Southern Bastards 18 SMP Columns 

Pageturn: Crime Comics

By | March 18th, 2020
Posted in Columns | % Comments

Hey you! Have you ever wanted to read some different comics? Hopefully! Do you have a friend who you are always trying to get into comics? Yeah, you probably have 20! Are you currently camped out in a warehouse with your friend bleeding out from a robbery gone wrong and the only thing you have to calm your nerves is a stack of weirdly crime-oriented comic books? Well aren’t you in luck! If you answered yes to at least one of those questions then boy do I have the article for you! In Pageturn, I’m going to break down comics genre by genre and give you the best recommendations you can pester yourself and others into reading.

Some rules before we start (Even though I’ll almost certainly break all of them)

1. No superheroes
2. No Marvel or DC (maybe a sneaky Vertigo here and there)
3. Mostly modern reads

Southern Bastards

Jason Aaron and Jason Latour’s “Southern Bastards” has a weird kind of beauty to it. The whole story is a grimy, cultural exaggeration of MAGA Texas with a surprising undercurrent of heroic myth that feels more authentic because of the grit it’s buried in, like you’ve ripped Arthurian Legend out of a Bud Light commercial. That’s the strength of “Southern Bastard’s” first volume. It presents the reader with a really clear trajectory for the series; Earl Tubb, the stubborn old hero rides into a town full of societal dregs and uses his sheer willpower to clean the place out one criminal at a time. It’s an old structure that’s familiar, it’s satisfying and recognizable. So when the series suddenly throws that simple redemption story through a shredder you’re caught off guard. What happens when the town is just too dirty to clean up its act? What happens to the other strong, stubborn heroes when they see the strongest, stubbornest of them all fail? How does a place breed such a corrupt system and how can it break that cycle? By asking all these questions (and a couple more spoiler-y ones) it builds a character study that’s more broad and introspective than it has any right to be.

The book builds up its cast really organically. Each side character in the first volume seems to function as a foil to Earl, but by the third volume they’re individualised and redefined by their interactions with crime, justice, regret and god-blessed country football. The second volume, ‘Gridiron’ also gives us an origin story for antagonist Coach Boss which shifts him from a wildly one-note villain to the hardest bastard in comics. Everything feels so obvious in retrospect, but it still surprises you. “Southern Bastards” has an ability to convey lifestyles and preoccupations, through its art and aesthetic that is unparalleled.

As simple as “Southern Bastards” seems, it has this uncanny ability to insert an incredible level of drama and carry it in the most surprisingly austere fashion. From moment one “Southern Bastards” is grounded, it’s trapped in a world that, though a caricature, fits snugly in with the expected image of the Deep South. Yet Jason Aaron manages to defy all that in moments that seem genuinely spiritual. He will crank up the tension more and more, placing a character in deeper emotional isolation under greater and greater strains until this magic moment where everything snaps and something truly incredible happens. Fate seemingly flies down and marks the character as the embodiment of justice or the resurrection of a long-gone hero. It’s so sparing and so a-tonal that it works perfectly. “Southern Bastards” showed me that even the most cynical stories can be magical, even Craw County can find providence.

Grab it if you like:
-Crime stories in the Deep South
-Heroic fiction
-Football, Blood and Root Beer

If you like “Southern Bastards” read:
-”Scalped” by Jason Aaron and R.M Guera
-”Redneck” by Donny Cates and Lisandro Estherren
-”Lost Dogs” by Jeff Lemire

4 Kids Walk Into a Bank

When I first read “4 Kids Walk Into a Bank” I was really surprised at how much I loved it. I’d never seen Tyler Boss’s art before and most of the stuff I’ve read by Michael Rosenberg has been fun, but fairly dour and self-serious. “4 Kids” pours a 1.25L bottle of orange soda over all that and then out-plots it with a heist planned in crayon. It’s a smart coming-of-age story that isn’t being demeaning; it’s innocent but not ignorant.

