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Crime and Mystery and Detective Fiction Comics

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After the age of comic book publishing began in early 1933, with Funnies on Parade, one of the first subgenres to develop was detective stories. Comic books titled Adventures of Detective Ace King, Bob Scully the Two-Fisted Hick Detective, and Detective Dan Secret Op. 48 all were released in 1933. These were humorous stories, but three years later, the more serious Detective Picture Stories appeared. It was followed by Detective Comics in 1937. Issue number 27 of that comic book introduced Batman in 1939, thus combining the mystery and detective genre with the new superhero genre, which had been invented a year earlier with the appearance of Superman in the first issue of Action Comics. Still being published in the twenty-first century, Detective Comics is not only the longest-running comic book in the mystery and detective category but also the longest-running comic book of any kind. In 1940, Eisner started published a Sunday newspaper comic strip, The Spirit, a crime noir mystery about a masked vigilante that proved highly influential in graphic mystery fiction and in graphic story telling generally.

With these and other publications, two crime and detective comic book categories soon emerged. The first was crime comics, which told stories from the inverted viewpoint of the criminals in order to send anticrime messages to young readers. This philosophy was reflected in comic titles such as Crime Does Not Pay, which debuted in 1942. The second category was the mystery-detective comic, which focused on solving crimes and punishing criminals. In 1950, EC Comics started publishing Crime Suspenstories, which launched a trend of more adult-themed and violent crime comics. Other publishers followed with similar series. Soon, the entire comic book industry, and especially the crime and horror genres, came under heavy criticism because of the supposed negative influence of comic books on juveniles. With the adoption of the Comics Code in 1954, the industry began regulating and censoring itself. Crime comics became so tame that they lost their appeal, and most faded away.

Over the ensuing decades, the Comics Code became less important, and fewer and fewer publishers submitted their books to the Comic Code Authority (CCA) for evaluation. From their start, crime and mystery and detective comic books had featured both superpowered and non-superpowered heroes. Gradually, superheroes such as Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man, came to dominate the comic book format, and their human counterparts tended to fade away. Meanwhile, graphic mystery novels, covering all aspects of the mystery genre, began proliferating.

Stories Without Superheroes

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Although the superhero genre dominates the graphic fiction scene, one of the earliest graphic novels, released as a “picture novel,” was a hard-boiled type of mystery with an ordinary mortal, a femme fatale named Rust, as its central character. This book, It Rhymes with Lust (1950), which was written by Arnold Drake and Leslie Waller and illustrated by Matt Baker, set the tone for most of the realistic graphic mysteries that came later. Graphic novels influenced by crime noir or hard-boiled mysteries in black and white became the prevalent type.

Black-and-white graphic novels about ordinary mortal figures hit their stride during the 1990’s. One of the most successful writer-artists in this field was Frank Miller, who explored the noir themes in his seven-volume Sin City series (1991-2000). These books lifted violence in graphic mystery to a new level and inspired a revival of black-and-white crime comic books. Miller drew his books almost entirely in black and white, using colors only sparsely. In That Yellow Bastard (1996), for example, the eponymous title character is drawn in yellow, while everything else is black and white. Parts of Sin City were made into a film in 2005. Another graphic novel that...

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came to the screen in 2005 was John Wagner’sA History of Violence (1997), an original black-and-white graphic novel illustrated by Vince Locke. It tells the story of a small-town café owner who, in becoming a local hero, has to confront his own violent past with the Mafia.

David Lapham’s critically acclaimed Stray Bullets series, which has been published in black and white on an irregular basis since 1995, is also being collected in graphic novel format. These books tell the stories of various characters and their involvement in crimes and tragedy. Lapham is also the creator of Murder Me Dead (2000), a collected murder mystery story in black and white.

Road to Perdition (1998) is another original black-and-white graphic novel with a noir crime tale. Written by Max Allan Collins and drawn by Richard Piers Rayner, it tells the story of an Irish mob enforcer seeking revenge against his former boss, who tried to kill his family during the 1930’s. The story was made into a major live-action film starring Tom Hanks in 2002.

Elements of the psychological thriller can be found in the extremely violent hard-boiled police procedural Scars (2004), written by Warren Ellis and drawn by Jacen Burrows. Haunted by the murder of his wife and unborn daughter, detective John Cain hunts the killer of a nine-year-old girl and finally crosses the line when he kills the prime suspect. Other contributions by Ellis to graphic mystery novels include his Strange Kiss series, which mixes crime fiction and horror, featuring combat magician William Gravel, and his Fell (2005-    ), drawn by Ben Templesmith, in which Detective Richard Fell works to solve the worst crimes imaginable in the corrupt city of Snowtown. Ellis bases all the stories in this eerie series on actual crimes.

