comics from the 1950s and 1960s, directly challenges the nostalgic view that white, suburban teenagers in the 1950s and 1960s didn’t engage in any type of sexual interaction before marriage. The “innocence” of the past, then, did not exist. What exists is nothing more than a construction of innocence, one that exists to counter the progression of time and the changes individuals encounter as a result.
This constructed past arises as partly as a defense mechanism against the present, and that is what happens as Riley continues to think back to his past in Brookview. Staying at his mother’s house with Felix, Riley can’t sleep, so he goes downstairs and finds a box full of his old comics. These comics aren’t Archie; instead they have titles such as Crime Never Pays. Of course, this is an allusion to EC Comics’ Shock SuspenStories and Crime SuspenStories, series that drew the ire of politicians and parents in the early 1950s.
As he digs through the box, Riley thinks about how his dad brought the comics to him when he sick and how he used to trade them with his friend. Looking at the comics, the reader sees a panel showing a man strangling a woman with his bare hands. Riley thinks, “I can’t believe they even let us read this stuff back then, but it was a different world. A better world.” What does “better” mean in this case? What was better about the past? What made it better than the present?
Riley falls asleep and begins to dream about his earlier years in Brookview. He sees himself flying over the town and seeing moments from his life, acting as ” a tourist in [his] own past.” The contemporary Riley exists in these panels as he does in the sections that depict the present, and his image juxtaposes itself against the nostalgic images of him and his friends. His dream concludes with two panels that show him approaching his younger self, reaching out to touch his own, constructed, face. He thinks, “An I have this strange feeling that I can go back and fix all the mistakes I made. Like I could do it all over again.”
Nostalgia creates that feeling that we can escape into the past, live there again, and somehow alter our trajectory. That’s what Jay Gatz attempts to do, right? He assumes a new identity, partakes in bootlegging, and throws extravagant parties all in the hopes of recapturing his past with Daisy. However, he fails. Nick Carraway’s famous last line of the novel sums up the powerful pull that nostalgia has on Gatz and on everyone: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” We try, as hard as we might, to row against the current of time, striving to reach a past that never truly existed.
When Riley visits Teddy in jail, we get a powerful moment that drives home the constructed nature of our nostalgia and our inability to see it at times as nothing more than innocence. Teddy knows that Riley framed him, and he tells him so. At one point, Riley asks, “Why did you want my life, Teddy?” Teddy responds, “Riley Richards, everybody’s All-American boy.” The connotation of “All-American boy” brings to mind an innocent past of apple pie, baseball, and neighborly suburbia. Teddy knows different though.
He tells Riley what Felix said to him one night as they lay in bed: “That you were empty. Said when no one was looking, you didn’t even exist.” Riley Richards is nostalgia. He is the constructed past. As such, he doesn’t exist. He seeks to replicate and relive his youth, the perceived innocence, but he can’t. Even though he gets the girl from his childhood that he always wanted to be with, he does not exist.
The final sequence shows Riley and Lizzie Gordon starting their relationship. The present fades into the Archiesque style as the two eat lunch and she kisses him on the cheek. The final panel shows the two, in the same style, holding hands and walking across the street. The background is the contemporary style and depicts a run down environment. We see two men who appear to be conducting a drug deal behind Riley and Lizzie. Riley’s final narration read, “So not I can be whoever I want.” This proclamation indicates that the Riley of the past was not real. The Riley of the present was not real. The Riley of the future will not be real. They are all constructed to fit what Riley wants, just as nostalgia works to create within us an identity for who we want(ed) to be.
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