Blood In The Gutter: A Comics Noir Primer

If you’re a fan of noir, if you like your crime tales bleak and nihilistic, if you like your movies to be in black and white, and your morals to be all shades of grey, then there are some comics that you should know about. See, crime stories were a news-stand staple long before the capes and masks came over the rooftops and camped up the joint. You could get your fix of guns, broads and hard-faced men making bad decisions in the newspapers. The true crime comics vied with Warren and EC’s horror titles for pure visceral, authority-baiting thrills. And that tradition carries on today with writers and artists across the planet giving us stories that hit hard and stay put.

You can look back to the Thirties for the kickstart. Shovel-faced ‘tec Dick Tracy hit the newstands of the Chicago Tribune in 1931, followed soon afterwards by a strip from none other than Dashiell Hammett, Secret Agent X-9. Fast-moving, slick-talking, action-packed and filled with Hammett’s rich dialogue, the strip was also graced with the art of Alex Raymond, who would take what he learned about economical storytelling and dial it into the title he became best known for: Flash Gordon.

NewImage In the early forties, Mickey Spillane would use the comics format to get his start, creating a character called Mike Danger. Danger would change his name, become the hard as nails Mike Hammer. He would become a hit in the pulps, on screen, and in the Sundays, where the books were adapted into strip form with surprising fidelity for the times.

Meanwhile, Will Eisner would redefine what could be accomplished with the format in his seminal Spirit strips. NewImage The forties and early fifties brought a slew of new books to the stand, that didn’t bother about the family values of the newspaper strips, going full out for lurid thrills. Titles like Crime Does Not Pay and Real Clue helped create a boom that saw one commentator estimate that in 1949 one in every seven comics dealt with crime – and its punishment. These were supposed to be cautionary tales, ripped from the headlines, showing the bad guys getting their just desserts. But no detail was spared in making sure the reader saw every detail of the adventures of Baby Face Nelson, Machine-Gun Kelly and the like. The books were thrill-packed, gory, and caused so much of a ruction in church and parent groups that they helped lead to the creation of the Comics Code – a self-imposed code of conduct that ripped the heart and guts out of the American crime book scene for decades. NewImage

America is not the world, though. The European comics scene was never one for the superhero boom, and crime tales like Sanchez Abuli and Jordi Bernet’s Torpedo 1936 and Sampayo and Munoz’s Alack Sinner took the hard-boiled approach and filtered it through an angular, expressionistic filter that was even more bleak and bloody than the comics that they were, on the surface, at least, playing homage too. I discovered these titles as an avid reader of anthologies like Deadline and Revolver in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and they’ve always haunted me.

NewImage The growth of the direct sales market in the 80s meant that comics publishers no longer had to rely on newstand sales, selling straight to fans or through burgeoning new comic store chains. They could also sidestep the Comics Code, and the books on offer began to regain some of the power of the old titles. In amongst the horde of cape-and-mask books, Max Allen Collins and Terry Beatty created Ms. Tree, (say it out loud to figure out the pun) a female ‘tec as tough and smart as Hammer or Marlowe. Collins would later go on to reinvigorate Dick Tracy in the Sunday funnies, and create a striking and powerful noir graphic novel, The Road To Perdition. The film’s great but the book, with exquisite artwork from Richard Piers Rayner, is better. Collins is a principal figure in the revivication of comics noir from the 90’s on. NewImage

Of course, you can’t talk contemporary comics noir without mentioning Frank Miller. Sin City brought the genre up to date with a bang with Marv’s first appearance in the Dark Horse Presents anthology. His skew had always been towards crime stories, though, and his work on Daredevil is noir extremis. Born Again, illustrated with an Alex Toth-like economy of line by David Mazzucchelli, strips Matt Murdoch down to the bone, driving him mad and allowing him to rediscover everything that is meaningful. Sin City has always been more of a homage, but the frantic energy and bleak amorality at the heart of the books make them essential reads. NewImage

There are a ton of great crime books around these days, from both European and American creators. Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips are creating their own version of The Wire with the dense, picaresque Criminal, while Brian Azzurello and Eduardo Risso’s 100 Bullets wraps a conspiracy around an enigma around an exploration of the need for revenge. Paul Grist’s Kane is a very English take on the Ed McBain-style station house saga, complete with nods to shows like Hill Street Blues. A personal favourite of mine, John Wagner and Vince Locke’s A History Of Violence is a stark and brutal treatise on how you can never run away from your past. Again, the film is good, but the book is something else again. Canales and Guardino’s Blacksad takes the funny animal tradition and gives it a solid noir makeover – coincidentally making it the biggest selling bande desinee in France at the moment.

This is really a brief overview, with the emphasis on the heavy heavy hitters and major influences. A great place to start if you want to explore is the Paul Gravett-edited Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics, to which this post owes a heavy debt. Now, whaddya waitin’ for, ya mugs? These here books ain’t gonna read ’emselves…


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Writer. Film-maker. Cartoonist. Cook. Lover.

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