When I started blogging about comics, I made a list of my favorites to help organize things, and a LOT of crime and heist books ended up on that piece of paper. I hadn’t thought of myself as a crime-story loving gal, but the evidence was right there on my bookshelves! Here’s a collection of my favorites (so far!) and I hope you find something fascinating to dig into.
Before we jump in:
- All comics here can be bought as graphic novels/collections, not only as single issues. Your library may own many of these!
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Forget your preconceptions about Shaft. This book is a masterful gritty crime drama, and wildly underappreciated! John Shaft went to Vietnam to avoid a prison sentence. Back home from the war, he meets a girl. Unfortunately, his girl knows someone who’s in a lot of trouble, and that trouble comes knocking on their door. It’s a story about revenge, and about what can motivate someone to to live on the “wrong” side of the law. Walker’s Shaft, based on the novels by Tidyman, is a cunning opponent whose uses his emotions as fuel. The gangsters and corrupt cops he’s up against don’t stand a chance. Evely and Miwa create a strong sense of time and place for this origin story, from the cars and fashion to the vintage coloring.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this limited series, and I was blown away by what I got. The followup volume, Shaft: Imitation of Life (Amazon / Goodreads), was just as fantastic. Dietrich Smith illustrated that one, with colors by Alex Guimarães.
Diversity notes: Walker is black. Evely and Miwa are Brazilian women. Smith is black. Guimarães is Brazilian.
Spider-Man: Black Cat (Amazon / Kindle/Comixology / Goodreads) By Jen Van Meter, with art by Javier Pulido and Javier Rodríguez, colors by Rodriguez and Matt Hollingsworth, and letters by Joe Caramagna.
Don’t let the title fool you. This is a Black Cat book, not a Spider-Man book. (And Black Cat is one of the female superhero comic book characters who makes sense to be drawn sexy.) Black Cat has the power to bring bad luck to those nearby, world class thief skills, and an on-again-off-again affair with Spider-Man…which goes sour when someone frames the Cat for a crime she didn’t commit, and blackmails her into more crimes, in a plot that’s seemingly targeting Spidey. She’ll have to cut him out of the loop to resolve this on her own without getting him hurt.
One thing I loved about this series, aside from the adventuring and crime-solving, was that Black Cat’s awesome support team of experts is all people of color. As if Van Meter had Black Cat and Spider-Man and some villains who Marvel probably wouldn’t accept for chromatic casting, so she took the rest of the character slots and filled them all up with more diversity. I don’t know if that’s how it happened, but that’s the story I like to tell myself.
Definitely one of the more fun crime comics on this list!
The gay noir pro wrestling comic I never knew I needed, but I am IN LOVE. Retired wrestler Dan Knossos, who was known as The Minotaur, flies back from Japan to the U.S. when he gets a call that his ex-boyfriend is in trouble. Teddy, an addict, is in hock to some very bad dudes for lots of cash. Dan’s long-ago guilt for abandoning Teddy to try for success in pro wrestling won’t let him walk away from a situation in which there are no good solutions. His personal story trying to save Teddy is interwoven with various other characters in the pro wrestling industry, a grueling field made up of intense travel, Hollywood-level institutional apathy towards anyone who isn’t a star, and naive young people with big dreams. It’s equal parts crime comic and entertainment industry critique, and I’m pretty sure everyone in it is doomed. I can’t stop reading!
There are three volumes out so far, and Ringside is an ongoing series.
[Update 9/2/18: Between when I wrote this and when it published, the fourth and final volume came out. Fitting and proper conclusion.]
Ah, the pleasures of a heist comic in which 2/3 of the thieves have no freakin’ clue what they’re doing! I had such a good time reading this. The art is crisp and clean, the characters are well-rounded, and Case keeps every single plot-related ball in the air with ease until he starts throwing them precisely where they should go.
Set in Depression-era NYC at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, The New Deal is the story of two coworkers. Frank is a white bellhop with a gambling debt he can’t pay. Theresa is an African-American maid with a passion for acting which is – shall we say – going unfulfilled in the roles available to her in that time and place. Her treatment by the rich white patrons of the Waldorf Astoria isn’t any better. (And to complicate matters further, Frank has a crush on Theresa. Because she’s great.)
A new guest and a series of mysterious thefts at the hotel pull both main characters into an even more complicated mess… and that’s where I’ll leave you to read it for yourself. Enjoy!
What happens when four middle-school age kids figure out that one of their dads is being recruited back to a life of crime for a bank heist? Nothing good. I was blown away by this story, which starts funny and ends up somewhat heartbreaking, but with just enough hope at the end to make it okay. A crystal clear demonstration of the consequences of immature decision making – and I don’t mean immature as an insult, I mean it as a descriptor. I really appreciated how the creative team didn’t give anyone an easy out from the reality of what goes down when things move from ha-ha to OH NO.
