CIS: The 10 best classic crime comics

sceneofthecrime875CIS2015logoFrom classic characters to compelling concepts by legendary creators, Alex Thomas of expert website Pipedream Comics looks at 10 of the very best classic crime comics available today. He shares his picks with us here during Classics in September, and each of these is available in graphic novel format meaning you won’t have to trawl the shelves at the back of your local comic shop, as fun as that might seem.

The comic heroes we cover here on Crime Fiction Lover tend to be the ones who don’t have superpowers, they’re ordinary men and women who use their detective skills, scientific study and physical training to fight crime. Sometimes, they use firepower too. Enjoy…

spiritcomic20010 – The Spirit
The grandaddy of costumed crime fighters, Will Eisner’s The Spirit set the benchmark for all those who followed. With his domino mask, cocked hat and trademarked red tie, the man formerly known as Denny Colt is as iconic as any bat or spider. Originally launched as a newspaper strip in 1940, The Spirit mixes classic pulp adventuring with detective fiction. Eisner was never afraid to venture into darkest noir, nor to lighten things up with a dash of humour too. What truly separated The Spirit from the other Golden Age heroes was Eisner’s ground-breaking artwork. Breaking out of traditional straight panel designs and creating pages that merged text and artwork to dazzling effect, he helped create a look and feel for comics that many have tried to emulate and few have managed to better. That’s why the top award in the comics industry is named after Mr Eisner…
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masks3009 – Masks
Dynamite Entertainment has a roster of some of the world’s best known Golden Age pulp characters from The Shadow and the Green Hornet to the Spider and Kato. But rather than just let them exist in their own respective bubbles, veteran comic writer Chris Roberson (Kingdom Come, Daredevil, The Flash) and artists Alex Ross and Dennis Calero have brought them together to create a Golden Age-style Avengers/Justice League. Taking on the corrupt forces of the Justice Party, these masked avengers looks to take back the city of New York from the politicised mobsters, with guest appearances from Zorro and The Black Bat among many others. This proto-superhero series benefits from the modern know-how of one of comics’ best writers in Roberson, while the stunning cover work of painting legend Alex Ross and a roster of some of the best-loved characters in pulp fiction create an ensemble that betters any other would-be band of do-gooders.

