In our lengthiest reading list article yet, we do a rundown of our favorite crime comics of (relatively recent) vintage.
I am, by my own estimation, a genre-agnostic reader. That is, I don’t consciously limit my reading choices to works in a particular genre. And yet, when I consider my favorite comics of the past couple of decades, a genre theme does emerge: As it turns out, I really like reading crime comics.
There is a unique vicarious thrill to be had when reading about the exploits of those who break the law (and those whose job is to stop them from doing so). The crime comic offers more than a safe space to explore one’s darker fantasies and repressed impulses, however. The genre’s best offerings often feature characters grappling with their humanity even as they question authority and push against personal and imposed moral and ethical limits. In doing so, these comics put the reader in a position to examine his or her own values, as well as the political and societal mores of the community at large.
There are any number of ways of breaking down the greater crime comics genre into subgenres. For example, one can distinguish between “true crime” comics and fictional crime comics, or comics with criminal protagonists and comics with detective/private eye leads. For the purposes of this reading list recommendations article (and the sake of brevity), I won’t be going into those distinctions. I will also be excluding from the list those crime comics that explicitly cross over with other, distinct genres—your “supernatural noir” and “tech noir” and “superhero crime” comics—and comics that reside in that fuzzy intersection between the crime and espionage (or political thriller) genres. As much as I enjoy stuff like Layman and Guillory’s Chew, Brubaker and Phillips’ Fatale, Zander Cannon’s Kaijumax, Ben Templesmith’s Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse, Johnston and Greenwood’s The Fuse, Hogan and Parkhouse’s Resident Alien, Vaughan and Martin’s The Private Eye, Garth Ennis’s 60-issue run on the 2004 Punisher series, O’Donnell and Holdaway’s Modesty Blaise, Greg Rucka’s Queen & Country, and Enki Bilal’s The Hunting Party, I’ve left them off this list. I need to draw the genre line somewhere, otherwise, the list could very well run too long.
As with my previous recommended reading “listicles,” (here, here, and here) the selections are largely based on my own personal preferences in comics craft, and I make no claims as to their critical superiority over other titles in the field (although from what I can gather, many of the comics listed below are quite critically acclaimed).
Anyway, without further preamble, and in no particular order, here is my list of recommended crime comics:
Stray Bullets by David Lapham (El Capitan/Image Comics)
Description (from Leaving Proof 216 | One and Done: In praise of the “standalone issue”):
Here’s the concept of Stray Bullets‘ format in a nutshell: It’s an ongoing crime comic, designed to be the ultimate new reader-friendly title. Each 32-page issue is a standalone story with a discrete beginning, climax, and conclusion, but it’s also designed to fit in as part of a larger narrative that stretches from the 1970s all the way to the 1990s. On top of that, the stories aren’t told sequentially—the events portrayed in issue #1 occurred some twenty years after the events portrayed in issue #2, for example—although Lapham starts each issue with the date indicating when the particular issue’s events happened. A reader so inclined can read all the stories in the linear chronological order based on those dates. The genius of how Lapham has constructed the series is that a new reader can jump into Stray Bullets with a random issue and he or she won’t need to be familiar with any prior issues to extract enjoyment from it as a standalone story. Another consequence of this approach is that the drawbacks of having gaps in any Stray Bullets collection are minimized, since the stories are intended to be self-contained and coherent even when the individual issues are read out of order based on the issue numbering.
- A brilliant patchwork account of American culture in the closing decades of the 20th century, filtered through the modern noir idiom.
- Lapham received the 1996 Eisner Award for “Best Writer-Artist in a Drama Series” for his work on Stray Bullets.
- The paperback collection compiling the first seven issues of Stray Bullets won the 1997 Eisner Award for “Best Graphic Album (Reprint).”
Ms. Tree by Max Allan Collins and Terry Beatty (Eclipse Comics, Renegade Press, and DC Comics)
Description (from Wikipedia):
Ms. Tree was extraordinary in that it frequently dealt with controversial political and sexual issues, yet never used that as a venue to push a particular biased opinion. As Kevin Burton Smith, editor of the Thrilling Detective Web Site put it, ‘How many other P.I.s have… dealt with the topics of homophobia, abortion [and bombing of abortion clinics], devil worship, child pornography, date rape and incest? And not just dealt with them, but asked some pretty damn hard questions that aren’t easily answered by either end of the political spectrum. And all this in a comic book! It’s a shame how many readers will never know of the existence of this series (due to the medium) because Ms. Tree is one of the most thought-provoking, and entertaining, private eyes around.’
