As we saw in last week’s column, crime comics were nearly left for dead in the United States following Senate hearings in the 1950s. But the genre came roaring back, perhaps most notably due to Frank Miller, whose “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” film, based on his comics, is in theaters now.
Revival of a genre
As direct-market comic stores came to the fore in the late 1970s and early 1980s, comics moved further away from kiddie fare. As creators began to have more say in their comics, new publishers brought forth comics like “Ms. Tree” and “Maze Agency” in the crime and detective genres. Some of these comics went without adhering to the industry’s self-censoring Comics Code, for they didn’t need to be distributed on the newsstand; others, like Miller’s “Daredevil,” pushed the limits of the code in mainstream comics.
Writer/artist Miller broke into comics in the late 1970s, and he first became a household name to comics fans with “Daredevil,” where he took what had been a more-or-less second-rate
Spider-Man and revamped him into the star of a crime comic.
“I had done a couple issues of ‘Spectacular Spider-Man,’ and I looked at Daredevil, (who) was blind. All of a sudden I realized that I could do all my crime stories through this character,” Miller told Graphic NYC.
Following Miller’s success on “Daredevil,” he brought a crime noir feel to his revered work on Batman with “Batman: Year One,” illustrated by David Mazzucchelli, and “The Dark Knight Returns,” which he wrote and illustrated himself.
Another independent comics success in the early 1980s as comic-book shops were hungry for more involved material was Max Allan Collins’ “Ms. Tree.” Collins, a longtime fan of Mickey Spillane, was inspired by Mike Hammer to create “Ms. Tree.”
Ms. Tree was the hard-boiled Ms. Michael Tree, who avenges the death of her husband and fights against crime bosses and bad guys in a long-running independent comics series by Collins and artist Terry Beatty.
New life for crime
The comics boom of the 1990s led to strong sales across the board, but the success of comics like “Sin City” and David Lapham’s “Stray Bullets” showed new life in the crime genre just as directors like Quentin Tarantino showed a new respect for “pulp fiction” in the film industry.
Miller was at the forefront of this trend when his “Sin City” stories blew comics audiences away in 1991 with their hard-boiled action and innovative visual style. In the first “Sin City,” a tale of revenge and redemption, the brutish yet goodhearted Marv searches for the man who killed Goldie, a hooker who showed him kindness.
“Sin City” helped show the market for crime comics, even ones with disturbing themes. “Sin City” was adapted to film in 2005.
Into the mainstream
For writer Brian Michael Bendis, crime did pay. Bendis broke into the industry with his crime noir-flavored series “Jinx,” featuring bounty hunter Jinx Alameda, and “Goldfish,” about con man David Gold.
He went on to write the Eisner Award-winning series “Torso,” about Eliot Ness’ last case.
That attracted the attention of Marvel Comics, and now Bendis has for the past decade-plus written some of Marvel’s best-selling titles, including “Ultimate Spider-Man,” “Daredevil” and “Avengers.”
Shades of gray
Ed Brubaker is probably the highest-profile of the modern crime writers in comics, with his crime noir series “Criminal” and a couple of hybrid crime series. “Fatale” contains horror elements, and “Incognito” contains superhero elements. Brubaker also has written notable runs on “Batman” and “Daredevil,” the superheroes with the largest crime story crossover. Last week, the first issue of Brubaker’s “The Fade Out,” featuring a suspicious death in 1948 Hollywood, was released.
Other modern writers writing popular crime tales include Brian Azzarello, Matt Fraction, Warren Ellis, Darwyn Cooke, Kody Chamberlain, Greg Rucka and Rick Remender. Crime comics have come back from the nearly-dead to again become one of the more popular genres of modern comic books.
Though the comics industry collapsed and rebuilt itself in the late 1990s and early 2000s, crime comics have remained a strong category in the medium, and now, as comics sales increase, crime comics remain an important part of the mix. As the proliferation of information on the Internet has made it all the harder for any figure to wear only a white hat or black hat, noir’s shades of gray have become all the more reflective of the world we live in.