From Vertigo classics to thrillers featuring heroes outrunning dark pasts, the greatest crime comics prove gripping from beginning to end.
While the comic book industry is better known for its superhero stories and characters, its origins were actually in pulp fiction. These comics and magazines were dominated by crime noir in particular, which often followed private detectives and crime fighters of an older age. The genre declined as more action-packed tales came along, but there's still a strong audience for crime stories.
These crime comics have proven popularity and quality, and many have been adapted into excellent films that did their stories justice. The age of the noir detective is as memorable in film as in comics, creating some of the most popular and distinct tropes in fiction. Many creators, even those best known for superheroes, have kept an ongoing love for crime comics, and they remain some of the most thrilling stories out there.
The Spirit was one of the best Golden Age detectives in print, predating the likes of Mr. A and The Question. Created by comics legend Will Eisner, The Spirit was originally published as a newspaper strip during the 1940s and 1950s, bringing the comic book format to papers.
The Spirit received an excellent series by comics veteran Darwyn Cooke, which pitted the blue suit vigilante against a range of crooks. This series did an excellent job of honoring both the character and its original genre, while bringing a fresh update to the hero.
Inspiring a great crime thriller movie, A History of Violence was created by John Wagner, one of Judge Dredd's defining writers and co-creators. The comic followed the journey of an unassuming small town café owner whose life got turned on its head after an act of violence in his café.
When the violence turned the man into a TV star, many praising his brave actions, a mobster made his way to town and reminded the man of his past. As A History of Violence's plot escalated, the man was pulled into a life of violence he had hoped to leave buried in his past.
Road to Perdition (Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner) follows a hitman for the mob whose life is turned upside down when the two clash. After his son witnesses a murder, O'Sullivan's family has a target put on their back, which soon claims the life of the hitman's wife and youngest son.
With little left to lose, the father and son take to the road and embark on a mission of revenge against the mob that betrayed them. Road to Perdition's journey brings the two closer together as they work their way toward finding the men responsible for the destruction of their family.
100 Bullets (Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso) follows Agent Graves, a mysterious figure who seeks victims of injustice. When Graves meets these people, he provides them with a gun and 100 bullets to help them acquire their revenge.
100 Bullets explored the victims and how their revenge worked out, as well as how it affected them after. The series also had a great conspiracy angle to it, investigating the shadowy agency "The Trust," and how they had manipulated the course of history.
American Carnage (Bryan Edward Hill & Leandro Fernandez) was one of the best books to come out of DC's Vertigo relaunch. It follows a former FBI agent, Richard Wright, who's sent undercover with a white supremacist group to aid in the investigation of a fallen agent.
American Carnage is a good combination of the older crime noirs that preceded it with a more modern society and the descent into extremism. As much as it is an excellent crime story, it's also a journey of redemption as Wright works through his undercover operation.
One of the best Batman detective stories in print, The Long Halloween (Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale), depicts Batman's journey as he solves the case of the Holiday Killer. This leads Batman to the Falcone crime family, whose key figures are being targeted by the serial killer.
The Long Halloween is a good exploration of the Gotham City criminal underworld and its crime families, turning in a story inspired by the likes of The Godfather. The series itself provided inspiration for The Dark Knight, thanks to its brilliant combinations of Batman characters and its compelling crime story.
Watchmen's central story centers on the murder of a retired superhero, Edward Blake, better known as "The Comedian." This forces his former teammates out of retirement and sparks the investigation of a world-altering conspiracy, with a Cold War backdrop.
Watchmen (Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons) mostly focuses on Rorschach, Silk Spectre, Nite Owl, Doctor Manhattan and Ozymandias. It follows the first three as they work to find out who murdered their teammate, landing each of them back in their superhero roles. At its core, Watchmen is a riveting mystery comic.
Frank Miller's Sin City follows several great heroes and stories. The best and most well known of these are Marv's The Hard Goodbye, Hartigan's That Yellow Bastard and Dwight's The Big Fat Kill. These follow morally good heroes and contrasts them with the darkness of the city.
The Sin City world features a gripping combination of older noir mysteries with the newer, edgier era of comics in the '90s, which Miller helped pioneer. It's black and white aesthetic, minimal dialogue, and gritty tone all perfectly combine to make Sin City one of the best comic book universes available.
Created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, the world of Judge Dredd is a high crime dystopian city in Mega City One. The Judges are an elite law enforcement made up of police officers with the powers of judge, jury, and executioner all in one to adapt to the high crime world.
The character received an especially great run in IDW's 2012 Judge Dredd (by Duane Swierczynski, Brendan McCarthy and Nelson Daniel). This series acted as a window into Dredd's world, which portrayed the lawman cast out into the Cursed Earth in a battle to save his city.
The Question originated in Charlton Comics, but was soon acquired by DC, where he received his best stories. The greatest run on Question was by Dennis O'Neil and Denys Cowan, which explored the Steve Ditko private detective in his toughest and darkest cases.
The Question, also known as Vic Sage, remains one of DC's best crime solvers with detective skills that rival those of Batman. However, he takes a far more grounded approach akin to the noir comics he's based on. Question battles corruption, crime and evil in Hub City, solidifying him as one of DC's greatest characters.
NEXT: 10 Multiverse Comics That Changed DC's Continuity