- Ms. Tree had a faithful following back in the 1980s but is somewhat hard to find these days—only a handful of issues were ever collected in paperback and I am unaware of any major publisher attempts at reprinting the material. Still, individual issues of the series are well worth tracking down online or in back-issue bins for the crime comics aficionado and comics history buff. Here’s hoping that the work eventually gets the archival volume treatment it deserves.
Torpedo by Enrique Sánchez Abulí and Jordi Bernet (IDW Publishing)
The story of a gangster whose life is traced from the innocence of childhood to amoral adulthood, and nearly every stop explored along the way. Abuli’s distinctive narrative builds the story over time and Jordi Bernet’s masterful renditions of the title character are stunningly cinematic—Torpedo is the Godfather of comics, in both subject matter and execution.
- A hardboiled caricature (to the extent that it is almost exploitative) of Depression-era gangster fiction and culture.
- The first two Torpedo stories were actually illustrated by comics and animation legend Alex Toth but he withdrew from the project, supposedly because he objected to the series’ extreme amount of violence.
- In 1986, the French edition of the fourth Torpedo volume was one of the two recipients of the Angoulême International Comics Festival’s prix du meilleur album (prize for best graphic album), the Festival’s highest honor.
Black Lagoon by Rei Hiroe (VIZ Media)
Lock n’ load with the baddest group of mercenaries ever to hit the high seas of Southeast Asia! Aboard their World War II torpedo boat the Black Lagoon, Dutch the Boss, Benny the Mechanic, Revy Two Hand, and Rock, the salaryman from Japan, deliver anything, anywhere. In the dangerous underworld of the Russian Mafia, Chinese triads, Colombian drug cartels, crazed assassins, and ruthless mercenaries, it’s hard to know who to trust. But if you’ve got a delivery to make, and you don’t mind a little property damage along the way, you can count on the crew of the Black Lagoon!
Rokurō Okajima is just an average Japanese salaryman, living an average life. But when he’s taken hostage by the crew of the Black Lagoon, Rokurō finds himself thrown headfirst into a deadly world of outlawed heroes, brutal villains, and blazing gunfights. Where he ends up is anyone’s guess, but one thing is for certain—he’s in for a wild ride!
- An over-the-top, action-focused series set primarily in Southeast Asia. The occasional silliness and outright comedy makes for a great counterpoint to the violence and exploration of darker themes.
- The first nine volumes of Black Lagoon have been adapted into an animated TV series by Japanese studio MADHOUSE, Inc.
- Note that the sequence below is intended to be read from right-to-left.
The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (Image Comics)
Hollywood, 1948. A noir film stuck in endless reshoots. A writer plagued with nightmares from the war and a dangerous secret. An up-and-coming starlet’s suspicious death. And a maniacal Studio Mogul and his Security Chief who will do anything to keep the cameras rolling before the Post-War boom days come crashing down.
- For my money, perhaps Brubaker and Phillips’ best collaboration (although I really won’t argue with anyone who prefers Criminal or Fatale). A taut, gripping noir where the setting is just as important as any of the series’ characters.
- Los Angeles Police Museum manager Amy Condit actually serves as a researcher for The Fade Out.
- Nominated for the 2015 Eisner Award for “Best New Series.”
Stumptown, Vol. 1 by Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth (Oni Press)
Dex Parios is the proprietor of Stumptown Investigations, and a fairly talented P.I. Unfortunately, sh’s less adept at throwing dice than solving cases. Her recent streak has left her beyond broke—she’s in to the Confederated Tribes of the Wind Coast for 18 large. But maybe Dex’s luck is about to change. Sue-Lynne, head of the Wind Coast’s casino operation, will clear Dex’s debt if she can locate Sue-Lynne’s missing granddaughter. But is this job Dex’s way out of the hole or a shove down one much much deeper?
- The successor to Collins and Beatty’s Ms. Tree as the best private eye comic with a female lead.
- Nominated in 2011 for the Eisner Award for “Best Limited Series” (Stumptown would lose out to Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon’s Daytripper).