Another subgenre of non-superhero graphic comics is historical mysteries, such as Alan Moore’s From Hell (1999), drawn by Eddie Campbell. This dense, multilayered, black-and-white story draws on Stephen Knight’s Jack The Ripper: The Final Solution (1976) to offer one possible explanation of London’s late nineteenth century Jack the Ripper murders.

Superhero Stories

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The larger-than-life model for most detectives in crime fiction, Sherlock Holmes, has also been portrayed in a number of graphic mysteries, in which he often fights against supernatural foes. In writer Martin Powell and artist Seppo Makinen’s Scarlet in Gaslight (1989), for example, he confronts Dracula. Some graphic novels have adapted Holmes’s original adventures and characters. In writers Mark Waid and Scott Beatty and artist Butch Guice’s Ruse series (2001-2004), for example, a Holmes look-alike named Simon Archard goes after criminals in an alternative reality that also features supernatural characters.

Since the late 1930’s, the archetypal superhero crime fighter in comic books has been Batman, who is at once both a costumed crime fighter, like Superman, and the world’s greatest detective. He solves crimes not only with his fists and weapons, but also with the time-honored detection methods introduced by Sherlock Holmes. Batman came into existence because when Bruce Wayne had been a boy, his parents were killed by a robber who was never apprehended. The motif of avenging crime fighter has been repeated with other superheroes, such as Spider-Man. Batman also stands between the superpowered and the non-superpowered heroes, as an ordinary human being whose physical and mental attributes have been honed to perfection. Batman has continued into the twenty-first century as the main character of both graphic novels and monthly comic books. Batman made a groundbreaking contribution to graphic mystery novels in the 1986 book The Dark Knight Returns, which was both written and illustrated by Frank Miller. This dark tale about an older Batman, who comes out of retirement to fight crime once more, set the tone for many more publications in a darker and more violent vein, such as Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke (1988), illustrated by Brian Bolland. In this book, Batman hunts down one of his nemeses, the Joker, who has abducted the police commissioner and crippled his daughter. This original graphic novel likewise set a darker and more violent tone.

DC’s Elseworlds line of graphic novels, which are set in alternative realities, places Batman in many different literary and historical contexts related to the mystery genre. For example, in Brian Augustyn’s Gotham by Gaslight (1989), drawn by Mike Mignola, one of the first stories of the series, a nineteenth century Batman hunts down Jack the Ripper. Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum (1989), illustrated by Dave McKean, is one of the first original Batman graphic novels with fully painted art. In a story laden with symbols and literary references, Batman confronts the criminals he has helped put in the Arkham Insane Asylum. Other novel-length Batman adventures include Batman: Night Cries (1992), written by Archie Goodwin and Mike Hampton and fully painted by Hampton. This somber story explores Batman’s human side as he goes after a serial killer who is targeting child abusers. Jeph Loeb’s Batman: The Long Halloween (1996-1997), illustrated by Tim Sale, is a noir story in which Batman draws on all his detective skills to combat corruption in Gotham City.

DC Comics

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The year 1986 also marked the advent of another groundbreaking graphic novel, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, illustrated by Dave Gibbons. It combines dense graphic storytelling with extended textual passages. Although it is not solely concerned with mystery, it has the solving of one crime and the prevention of another one at its center, as it tries to answer the question of what would happen if superheroes really existed. In contrast to the dark and realistic world of Watchmen, Moore also wrote a limited, twelve-issue series titled Top Ten (1999-2001), illustrated by Gene Ha. Reissued in two volumes and supplemented with an additional volume in 2005, Top Ten is a police procedural set in the futuristic city of Neopolis, in which everybody has superpowers. Moore also turned to literary sources in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2000, 2003), a two-volume collected graphic novel illustrated by Kevin O’Neill, in which a team made up of literary figures from the Victorian age takes on Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis, Professor Moriarty; Sax Rohmer’s Dr. Fu Manchu; and Martian invaders inspired by H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898). The team comprises H. Rider Haggard’s Alan Quatermain; Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde; Wells’s Invisible Man; Mina Harker from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897); and Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo. In 2002, Moore’s story was adapted to the screen in a big-budget Hollywood film, in which Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer was added to the team to give the story an American character. Together with fellow British visionary writers Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, and Grant Morrison, Moore has been a major influence in the American comic book and graphic novel scene.


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Apart from its stable of traditional superheroes, DC Comics also provided an outlet for alternative style comics with the Vertigo imprint that it launched in 1993. Aimed at more mature readers, Vertigo books feature many variations on the graphic mystery novel. Vertigo’s longest ongoing series, with many collected story arcs and an original graphic novel, is Hellblazer, which was launched in 1988 and which has been written and drawn by many different people. The central character in the series, John Constantine, is a kind of hard-boiled magician and con man who is often reluctantly drawn into solving supernatural crimes.

