Crime graphic novels: Five of the best

girlwithdragontattooGNBack in 1986, the wildfire success of Frank Miller’s stunning comic Batman: The Dark Knight Returns led publishers to take a serious look again at comics and graphic novels as a format for delivering gritty crime stories. While most graphic novels remain in the realm of the superheroes, horror and the paranormal, there are some great crime fiction comics and graphic novels to enjoy. Even The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series is being turned into a set of graphic novels, with award-winning Scottish crime author Denise Mina on-board, finessing Stieg Larsson’s storytelling for the drawn page. So we invited comics expert Jonathan Duran from the excellent blog ComicsAstonish.com over to tell us about the five best crime comics/graphic novels out there. It’s over to him…

Born from the ashes of the pulp magazines like The Black Mask and Dime Mystery Magazine, detective and crime comic books started cheap and silly and they stayed that way for quite a long time. To be fair, all comic books did. Only recently, as the medium has truly evolved beyond the remedial and allowed for some real creative freedom, have crime comics and graphic novels become mature, readable and engaging pieces of art which can provide the same depth of character and sophistication of story that literature and film have provided us with for so long.

Here then, is my list of five recommended titles which showcase just how far and how established the medium has become. These are pieces of work which every crime-fiction fanatic should spend their time seeking out.

gothamcentral5405 – Gotham Central (2003-06)
With Gotham Central, Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka and Michael Lark created a wonderfully compelling police procedural which just happens to take place within the framework of Gotham City – the fictional city and comic universe where Batman exists. Brubaker and Rucka approach the stories in a sincere and straightforward way – we’re presented with cases which skirt the fringes of fantasy and hard-line reality. The mysteries are air-tight and the detective work is top-notch, even though the suspects just might be super villains. The cases are always played straight, though, and the writing is fantastic throughout, continually presenting readers with case files which would stand up without any problem against anything being produced for television today.
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Fell5404 – Fell (2005-08)
Fell is unique among detective comics. First, every issue is a standalone story, providing a very concise and pleasing anthology format to a medium which is built from the ground up for such pacing. Second, Ben Templesmith’s art is unique in the genre – everything is much more abstract in Fell. Lines are blurry, colours bleed and things are just messy around the edges. Third, and probably most important, Fell is unique due to its sinister tone. There is an overwhelming sense of dread that a larger, unseen force ultimately pulls the strings behind all the cases we’re presented with. Fell never goes full-on into the supernatural, but much like Twin Peaks, or the current True Detective, one always gets the feeling that something uncontrollably ominous lurks below the surface. The author, Warren Ellis, wrote Fell as equal parts Kafka, Lovecraft and Chandler. It’s certainly strange, yet immensely readable because the plotting stays focused and the actual detective work is just damn good.
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lastdaysofamericancrime5403 – The Last Days of American Crime (2011)
The Last Days of American Crime is, without a doubt, the most high-concept entry on this list. In the near future, the US Government has created a very Clockwork Orange-esque program to make citizens physically unable to commit acts of terrorism and crime. Upon learning of this initiative before it goes into effect, a notoriously low-level thug plans to pull one final grand score, which will be the last crime committed in American history. It’s high-stakes, it’s bleak, graphic and a great crime story to boot. The Greg Tocchini art really pops and the story is told very well, bolstered by an ending which lives up to the promise set out in the first act.
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RichardStarksParker5402 – Richard Stark’s Parker (2010-2013)
Based on the Parker novels by Richard Stark, a pseudonym of Donald Westlake, the Darwyn Cooke graphic novel versions retain the same hard-bitten cynicism and tight plotting of the original stories, in an adapted and illustrated format. You’ll enter a bleak world replicated in a monotone colour palette which does a great job approximating the filmic qualities of classic noir. Parker, the main character, is an anti-hero for the ages and the comic representation pulls no punches in translating the original literary savagery into sequential art.
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criminallastoftheinnocent5401 – Criminal (2006- )
Once again, Ed Brubaker makes the list… he tops it, in fact. For my money Brubaker has helmed the absolute best contemporary crime comics available, from Gotham Central, to Fatale and of course, his masterful Criminal series drawn by Sean Phillips. Brubaker always crafts an expert detective yarn. Criminal, as a long standing series, has told a number of different stories throughout its life in print, but my favorite tale would have to be the most recently told: The Last of The Innocent. Classic crime noir has never been done better in a graphic novel. Everything just works so well; the doomed, morally bankrupt protagonist, the dialog, the set-up, the payoff. All of it is tight and smart. Criminal: The Last of the Innocent is tragic and beautiful in all of its garish, human ugliness, and it stands as the prime example of crime fiction done right in the graphic medium.
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For more great comic and graphic novel reviews and features, visit ComicsAstonish.com.

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5 Comments

  1. Marina Sofia Reply

    The French have a long tradition of crime fiction graphic novels, with something for every taste, from historical crime like Agence Hardy, spy thriller like Corto Maltese, to very contemporary undercover stuff at the Europol in Lyon in Cellule Poison. And, of course, Tintin was a detective as well!

    1. Jonathan Duran Reply

      GC is really great and straddles the line between straight detective stories and the fantastic nature of super hero stories perfectly. It’s pretty much the hook Nolan would later take with his Batman films, almost a blueprint, really.

  2. Jeremy Megraw Reply

    Love this list of American noir comix, and not just for the covers! I would also note the influential Sin City (I loved Miller’s 1980s Daredevil too). I’m betting 100 Bullets is in your top 10. Aaron’s Scalped is also worthy.

    1. Jonathan Duran Reply

      100 Bullets is definitely in my top ten, it just barely missed this top five. That’s a really fantastic series.

      I tried to pull a few “hidden gems” out of my collection, so that’s why stuff like Sin City didn’t make the list. It’s a good book, but a bit too obvious methinks. Hopefully I’ve introduced a few readers to some new stuff!

      Thanks for reading!

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