vforvendetta2008 – V For Vendetta
Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s tales of a masked man looking to bring down the fascist government in the near-future have become a rallying cry for the disaffected and a visual inspiration for many contemporary political movements, thanks to lead character V’s iconic Guy Fawkes mask. However underneath the political machinations is a piece of classic crime fiction reminiscent of fine literature like the Count of Monte Cristo or The Man in the Iron Mask. As the charismatic V looks to take down the government who held him hostage and kill his oppressors, he takes the vulnerable Evey Hammond under his tutelage to try and turn her into his protege, with explosive results. A tale which is as incendiary and relevant now as it was when it was written in the 1980s.
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judgedreddAmerica2007 – Judge Dredd: America
Although the majority of classic crime tales focus on the criminals, the side of the righteous should also be represented and nobody offers a cold hard adherence to the law more than 2000 AD stalwart Judge Dredd. Policing the streets of the post-apocalyptic Mega City One his unique brand of justice has helped this futuristic law man carve out a niche for himself for nearly 40 years. However, what makes Dredd such a versatile character is that he can be the centrepiece for evocative story-telling without having to be the main focus of the story and a classic case in point is in the epic love story that is America. Charting the story of a young immigrant girl (America) and her friend/love Bennet Beeny, we see how various interactions with the law lead her to become increasingly disillusioned with the status quo and look to change the oppressive regime of the Mega City and bring freedom back to its residents. America is part love story and part political satire, but with the way it uses the law as a central motif means it is also a piece of classic crime fiction and rightly considered one of Dredd’s finest hours.
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100bullets2006 – 100 Bullets
What makes a comic a classic is often the concept – nail that and you have a great story that you can return to again and again. Writer Brian Azzarello and artist Eduardo Risso have hit on just such a formula with 100 Bullets. The mysterious agent Graves gives the victims of crimes the titular ton of untraceable firepower and all the information they need to act out their revenge as they see fit. In time, the concept becomes twisted and fleshed out to become something much richer and more involved, but for new readers the sheer exhilaration and speculation about how characters will react to Graves’ offer make 100 Bullets compulsive reading.
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hunter3005 – Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter
One alternative to creating a classic tale is to adapt one by a classic author. Ruthless career criminal Parker is the creation of veteran crime writer Donald E Westlake and was immortalised on screen by Lee Marvin in the seminal 60s movie Point Blank. However it is the graphic novel The Hunter (and its celebrated follow-ups) from writer artist Darwin Cooke that are perhaps the most faithful to Westlake’s visions and so deserving of the classic tag. Produced in association with the author, The Hunter retells Parker’s first novel and retains much of what made him such a charismatic character in the first place, from the 1960s setting to the brutal and uncompromising pursuit of revenge that drives him. Cooke’s cartoonish style, picked up from working as an animator might, not make him the obvious choice to illustrate such gritty characters but his subtle use of colour and minimalist story-telling mean Parker loses none of his edge.
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sceneofthecrime2004 – Scene of the Crime
In the world of contemporary crime comics, there are few better creative teams than Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips – the masterminds behind Criminal, Fatale and The Fade Out. Their unique brand of hardboiled is the high water mark that others can only aspire to and this is where it all began – admittedly with a little help from fellow noir enthusiast Michael Lark. Packed full of classic crime noir tropes from the grizzled private detective Jack Herriman to the mysterious Californian cult he is hired to investigate when a young girl goes missing, Scene of the Crime has made itself a classic through sheer quality.
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fromhell2003 – From Hell
The unsolved case of Jack the Ripper might not sound like the best backdrop for a sprawling graphic novel, but Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s gothic whodunnit works perfectly. Exploring the various myths that surround The Ripper legend, but largely focusing on Steven Knight’s theory that it was all a cover up for the illegitimate son of Prince Albert, Moore and Campbell’s book is an epic tome with a truly forensic level of detail. Originally released over a seven year period from 1989-1997 the collected volume is one of the most comprehensive stories you will ever read, with hours of historical research going into every page and a 40-page readers guide at the back to explain all the subtle nuances. But this doesn’t mean it is a dull read as Moore and Campbell are masters of their respective crafts and turn historical speculation into an utterly compelling read. A special slipcase edition is due out next year.
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batmanyearone2002 – Batman Year One
Writer and artist Frank Miller may have reinvented the superhero genre in the 1980s with the Dark Knight Returns, but it is this comic book pot boiler that helped shape the way the caped crusader was portrayed for future generations. With art by David Mazzuchelli, Year One parallels the first year of Bruce Wayne as Batman with a young, idealistic police captain called Jim Gordon as he tracks mob boss Carmine Falcone. As the enigmatic vigilante looks to take on the Gotham underworld, Gordon has his own battles against the corrupt forces with the Gotham City Police Department. It generates an unforgettable origin story for two of comics’ most enduring characters. Year One would become the blueprint for both Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and also the TV series Gotham, and helped bring the caped crusader back to his dark detective roots thanks to Miller’s noirish take on the character and Mazzuchelli’s shadowy artwork.
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sincityahardgoodbye3001 – Sin City (A Hard Goodbye)
Frank Miller’s ink-splattered and blood soaked noir helped revitalise crime comics in the early-90s thanks to it’s interwoven stories and ultraviolet attitude. Without the conservative restrictions of Marvel or DC holding him back, Miller created a brutally beautiful tale of hitmen, femmes fatales and lovable thugs that were rendered in an expressionistic black and white style that would become synonymous with the residents of Basin City. Volume 1, later rechristened A Hard Goodbye, saw lovable thug Marv fall in love with a prostitute named Goldie only to be framed for her murder, held captive by a cannibal serial killer and then make enemies of the powerful Roark family with fatal consequences. Miller’s new noir style created so many iconic images and characters that when it was turned into a movie in 2000 he co-directed it with film-maker Robert Rodriguez and transferred many of his iconic scenes on to the big screen exactly as they were on the comic book page.The sign of a true classic.
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For more graphic novels and crime comics click here. What’s your favourite classic crime comic? Tell us about it in the comments below.

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6 Comments

  1. Marina Sofia Reply

    Wonderful topic and some great suggestions here. For those who read French, there is a great selection of French and Belgian crime-oriented BD. My favourite recent ones are the graphic version of Manchette’s Fatale and La Princesse du Sang, but there are many other noteworthy series: Celule Poison (about undercover Eurocrime work) by Laurent Astier, Largo Winch, XIII (which has also been translated into English and has been adapted for TV), plus the more vintage feel of the 1950s with the Agence Hardy series. All personally consumed and recommended!

    1. crimefictionlover Reply

      France has a rich comic heritage that’s often overlooked in the US and Britain. Moebius, anyone? We did cover one graphic novel set in France, The Illegalists, which looks rather good. Though the story is French I think this execution is an international effort http://www.crimefictionlover.co.uk/2015/03/first-look-the-illegalists/

      As far fetched as some Batman stories get I really like the work Neal Adams did on the title. He always swore Batman was a normal man with extraordinary skills. Also really liked Frank Miller’s Dark Knight comics. Did you know they inspired Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole character? http://www.crimefictionlover.co.uk/2013/09/interview-jo-nesbo/

  2. Calum Macleod Reply

    For crime in the wide open spaces as opposed to the mean streets of Big City USA, check out the noir-as-they come Vertigo series Scalped by Jason Aaron.
    A neo-western/gangster hybrid set on a reservation where the lure of money from legal gambling and illegal drugs have corrupted the once idealistic Lincoln Red Crow and where the law enforcement agents tasked with taking him down are no less flawed or violent.
    Not for the fainthearted, this is strong, adult stuff that has literally haunted my dreams.

    1. crimefictionlover Reply

      Scalped. Good call. Jason Aaron’s really made his name as a comic book writer. The storyline in his Star Wars series is really strong if you like that ’77 Star Wars vibe. Thanks for dropping by, Calum.

  3. Pingback: Top 10 Classic Crime Graphic Novels for CrimeFictionLover

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