Crime and noir comics

The crime genre has had a significant presence in the comic book medium throughout its history. Focusing on the American context alone, crime comics preceded and, for a time, outshone superhero tales, had a direct impact on the creation of the Comics Code, vanished from the mainstream as a result of it, and then enjoyed a resurgence during the direct market boom of the 1980s (see my 80s indie comics list for more context). Since then, they have carved out an important niche in the comic book landscape, with some of the most celebrated storytellers and artists of the modern era producing significant and commercially successful works in the genre.

“Crime” is, of course, a very broad category. It includes narratives told from the perspectives of criminals, law enforcement, and victims. Each of its subgenres has developed its own set of tropes and conventions, such as classic mystery, hard-boiled detective fiction, heist narrative, or police procedural. Their instances in comic books and graphic novels are as diverse as any other medium, with widely varying styles and tones.

The following list reflects this diversity while emphasizing noir narratives and aesthetics. Now, “noir” means different things to different people, and I made no attempt to enforce a specific meaning while compiling my list. As a result, some of the titles on the list adhere to the classic thematic criteria associated with noir film and literature (morally flawed protagonists, gritty urban settings, no happy endings, a general sense of despair and futility), while others simply emulate the look and feel of the first half of the twentieth century.

The list also includes a selection of superhero stories that fit the specified themes. I recognize that many readers seek crime comics as a more “serious” alternative to action-packed tales of costumed heroes, but the titles included should still meet their needs. They are generally gritty and realistic stories of “street-level” crime-fighting vigilantes, traditional mysteries that happen to involve some spandex, or homages to the earliest pulp superhero detective tales that are often classified as noir due to their aesthetics. It’s also worth noting that many of the included superhero comics were written by authors who otherwise specialize in “pure” crime fiction.

The list