Diversity note: The group of kids is diverse, and the main character Paige and her father are people of color.
Cow Boy: A Boy and His Horse (Amazon / Comixology / Goodreads) By Nate Cosby, with art and letters by Chris Eliopoulos. Extra short stories by Roger Langridge, Brian Clevinger, Scott Wegener, Mitch Gerads, Colleen Coover, and Mike Maihack.
Boyd Linney is a bounty hunter. A ten year old bounty hunter. He comes from a family of criminals, and he aims to put them away. At first it seems like a funny comic, and it is, but there are also deep layers of emotion here. Especially in brief flashbacks to Boyd’s younger childhood, where it’s clear he was abused and neglected. It’s not a pain and angst book or presented in an upsetting way, but his history informs his mission. I don’t usually go out of my way for Western settings, either in books or movies, but this is such a profound, moving little book and I’m glad I took a chance.
I’m six volumes into Postal, and I’ve been in a perpetual state of terror for the main character the whole time. It’s amazing how effectively this creative team is messing with me! The main character’s name is Mark Shiffron. His mother is the mayor of Eden, Wyoming, a secret small town populated entirely by fugitive criminals. When a murder happens in this town with a zero-tolerance policy for crime within its borders, Mark is drawn into the turmoil that follows. He has Asperger’s syndrome, and one of his gifts is noticing details, so when he wants to unravel a mystery, there isn’t much stopping him. I can see him going down a very dark road and I so desperately want him to make a different choice. But given his environment, I’m just not sure if he can, no matter what he truly wants. There are so many secrets in this town, and so many interesting characters, that I can’t stop reading. Goodhart and Gonia do a great job setting a suspicious, brooding tone with the art.
Postal is an ongoing series, and will probably take a year off my life by the time it’s over.
Diversity note: Hill is African-American.
Catwoman Volume 1: Trail of the Catwoman (Amazon / Goodreads) Stories by Darwyn Cooke and Ed Brubaker. Art by Cooke, Cameron Stewart, Mike Allred, Brad Rader, and Rick Burchett. Colors and separations by Mike Hollingsworth, Lee Loughridge, and Giulia Brusco. Letters by Sean Konot and Willie Schubert.
Like most comic characters owned by big companies, Catwoman’s had a lot of writers over the years. As a result, she’s has a lot of different personalities and backstories. Some of them are awful. Some of them are fantastic. Cooke’s and Brubaker’s Catwoman, and her alter ego Selina Kyle, is my favorite vision of the Cat I’ve read so far. The stories in this volume are a mix of 50’s style detective comics, 60’s style caper/heist movies, and a completely modern depiction of her later urban life as a crimefighter instead of a criminal. That last part is the bulk of this book, where Selina Kyle is supposed to be dead, but she’s back in Gotham. Something to prove, possibly something to make up for. Or maybe she just can’t stop being Catwoman. (Or stealing stuff, as needed.) Whatever the motivation, she’s tired of seeing residents of her neighborhood victimized, and she’s going to do something about it.
All the folks working on these stories seem to understand that while Catwoman is often a sexy character, and Selina Kyle has a sex life, neither one has to be falling out of their outfits in every panel. Yay! And special bonus for those of us always looking for more diversity: Selina’s friend Holly and her girlfriend Karon are an epically cute couple.
Unfortunately, I can’t recommend volumes 2 and 3 collecting more of Brubaker’s stories. There are some over-the-top horror-movie events in volume 2 that I will never read again (icckk!), and the art is extremely uneven in volume 3. So sad, because I love the first one so much!
Thief of Thieves (Amazon/Comixology / Goodreads) Created by Robert Kirkman. Written by Nick Spencer (v1), James Asmus (v2), Andy Diggle (v3-5). Art by Shawn Martinbrough. Colors by Felix Serrano (v1-3), Adriano Lucas (v4-5). Letters by Rus Wooton.
Robert Kirkman is the author of Walking Dead. Don’t let that confuse you. There are no zombies here. Thief of Thieves is a heist comic about Conrad Paulson, who is also the master thief known as Redmond, a man who wants nothing more than to retire so he can try again to get his ex-wife back. (He met her in the business, but she got out and he didn’t. She’s a little self-righteous about it, in my opinion.) Unfortunately, there’s a detective who thinks she’s this close to establishing that Paulson is Redmond, and will stop at nothing to catch him. Also unfortunately, Paulson’s adult son is trying to follow in Dad’s footsteps and he’s terrible at it. Now he’s gotten into trouble that only Redmond can fix.
