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The Fall (and Rise) of the Crime Comic

It's Time for Us to GoThe crime comic has a rich and long history. You wouldn’t know it to look at the comic landscape today, but at one time crime comics ruled. While I freely admit that I’m not the guy to write about the history and golden age of the crime comic, I also recognize the need to cover one portion of it in order to set the stage and place the modern crime comic in its proper context. The Comics Code was established in 1954 to regulate the contents and covers of comic books. It effectively killed off the crime and horror comic books while ushering in an age of rampant censorship in the industry. To imagine how difficult it was to produce a crime comic at that time, it’s instructive (and eye-opening) to take a look at some sections of The Code that applied to the genre.

-Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.

-Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.

-If crime is depicted, it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity.

-Criminals shall not be presented so as to be rendered glamorous or to occupy a position which creates a desire for emulation.

-In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal shall be punished for his misdeeds.

-Scenes of excessive violence shall be prohibited. Scenes of brutal torture, excessive and unnecessary knife and gunplay, physical agony, gory and gruesome crime shall be eliminated.

-The letters of the word “crime” on a comics-magazine cover shall never be appreciably greater in dimension than the other words contained in the title. The word “crime” shall never appear alone on a cover.

-Although slang and colloquialisms are acceptable, excessive use should be discouraged, and wherever possible, good grammar shall be employed.

-Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at nor portrayed. Violent love scenes as well as sexual abnormalities are unacceptable.

Those are all real parts of The Code that the crime comic was subjected to. It was so stifling that practically overnight the genre was crippled and it would take decades for the effects to wear off.

The Rise of the Crime Comic (100 Bullets, Sin City, Stray Bullets, Criminal, Scalped)
In comics history the years 1985–1986 are marked as a turning point for the medium, shucking off the Comics Code and ushering in the modern age of comics, which would have a decidedly darker tone and more adult themes. It took longer for the effects of The Code to wear off, though, when it came to the crime genre, which didn’t start showing a pulse again until the early 1990s.

100 Bullets by Brian Azzarello & Eduardo Risso
When most readers think of a modern crime comic they think of 100 Bullets. The search term “Azzarello noir genius” has actually brought more than one person to Spinetingler, and you know what, they’re not wrong. 100 Bullets is as strong a crime story that you’re likely to find anywhere. It starts off with a basic premise: a mystery man gives someone a gun with 100 bullets and the assurance that if they were to eliminate the person who has caused their life problems there won’t be any repercussions. From this simple premise Azzarello spins out a larger morality play with an increasingly large cast of characters against the backdrop of a secondary world. The 100 Bullets saga racked up critical acclaim and an impressive number of award wins and nominations.

Sin City by Frank Miller and Stray Bullets by David Lapham
As much as 100 Bullets is a cornerstone of the modern crime comic, it did not spring fully formed into the world. The modern crime comic era started a few years earlier with two releases: the high-profile Sin City by Frank Miller and the independent Stray Bullets by David Lapham. These two titles are the font from which the modern crime comic flows. They both represent different types of crime comic and they both have exerted a sphere of influence on the crime comic stories that came after them. You can see their influence even now, 20 years later. Stray Bullets introduced us to a gritty and realistic crime story world with an almost ’70s vibe and clean art lines, and Sin City introduced us to over-the-top characters/creatures and a hyperstylized art style (influenced by Jim Steranko’s Red Tide). Interestingly, both take place in what can only be described as a secondary world—a feature that some of the best examples of the modern crime comic would go on to share. Both titles are single-creator titles: Lapham and Miller single-handedly brought their crime stories to life and thumped the crime comic corpse on the chest until there was a heartbeat.

Criminal by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
Criminal takes place in a secondary world like Sin City and Stray Bullets. Imagine every character type that has ever appeared in a crime story regardless of medium, every character from every novel and movie. They all reside in Center City and interact with each other. The clashing of their lives form in many ways the ultimate ocean of story where any crime story is possible. Brubaker is one of us; he’s a crime fiction guy, not just a comics guy. He can riff on crime movies and has name-dropped authors like Jim Thompson and David Goodis in interviews on comics sites. Criminal as a whole acts as an extended meditation on crime fiction; further adding depth to the discussion is the back-matter essays. Every single issue of Criminal featured an essay from a wide variety of crime fiction people in different mediums. To the best of my knowledge these essays remain uncollected, and an enterprising and ambitious publisher would have a must-own book on their hands if they could pull all of them together.