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Boss’s art paired with Rosenberg’s rapid-fire, off-kilter dialogue makes the whole thing feel like an Edgar Wright film, with intricate 25 panel grids that give the sense of an endless shot-reverse-shot and constant call-backs and in-jokes flowing through the book’s visual beats. I feel like “4 Kids Walk Into a Bank” is the perfect response to some of the more nostalgia-driven coming of age stories that are in fashion right now. It’s nerdy and emotionally impactful but doesn’t rely on old tropes or self-congratulatory 80s references. It’s taking you somewhere emotionally familiar, not cosmetically familiar, and then paving a new road as it goes in the most hilariously thought-provoking way possible.

I can try and explain how and why this book is funny, but that’s never going to get you on side. The book is funny because it’s good and it’s good because it’s funny. It just works and you’ve got to witness it. Also it’s only like five issues long, so you may as well take a chance on it.

Grab it if you like:
-Atypical coming of age stories
-Deliberate, refined art
-Situational character comedy

If you like “4 Kids Walk Into a Bank” read:
-”Multiple Man” by Matthew Rosenberg and Andy MacDonald
-”Hawkeye” by Matt Fraction and David Aja
-”Snotgirl” by Bryan Lee O’Malley and Leslie Hung

The Nightly News

“The Nightly News” is the story of a group/cult of extremists/terrorists who unite under the destruction of their personal lives by the misreportings of modern journalism and decide to fight back through the systematic assassination of the media conglomerates that have ruined so many lives. This is a book that stays tantalisingly apolitical in all regards except one: no matter how you look at it, the 24 hour news cycle is a mess. “The Nightly News” wants you to ask why. As someone who’s trying to have a smidge of journalistic integrity this book was more than thought-provoking for me. I read through its layers of infographics, its Chomsky quotes, the blood-splatters of its bullet-magnet reporters, and I fell in love with it.

This was the debut comic of modern superstar Jonathan Hickman, who’s famous for reinventing the Fantastic Four, Avengers and the X-Men. With a track record like that it’s not surprising that this is anything but a humble beginnings. “The Nightly News” is defiantly meta-textual, inviting scrutiny through its own postulations on authorial intention, the conceits of its own protagonists and the distinction between journalists and the monolithic corporations they embody. “The Nightly News” is also one of the few comics illustrated by Hickman and he does a really good job of it, using his history in graphic design to play around with the medium perfectly. Every page is littered with infographics, editor’s notes and info-dumps that educate readers on the prevalence of ritalin in primary school, the grievances of journalists with news media, the steady progression of late-capitalism and more.

Overall, “The Nightly News” looks at the ethics and circumstances of a modern revolution against the media empire of the capitalist age. It’s daring to ask what happens when the revolution is fighting for its right to be televised and who really profits from disorder. The only downside to the book is that you’re guaranteed to sound like a conspiracy theorist in every political debate you have going forward.

Grab it if you like:
-Mixed Medium comics
-Politically speculative fiction
-A dash of well-intentioned anarchy

If you like “The Nightly News” read:
-”Black Monday Murders” by Johnathan Hickman and Tomm Coker
-”Gideon Falls” by Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino
-”V for Vendetta” by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

On the shelf: Criminal

“Criminal” is probably the most obvious addition on a list of crime comics, but it’s probably also the best. It’s the epitome of the genre, dancing with tropes from the golden age of gangster films without seeming like a ‘best of’ album. The fact that it’s a loose anthology makes it work so much better, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips get to cycle through character dynamics, shifting perspectives and changing time periods without having to slot in the same protagonist. Characters can die, or ride off into the sunset, they can last an issue or they can last twenty, but no matter how long each person lasts you know that they’re all living on borrowed time. It’s unpredictable and it’s richer because of that.

