Noir fiction makes its way to comics

The term Noir was first coined by French filmmakers in the mid-1940s.  It refers to the dark look and downbeat mood of many American crime and detective films that came out after World War II.  Some famous examples would be The Maltese Falcon (1941) or Double Indemnity (1944).  Noir fiction has its root in pulp fiction as does the hardboiled genre.  In hardboiled fiction, the protagonist is usually a detective.  Noir fiction is a slightly different type of crime story because the protagonist is either a victim or the actual perpetrator.  James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich, Dorothy B. Hughes, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Charles Williams, Harry Whittington and Elmore Leonard are some of the most well-known names in noir fiction.


Noir fiction was a popular pulp fiction genre from the 1940s through the 1970s.  As its popularity began to wane in the 1970’s, it started to get renewed interest in the 1980s by way of Barry Gifford.  Gifford is a novelist and poet.  He is most well-known for his screenplays of the David Lynch films Wild At Heart (1990) and Lost Highway (1997).  In the 1980s he was the editor for the crime fiction publisher Black Lizard.  They reprinted many of the works by the aforementioned authors.

Later, in 2004, the publisher Hard Case Crime took over where Black Lizard left off. Edited by writer Charles Ardai the series recreates the look and feel of the paperback crime novels of the 1940s and ’50s. The covers feature original illustrations done in a similar style as those seen in the paperbacks of that time period by using such veteran artists as Robert McGinnis.  Hard Case Crime reprints classics of the genre by authors such as Donald Westlake.  It also prints brand new material by people like Max Allan Collins, Lawrence Block and even Stephen King.

In 2017, Hard Case Crime also began to publish comic books penned by many authors that they publish.  This includes Quarry’s War, written by Max Allan Collins and based upon the series that Collins created.

Collins is a long time veteran of comics in addition to being a well-respected novelist.  He took over the writing chores of the Dick Tracy comic strip in 1977.  He also started the first long-running female detective crime comic, Ms. Tree, in 1981.  Additionally, Collins wrote the Road to Perdition graphic novels that were used as the basis for the 2002 film with Tom Hanks.

Noir comics have never been bestsellers but they do seem to have a cult following among adults.  They have been around since the 1950’s with EC’s controversial Crime SuspenStories.  Those comics were the causes of a Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency because of their graphic depictions of violence.  This led to the industry’s self-censorship with the comics code.  Crime comics have been making a comeback though.

Most notable is writer Ed Brubaker’s collaboration with Sean Phillips.  The two worked together on various superhero titles but then branched off to create the series Criminal in 2006.  Like some of the most effective stories in the Noir tradition, Criminal was a series of books that explored the underworld usually from the criminal’s perspective.  The series was followed by the graphic novels Fatale, Velvet, The Fade Out and Kill or Be Killed.  They are now (2019) continuing work on the Fatale series.

Another fan favorite noir series was 100 Bullets.  It was published by DC comics Vertigo imprint for ten tears from 1999-2009 and lasted 100 issues.  The series was written by Brian Azzarello and artist Edward Risso.  It contained very detailed plots, mystery and stylized graphic violence.

Probably the most well-known noir comic book series for adults was Frank Miller’s Sin City which started its publication in 1991.  It was a black and white series (with occasional flourishes of color) completely written and illustrated by Miller.  The books were later adapted into the films Sin City (2005) and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014).  The comic book series won multiple Eisner awards between 1993-1998.

If you enjoy Noir, or are looking for comics geared at a more mature audience, I’d recommend checking out some of these comic books for adult readers.  They are available to download via our Hoopla app.

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