Guest Column: Christos Gage’s Top 10 Favorite Crime Noir Stories

With his new graphic novel, Sunset on sale next month, a noir story in its own right, we wrangled writer Christos Gage into putting together this guest column for us! Look for the book with art by Jorge Lucas from Minotaur/Top Cow (he talks about it right down there), right around San Diego Comic-Con in July. In the meantime, to get your noir on, check out Gage’s fantastic list.

Okay, so as we approach the release of my original graphic novel Sunset, a crime noir tale beautifully and brutally drawn by Jorge Lucas, coming to you in July from Top Cow/Minotaur, I have been asked to list some of my favorite crime noir works, both in and out of comics. I am thrilled to do so. But rather than rattle off the usual, supremely deserving suspects you all know – Ed Brubaker’s Criminal, Darwyn Cooke’s Parker adaptations, L.A. Confidential – I’m going to bring up a few that people might not consider when making these types of lists. One could argue they’re not noir, or that they don’t belong on a list like this, but, I’m not concerned with that. My hope is to turn you on to some things you might not have seen, that you’ll probably enjoy. So let’s get to it.

1. Suicide Squad by John Ostrander, Luke McDonnell & others

Yes, this is a DC superhero (well, super-villain) comic from the Eighties. It’s also brilliant. One of the biggest influences on me, and I know Geoff Johns cites it as well. It’s about a prison in the Louisiana swamps that houses super-criminals, who are offered release if they survive a certain number of highly dangerous missions. It’s full of damaged personalities, people caught up in circumstances beyond their control that they can’t help but make worse, and the basest impulses of humanity. The central figure, for me, is the assassin Deadshot, who Ostrander turned into one of the great tragic characters in comics. A man with nothing to live for, who genuinely doesn’t care if he lives or dies. (It was my great privilege to have my first work ever in comics be a Deadshot miniseries.) I believe DC is collecting the Suicide Squad in trade paperbacks, and if so, you really should get them. I haven’t really been paying attention because I still have the ones I bought 25 years ago. No, you can’t borrow them. If you touch them, I will cut you.

2. The Cooler

It’s not perfect, but this tale of a down-and-out schlub (played by William Macy) whose bad luck is the only thing he’s got going for him, and how his fortunes finally changing for the better could actually destroy him, is riveting and definitely had some influences on SUNSET. For me, the best performance is by Alec Baldwin, as a holdover of the old days of mob-ruled Vegas, trying his best to single-handedly preserve a bygone era whose grand old casinos are being replaced by corporate monstrosities and whose old-school crooners are being pushed aside in favor of younger, slicker parodies of themselves. He’s a horrible guy, but he has a code, and he’s surrounded by even more horrible people with no honor whatsoever, so you end up rooting for him anyway. Paul Sorvino’s role is small but awesome.

3. Sleeper by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

Yeah, the guys who do Criminal, Incognito and Fatale. Their first extended collaboration was on this incredible series set firmly in the old Wildstorm Universe, about Holden Carver, a guy with the power to literally absorb pain and dish it back out. He’s working for Wildstorm’s good guy spymaster, John Lynch, and at Lynch’s behest he stages a defection to the criminal organization of the master manipulator bad guy, Tao, leaving behind friends, allies and a fiancé who all think he’s really gone bad. Only Lynch knows the truth, promising to pull him out when he’s learned what they need. Except Lynch gets shot in the head and ends up in a coma, leaving Holden in a hell of a mess. Everyone in this book is compromised, with only a few degrees separating “heroes” like Lynch and Grifter from “villains” like Genocide Jones and Miss Misery, the femme fatale who literally has to sin to survive. It’s an amazing story with a definitive ending, and if you read Fatale and haven’t read this, you need to fix that now. Don’t forget the prequel, Point Blank.

4. Justified

My wife is from North Carolina, and we love ourselves some Southern noir. This FX television series just concluded its third season, and it’s well worth checking out. Federal Marshal Raylan Givens  returns to his home state of Kentucky where he is drawn back into the local crime, intrigue and general insanity he left home to get away from years ago. The first half of the first season can be a bit uneven, but if you stick with it, you will be more than rewarded. Timothy Olyphant is joined by actors you’ll recognize from other shows like Lost and The Shield, but pretty soon you’ll forget where else you saw them and just get sucked into the story.

5. G.I Joe: Cobra by Mike Costa, Antonio Fuso and others

Here’s where I come off like a total narcissist, because I co-wrote the first fifteen-odd issues. But I mention this book for the following reasons: 1) My co-writer, Mike Costa, has been doing it solo for quite some time now, and he’s great at it. 2) It’s not just me who thinks so. No less an authority than Brian K. Vaughan has called it the best comic on the stands. Yes, THAT Brian K. Vaughan. 3) I wouldn’t be surprised if noir fans aren’t necessarily inclined to pick up a comic based on little plastic army men. But this book is very much in the noir tradition, exploring the manipulations, backstabbing and webs of lies that hold together the Cobra criminal/terrorist organization. The first few volumes deal with Chuckles, a G.I. Joe washout and master of disguise who infiltrates Cobra and ends up doing such terrible things in the name of serving the greater good it’s unclear who is more compromised, him or the psychopaths surrounding him. Honestly, I don’t get royalties from this, so I have nothing to gain from pimping it…I just think you’ll dig it.

