Warren Ellis has repeatedly demonstrated an uncanny ability to flit from one genre to the next, but his slip into detective stories for Fell is a particular treat. It tells the vaguely familiar story of Richard Fell, a big city detective who’s been relegated to a run down area, Snowtown. It has the simple appeal of any story about a fundamentally good cop in a rotten place.
What truly sets Fell apart is not only its excellent writing, but Ben Templesmith’s art. It's tempting to think of noir in terms of the bold lines and shadows of cinema classics, Fell has a loose, almost smoky quality that so totally works that it’s hard to imagine it in any other style. The characters are strangely varied, with some totally grotesque figures woven in. Moreover, colour is used to infuse whole pages with a particular mood. When Richard Fell gets into a fight, the whole page is soaked in red, in more relaxed settings, there’s are gentler tints. It communicates mood with an immediate force.
As fans of Ellis’ other work might have been able to guess, Fell is a relatively short run. While there is an overarching narrative, it takes a back seat to the more episodic content. At the risk of leaving readers hungry for more, it remains an excellent read. This is one to savour, rather than rush through.
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Originally published in Spanish, Torpedo is the beautifully composed story of one man’s journey through the criminal underworld of New York in the 1930s. It’s classic gangster stuff, with all of the style and trappings that that implies. When we first started putting together this post, we had conceived of this as a list of “noir detective comics,” but Torpedo soon put a stop to that. For a while, we were going to argue that a hitman is just a very specific kind of detective, but it was a stretch...
The events of the series take place over a number of tightly packed narratives. This means that Torpedo often reads more like a collection of serialised pulp stories, which fits very well with the time it’s set. It's also as near a perfect marriage of form and content as you’re likely to find in graphic novels. Every page is full of bold composition and stark contrasts, and violence is undercut with the series’ black humour.
All of that said, fair warning to those going in that it’s often brutal, and its treatment of women is nothing short of horrific. If none of that is enough to put you off, then it’s genuinely spectacular.
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If the great achievement of noir graphic novels is that they can communicate so much through composition, then the great achievement of Blacksad is that its characters being represented as animals adds an extra layer to that communication. We all know that when the private eye notices he’s being shadowed by someone, he’s probably going to get the drop on them, but when the private eye is an enormous cat being shadowed by a snake, we start to wonder which of those animals might have the advantage… it’s a weird position to put the reader in, but one that undoubtedly enriches the book.
Blacksad’s art is less harsh than that of something like Torpedo, and its bestial characters somehow allow for more communication of simple and straightforward expressions than a human face might otherwise. When Blacksad meets a contact at a boxing ring who turns out to be a gorilla, there is a sense that this world could allow no other profession for the man.
What may be surprising is that, despite its anthropomorphised characters, Blacksad plays everything quite seriously. Its world is one of racial tensions and neighbourhoods riven by crime. It’s as often brutal as it is beautiful, but all carried by Guarnido's incredible artwork. We couldn't resist using a page of Blacksad for the header of this article.
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Stray Bullets is an excellent combination of black and white art (with no shades of grey) and some really excellent juxtaposition that perfectly suits the medium of comics. The simple lines of its artwork help to keep things clear in a story that otherwise tends to writhe and twist. Often, the combination of art and writing help to convey a sense of low-level hopelessness that sits well with the life-and-death action of the story itself. The mood flits between tension, comedy, and a kind of wistful sadness in a way that’s entirely appealing.
It’s a tricky one to describe, not least because sizeable swathes of Stray Bullets feel so different from other examples of noir. It's author, David Lapham, has referred to it as "domestic noir." Often, its episodes depict momentary snapshots of the points at which ordinary life overlaps with a criminal underworld. In those moments, it’s touching, even sweet.
Stray Bullets also leans into some of its characters’ loose understanding of criminal endeavours, which helps to subvert some of the common noir tropes a little. Early in the series, a novice criminal attempts to knock a gangster out by cracking him on the back of the head with the butt of his pistol, only to leave the man concussed and vomiting as he staggers away from the crime scene.
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Unlike both Fell and Stray Bullets, this is a noir comic series that has a defined ending. Scalped is a Native American noir series that follows events unfolding on the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation. There, we are introduced to Dashiell “Dash” Bad Horse, a one-time inhabitant of the reservation (or the Rez) who has returned after a 15-year absence and immediately starts stirring up trouble.
On the strength of this, as well as the fact that he is as “tough as old leather,” Bad Horse is recruited by Lincoln Red Crow, president of the Oglala Tribal Council (as well as holding a handful of other offices). Bad Horse is tasked with helping 'clean up' the reservation ahead of the opening of Red Crow’s new casino. What follows is a series of comics that brush on themes of the law on the reservation, how it’s enforced, ideas of cultural and racial preservation, as well as the politics of the Rez.
Guéra’s artwork is superb, all dun browns, soft blue-greys, and blacked-out shadows. This combination is contrasted by bright blood reds (for reasons that are probably all too easy to guess). It’s a strong blend, and one that communicates a sense of the reservation as a setting fantastically. This is only reinforced by Jason Aaron’s writing; Scalped’s dialogue is laden with barbs and stick-in-your-mind turns of phrase.
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Parker: The Hunter
For those unfamiliar, Richard Stark’s series of crime novels largely document the exploits and adventures of a long-time freelance criminal, Parker. Parker is a stop-at-nothing killer who isn’t afraid to put some bodies in the ground if people come between him and what he wants. There’s something old fashioned about Parker as a character that speaks to an age when leading men were somehow different. Despite their manifold differences, there is a resonance with the sense of getting-the-job-done brutality of some of the early Bond books.
Darwyn Cooke’s adaptation of Parker is carried along by some truly beautiful artwork. The lines are strong and bold, the bodies rimmed with dark shadows. Parker himself is often little more than a hunched and brooding silhouette stalking from one panel to the next. The whole is a beautiful transition from prose to artwork, with a strict colour palette (pages only use black and one other colour). The effect it presents is almost that of Parker having been produced in the same era as it’s set, though obviously it’s far too modern for that.
It would be easy to dismiss Parker as representative of a very particular, outmoded idea of masculinity, but it may also be worth taking a closer look. The implication early on that he 'approaches celibacy' when he’s spent too long without criminal enterprise, for example, casts the character in a strange light, as a man somehow dependent on his criminality for potency… though there’s a chance we could be overthinking it.
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It would be almost impossible to put together a list of crime graphic novels without including Ed Brubaker’s Criminal. The first volume of Criminal is subtitled “Coward” and tells the story of Leo, a pickpocket-turned-gifted-heist-planner who manages his jobs by following a set of surprisingly noble rules (that Leo makes the rules and no one brings a gun). By the time we meet him, Leo has been out of the game a while, following a job gone bad, but he's just about to be pulled back in.
Part of the fun of Brubaker’s writing is that events and characters are seldom quite as you’d expect them to be. In this case, our criminal mastermind, Leo, is also the first person to bail on a job if anything is amiss. These small twists are made all the more enjoyable by the fact that these characters never quite outstay their welcome. Each volume of Criminal is a relatively contained arc focusing on its own characters and their stories.
The artwork, provided by Sean Phillips, lends its characters a rumpled, weathered look that gives them a careworn feel that’s hard not to sympathise with. It might sound like a small touch, but the characters feel worn out, the world feels lived in, all of which sets it apart from both the paintings of Blacksad and the high contrasts of Torpedo and Stray Bullets.
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