Though the original expression was coined to categorize a chunk of post-Expressionism American crime films, noir has deep roots in the comic book industry as well. Beginning in 1942 with the declarative title Crime Does Not Pay for Lev Gleason Publications, the American comics scene has been riddled with diabolical dames, grotesque gangsters, and pernicious private detectives.
Noir isn’t just indicative of a crime-ridden, unforgiving society, of course. There’s also the important matter of visual style. In a purebred noir, if such a thing truly exists, shadows become as important as the characters, and the harsh urban landscape provides a suitably symbolic backdrop for the cracked stoicism of the heroes and villains. Noir is filled with shades of gray in a black and white world.
Purists would argue that there’s no such thing as a noir film shot in color.
But who has time to worry about the purists when there are so many exceptions to their hypothetical rules? Not me, particularly when it comes to noir comics, which didn’t have the technical limitations of early-20th century cinema to prevent them from using color to their advantage. Of course, comics like Crime Does Not Pay and its immediate imitators look plenty garish in retrospect, but they were just the start of a long tradition of noir comics, some in color, some not. All bleak and unforgiving, filled with rough-hewn men and equally-edgy women just trying to make their way through a hardscrabble world.
Comics like Will Eisner’s The Spirit, Arnold Drake’s original graphic novel from 1950—It Rhymes with Lust, the infamous Crime SuspenStories from EC, Alex Toth’s early contributions to Torpedo, Frank Miller’s Sin City, David Lapham’s Stray Bullets, and even Jason Aaron and R. M. Guera’s Scalped all have strong noir aspects, whether they are printed in black and white or use color to depict their criminal-infested landscapes.
They are all not only great example of what noir can do in comics, they are plain old great comics. But the comic book series that most closely captures the essence of noir, the one most faithful to the early noir traditions, recast for a modern audience, isn’t any of the comics mentioned above.
It’s Criminal by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, and it’s one of the best comics of the past decade.
And not only is it still being published it keeps getting better.
Earlier this year, our own Stephen Aryan provided a look at the first volume of the collected Criminal editions, “Coward,” as part of the “Gateway to Comics” series. And everything Stephen says about that first volume is correct. It is a “fascinating and thrilling read.”
But here’s something he doesn’t mention: the first volume of Criminal is the weakest one. It improves drastically in volume 2, “Lawless,” and maintains a high level of quality after that. Yes, the opening story arc of Criminal is good it’s what you’d expect from a traditional heist story, and Brubaker’s characters are not quite as textured as they would later become, but “Coward” rides its strong noir tone and unexpected plot twists right through to its climax in what was originally published as issue #5 but since then, the series has returned in the aforementioned “Lawless” arc, then relaunched for another seven issues and two more arcs called “The Dead and the Dying” and “Bad Night,” before coming back once again with a five issue miniseries called “The Sinners.” They all work as stand-alone stories, as Stephen pointed out when he introduced the series to Tor.com readers, but they all take place in a shared universe. Not just a shared universe, but a shared city and with overlapping characters. Each story arc of Criminal, conveniently published as individual collections, could be read as a single slice of narrative. But it gains exponential value when read as part of a larger work. Criminal as a whole becomes increasingly novelistic with each added story arc. The events in one book ripple through another, whether the stories directly address the other plot points or not.
That complex tapestry, with textual and subtextual connections between the story arcs, give Criminal that added heft that leads me to comfortably declare it as one of the best comics of the past ten years.
But there’s more.
First, there’s the added benefit for all the readers who pick up the individual issues instead of the collections. And, I have to admit, I started reading the series in trade paperbacks after volume 2, but once I saw what I was missing, I scooped up the back issues and started buying the series in singles from then on. Because each Criminal issue features an excellent essay (sometimes two) on the crime genre, whether it be comics or movies or novels or television shows. Those essays are not included in any of the collections (not even the hardcover “Deluxe Edition,” which binds the first three story arcs into a single handsome volume). So readers of the collections miss out on pieces like “Australian Noir” by Ryan K. Lindsay, a Blast of Silence retrospective by Patton Oswalt, and Jason Aaron on State of Grace and To Live and Die in L.A. And dozens more essays, all worth reading for their insight on noir in particular and the crime genre in general.
Plus, and here’s the real kicker: the current Criminal series, subtitled “The Last of the Innocent,” won’t be available in a collected edition until late December, and remember how I said that the series keeps getting better? Well, this one clinches it, with a brutal tale of childhood innocent lost and a young man who grew up to be something no one expected.
Oh, and it’s also a vicious pastiche of Archie Andrews and his Riverdale pals, all grown up, and living lives fit for a savage noir. Yup, that’s right, it has a level of meta-awareness that uses our memories of Betty and Veronica and Jughead to compound the layers of complexity in a story about adults who have made bad choices, and the lengths to which they’ll go to get what they want. It may sound silly, like some kind of twisted Mad magazine version of a Marvel What If? comic, but Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips make the story shine, in that nasty, beautiful way they have.
So if you’re not reading Criminal, in collected editions at least, if not the preferred (and enhanced) single issues, then what are you waiting for? It is Noir Week after all, so now would be the perfect time to see what you’ve been missing.
Tim Callahan has spent much of his time this summer preparing The Reader’s Guide to the New DC Universe, but when he’s not speculating on superhero quality, he’s trying to get caught up on movies everyone else has seen months ago and comics from long-defunct publishers.