Blacksad by Juan Díaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido (Dark Horse)
Private investigator John Blacksad is up to his feline ears in mystery, digging into the backstories behind murders, child abductions, and nuclear secrets. Guarnido’s sumptuously painted pages and rich cinematic style bring the world of 1950s America to vibrant life, with Canales weaving in fascinating tales of conspiracy, racial tension, and the ‘red scare’ Communist witch hunts of the time. Guarnido reinvents anthropomorphism in these pages, and industry colleagues no less than Will Eisner, Jim Steranko, and Tim Sale are fans! Whether John Blacksad is falling for dangerous women or getting beaten to within an inch of his life, his stories are, simply put, unforgettable.
- I know the inclusion of a “talking animal” comic seemingly violates the criteria I set for this list, but I just couldn’t exclude Blacksad—the use of anthropomorphic animal character designs is almost incidental in light of how well Díaz Canales and Guarnido treat classic American noir. Blacksad is that good.
- In 2004, Blacksad: Arctic Nation (collected in the Blacksad hardcover published by Dark Horse) received the Angoulême International Comics Festival’s prestigious Prix du public award for artwork.
- Juanjo Guarnido received the Eisner Award for “Best Painter/Multimedia Artist (Interior Art)” in 2011 and 2013 for his work on Blacksad.
100 Bullets by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso (DC/Vertigo)
If a stranger offered you a chance to get away with murder… would you take it? In this dark, multiple award-winning crime series, ordinary citizens are given the opportunity to exact revenge on a person that has wronged them. Guaranteed full immunity, what would you do?
- Artist Eduardo Risso’s work on 100 Bullets has earned him four Eisner Awards (a Best Serialized Story award shared with writer Brian Azzarello in 2001, the Best Penciler/Inker plum in 2002, and Best Continuing Series wins shared with Azzarello in 2002 and 2004), back-to-back Harvey Awards for Best Artist in 2002 and 2003, and a 2004 nomination for the Angoulême International Comics Festival’s prix du public (audience choice award for artwork). 100 Bullets would eventually lose to Juanjo Guarnido and Juan Diaz Canales’ Blacksad.
- The plot gets a little bit too shaggy for my taste towards the series’ end, but overall, it ranks right up there with Gaiman’s The Sandman and Ennis and Dillon’s Preacher as among the best longform narratives produced by DC’s Vertigo imprint in its prime years under the direction of Karen Berger.
Kinski by Gabriel Hardman (Monkeybrain Comics/Image Comics)
Frustrated with his dead end career as a chicken feed rep, Joe is looking for something. Turns out that ‘something’ is a four-month-old black lab puppy named Kinski. Joe is going to save this dog. What at first seems like a simple rescue mission escalates into a righteous crusade… but crusades don’t usually work out so well, do they?
- An affecting crime-themed tale about a man and his dog from one of contemporary comics’ preeminent visual storytellers.
- Originally published as a digital-exclusive miniseries by Monkeybrain Comics, later collected and reissued in print (paperback format) by Image Comics.
Damned by Steven Grant and Mike Zeck (BOOM! Studios)
In a world of lies, honor can be murder… 2 GUNS creator Steven Grant reunites with his artist from PUNISHER: CIRCLE OF BLOOD, Mike Zeck, for a truly hard-hitting crime noir story that will knock you senseless! When Mick Thorne is paroled and released from prison, the only thing on his mind is keeping a promise. But in keeping that promise to deliver a message to his dead cellmate’s sister, he draws the attention of the local crime boss.
- A solid, straightforward narrative in the classic noir mold.
- Originally published in 1997 by Wildstorm Productions’ Homage Comics division (then functioning as an imprint of Image Comics), the recently reissued paperback from BOOM! Studios has an epilogue not seen in the original miniseries.
- Features some of Mike Zeck’s earliest attempts to incorporate digital techniques in his art process.
Southern Bastards by Jason Aaron and Jason Latour (Image Comics)
Welcome to Craw County, Alabama, home of Boss BBQ, the state champion Runnin’ Rebs football team… and more bastards than you’ve ever seen. When you’re an angry old man like Earl Tubb, the only way to survive a place like this… is to carry a really big stick. From the acclaimed team of JASON AARON and JASON LATOUR, the same bastards who brought you Scalped and Wolverine: Japan’s Most Wanted, comes a southern fried crime series that’s like the Dukes of Hazzard meets the Coen Brothers… on meth.
