Graphic Crime Fiction

Crime Fiction in Comic Strips, Comic Books and Graphic Novels

Arthur Fried, Plymouth State University

Any discussion of crime stories in the graphics novel medium needs to begin with its predecessor, the comic strip and the comic book.  The detective story migrated from the pulp magazine and motion picture to the funny papers in the early 1930s, with the publication of Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy strip.  In roughly the same period, the comic book industry was born, initially to collect and publish recent newspaper strips.   By the mid-30s, however, it was becoming clear that the new comic book medium would need more material, and Detective Comics, an anthology of original stories, was born.   But comic book publishers soon discovered that their products sold best when they contained images of the new, brightly costumed fantasy figures such as Superman and Batman.  These characters, initially known as “mystery men,” came to be called “superheroes.”

Graphic novels — sometimes characterized as “comic books for adults” — came along many years later, in the 1980s and 1990s.  Superhero stories are a staple of the graphic novel, but the form has demonstrated greater flexibility than the comic book.  A graphic novel does not need to be about a superhero to find its audience.

Dick Tracy

Dick Tracy was created by Chester Gould (1900-1985), a transplanted Oklahoman who had been living and cartooning in Chicago for about a decade before creating his famous police detective.  Gould had been sending off proposal for a strip of his own for years to Joseph Patterson, head of the Chicago Tribune syndicate.  Finally, the idea of a police detective, to be called “Plainclothes” Tracy,   clicked with Patterson.  But Patterson wired Gould to give his character a more memorable name — something like “Dick” Tracy.

Crime was a hot topic in the popular culture of the 1930s.  The classic crime filmsPublic Enemy and Little Caesar were released in 1931, and the original version ofScarface was released the following year.  In the first series of strips, Tracy’s girlfriend, Tess Trueheart (another name chosen by Patterson), is kidnapped by gangsters, and her father is murdered.  He joins the police force as a plain clothes detective to help rescue her, and decides to remain on the force when the case is completed.

Gould was a good cartoonist, with a gift for caricature.  His grotesque villains, such as the Mole, Flat Top and the Brow, were often the most memorable part of the strip.  His newspaper strips reached a new level of violence: by the end of the first week Tess’s father is shot through the chest by robbers, who grab Tracy in a stranglehold when he tries charges them with a chair. The crimes in Dick Tracy were not ripped from the headlines of the day, but to many readers (especially the younger ones) they must have seemed to be.

Another attraction was Tracy’s use of technology.  Ellery Queen described him as “the world’s first procedural detective of fiction, in the modern sense.”  Through much of his career, Tracy was at home in the police laboratory as well as on the street.  He used a variety of devices and scientific procedures, both real and imaginary.  His two-way wrist radio (later replaced by a two-way wrist television) was probably his best-known device, but there were a variety of others.  In the 1960s, he and his friends rode around in a rocket ship.

Like so many of his colleagues at the Chicago Tribune, Gould was a political conservative.  Dick Tracy preached the traditional American heartland values of self-reliance, love of family, and respect for authority.  Whether due to its values or its pyrotechnics, the strip was widely popular when it first appeared during the Depression, and it has retained at least some of that popularity to the present day.

Other Comic Strip Detectives

The heyday of the crime strip was the period from 1930 to 1960.    Red Barry, created by Will Gould (no relation to Chester) for the Hearst newspapers, was among the first to attempt to emulate the Dick Tracy formula.  Comic strip historian Donald D. Markstein says that the strip “outdid” Dick Tracy in terms of violence.  The violence began to bother W. R. Hearst, according to Markstein, and Red Barry was canceled after a five-year run.

Kerry Drake and Rip Kirby came on the scene a decade or so after Tracy.  They were more urbane, gentlemanly; their strips were less violent.  Kerry Drake was published from 1943 to 1983, when it was discontinued after the death of its creator, Alfred Andriola.  Rip Kirby was created by the celebrated cartoonist Alex Raymond in 1946.  The strip survived his early death in 1956 and is still being published to this day.

Secret Agent X-9

Rip Kirby was not the first detective strip illustrated by Raymond.  His first strip, Secret Agent X-9,though short-lived, began with an illustrious pedigree.  Raymond’s partner on the strip was Dashiell Hammett, the leading American crime writer of the day.  Hammett was approaching the end of his creative years; his last novel, The Thin Man, was published in January, 1934, just as the new comic strip was getting started.  It was not a success.  According to comics historian Bill Blackbeard, “King Features [Secret Agent X-9’s syndicator] didn’t seem to appreciate the subtlety and realism of Hammett’s work, and began to tamper with his material.  As a result, the strip deteriorated markedly as it was diluted and rewritten by other hands.  The result was totally unlike Hammett’s orderly, coolly-reasoned detective fiction.”

