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 is 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!
- Amazon links are affiliate links.
- Any questions, corrections, recommendations? Let me know via my contact form.
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.
This is a prequel to one of my fave graphic novels of all times, but you can read them in either order. “When a black writer is found dead at a scandalous interracial party in 1920s’ New York, Harlem’s cub reporter Zane Pinchback is the only one determined to solve the murder. Zane must go ‘Incognegro’ for the first time, using his light appearance to pass as a white man to find the true killer. With a cryptic manuscript as his only clue, and a mysterious and beautiful woman as the murder’s only witness, Zane finds himself on the hunt through the dark and dangerous streets of ‘roaring twenties’ Harlem in search for justice. In a time when looks could kill… Zane’s skin is the only thing keeping him alive.”
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.]
“After two years of unemployment, Maggy Garrisson lands a secretarial job. Too bad her new boss is the shady, chaotic Anthony Wight: private detective and alcoholic. But a job is a job, and Maggy could use the cash. Five days into her new role, Wight is beaten to a pulp and Maggy is tasked with returning his wallet. With this seemingly innocuous request, Maggy enters a sinister underworld of corrupt cops, crooked businessmen, and career criminals. There’s a lot to investigate, from the disappearance of a family album to the theft of gold teeth from bodies at the crematorium. But for someone with the energy, ingenuity, and enterprising spirit of Maggy Garrison, puzzles are there to be solved—especially if there’s money to be made in the process.”
“After taking part in a historic heist — 52 simultaneous robberies at the same time, in the same city — May and Eugene are now on the run not only from the law and double-crossed former accomplices, but also their violent past. What makes these criminals so surprising is that they are a young mother and her preteen son. Bastard traces the deadly escape of May and Eugene as they crisscross the United States, encountering mysterious truckers, ambitious bandits, and senior citizens living off the grid in the Southwest. The duo race to get to their stolen cash and simply survive as masterful flashbacks clue us into how they got into this deadly situation in the first place.”
“Masterless samurai Akitsu Masanosuke is a skilled and loyal swordsman, but his naïve, diffident nature has more than once caused him to be let go by the lords who employ him. Hungry and desperate, he agrees to become a bodyguard for Yaichi, the charismatic leader of a group calling itself “Five Leaves.” Although disturbed by the gang’s sinister activities, Masa begins to suspect that Yaichi’s motivations are not what they seem. And despite his misgivings, the deeper he’s drawn into the world of the Five Leaves, the more he finds himself fascinated by these devious, mysterious outlaws.”
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.
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.
This one you may have to track down through a library. Originally published in 9 paperbacks, it was then republished in omnibus edition hardcovers, but the in-print availability can be funky.
“Twenty-nine-year-old Satoru Fujinuma is floundering through life. Amid his daily drudgery, he finds himself in the grip of an incredible, inexplicable, and uncontrollable phenomenon that rewinds time, a condition that seems to only make his drab life worse. But then, one day, everything changes. A terrible incident forever changes Satoru’s life as he knows it…and with it, comes a ‘Revival’ that sends Satoru eighteen years into the past!
In the body of his boyhood self, Satoru encounters sights he never imagined he would see again–the smile of his mother, alive and well, his old friends, and Kayo Hinazuki, the girl who was kidnapped and murdered when he was a boy the first time around. To return to the present and prevent the tragedy that brought him back to his childhood in the first place, Satoru begins plotting a way to change Hinazuki’s fate…But up against the clock and a faceless evil, does eleven-year-old Satoru even stand 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.
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.
“You can say this about the life of Stanley Dance: he did it his way. Unfortunately, his way never took getting old into account. Now, the former boxer is on his last legs, looking for redemption… but he’ll settle for going down swinging. Roll the dice with superstar artist Dan Panosian as he creates a bold and breathtaking vision of Las Vegas, where everything old can become new, and superstition influences just how the chips fall.”
Gambling, boxing, nightclubs, double-crosses, all kinds of shenanigans and over-the-top-characters. I was expecting noir and gritty, but this is actually more madcap and ridiculous. It won’t change your life, but I had a good time reading it.
That concludes today’s roundup of crime comics that I love and recommend!