- A hard-hitting meditation on the unsavory side of “Southern Culture,” created by two Southerners. Jasper, Alabama native Jason Aaron describes Southern Bastards as being about “a place you can love and hate and miss and fear all at the same time” while the Charlotte-born-and-raised Jason Latour describes it as an opportunity to vent his anger at “the assholes” who’ve co-opted Southern culture.
- Received a 2015 Eisner Award nomination for “Best Limited Series.” Co-creator Jason Aaron also received a nomination for “Best Writer.”
From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell (Top Shelf Productions)
From Hell features the story of Jack the Ripper, the most infamous serial murderer of all time. Alan Moore names Dr. Gull as the villain and creates the most compelling and terrifying psychological study ever undertaken. All the conspiracies and cover-ups are considered and bound together in this vortex of terror. A gripping crime noir masterpiece of historical fiction.
- Meticulously layered narrative that is as much a criticism of the class system in Industrial Revolution England as it is about teasing apart the mystery behind Jack the Ripper’s identity and motives.
- Received the Eisner Award for “Best Serialized Story” in 1993 and “Best Graphic Album (Reprint)” in 2000.
- Co-creator Alan Moore received the Eisner Award for “Best Writer” in 1995, 1996, and 1997 for his work on From Hell.
- Was adapted as a 2001 major motion picture starring Johnny Depp. Alan Moore did not like it.
Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter by Darwyn Cooke (IDW Publishing)
Darwyn Cooke, Eisner-Award-winning writer/artist, sets his artistic sights on bringing to life one of the true classics of crime fiction: Richard Stark’s Parker.
Stark was a pseudonym used by the revered and multi-award-winning author, Donald Westlake. The Hunter, the first book in the Parker series, is the story of a man who hits New York head-on like a shotgun blast to the chest. Betrayed by the woman he loved and double-crossed by his partner in crime, Parker makes his way cross-country with only one thought burning in his mind—to coldly exact his revenge and reclaim what was taken from him!
- It helps to have read the original Parker novel, but even those unfamiliar with the source material will find a lot to enjoy here, not the least of which is Cooke’s brilliantly stylized art.
- Won the 2010 Eisner Award for “Best Adaptation from Another Work.”
Luna Park by Kevin Baker and Danijel Zezelj (DC/Vertigo)
New York Times bestselling author Kevin Baker (Dreamland) writes his first original graphic novel, with internationally acclaimed artist Danijel Zezelj. Alik Strelnikov lives in the shadow of Coney Island, a world of silenced rides and rusting amusement parks that mock his dreams of becoming a hero. Ten years ago, he traded a brutal existence in the Russian army for the promise of America only to become an enforcer in the Brooklyn mob. Now, he chases his ghosts with all he has left: booze, heroin and his lover, Marina, part-time prostitute and full-time fortune teller. The only way the two of them can escape their miserable fates hinges on a desperate plan that will put them between warring mobs and span a century, from contemporary Coney Island to the Russia of the Second Chechen War to spellbinding 1910s New York.
- An overlooked and underrated work, arguably the best original graphic novel from the short-lived “Vertigo Crime” sub-imprint.
Road to Perdition by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner (DC/Paradox Press)
ROAD TO PERDITION is an enthralling crime noir about revenge, morality and family loyalty. Michael O’Sullivan is a deeply religious family man who works as the chief enforcer for an Irish mob family. But after O’Sullivan’s eldest son witnesses one of his father’s hits, the godfather orders the death of his entire family. Barely surviving an encounter that takes his wife and youngest son, O’Sullivan and his only remaining child embark on a dark and violent mission of retribution against his former boss. Featuring accurate portrayals of Al Capone, Frank Nitti, and Eliot Ness, this book offers a poignant look at the relationship between a morally conflicted father and his adolescent son who both fears and worships him.
- Was adapted into a 2002 film directed by Sam Mendes and starring Tom Hanks. Cinematographer Conrad Hall received an Oscar for his work on the film.
- Collins is on record in saying that Road to Perdition is inspired by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s period samurai comics epic Lone Wolf and Cub.