Hammett was off the strip by the end of the year.  Raymond continued as both writer and artist for another year, then left to work on other projects.  Secret Agent X-9 continued on for decades, under a number of writers and artists, although the name was changed in 1967 to Secret Agent Corrigan.  The strip finally ceased publication in 1996.

Comic Books

Over the seven decades of their existence, comic books have been host to a variety of genres: Westerns, romance, comedy, funny animals, science fiction, horror.  The medium has always been most hospitable to fantasy, however, and particularly over the past forty years or so, super-heroes have been the dominant genre.  Their relationship to crime fiction is problematic.  Super-heroes battle crime, but the crimes are far more likely to be committed by alien armadas or suicide cults than by career criminals or jealous spouses.  Still, a number of comic book crime fighters have left their mark on the medium.


Batman (initially Bat-Man) was created in 1939 by cartoonist Bob Kane, working closely with colleagues Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson, among others.  From the start, he was a figure of mystery.  Young, wealthy Bruce Wayne, orphaned as a child when both of his parents were killed during a mugging, dedicates his life to becoming a crime fighter.  In a famous panel from the first story in the series, he sees a bat flying through the sky outside his window, and decides that since “criminals are a cowardly, superstitious lot,” he will dress like a bat.

The character of Batman has gone through a series of lengthy phases.  In the 1940s, the stories were influenced by the “mystery men” pulps of the era — The Shadow, The Spider, The Avenger.  In the 1950s and early 1960s, science fiction elements predominated.  The Batman television show of the mid-60s emphasized camp humor, and the comic book adopted this emphasis for a couple of years.  More recently, Batman has been portrayed as an obsessive, semi-depressed creature of the darkness, haunted by the death of his parents and unable to have any relationships outside of his circle of crime-fighters: Robin, Batgirl, Nightwing (the original Robin, grown up) and his faithful butler, Alfred.  Batman lives and works as a vigilante, outside the law, but one rule has governed his conduct throughout all but the earliest days of the series: he will not take a life, nor will he even carry a gun.

Batman is frequently described in his magazines as “The World’s Greatest Detective,” but the amount of detection he does varies from story-line to story-line.  Much of the time it is minimal.  Still, with its emphasis on the way that Bruce Wayne’s personality was shaped — and warped — by the primal crime, the murder of his parents, the series maintains a connection to modern crime fiction.

Jack Cole and Plastic Man

The more powers a super-hero has, the less able he is to fight earthly crime.  Superman hasn‘t fought ordinary criminals since the character’s earliest days — his usual opponents are super-villains and interstellar armadas.  The same is true of Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, the X-Men, Green Lantern, and the entire breed of super-heroes who have made the migration from comic books to television and the multiplex.

One early super-powered crime fighter deserves special mention, however.  Jack Cole began writing and drawing Plastic Man in 1941, and stayed with the character for over a decade.  Plastic Man started out as Eel O’Brien, member of a gang of crooks attempting to rob a chemical company.  A guard fires at O’Brien as the gang attempts to flee, and he stumbles into a vat of chemicals, inundating himself.  He manages to escape, somehow, and ends up in a monastery, where he is nursed back to health by the monks.  Regaining consciousness, he discovers that he has the ability to transform his entire body into any shape or permutation that he desires.  His criminal impulses have subsided as well.  Donning a red, yellow and black circus acrobat’s outfit, he becomes a crime fighter.

Cole’s Plastic Man story lines were several cuts above his competitors in wit and ingenuity, but his artwork really stands out.  Labeling Cole’s art  “a manic spritz of images,” Art Spiegelman describes a typical sequence as follows.

Disguised as a red, black and yellow throw rug, our hero cocks one ear up to listen in on two hoods huddled at the table that rests on him.  In the next panel he literally hangs out at an art museum, above a label that reads “Abstract,” his body now distorted into a red, yellow and black bebop-cubist composition in order to eavesdrop on two cheap gunsels out gallery-hopping.  And in the panel after that, two molls gossip from tenement windows across an alley while our protean hero continues his stakeout camouflaged as a red, black and yellow line of laundry flapping between them.

Cole eventually left Plastic Man for a lucrative position as a panel cartoonist for the fledgling Playboymagazine.  In 1959 he committed suicide.  Other cartoonists have depicted super-heroes with powers similar or identical to those of Plastic Man, but none of them have had Cole’s wild, Dadaistic, bebop imagination.  His comics, currently being collected in the DC Archives hardcover series, are in a class by themselves in their medium, and among the wittiest crime stories ever written.

Will Eisner and the Spirit

Will Eisner, creator of the Spirit, was a one-of-a-kind talent.  So was Jack Cole, but unlike Cole, Eisner, who was born in 1917, continues to have a major influence on the comics medium to the present day.