Scalped
Words don’t do justice to the greatness of Scalped. This is a hard thing to say about an ongoing series, but when all is said and done Scalped may just go down as one of the best crime stories, bar genre, of the last quarter century. But it’s much more than just a crime fiction story, it’s a bit of a hybrid that combines elements of action and crime stories bundled up neatly together with strong noir elements.

The action is unmistakable from the opening bar fight, where we first meet Bad Horse, when, right before the action starts, he proclaims , “Whicha you motherfuckers is gonna be the first to cry to Jesus.” From that point on, fights will be started, weapons will be pulled, guns will blaze, and the action will be relentless. The crime elements will feel familiar to some but only at the most superficial levels, as it will take just a light scratch to reveal the depths of these characters that are anything but simple clichés. From the simple synopsis of the story these two elements can be surmised, but the pervasive noir story was a pleasant surprise. Bad Horse may be a tough guy but we quickly understand that he is an Everyman that we can relate to in a lot of ways. He finds himself compelled, by forces largely beyond his control, to enter into a situation where he becomes little more than a pawn. With all these outside forces working against him the urge for his individuality to assert itself becomes stronger and stronger; but as these forces become practically insurmountable, this simple task becomes harder and harder. Before long a complex mousetrap has been set for Bad Horse.

Readers entering this vivid and gripping world will be introduced to some of the most complex characters, loyalties, and relationships in recent years. Not only are they created with three dimensions but they have multiple facets. As these complex characters and their complex relationships, histories, and loyalties intertwine, it will become hard to know whom to root for, whom to root against, and who will survive.

Through all of these characters, and this story, a lot of tough questions about America, race, class, vice, identity, history, cultural identity, loyalty, youthful ideals and their potential corruption will be asked. Some answers will be given, but none of the questions and their potential answers are easy or neat and pretty. Scalped will take us from the top of the power structure all the way down to the kid who mops the floor of the casino and everyone in between. We will go from fifty-five years ago to the present. We will go to the spirit world and come back changed. This is a book that both entertains and makes you think.

Not Just Noir
When you talk 100 Bullets, Sin City, Stray Bullets, Criminal, and Scalped you’re talking the foundation of and the high-water mark for modern crime comics. These five titles comprise the best of what the genre has to offer, but there are literally hundreds more from the last couple of decades. Unfortunately, there just isn’t the space here to discuss, mention, or even list them all. It’s been said by others that we are in the middle of a noir comics renaissance, and while it’s not a false statement (the heavyweights of the genre do tend to lean toward the dark), it is unfairly limiting to the other types of crime comics out there. I want to take a quick look at some of the others.

Torso by Brian Michael Bendis & Marc Andreyco and Union Station by Ande Parks & Eduardo Barreto both take their crime stories from actual historical events, essentially creating a hybrid of narrative nonfiction and true crime.
Greg Rucka is one of those guys where, if his name is on it, you should just buy it because it’s guaran-damn-teed to be good. His Queen & Country is a spy and espionage story featuring main character Tara Chace. Queen & Country can be recommended to just about anyone. Rucka was also a part of the team that included Ed Brubaker & Michael Lark that brought us Gotham Central. Gotham Central enjoys a premise so simple in design and elegant in execution that I’m sure others were kicking themselves for not thinking of first. Ready? Imagine a police procedural about the Gotham City police department and their lives in Gotham City. Brilliant concept brilliantly executed.

They Found the Car by Gipi uses an economy of words and pages to tell a tightly constructed character-driven crime story. A phone call wakes a man in the middle of the night and a voice from the distant past says the words of the title. Their night journey will lead right into the heart of darkness. Blood will be shed, an unexpected participant will join them, and the end will blow you the hell away.

Britten and Brulightly by Hannah Berry is a deeply moving and richly rewarding experience that all mystery, crime, and comic readers should make time for. I can think of no other word to describe the art of Britten and Brulightly then “lush.” In fact, it might be the rare crime comic in which one talks about the art first and the story second instead of the other way around. But there is no better place to start.

