Traditionally, comics and graphic novels aren’t thought of as “real” reading. However, there’s interesting research that suggests that we use similar reading skills for comics and graphic novels to the skills we use for other kinds of reading. And, for those who learn best through the visual, comics and graphic novels can offer a creative way to experience crime fiction.
Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy is one of the most famous and enduring comic-strip detectives. He’s what you might call a “hardboiled” police detective, but the strip isn’t all about fisticuffs. There’s also lots of detail about police investigation, too. In fact, it’s been argued that this strip was really one of the first police procedural series. Even if it wasn’t, it’s got plenty of the elements of a police procedural: collecting and analyzing evidence (including forensic evidence), interviewing witnesses and suspects, and the details of arrest. Gould himself stopped writing and drawing the strip in 1977, but Dick Tracy remains a powerful influence. The strip itself was continued, there’ve been graphic novels, and of course, Dick Tracy films. There are other comic-strip crime fiction legends too, such as Batman, but for many readers, Dick Tracy was their first introduction to crime fiction.
Some of crime fiction’s most famous sleuths have also had their stories adapted in graphic form. For instance Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes story, was adapted in graphic form by Ian Edgington and illustrated by I.N.J. Culbard. In that story, Holmes investigates the murders of Enoch Drebber and Joseph Stangerson, both Americans who are staying at the same rooming-house. As Holmes finds out, the two deaths are connected, and both deaths are related to Drebber’s and Stangerson’s past lives in America.
Edginton and Culbard also collaborated on adapting Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles in graphic form. In that novel, Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate a supposed curse on the Baskerville family – a demon in hound form who’s haunted the family since one of their ancestors, Sir Hugo Baskerville, sold himself to the Powers of Evil so he could have the woman he wanted. When Sir Charles Baskerville is found dead in the park of the family home, his friend, Dr. Mortimer, thinks that the curse has come back to haunt the family. He’s afraid because the next Baskerville heir, Sir Henry, is on his way from Canada, and Mortimer fears for his life. So he asks Holmes to investigate and see if Sir Henry can be spared the curse. Holmes and Watson find that, far from being the victim of a curse, Sir Charles was killed for a much more prosaic motive.
Several of Agatha Christie’s novels have been adapted for graphic form, too. Many of them have been adapted by François Rivière and illustrated by Marc Piskic. For instance, one novel that Rivière and Piskic collaborated on is The Murder on the Links, in which Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the murder of Paul Renauld, a Canadian émigré to France. At first, the police think Renauld was murdered by a pair of thugs who are after a secret Renauld is supposedly keeping. Soon, though, Poirot finds out that Renauld’s death had a much different motive. Rivière collaborated with illustrator Frank Leclerq on the adaptation of The Secret Adversary, the first adventure featuring Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. In that novel, Thomas Beresford and Prudence “Tuppence” Cowley are both hard-up for money, and decide to form their own company, “The Young Adventurers, Ltd.” Very soon, they get their first commission: to track down some missing secret papers. Before they know it, they’re swept up in international intrigue and political maneuvering.
Vertigo, an imprint owned by D.C. Comics, focuses entirely on graphic novels, many of them crime fiction. For example, Dark Entries is the story of John Constantine, from the Hellblazer comic series. In this novel, written by Ian Rankin and illustrated by Werther Dell'Edera, Constantine, a paranormal investigator, is hired by the staff of Haunted Palace, a reality television show in which a group of young contestants are trapped in a “haunted house,” and the only way to win is to get into a hidden room and claim the prize. The current group of contestants has, indeed, been terrified by scary visions, but they haven’t been the “rigged” terrors that the show’s producers have planned. Apparently, the contestants are seeing these things themselves. So Constantine’s recruited to find out who or what is causing these visions.
Other graphic novels blend comic-strip heroes and crime fiction, too. For instance, Alan Moore’s Watchmen is the story of the murder of government agent (and former superhero) The Comedian. He’s one of several superheroes in an alternative-future scenario who’ve been outlawed by the current government. The only superheroes who are allowed to continue to use their powers are those like The Comedian who are officially hired by the government. When The Comedian is found murdered, another former superhero, Rorschach, begins to believe that there’s a plot to kill other superheroes as well. So he gathers a group of his former colleagues to investigate. As they begin to try to piece things together, they find themselves in danger as they slowly uncover the truth. In the end, it’s found that The Comedian’s death, and the other events that happen in the story, are all part of a larger plan.
Some of these novels are, of course, more suitable for adults than for children, but there’s also graphic-novel crime fiction available for young readers. For instance, Bill Galvan's Scrapyard Detectives is a comic series about a group of young people who have formed a club called the Scrapyard Detectives. Their name comes from their meeting place – the scrapyard owned by the father of one of the main characters. In the series, the team of young people works together to solve local mysteries. While the series focuses on teaching lessons, it’s also an interesting mystery series that allows readers to follow the clues and solve cases along with the young sleuths.
Chris Everheart’s Recon Academy series is about a team of young people, Recon Academy, whose purpose is to fight terrorism and other crimes in their town of Seaside. There’s a high-tech naval base in town, so security is important, and the Recon Academy team does its share to protect the base. In novels such as Teen Agent and Prep Squadron, the group goes up against terrorist cells, mysterious strangers and odd happenings in and around Seaside High School.
We don’t always think of comics and graphic novels when we think of crime fiction and those forms of literature aren’t always regarded as “real” crime fiction. But well-drawn comics and graphic novels with interesting plots and solid characters have “hooked” many people on reading and on crime fiction. They’re fairly easy reading, so young readers, readers who struggle and readers learning a language can enjoy them. They appeal to the visual, so those who remember best what they see can especially appreciate them. They can be very creative, and they’ve made a unique contribution to the genre. Have you read comic or graphic-novel crime fiction? If you have, which stories have you enjoyed?