6. Crime Does Not Pay Archives from Dark Horse

The original and most infamous crime comic of them all, Crime Does Not Pay is being collected by Dark Horse, and the early issues show vividly in a spray of arterial-blood red why it became one of the chief targets of the comic book censoring movement of the 1950s. Molls’ heads are shoved into stove burners, stoolies are dragged behind moving cars, and the perps themselves often end the tale dancing with Old Sparky in crackling detail. Hailing from the Golden Age of comics, the writing isn’t as sophisticated as the latest issue of Crime Does Not Pay, but by the standards of the era, it’s pretty damn good, and knowing that co-creator Bob Wood later went to prison for beating a woman to death in a drunken hotel room argument just adds to the lurid thrill of it all.

7. Dead Reckoning starring Humphrey Bogart and Lizabeth Scott

Bogey and Noir are practically synonymous, but this isn’t one of his films that springs immediately to mind when discussing the genre. It’s a good one, though, as Bogey plays a WWII veteran whose buddy runs off rather than receive the Medal of Honor, for fear of his checkered past coming to light. Tracking him to his hometown, Bogey discovers he’s dead, and that a mysterious femme fatale is involved. Of course, everything ends badly. One observation about watching the vintage noir films: no matter how good they are, things like hearing adult black men called “boy” serve as a jarring reminder that a lot of things about the good old days weren’t very good at all.

8. The Executor by Jon Evans & Andrea Mutti

Most of the entries in the Vertigo Crime original graphic novel line are worth checking out, but this one surprised me, both because I wasn’t familiar with the work of Jon Evans and because it has fewer trappings of traditional noir than others. But the story of a washed-up hockey player who has to return to his secret-strewn hometown when he is named executor of his high school sweetheart’s will after her suspicious death, despite not having seen her in years, pulled me in for many of the same reasons as more traditional tales of down-and-out gumshoes and cops on the edge. There’s moral compromise, femmes fatales, and a racial angle that doesn’t feel forced in for shock value or political correctness. The art by Andrea Mutti manages to be both clean and hard-hitting. Don’t overlook this one.

9. Scalped by Jason Aaron & R.M. Guerra

Okay, this isn’t exactly a low profile title; it’s won awards by the truckload. But it’s hurtling toward its conclusion, and it looks like it’s going to finish as strong as it started. The story of a Native American undercover FBI agent who returns to the reservation he grew up in to bring down the corrupt chief, every issue hits like a punch to the gut. Others have explained far more eloquently than me why this book rocks, so I’ll just remind you of that, and if you still won’t check it out, what more can I do?

10. Crime Superstories

Johnny Craig and others, EC Comics. Everyone seems to know that EC Comics were the best of their era, but the older I get, the more people I encounter who haven’t actually read them. And yes, some of the stories can seem formulaic or clichéd – often because they’ve been ripped off multiple times in the decades since – but they’re still fun and effective, and the art remains unequalled. The brilliant Johnny Craig handled the cover and lead story for most of this title’s run. He creates a smoke-filled, shadowy world of adulterous spouses, hardened criminals and wild-eyed psychopaths that feels like noir incarnate. Luckily, the EC books have been reprinted many times over the years, so it’s not hard or expensive to track these classics down.

All right, hopefully you found something there that you haven’t encountered before, unless you’re as old and nerdy as me. And hey, even if that’s the case, I know something you haven’t read, because it’s not out yet, but will be soon. Sunset, the previously mentioned OGN that Jorge Lucas and I poured our blood, sweat and impotent rage at the modern world into. It’s about Nick Bellamy, an old (but still badass) guy who, working as a Vegas legbreaker thirty years ago, pulled off the fabled “one last heist” to set himself up for life…and it worked. He framed his mobster boss and made off with the guy’s money, then lived quietly for decades, not making trouble, feeding the fitfully slumbering bloodlust inside him with the occasional beat-down of obnoxious hipsters or unwise muggers. But now his old boss is out of jail and out for revenge, and Nick will have to re-enter a life he left behind and a world that’s passed him by to save his estranged first wife and the son he hasn’t seen since infancy from the old mobster’s wrath. I hope you’ll consider pre-ordering it, or at least checking out the preview book, containing the first chapter for the bargain price of a dollar, if you’re leery about making the full commitment. If you’ve never seen a man in his seventies kill three gunsels with a paint can, a lightbulb and a bottle of drain cleaner, well, now’s your chance…and really, where else are you gonna get that, hmm?

Get to following Christos on Twitter, his website, and learn more about Sunset over here. Keep your eyes on the shadows too, kid.


  1. I am going to buy the shit out of Sunset next month. I just met Christos at a signing last week. I wish I had known he was a crime guy!

  2. Yeah, I’ll have to check that one out. Thanks for the heads up!

  3. I have nothing to add to this particular subject because I am not much of a Noir fan myself (the only thing on that list I’ve read/watched is Justified which I LOVE) – but I just wanted to quick chime in that Christos Gage is really knocking it out of the park with his work on Angel and Faith. I’m a big time Buffyverse fan – and his A&F is the best Buffyverse comic series I’ve read since the end of the TV shows.

  4. Does anyone know if we can expect any more titles from the Vertigo Crime imprint?

  5. This is an awesome feature, I love crime and noir, gonna have a good read through this and see what’s what.

  6. I love this guest column, great crime recommendations. I need to check The Cooler and Dead Reckoning