Eisner began his career as a professional cartoonist in his teens, and in his early twenties he ran a studio that produced stories for a variety of comic book companies.  (One of his employees was Bob Kane, creator of Batman.)  In 1939, he left the studio to join Quality Comics, then in the process of creating a sixteen-page newspaper supplement of original comic strips.  Eisner’s contribution was the Spirit, a series that has been among the most influential in the history of comics.

The Spirit was Denny Colt, a masked detective in a blue suit, a fedora, and a tiny mask that hides his eyes.  Colt is a detective who was injured and supposedly killed battling a criminal.  He decides to use his mistaken demise to his advantage, and literally goes underground in Wildwood Cemetery with a black youth, Ebony White, as his companion and gofer.  (Ebony is depicted in the kind of gross, racist caricature that was common in the era before World War II, but can badly disfigure The Spirit’s adventures for modern readers.)  The stories are pure pulp: mysterious villains, glamorous femme fatales, gothic settings, crimes that seem supernatural until they are solved by the indomitable hero.

Eisner’s art is what has distinguished the Spirit for over 60 years.  If Jack Cole’s artwork was surrealistic, Eisner’s was cinematic.  The opening for each story was a “splash” page — a full page illustration, usually without word balloons, viewed from a picturesque angle.  Eisner’s lines were always crystal clear, but the reader might be viewing the scene from below, above, or through a window.  His characters were urban caricatures, but usually sympathetic ones.  The city — his native New York in the barest of disguises — was always a presence in Eisner’s work.  One page, for example, depicts an aerial view of tenement buildings.  The Spirit’s name is spelled out in laundry waving from the roof.

Eisner’s classic period on The Spirit was the early 40s, prior to his service in World War II.  From then on he shared work on the series with a number of other cartoonists and comics writers until 1952, when The Spirit was discontinued.  For the next 20 years he worked as a free lance commercial artist.  Interest in his earlier work revived in the mid-60s, in large part due to a book called The Great Comic Book Heroes, written and edited by the cartoonist and writer Jules Feiffer.  Of the thirteen heroes and their creators profiled in the book — including Plastic Man and Jack Cole — Feiffer praised Eisner’s work on The Spirit most highly:

Will Eisner was an early master of the German expressionist approach in comic books — the Fritz Lang school.  “’Muss ‘Em Up’” [an early strip that appeared prior to The Spirit] was full of dark shadows, creepy angle shots, graphic close-ups of violence and terror. Eisner’s world seemed much more real than the world of other comic book men because it looked that much more like a movie.  The underground terror of RKO prison pictures, of convicts rioting, of armored car robberies, of Paul Muni or Henry Fonda not being allowed to go straight. The further films dug into the black fantasies of a depression generation the more they were labeled realism.  Eisner retooled this mythic realism to his own uses: black fantasies on paper.  Just as with the movies, it was labeled realism.  Eisner’s line had weight.  Clothing sat on his characters heavily; when they bent an arm, deep folds sprang into action everywhere.  When one Eisner character slugged another, a real fist hit real flesh.  Violence was no externalized plot device; it was the gut of his style.  Massive and indigestible, it curdled, lava-like, from the page.

The Graphic Novel

 In 2000, the novelist and comic book fan Michael Chabon published a 659-page prose novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, about two cousins who worked together in the earliest days of the comic book industry.  It was a bravura work, sold well, eventually won the Pulitzer Prize.  In the course of the novel, Chabon devoted several chapters to describing the origins of the characters created by the fictional duo — most notably the Escapist, a super escape artist.  Then, in 2003, Dark Horse Comics an 80-page comic book with the lengthy title, Michael Chabon Presents The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist.  Chabon didn’t have a lot to do with the title, other than having created the featured characters.  He wrote only one story in the first three issues.  Still, the square-bound, expensive ($8.95 U. S.) publications suggest that lines of demarcation between “elite” and “popular” literature are more tenuous than ever.  And when a novelist helps create a publication featuring graphic stories about comic book characters he invented in a lengthy prose work, we have a fancy comic book rather than a graphic novel.  But what do we call it when a comic book writer creates a sequence of related stories limning issues usually associated with elite fiction?

A Contract with God

In 1976, Will Eisner published A Contract with God, a story cycle (not a novel) set in the New York City borough of the Bronx during the author’s childhood.  None of the stories contained the crime and violence that characterized Eisner’s earlier work, but the book was successful enough for Eisner, who was nearly 60, to begin a new career producing similar works.  To date he has completed about twenty, including biographical works, tales of New York city and its inhabitants, ghost stories, science fiction, and war memoirs.  Many of them are story cycles; the word “novel” in the term graphic novel seems to signify merely an extended work.