Whiteout by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber (Oni Press)
You can’t get any further down than the bottom of the world—Antarctica. Cold, desolate, nothing but ice and snow for miles and miles. Carrie Stetko is a U.S. Marshal, and she’s made The Ice her home. In its vastness, she has found a place where she can forget her troubled past and feel at peace… Until someone commits a murder in her jurisdiction and that peace is shattered. The murderer is one of five men scattered across the continent, and he has more reason to hide than just the slaying. Several ice samples were taken from the area around the body, and the depth of the drilling signifies something particular was removed. Enter Lily Sharpe, who wants to know what was so important another man’s life had to be taken for it. But are either of the women prepared for the secrets and betrayals at the core of the situation?
- Greg Rucka’s comic book debut, Whiteout received an Eisner nomination in 1999 for “Best Limited Series.” Rucka was also nominated for “Best Writer” and Lieber for “Best Penciler/Inker” for their work on the title.
- Adapted into a film starring Kate Beckinsale, released in 2009 to a disappointing critical and commercial reception. In an article for io9.com, Rucka wrote that “the similarities between Movie Carrie, Comic Carrie, and One Act Play Carrie begin and end with the name.”
Also worth seeking out:
- Blacksad: A Silent Hell by Juan Díaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido (Dark Horse)
- Blacksad: Amarillo by Juan Díaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido (Dark Horse)
- Blue Estate by Viktor Kalvachev, Toby Cypress, Nathan Fox, and others (Image Comics)
- Chicanos by Carlos Trillo and Eduardo Risso (IDW Publishing)
- Criminal by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (Image Comics)
- Dark Corridor by Rich Tommaso (Image Comics)
- Deceivers by Steven Grant and Jose Holder (BOOM! Studios)
- The End of the Fucking World by Chuck Forsman (Fantagraphics)
- Genius by Marc Bernardin, Adam Freeman, and Afua Richardson (Image Comics)
- Golgo 13 by Takao Saito (VIZ Media)
- Green River Killer: A True Detective Story by Jeff Jensen and Jonathan Case (Dark Horse)
- Gunsmith Cats by Kenichi Sonoda (Dark Horse Manga)
- High Crimes by Christopher Sebela and Ibrahim Moustafa (Monkeybrain Comics/Dark Horse)
- Hit: 1955 by Bryce Carlson and Vanesa R. Del Rey (BOOM! Studios)
- Hit: 1957 by Bryce Carlson and Vanesa R. Del Rey (BOOM! Studios)
- The Killer by Matz and Luc Jacamon (BOOM! Studios/Archaia)
- The Maze Agency by Mike W. Barr, Adam Hughes, and others (various publishers)
- Miss: Better Living Through Crime by Philippe Thirault, Marc Riou, and Mark Vigouroux (Humanoids Publishing)
- Motel Art Improvement Service by Jason Little (Dark Horse)
- Mumbai Confidential by Saurav Mohapatra and Vivek Shinde (BOOM! Studios/Archaia)
- Murder Book by Ed Brisson, Johnnie Christmas, Simon Roy, and others (Dark Horse)
- Murder Me Dead by David Lapham (El Capitan/Image Comics)
- Naja by J. D. Morvan and Bengal (Magnetic Press)
- Old Boy by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi (Dark Horse Manga)
- Pistolwhip by Matt Kindt and Jason Hall (Dark Horse)
- Polar by Victor Santos (Dark Horse)
- Red Team by Garth Ennis and Craig Cermak (Dynamite Entertainment)
- Richard Stark’s Parker: The Outfit by Darwyn Cooke (IDW Publishing)
- Richard Stark’s Parker: The Score by Darwyn Cooke (IDW Publishing)
- Scene of the Crime by Ed Brubaker, Michael Lark, and Sean Phillips (Image Comics)
- Sin City: The Hard Goodbye by Frank Miller (Dark Horse)
- Sin City: That Yellow Bastard by Frank Miller (Dark Horse)
- Scalped by Jason Aaron and R. M. Guéra (DC/Vertigo)
- Stray Bullets: Killers by David Lapham (El Capitan/Image Comics)
- Stray Bullets: Sunhine & Roses by David Lapham (El Capitan/Image Comics)
- Stumptown, Vol. 2 by Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth (Oni Press)
- Stumptown, Vol. 3 by Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth (Oni Press)
- Tekkonkinkreet: Black & White by Taiyo Matsumoto (VIZ Media)
- Whiteout: Melt by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber (Oni Press)