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The comic also uses its medium amazingly, Phillips has a heap artistic tricks and shorthands that feel so obvious when you read them, but are eccentrically creative at the same time. One notable example is how Teegar Lawless’s drunken nights in ‘The Dead and the Dying’ are illustrated through stilted all-black panels that increase in frequency as he spirals deeper into alcoholism, it’s such creatively simple ways to illustrate how much we’re missing from his story and how much further Lawless is sinking. Stand-out arcs like ‘Bad Night’ and ‘The Last of the Innocent’ even draw on different comic formats to splinter the artistic identity of the book and create a consequential identity crisis within the character at the center of this contrast. ‘Bad Night’ uses old noir comic strips to present a (literally and figuratively) black and white view of the criminal world that rationalises and demeans Jacob as he wanders deeper into a world of moral grey, leading to an incredible interstitial, form-breaking conclusion. Of course none of this would work if not for the fact that Phillips’s art is just really fucking good.

The whole series feels like a timeless character study. Brubaker constructs every character to be uniquely resourceful and self-destructive, creating a sense of impending collapse for all of them, while still leaving a sense of hope and impenetrability to them. By bouncing between stories it builds a world and cast organically, giving a sense that everyone has a story and a motive of their own. No one’s a prop. I think a large part of this works because of how understated the story is, the lack of melodrama means each revelation about a character feels well earned. Brubaker knows how to frame each character’s internal monologue, either keeping the reader at a distance or painfully intimate depending on the experience and perspective of each protagonist.

Brubaker and Phillips are such a timeless pairing and I honestly can’t think of a single bad story the two have made. It’s so hard to just recommend “Criminal” when they have such an amazing, inventive catalogue behind them. Just do me a favour and read “Sleeper,” read “Incognito,” read “Fatale,” read “The Fade Out,” read “Kill or be Killed.” Read all of it. The fourth volume of “Criminal” just ended with issue #12 in January, but Brubaker’s talked about coming back for a fifth volume that might continue the story from the very first volume of “Criminal,” ‘Coward.’ In the meantime Brubaker and Phillips have a new graphic novel coming out in May called “Pulp.” It looks like a really inventive mix of familiar tropes in new contexts and I’d definitely suggest you get your hands on it the moment you can.

Grab it if you like:
-Uncompromising noir
-Unpredictable stories wrapped in familiar tropes
-Recursive anthologies

If you like “Criminal” read:
-”Kill or be Killed” by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
-”100 Bullets” by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso
-”Loud!” by Maria Llovet


Loeb and Sale’s Batman
Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale have a trilogy (or quadrilogy if you’re feeling fancy) of really interesting Batman stories that use gangsters and criminals to show just how Gotham City turned Batman from the reactionary vigilante of “Batman: Year One” into the forever-prepared detective of today. The famous “Long Halloween,” it’s sequel “Dark Victory,” the Catwoman spin-off “When in Rome” and the more introspective “Haunted Knight” all pit Batman (and Catwoman) against the crime families of Gotham City, interspersing each issue with the familiar costumed supervillains from the Gotham of Christmas Future. By slowly building up the power and appearances of Joker, Riddler, Poison Ivy and the gang, Loeb gives the story structural and thematic weight, analysing how old-hat crime is slowly being eaten alive by the ruthless insanity of masked villains.

Sale’s art turns each character into an emotional portrait that emphasises their stand-out traits to perfectly unnatural degrees. Honestly it’s just nice reading a Batman comic that isn’t drawn by a regular house-style artist. His art is so inspiring that you can see shades of it in the works of Jeff Lemire, Eduardo Risso and more, but nothing really compares. Overall these are really great Batman stories that show how Bruce Wayne can grow beyond the tuxedos and treachery of the bygone Gotham.