There are six volumes out so far, and Thief of Thieves is an ongoing series. There have been a couple bits that dragged, but overall if you adore a good caper, this is probably the book for you.
Diversity note: Martinbrough is African-American. Wooton is disabled.
I’m not smart enough to write an in-depth review of this graphic novel. I’ll probably need to read it a couple more times before I can even describe it well. It’s not an easy book to read. The cast is complicated, and the story moves between different timelines. The topic is also difficult: interpersonal violence, from childhood bullying to sexual assault and murder.
So why am I recommending it? Because even if you’re not completely following the events, Asano creates such a feeling of dread with both the human and supernatural elements of the story. It’s dark, but not hopeless, and the events aren’t just horrible for the sake of horrible. It’s extremely well-written by someone who’s clearly very smart. It makes you want to figure out all the interlocking puzzles. Asano’s art particularly shines with details, such as the irises of someone’s eyes as they stare. He also mixes dialogue and narration well, devoting some panels entirely to narration instead of crowding the art – and the pacing of the story is stronger as a result.
So go ahead and read it, and then I’ll buy you lunch so you can explain it to me. Deal?
I never thought I’d want to read a comic so heavy on the horror, but comics is all about broadening my genre horizons. Buckaroo, Oregon, is infamous for the sixteen serial killers that have grown up in the town. An FBI agent who was investigating has disappeared, and his friend NSA agent Nicholas Finch is trying to find him. Finch gets help from Buckaroo’s Sheriff Sharon Crane… without telling her he’s suspended from his job. Suspicion focuses on “The Nailbiter” a.k.a. Edward Warren, one of the serial killers, who lives in Buckaroo after somehow being acquitted for his crimes. Which yes, he totally did commit. After dating Sheriff Crane when they were in high school.
Here’s the big question our main characters are led to confront: why does Buckaroo raise so many serial killers? What’s going on beneath the town? The characters’ search for the answer sucked me in with strong characters, mystery, and beautiful coloring. The series climax maybe got a little speechifying for me, but it was more than made up for by the very-very end scene which was pitch perfect.
Nailbiter is complete in six paperback collections, or you can opt for the “Murder Edition” hardcovers that will collect the complete series in three volumes.
Lady Killer (Amazon/Comixology / Goodreads) Volume 1 co-written by Joëlle Jones and Jamie S. Rich, with art by Jones and colors by Laura Allred. Volume 2 by Jones, with colors by Michelle Madsen. Letters by Crank!
Dark comedy only recommended for those with strong stomachs! Lady Killer is the story of a woman who looks like the perfect early 1960s middle-class housewife, but is secretly a contract killer. As anyone who tries to balance work and family knows, though, there can come a point where you’re pressed to choose one or the other. Except in Josie Schuller’s case, someone makes a choice for her. I was almost at war with myself while reading this, because the story structure makes you want to sympathize with Josie – but hang on, she’s an amoral assassin! There’s not even any pretense she’s serving a higher purpose! It’s deeply disturbing on that level, but Jones totally knows how to pull you in anyway. Such a good series, and I’m a bit sad that it seems to be over after the two volumes that are out.
Reading this noir series is like driving an expensive car. Everything is so well-crafted that it takes your breath away. Brubaker, Phillips, and Breitweiser are all acknowledged masters of their craft. The Fade Out is about the murder of a starlet in post-war Hollywood, where there’s so much money, corruption, and violence against women that justice seems unlikely. The story is told with all the conflicts, hints, clues, unknown loyalties, and suspense that you need for a crime story to suck you in. The brooding color scheme amplifies the suffocating atmosphere where everyone has to watch his back… until one man decides he doesn’t care about that anymore. But just remember that in noir, there are no happy endings.
There is a deluxe edition that collects the whole series, or it’s complete in three smaller volumes – the first one’s linked above.
Lawless is my super-favorite of the interconnected Criminal series books, and it can be read as a standalone. The main character, Tracy Lawless, returns from Iraq determined to find out who killed his brother. That means working his way into his brother’s old criminal colleague network, which means being connected to some very bad people. Lawless is not a good guy either, but you end up hoping he gets out of this okay… while watching him slowly lose himself, and wondering if he’ll be able to stop that slide. Me, while reading: “Tracy! Don’t do it! Come on, man, save yourself!” Brubaker and Phillips don’t pull any punches, though, so be warned. Great atmosphere, writing, and art by two comics rock stars.
That concludes today’s roundup of crime comics that I love and recommend! If you have any suggestions for me, please leave them in the comments – and thanks for sharing this post on social media or with friends.