Brian Azzarello’s One Hundred Bullets (1999-   ) series, drawn by Eduardo Rizzo, contains an ongoing story with collected story arcs and a distinct noir style that explores the possibility of committing murder without repercussions. Its central character, Agent Graves, offers people a chance to enact vengeance on their enemies by giving each of them a briefcase containing a gun and one hundred bullets that are untraceable. Other Vertigo publications include Grant Morrison’s original graphic novel The Mystery Play (1994). Illustrated by J. J. Muth, it is an allegorical story with fully painted art about a murder that occurs during a mystery play being acted on stage. The actor portraying God is killed, with the actor portraying Satan a prime suspect.

Neil Gaiman’s The Tragical Comedy, or Comical Tragedy, of Mr. Punch (1995), illustrated by Dave McKean, is a complex story intertwining the narrator’s memoirs with the traditional story of the Mr. Punch puppet theater, both of which contain murder mysteries.

Mystery stories often figure into war comics. For example, in Brian Azzarello’s original graphic novel Sgt. Rock Between Hell and a Hard Place (2003), illustrated by Joe Kubert, the title character—a long-time DC Comics character—solves a murder mystery duirng the midst of fighting in the Ardennes during World War II. The style is reminiscent of hard-boiled and crime noir mysteries.

Other Publishers

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Marvel Comics also has a line of books about superpowered crime fighters, such as the Punisher, Daredevil, and others. However, its characters do not focus as much on detection as Batman does. Vigilantism is the predominant theme, and Marvel stories tend to be more like thrillers than mysteries. Like DC, Marvel has also launched its own imprint for more mature readers: Icon Comics. This line also offers graphic mystery books. For example, Brian Michael Bendis’s Powers series (2000-    ), illustrated by Michael Avon Oeving, offers a new variation on the police procedural by using policemen who investigate crimes in the superhuman, or “powers,” world.

Supernatural mysteries are an important part of graphic mystery publishing, especially in books released by independent publishers. A popular series of collected graphic novels that focus on supernatural mysteries in a gothic style is Hellboy (1993-    ), written and drawn by Mike Mignola. Mignola draws on such literary sources as Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft and on folklore from around the world. Hellboy, his protagonist, is a demon from hell who investigates supernatural crimes for the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BRDP). These crimes typically involve evil Nazi scientists, witches, goblins, and even the Russian monk Grigori Rasputin. The most successful independent comic book series yet published, Hellboy was adapted to the screen in 2004, with Ron Pearlman playing the title character.

Neil Gaiman’s Murder Mysteries (2002), illustrated by P. Craig Russell, mixes metaphysics and realism. Its story tries to explain the motivations for crime on a metaphysical level as preordained by a higher being, while using traditional crime fiction plot elements. Alan Moore’s metaphysical thriller The Courtyard (2003), illustrated in black and white by Jacen Burrows and offering a concrete literary intertext, is a tale of a police investigator combating drug dealers. He ends up becoming a killer himself after he is exposed to a drug that consists of ancient words that open the world to godlike beings fashioned after the stories of H. P. Lovecraft.


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Benton, Mike. The Comic Book in America. Dallas: Taylor, 1989. Encyclopedic study of American comic books with many illustrations. Provides a concise overview of the genre and offers special sections on crime and mystery and detective comics.

Comic Art Collection. Michigan State University Libraries. Official Web site of Michigan State’s immense collection of comic books, in print and on microfilm; books; articles; fan magazines; and other materials.

Gravett, Paul. Graphic Novels: Everything You Need to Know. New York: Collins Design, 2005. Comprehensive study of key graphic novels, with many illustrations; includes a chapter on mystery-themed books and covers European and Asian texts translated into English.

Klock, Geoff. How to Read Superhero Comics and Why. New York: Continuum, 2002. Innovative study of modern comic books, including the main works of Frank Miller and Alan Moore, using literary and psychoanalytical theory.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. Constructed in the form of an illustrated comic book itself, this is an excellent study of how comic books are constructed, with special attention to the language and symbols of comic books.

Rothschild, D. Aviva. Graphic Novels: A Bibliographic Guide to Book-Length Comics. Westport, Conn.: Libraries Unlimited, 1995. Brief discussions of 414 graphic novels, including many European and Japanese books, with a special section on mystery graphic novels. Covers many relatively unknown texts and provides a useful overview of nonsuperhero comics.

Weiner, Stephen. Rise and Fall of the Graphic Novel: Faster than a Speeding Bullet. New York: NBM, 2003. History of comic books that focuses on graphic novels. Provides a useful history of the genre.

Wright, Bradford W. Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. Comprehensive study of the mutual influence of American culture and comic books and their historical context.


Critical Essays