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Gotham Central
How can it be?! We couldn’t possibly look at a SECOND Batman comic could we?! Don’t worry, more than anything else “Gotham Central” is just a story about how much it sucks being a cop in a city where people like Mr. Freeze and Two-Face are household names. Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker (he’s back!) and Michael Lark craft a perfectly procedural crime story that doesn’t sink too deep into the existential noir that Batman’s so often prone to. Instead we get a really tactile detective story that takes things one case at a time, these detectives are chipping away at an insane city and despite all the chaos, they’re making a difference. For a story about flying arsonists and killer clowns, it’s got an optimism to it. The writing feels tonally compelling and immersive, making the world of high stakes crimefighting feel mundane and familiar, helping you empathise with these out-of-their-depth detectives even better because of it. There were honestly times where I was so wrapped up in the personal stories of Detective Driver or Renee Montoya that I’d almost be disappointed when Mr Freeze or another one of the costumes would turn up.

Michael Lark is also an incredible artist throughout. He makes every single character in the day and night shift feel personal, layered and emotive in a different manner. In a lesser artist’s hands the series would feel like a mess of police-shaped blobs with names for the reader to remember and forget over and over. But there’s such personality and energy to his illustrations, that you’re kept focused throughout, it’s like the perfect mesh of David Aja and David Mazzuchelli (if you really are new to comics then I’m sorry for all the references, I promise that I’m trying to stop myself). If you’ve ever caught yourself sipping from a mug of long black coffee and shaking your fist at the sky then I think you’ll get along with the hard-working detectives of the GCPD.

I’d be committing some kind of cardinal sin if I didn’t have at least one Bendis comic on here. Brian Michael Bendis can be hard to read in large doses, but when it comes to small-scale crime stories he’s one of the greats. While “Moon Knight”, “Daredevil,” “Powers” and the Jinxworld comics are all great, it’s hard to look past “Alias,” the story of part-time PI, full-time train-wreck, Jessica Jones. She’s such an enduring creation that I think people take her for granted now, but she’s had an uncompromising characterisation for 15-20 years now, which is an achievement that few other characters can match. “Alias” is a deeply introspective and confronting look at sexual assault, domestic abuse, manipulation and trauma framed through the villainous Killgrave, the Purple Man. Don’t miss out on “Alias,” because I’m telling you now, you haven’t read anything like it.

Now, this is going to be the broadest and most biased recommendation on this list, but is that going to stop me from making it? NO! Read “Daredevil” read every single “Daredevil.” I really don’t think there’s a bad one (I mean there’s “Shadowland” but that’s got a bunch of ninjas so it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be ninja-y) and god I love Matt Murdock so much. In a genre full of gritty, street-level superheroes, Daredevil is king, he’s the guy who inspired Batman to go dark and gritty. In fact, Daredevil has pretty much been on a 60-year downward spiral with each creator swearing to leave Matt in an even more fucked up situation than they found him, continually deconstructing his methods, beliefs and abilities, examining and reexamining the character over and over as he tries to enjoy just one day without an existential crisis. Another strength is that he’s able to stay largely removed from the twists and turns of big crossover stories, because weirdly enough, when you micromanage a square mile of New York City, you don’t really have to worry about the alien invasions and spider-verses. This detachment gives him a kind of integrity; Daredevil is Daredevil and he’s shaped by those small cities blocks between 34th Street and 59th Street, not Galactus or Ragnarok or the all-consuming force of editorial meddling. In terms of stand-out comics, you can’t go wrong with “Daredevil: Yellow,” “Daredevil: Born Again” or ‘Guardian Devil’ but there are so many great runs that have defined the character as he marches through the crusades of his sadistic writers, Ann Noncenti, Brian Michael Bendis, Ed Brubaker, Mark Waid and recently, Chip Zdarsky have all created hallmark runs on the character that incredibly epitomize and reimagine the Man Without Fear.

Thank you all for reading, stay crafty, stay cryptic, stay cultured.

//TAGS | Pageturn

James Dowling

James Dowling is probably the last person on Earth who enjoyed the film Real Steel. He has other weird opinions about Hellboy, CHVRCHES, Squirrel Girl and the disappearance of Harold Holt. Follow him @James_Dow1ing on Twitter if you want to argue about Hugh Jackman's best film to date.


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