When I thought about my favorite comics, a lot of crime and caper books made the list. I don’t think of myself as a crime-story loving gal! The evidence is right here in the post, though. So even if you’re skeptical of the topic like I was, give these a chance. They’re all over the map in their styles so there’s likely to be something for everyone here.
Cow Boy: A Boy and His Horse 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 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 care much for Western settings, either in books or movies. But for me, Cow Boy transcends its genre. You can even read the first few chapters of Cow Boy online to try it out.
Catwoman Volume 1: Trail of the Catwoman with stories by Darwyn Cooke and Ed Brubaker, and 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!
Switching gears completely, The Winter Men by Brett Lewis with art by John Paul Leon.
It’s set in post-collapse Russia after the fall of communism. No more working justice system. Crime infests all levels of society. Kris Kalenov used to be an elite soldier, and now he’s a policeman, and he’s been dragged into a kidnapping case where no one can be trusted. Not the mayor, not the Americans, and definitely not the mafia.
C-Man contends he’s never read a comic with a more distinct sense of time and place. I’d be hard pressed to argue with him. It’s very much worth the read. Kalenov is NOT a good guy, and there’s a lot of violence in this one (including sexual violence against women), but the intertwined crime and superhero stories are fascinating.
Then we have Thief of Thieves. Created by Robert Kirkman, written by Nick Spencer, with art by Shawn Martinbrough, colors by Felix Serrano, and 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. The central character is Conrad Paulson, also the master thief known as Redmond, 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, their adult son is trying to follow in Dad’s footsteps, but he’s just not any good at it. Now he’s gotten into trouble that only Redmond can fix. The first three volumes of this series have been just excellent and we’re looking forward to more.
With a more grim feel, we have Sunset by Christos Gage, with art by Jorge Lucas and letters by Troy Peteri.
Nick Bellamy used to work for the mob, until he stole enough money to get away forever. The past, though, has a way of catching up to you when large sums of money are involved.
Christos Gage is one of my favorite writers, and he’s why I read Sunset. Lucas’s craggy black and white line art could probably benefit from a larger printed size, but it fits the story. Which is brutal, and there are very few good people in it, but you’re still rooting for Bellamy and his compatriots to do the right thing, and maybe even come out ahead. (Just keep in mind they’re in a noir story, though, okay? Those rarely end well.)
Amazing Spider-Man Presents: Black Cat by Jen Van Meter, with art by Javier Pulido and Javier Rodriguez, colors by Rodriguez and Matt Hollingsworth, and letters by Joe Caramagna. (I’m using the cover that appears on my paperback, though if you click through to Amazon, you’ll see a different cover is apparently the one you get these days. I like mine better.)
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 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 up with more diversity. I don’t know if that’s how it happened, but that’s the story I like to tell myself.
Criminal Volume 2: Lawless, by writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips.
The Criminal series is various stories all set in the same interconnected world, and Lawless is so far my favorite. (You don’t have to read Volume 1 to jump in here, but you can read them in order if you want.) The central 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. Brubaker and Phillips don’t pull any punches, though, so be warned.
Dead Letters: The Existential Op by Christopher Sebela with art by Chris Visions. Colors by Ruth Redmond and Matt Battaglia, letters by Steve Wands.
When Sam wakes up without his memory, in a run-down motel with bandages on his arms, he knows something is not right. When people start trying to kill him, he knows it’s even worse than he feared.
I didn’t remember ordering this book, but clearly I did, because it showed up in my special order file at my local comic shop. I am now a devoted fan. It turns out that Sam is in Purgatory, basically, and there’s a local gang war about to explode. Sam’s skills are in demand by multiple players. If only he could remember where he got them… ? Sebela and Visions have done a great job creating a dark quasi-dream world where there can still be a halfway happy ending for Sam. At least for this volume. No promises for any future volumes given the heavy noir influence!
[By the third volume, I felt like the author was just rehashing the first two books. Disappointing!]
C.O.W.L. by Kyle Higgins and Alex Siegel, with art by Rod Reis and Stephane Perger, lettered by Troy Peteri.
C.O.W.L. is the noir, superhero, alternate history, conspiracy cop drama that I never knew I was missing, until I found it. After World War II, the city of Chicago employed superheroes to take on superpowered crime. The heroes formed a union and got to work. But by 1962 they are running out of villains, which means their contract renewal is in jeopardy. Are they really no longer needed? Who benefits and who loses if they get the contract or if they disband?
The art is this beautiful muted color palette that switches between subdued cartoon and painting, with a little bit of photo realism thrown in for good measure.
The only bone I would pick with this book is for tokenism. There is one black male superhero. There is one white female superhero. There are at least five major white male characters. While this makes some sense for the book’s real-history setting of time and place, it’s an alternate history (with superpowers), so it’s not like they had to follow all the rules exactly. And I’m just so tired of team/ensemble casts appearing for comic after comic… with one person of color and/or one woman. As a pattern, it’s not diversity or inclusion. It’s just tiresome. Do better, comics! I’ll be able to enjoy the books full of white guys more when there are plenty that are differently cast!
In the meantime, I’ll keep reading C.O.W.L. because it’s really good.
The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker, art by Sean Phillips, colors by Elizabeth Breitweiser.
Reading this book 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. Brubaker specifically is one of the gods of noir comics writing, so I knew this was going to be amazing. AND IT IS. 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.
And those are our favorite crime comics and graphic novels! If you’ve read any of these, or have suggestions for what I might read next, please leave a comment. And if you enjoyed this book, I’d appreciate you sharing it so others can find it!
And that’s the list! If you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments – and thanks for sharing on social media or with friends!