Top 10 Crime Comics of the Last 20 Years

A column article, Top Ten by: Steven Wilcox

Noir (nwär) adj.

  • Of or relating to the film noir genre.
  • Of or relating to a genre of crime literature featuring tough, cynical characters and bleak settings.
  • Suggestive of danger or violence.

Welcome to this week's installment of Tuesday Top Ten. I'm your guide this week as Justin has given me the keys and is letting me fly solo. Our destination? That seedy little hole in the wall of a town where you don't ever visit after nightfall. You know the one? This is the place of that last big, perfect heist. The place of the femme fatale and the hero being the bad guy. This is the place of the crime story...

This list of Top Ten Crime Comics is simply the Top Ten Crime Comics of my choosing. I have read some of these comics multiple times since their release, and they're fighting to be closer to the top spot. But as we've learned from crime fiction, sometimes it isn't about who's better but about who's more ruthless and determined. So without further ado...

10. Last Days of American Crime (2010) by Rick Remender (w), Greg Tocchini (a)

This book has a femme fatale that is right out of a futuristic Raymond Chandler novel. Shelby reeks of lies and deceit as we find out almost immediately that she isn't to be trusted.

This story follows Graham, an aging hustler who wants to pull one last heist before a broadcast is transmitted across the United States making it impossible for people to even THINK illegal acts. Set in the days before America is set to abandon paper money in lieu of encoded credit cards, Graham needs a crew to pull off the proverbial "one last job," the theft of an ATM-like device that can be reprogrammed to give its owner untold wealth. But can he trust his new crew? There are plenty of twists and turns along the way that. Even the twists that I saw coming still had me on the edge of my seat. This book is currently being developed as a motion picture and this series sure deserves to be on the big screen!

9. Sweets (2010) by Kody Chamberlain (w&a)

Set in the days leading up to the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, Kody Chamberlain's Sweets tells the story of police Detective Curt Delatte's investigation into a string of murders in Louisiana. In true noir fashion, Delatte is on the verge of divorce and has recently buried his son when the assignment lands in his lap. The murder victims are all found with pralines nearby, giving the killer the nickname of the Sweets killer - hence the title of this book. Can Delatte solve the murders before the coming storm washes away the evidence and the killer escapes?

In true noir fashion, Kody Chamberlain creates a flawed hero in Det. Delatte. Tortured past and drinking problems notwithstanding, Delatte must push on through his personal problems in order to find the Sweets killer before the coming storm...

8. 100 Bullets (1999) by Brian Azzarello (w), Eduardo Risso (a)

Some would argue that Brian Azzarello & Eduardo Risso's crime epic 100 Bullets should be a lot higher on my list. While I admit to not collecting the monthlies, I became addicted to the TPBs and would treat myself to the purchase of one each time a new volume was released.

Imagine a mysterious man, holding a briefcase, coming up to you claiming to have the answers to some grievous wrong you suffered in the past. He has the proof as to who is truly responsible for the wrong. The man offers a chance to redeem yourself with the attaché-case. In the case is a pistol and 100 bullets that he says are untraceable. No law enforcement agency will be able to convict you.

From that simple and brilliant premise, we are introduced to a slew of odd characters, starting off with Dizzy, a woman just released from prison. On the surface, 100 Bullets seems like a great anthology of twisted stories and characters who are faced with that choice by the mysterious Agent Graves. But Azzarello doesn't just leave the story at that. Soon we are introduced to the concept of The Trust and the Minute Men, and the story even touches upon one of my favorite historical mysteries, the legend of Roanoke.

7. Scene of the Crime (1999) by Ed Brubaker (w),Michael Lark (p), Sean Phillips (i)

Jack Herriman is a private detective who is hired by a young woman to find her missing younger sister who may've gotten involved with a cult. From the beginning, we get a sense that these characters are all flawed and real. The story is one that feels very personal, especially with the first person narrative used by Brubaker here. Sadly, there was no follow up to this mini-series but Brubaker did go on from this series to Gotham Central where he teamed with another writer, Greg Rucka and Scene of the Crime artist Michael Lark to tell stories of Gotham's finest. Here, we see the creative team taking a small handful of characters, with no prior history in print, and breathe life into them. Of all the stories on the list, this one is one of the few that would seem possible in the real world.

6. Parker: The Hunter (2009) by Richard Stark/Donald Westlake (w), Darwyn Cooke (w&a)

For many years, writer Donald Westlake would not allow his most famous creation, Parker, to be adapted into any other genre. And when he did allow his character's persona to be adapted, Westlake required certain changes. For instance, in the Mel Gibson film Payback "Parker" was changed to "Porter." That movie is based on the same story adapted in this graphic novel, Richard Stark's Parker: the Hunter.

