Comic books have never been more mainstream, you only have to look at the cinema listings or the shelves of your local book store to see that. We also know that thousands of crime fiction lovers out there love their comics and graphic novels just as much. So we invited Alex Thomas of the website Pipedream Comics to guide us through some of the best recent releases.
For the discerning reader there’s more to comics than just men in their underwear punching each other. Crime comics have a long tradition stretching from the pulp detective magazines of the 30s and 40s, right up to modern classics like Frank Miller’s Sin City or indie must-reads like David Lapham’s Stray Bullets. With all comic book genres enjoying an upswing in popularity we’re experiencing a golden age for crime comics with a new generation of noir-fuelled creators who were brought up on the gritty comics of the 1970s and 1980s bringing their own unique takes on the genre. We take a look at five of the best released this year, so far…
5 – Sex Criminals volume 1
We’re used to a bit of sex in our crime stories, but for Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s series there is more of an emphasis on the sex and less on the crime. There’s no polite way to describe this book – Jon and Suzie have a secret, they can stop time when they orgasm! At first they simply get up to mischief in the time they are granted by this unique phenomena, known either as the Quiet or Cumworld. As time goes on they look to use it to save the library where Suzie works and take on the evil bank that is trying to close it down. Inevitably this brings them into contact with others who share their gift – including the self-appointed Sex Police – who have taken it upon themselves to police this post-climactic world by any means necessary.
Although it may sound pretty crude, Sex Criminals isn’t some dirty frat boy book full of dick and fart jokes, though there are a quite a few dick jokes. Instead this is a smart piece of enlightened 21st century story-telling that isn’t afraid to use sex and adult themes. Fraction has a brilliantly wry touch in his writing which makes the series both highly intelligent and emotionally engaging, but also damn funny too. He is ably assisted by artist Zdarsky who’s cartoonish artwork, and phenomenal eye for detail, make the most of some of the more ridiculous elements of the story without ever making it feel flippant and throwaway. As you can probably guess from the title, Sex Criminals isn’t a book for the easily offended, but is a great read for those who embrace it. A series that could only work in the world comics!
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4 – The Private Eye #1-10
Brian K Vaughan is best know for his work on the multi-award winning sci-fi series Saga, however this self-published offering is a real under-appreciated gem. In the near future, the internet has released everyone’s deepest darkest secrets into the world resulting in a new ultra-secretive society where people literally wear masks and assume secret identities when going out in public. The press have replaced the police force as investigators of crime and the paparazzi are the unregulated private eyes of this new world. One such paparazzi is the aptly named PI who is hired to investigate the murder of his latest client Taj McGill. With the help of her sister Raveena, he digs deeper into the underbelly of this new secretive society. Vaughan takes the classic noir tropes of Chandler and Hammett and mixes them with a sharply satirical post-Wikileaks, Generation Y edge, to create a truly unique story. The whole thing is made even more weird and wonderful by Spanish artist Marcos Martin’s whose technicolour rendering of this amazing world mixes elements of classic science fiction with pulp crime characters and a surreal European flourish. Published digitally via the Panel Syndicate, you can choose to pay as little or as much as you like for instalments of this book, meaning you can never complain about it not being good value for money.
3 – Stumptown vol 3 The Case of the King of Clubs
A tough as nails private eye with a tenacious need to solve every case by whatever means possible, may seem familiar territory, but Greg Rucka’s Stumptown gives the genre a 21st century twist by making his grizzled PI a woman. But don’t be fooled, this is no feminist box checking exercise, Stumptown’s Dex Palios is a match for any man and makes the issue of gender an irrelevance thanks to being a truly compelling and brilliantly realised character. By switching gender roles, for not only the lead, but most of the supporting cast too, Rucka brings a refreshing edge to what is a very well trodden genre.
In volume 3, Dex investigates the beating of her friend Mercury after a Seattle soccer match and is drawn into the world of hooligans in the USA. This may sound like familiar ground for UK readers, but this American take on it brings a really fresh and unique feel. Rucka does an outstanding job of balancing the crime-solving main arc with developing Dex’s backstory – looking into her military past and continuing her complex relationship with her Down’s syndrome brother Ansel. New series artist Justin Greenwood replaces previous penciller Matthew Southworth and gives the book a more vibrant and colourful tone than the dour grit of the first two volumes, yet this doesn’t detract from the story-telling and if anything gives the book a shot in the arm as it continues its path towards being one of the most original crime comics around.
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2 – Southern Bastards: Here Was A Man vol 1
Good old Southern boys Jason Aaron and Jason Latour have spewed out this down and dirty revenge tale as a blood soaked tribute to the worlds they grew up in. Like a Clint Eastwood movie that never got made, it sees Earl Tubbs return to Craw County to pack up his old family home after his uncle is put into a nursing home. Living in the shadow of his revered/reviled local sheriff father, Tubbs is thrown back into a seedy world of college football, barbecue and simmering small town violence as he attempts to buck the status quo and stand up to the evil Coach Boss, as well as the legacy of his family name. Aaron’s story starts with a dog defecating on the side of the freeway and rarely raises itself out of the gutter, while Latour’s scratchy artwork gives the whole thing a gritty and grimy edge which is balanced perfectly with his red-hued colour scheme. Tubbs is like the man with no name coming into town to bury his Pa and the whole book feels as if it has been stewed in Jack Daniels before being buried in the bayou. Uncompromisingly brutal and tough as old shoe leather, this is the kind of crime story that could only exist in the Deep South.
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1 – The Fade Out vol 1
Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips are the undisputed kings of crime comics thanks to series like Criminal, Sleeper and Fatale. However they have left behind the psychedelic supernatural elements of their recent work and returned to a classic piece of hardboiled noir in The Fade Out. It’s 1940s Hollywood and screenwriter Charlie Parish wakes up in a strange house with the body of actress Valeria Summers in the room next door. With no idea how she got there, or what happened the night before, he covers his tracks and the studio soon cover theirs too. As Charlie begins to investigate the events further he uncovers a classic web of deceit and mystery full of communist blacklists, Hollywood A-listers and struggling starlets. Brubaker’s script reads as if he is translating an early James Ellroy to the comic book page, but with his own hard-boiled tone added in for good measure. Packed full of period details it is brought to life with Phillip’s customary gritty, shadow filled artwork but for The Fade Out he has tightened and brightened his customary style to give the whole series a truly timeless feel – augmented perfectly by the dreamy colours of Elisabeth Breitweiser. Another sure fire masterpiece from this irrepressible team.
Alex Thomas is the Editor and Founder of Pipedream Comics, the ultimate guide to digital comics on the iPad and iPhone. For some top crime graphic novels, click here.