A Contract with God was not the first graphic novel, and Eisner was not the first person to use the term.  An article in traces the first use back to a fanzine article published in 1965.  Eisner admits that he was not the first to use the term, but says that he was not aware of previous users when he came up with the term during a conversation with a trade book editor, because he was afraid he wouldn’t get a hearing if he used the word “comic.”  Eisner’s influence in the field has led many to refer to his first long form work as the “first graphic novel,” however.


After Eisner’s success, it was only a matter of time before comic book publishers took note.  They had been looking to appeal to older readers for a couple of decades; cover prices were rising, and children were reading less.  In the mid-1980s DC comics published two works which helped redefine the medium.

Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbon, is set in an alternate world in which Richard Nixon never resigned and all superheroes have been outlawed except for the atom-powered Dr. Manhattan, who works for the government.  When Dr. Manhattan goes missing, the remaining superheroes must seek to put things right Stephen Weiner calls “the ultimate superhero story in the form of a meditation on time and the burdens of power.”

Alan Moore has been particularly influential in both comics and graphic novels.  In 2000 he published The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, in which five operatives drawn from late Victorian popular fiction are teamed to thwart a plot for world domination.  An earlier book, From Hell, offers a fictionalized speculation on the identity of Jack the Ripper.

Frank Miller, who writes and illustrates his own work, was already known in the comic book world for rejuvenating the blind Marvel Comics superhero, Daredevil, when he came to DC.  Batman: The Dark Night Returns, with art by Klaus Janson, is set in the future, when Batman, now in his fifties, grumpy and disillusioned, and long past his physical prime, must come out of retirement to battle his arch-enemy, the Joker.   A follow-up, Batman: Year One, by Miller and artist David Mazuccheilli, examined the super-hero’s origin.  In the nineties Alan Moore and Brian Boland collaborated on Batman: The Killing Joke, which told the story of The Joker.

More recently, Miller has been working on Sin City, a series of novels set in the imaginary Basin City, perhaps the most corrupt town on earth.  Moore, an Englishman, has his own comic book company, America’s Best Comics, where he and his colleagues explore an entire range of genres, from superheroes to fantasy to futuristic police stories.

Max Allan Collins

Max Allan Collins was the second man to write the Dick Tracy comic strip, inheriting the job from Chester Gould in 1977 and continuing on until 1993.  He is also an award-winning detective novelist, specializing in historicals, and a successful writer of motion picture novelizations.  In the early 80s he and artist Terry Beatty created Ms. Tree, a tough, tall woman in an overcoat and big hoop earrings whose story begin when her private investigator husband is murdered on their honeymoon.  In the process of avenging him, she assumes control of his agency and declares war on a mob boss, Dominic Muerta, whom she holds responsible for his murder.  Ms. Tree stories appeared intermittently in the 80s and early 90s.  In the vernacular of crime fiction, Ms. Tree was a hardboiled series; Collins noted in the introduction to the first collection that he reserved it for “dealing with modern crimes that are too rough for me to deal with Dick Tracy,” which he was writing at the same time.

Another collaboration with Beatty, Johnny Dynamite, about a one-eyed private investigator operating out of Chicago and Las Vegas, mixed conventions from the hard-boiled and horror genres, as the hero tracked down a gang boss who had sold his soul to the devil.  But Collins’s most successful graphic novel to date is The Road to Perdition, about Michael O’Sullivan, the “Angel of Death,” who turns against the mob and goes on the run in order to save his own son, who inadvertently witnessed a gangland murder.

The Road to Perdition, illustrated by Richard Piers Rayner, became a successful motion picture starring Tom Hanks and Paul Newman in 2002.  To date four sequels to the novel have been published, all written by Collins in collaboration with a variety of artists.

Copyright © 2004 Arthur Fried

Selected References

Feiffer, Jules.  The Great American Comic book Heroes. The Dial Press.  New York, 1965.

Horn, Maurice D.  100 Years of American Newspaper Comics.  Gramercy Books.  New York, 1996.

Spiegelman, Art, and Chip Kidd.  Jack Cole and Plastic Man.  Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 2001.

Weiner, Stephen.  The 101 Best Graphic Novels.  NBM Publishing Inc., New York, 2001.

Weiner, Stephen.  The Rise of the Graphic Novel.  NBM Publishing Inc., New York, 2003.

Web Sites  A very extensive web site filled with reviews, biographies of creators, a daily blog, and online comics.  Jessica Abel’s graphic essay, “What Is a Graphic Novel?” is a particularly good place to begin learning about the burgeoning field of graphic novels.  “The Online Home of Comics’ Master Storyteller.”  Eisner’s official, copyrighted web site. A semi-official web site for Max Allan Collins.  The web master is his son, Nathan.

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