MPD Detective by Eiji Otsuka & Shou Tajima is a Japanese Manga that came out in 1997 and has been released in the U.S. since 2007. Jesus, what a story. It has got to be one of the most deranged, darkest, sickest, most twisted things ever. But in a good way. While certainly violent at times, there isn’t anything sensationalized about the story—and make no mistake, there is a story here. It isn’t one for the faint of heart and easily offended. It’s a dark and violent tale of epic proportions. By the end of the first volume a much larger scope of story is revealed, a revelation that will take the story, over the course of the remaining volumes, into territory that no reader will expect. Part crime story, part horror, part science fiction, MPD—Psycho is a tour de force of dark imagination and story.

The Surrogates by Robert Venditti & Brett Weldele is science fiction story crossed with a police procedural that takes place in a future where everyone has pretty/handsome avatars. What happens when the avatars and their owners start turning up dead? For once, the world weariness of the detective protagonist feels warranted as he tries to struggle with his marriage, his “real” wife, the philosophical ramifications of the world he lives in, and whether to save it or allow it to be destroyed.

When David Lapham, the creator of Stray Bullets, pens a crime tale, you stop what you’re doing and you go get it. His crime stuff has never paid as well as his other work so he’s not as inclined to dip into it. Silverfish finds Lapham in familiar territory and in great form with this psychological family-drama thriller.

Leo Pulp by Claudio Nizzi & Massimo Bonfatti is a straight-faced comedy about a PI named Leo Pulp. He is the only real PI in the time of all the fictional PIs. Imagine the humor of Sledge Hammer mixed with the presence of Darren McGavin played by Bruce Campbell with Nicolle Sullivan as the love interest, and you’ll be close to understanding Leo Pulp. It is a raucous joy to read, containing elements of parody and satire, and is laugh-out-loud funny for the crime fiction fan, containing references to Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Hollywood in the ’40s, the real-life Black Dahlia case, and tons of others.

You Have Killed Me by Jamie Rich and Joelle Jones is like a classic noir movie in comic form. This book hits all the right notes in creating a great overall atmosphere. From the cold noir opening with our confused and bloodied protagonist ,on through the jazz clubs, back-room poker games, and fringes of high society, it exudes a high comfort level and provides a great setting to tell the story. Joelle Jones’s art eschews the blocky thrust of Frank Miller–inspired crime art and comes away with an elegance of style. She also places the characters in a prominent place so they aren’t overshadowed by stylized flourishes. The art is, quite frankly, so damn good here that she has set the benchmark for all future crime artists to beat.

Dark Rain by Matt Johnson and Simone Gane and The Losers by Andy Diggle & Jock are both heist stories but vastly different from each other. Dark Rain gets to know its characters more intimately and they are more sympathetic. The two characters have a heist planned that involves breaking into a New Orleans bank that has been submerged in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The scope of the story expands and the layers of the heist and the characters get revealed in this moving graphic novel. The Losers is like a high-octane action movie of the kind they don’t make anymore but you remember if you are of a certain age.

Chew by John Layman & Rob Guillory reads like a fantasy but is very much grounded in its own reality. It’s about a detective who is cibopathic. He gets psychic impressions from whatever he eats. Think Pushing Daisies and you’ll get close to the idea of this funny and entertaining crime comic.

If you want anthologies that give good samples of the cross section of crime comics, then there are some good ones out there. Noir is an anthology that came out in 2009 and has a lot of strong stories in it. Years before Noir there was Gangland, which is the stronger collection of the two. In 2008 The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics came out, which includes a selection of crime comics from the 20th century.

Conclusion

We are, right now, in a peak age of crime comics. For the past 20 years crime comics have been kicking their way back from near-oblivion to tell some of the most vibrant of all crime story types. Each year more and more crime comics are being released. There are at least two things that readers of crime comics want others to know: that some of the best crime stories right now are being told in the comic medium and that a lot of crime writers are working in the medium. The year 2009 was pound for pound one of the strongest for the modern crime comic, culminating in the creation of Vertigo Crime, an imprint devoted solely to crime comics. With so many great crime comics out right now there is no better time to pick one up.

Brian Lindenmuth loves both kinds of books, fiction and non-fiction and he is the non-fiction editor of Spinetingler Magazine. Generally an all around book john and reviewing roustabout he is a regular contributor to Spinetingler, Crimespree Magazine and BSC Review. He believes that reviewers should have an opinion.