Crime doesn’t pay — that is, unless you’re looking for some quality comic books. Even back to the industry’s pulp-influenced roots in the 1940s, bad guys have always made good stories, even as they aroused the ire of parents, psychiatrists, and even Congress. With crime comics hitting a resurgence with movies like Sin City, Road to Perdition, and A History of Violence, below are six of the best books to get you hooked on this reloaded outlet for crime fiction.
Gotham Central, by Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker, and Michael Lark (Published by DC Comics): This isn’t just one of the greatest crime comics of all time — it’s one of the greatest comics of all time, period. Think of The Wire set against the greasy underbelly of Gotham City, and you get Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker’s Gotham Central. In a town patrolled by the Batman, what happens to ordinary cops who have to protect civilians in the crossfire? Whether it’s the Joker picking off police and civilians with a high-powered sniper rifle or Detective Renee Montoya being outed as a lesbian by one of Batman’s biggest foes, there’s a humanity that comes with these all-too-human heroes fighting against the worst of the DC Universe. With astonishing production values thanks to the shadowy artwork of Michael Lark, there’s a consistency to every story in Gotham Central that goes toe-to-toe with any other medium.
Criminal: Last of the Innocent, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (Published by Marvel/Icon): Ed Brubaker is a true talent when it comes to crime fiction, but among his oeuvre, nothing stands out like the latest Criminal saga, Last of the Innocent. A subversive riff on the wholesome Archie comics of yesteryear, Brubaker introduces us to Riley Richards, a man who married the rich girl instead of the right one. Struggling with the death of his father, rising gambling debts, and a life that feels more claustrophobic every day, Riley makes a horrifying choice — that the only way he can get his freedom back is by murdering his unfaithful wife, Felix. Artist Sean Murphy laces every scene with menace, jumping from the shadowy present day to the cartoony, idealized flashbacks. Ultimately, nostalgia is what fuels Seduction of the Innocent, a cry for a simpler time, a happier time — a time to kill for.
Down, by Warren Ellis, Tony Harris, Cully Hamner, Billy Tan, and Brian Ching (Published by Top Cow): Meet Deanna Ransome. She’s a cop with a taste for violence, and a big blemish on her record. Going undercover into one of the worst criminal organizations in the city, Deanna has a new target: another cop gone bad. Warren Ellis is at his darkest in this short series, working with a murderer’s row of artistic talent, including the weighty photorealism of Ex Machina‘s Tony Harris, the fluid cartooniness of Red‘s Cully Hamner, and the rendered grittiness of Shadowland‘s Billy Tan. As Deanna gets deeper and deeper into a life of crime, Ellis pulls no punches in showing readers the seduction of violence and revenge, throwing our conflicted heroine into more and more dire situations. Down is a dirty, nasty little crime story that gets blood in its eyes and still keeps its foot on the gas.
Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter, by Darwyn Cooke (Published by IDW Publishing): Parker is a man on a mission. He was shot, left for dead, abandoned and betrayed by his wife and his team of crooks. But you can’t keep a good criminal down, can you? Darwyn Cooke’s adaptation of Donald E. Westlake’s story is riveting in how amoral the antihero is — Parker isn’t a man who is in touch with his feelings, he’s a force of nature who only seeks vengeance on those who wronged him. Cooke, who both writes and illustrates this graphic novel, is also a master of structure, ratcheting up the tension as Parker continues to climb higher and higher up the food chain. His artwork, cartoony in the style of the old Max Fleischer Superman cartoons, only amplifies the grime and shadows of Parker’s world, as he glares into a mirror with a look that positively sizzles. Parker may be a bad man, but he’s a bad man who makes for fantastic stories.
The Killer, by Matz and Luc Jacamon (Published by Archaia): The Killer is one book that lives up to its title. Underneath his impassive prescription glasses, the unnamed narrator has plenty to say about the nature of life, death, and what it’s like to murder for money. “I’m not a bad guy,” he tells the reader, as he pours himself a drink and watches out his window. “Though I’m not particularly nice, either.” Of course, that weight of his profession doesn’t always sit well with the Killer, as he slowly begins to crack after a job goes bad. The first installment of the series shows the claustrophobia that our antihero is under, as eventually even the cartoony artwork by Luc Jacamon begins to warp and crack under the pressure. But not all setbacks are insurmountable, as the next few volumes of the series begin to show the philosophical and even artistic sides of one of the deadliest characters in comics.
Blacksad, by Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido (Published by Dark Horse Comics): Picture hard noir cut with Disney design, and you get Blacksad, one of the most beautiful graphic novels you’ll find in any genre. In a world of anthropomorphic lions, gorillas, and foxes, we follow detective John Blacksad as he investigates the murder of an old flame, an actress who may have fallen in with the wrong crowd. Whether he’s conning his way into someone’s apartment or warding off punches from a rhinoceros enforcer, Blacksad is a panther on a mission, exuding a sort of rough-hewn charm on every page. And the fight sequences? To die for. With cases that touch upon vengeance, the Ku Klux Klan, and even the atomic bomb, Blacksad is one cat who always lands on his feet.
David Pepose reviews comics for Newsarama.com.