The Hunter tells the story of a heist gone wrong. Parker is screwed out of his cut from the heist and is left for dead by his partners. But, as readers of the series know, Parker isn't that easy to get rid of. What follows his revival is Parker's quest for revenge and to get back what is appropriately his - not a penny more or a penny less.

Parker is the perfect crime noir protagonist. He's flawed and selfish, mean and nasty. This adaption needs should also be commended for its attention to detail in its design. Black and white with blue tones, Darwyn Cooke's art is pop culture perfection. His art looks like the art used in old print ads from the era. The cover looks like a book from the 1960s. The font used on the title page is spot on to what I expect to find in an old novel. It even smells like an old book.

5. Tumor (2009) by Josh Fialkov (w), Noel Tuazon (a)

In Tumor, we meet aging private detective Frank Armstrong as he is given a missing person case. We find out immediately that something is terribly wrong with Frank. He keeps blacking out as he talks. Time becomes fluid for Frank. One minute Frank is meeting a mob boss who's asking for help in locating his daughter, and the next he's in the hospital at some time earlier. Frank's disjointedness adds to the reader's experience with the book, as we are pulled into Frank's life. What does this case have to do with the incident from his past that still haunts him?

I tried to read this book in single chapter installments, imagining that it would be like a small treat for myself each time I would sit down to read a little more of this book. Instead I ended up reading the entire book in one sitting, cover to cover, including special features. It was too good to put down.

4. Jonny Double (1997) by Brian Azzarello (w), Eduardo Risso (a)

Jonny Double is my favorite heist comic so far, written by Brian Azzarello with art by Eduardo Risso. This comic was published right before Azzarello and Rizzo started on their major epic, 100 Bullets.

This book tells the story of a typical heist plot, involving a protagonist and the team he must work with in order to get their ultimate score. And, like any good noir/crime thriller, there are twists and turns around every corner. To say any more would spoil the surprises...

3. Stumptown (2009) by Greg Rucka (w), Matthew Southworth (a)

No man alive can write a strong female lead like author Greg Rucka, and he proves it by creating one of my favorite private detective stories in comics.

Dex is a private eye. Cut from the same cloth as Jim Rockford, barely able to rub two pennies together , Dex is over her head with gambling debts. Luckily for her, casino owners offer to erase her debt in exchange for her help in a case. This series proves that Greg Rucka is a master writer. It's a no-brainer for me to buy one of his comics when I see his name on the cover. He's written some of the best Wonder Woman and Batman stories in the past decade. But give him a sandbox and tell him to fill it with his own toys... and you get Stumptown. I will gladly return to this series as soon as he has a new story to tell.

2. Criminal (2006) by Ed Brubaker (w), Sean Phillips (a)

Ed Brubaker teams with long-time collaborator Sean Phillips on the Marvel/Icon series, a series of mini-series with a revolving cast of characters and time-periods.. This is the perfect crime movie. It just happens to be told as a series of mini-series in comic format. There have been 5 story arcs to date with a sixth that started in June.

Criminal starts with the storyline Coward, about a bank heist that goes bad. But what did you expect when the take was planned out by a couple of dirty cops?

The best part about the monthly installments is the text piece in the back. Each issue Brubaker introduces us to another guide into the world of noir. Each guest contributor has a love for noir and they share it with us in the form of essays or interviews with topics ranging from Hong Kong Crime Cinema to Dirty Harry.

1. Sin City (1991) by Frank Miler

Sin City can be considered the granddaddy of modern crime comics. The first series introduced us to Marv and the city of Sin City. The character of Marv is your typical noir protagonist. Is e heroic? No. is he moralistic? Um, no. But Marv is mean as hell and is not someone you want to meet in a dark alley, especially if that dark alley was in Sin City. He meets a young woman who turned to him for protection. From what? Marv doesn't know. All that he knows is this woman, Goldie, shows him more kindness in one night than he has known in a very long time. It's no surprise that Goldie is killed and Marv is framed for murder. Of course, Marv has to bring Goldie's killers to justice – Sin City justice.

Frank Miller's magnificent black and white artwork really accentuates the noir feel of the first graphic novel, and becomes even more impressive as we explore more of the world of Sin City in future volumes. If you've seen the movie, you know that Sin City is a classic crime adventure and one of the finest crime comics to ever be published.

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