7 Top True-Crime Comics
Plus Elon Green on the Hon. Bernette Johnson, and Isle of Wight smuggling
There’s a long tradition of true-crime comic books: in the 1950s, crime comics purportedly based on real stories were selling millions of copies a month. Their often gory content led to congressional investigations, and the comic equivalent of the Hays Code, which neutered the industry for almost fifty years (and led to the dominance of the safer superhero genre). In recent years, there’s been a resurgence of true-crime comics, and the best of them take advantage of the medium to do things that either aren’t, or can’t, be done well in movies, TV or print books.
If you’re looking to explore the genre, here’s seven of the best ones to start with.
Green River Killer: A true detective mystery. Written by Jeff Jensen, art by Jonathan Case. 2011.
Jensen came to this project as a writer for Entertainment Weekly, whose father just happened to be the lead detective in the “Green River killer” case (and grandfather was on the plane skyjacked by DB Cooper).
The book centers on the period when the confessed killer, Gary Ridgway, was brought in to live in a bunker at the precinct in order to more effectively lead police to the bodies that they hadn’t found. This unusual situation, which was supposed to last for a month, went on for more than six. However, Ridgway’s fragmentary recollections lead to doubts about whether he really is the killer.
It also pulls back to the years of work that went into catching Ridgway, making it clear that most of the work was painstaking, dull data entry that took decades to pay off. The narrative benefits from the personal connection between the author and subject, with lots of telling detail that fleshes out the lead character. What’s brilliant about this book is the balance it attains between the various strands: the tension of the search for Ridgway’s victims, the years of work that went into finding Ridgway, characters having to deal with the frustration of not catching him in ways that aren't showy. Could a filmed or text or version do the same? Perhaps, but not as effortlessly as the comic does.
The book also does something I wish more media would, in the use of pop culture to establish time. If there’s a better way to tell us that it’s 1979 than having the In Search Of episode about DB Cooper on in the background, I’ve yet to see it. Later, we know it’s around 1986 when the detectives are talking about Manhunter.
The art is black and white, expressive, but not overly loose or cartoony. It can be tricky to draw the same characters at different ages and keep them recognizable, but Case pulls it off. The style and control of pacing gives an immediacy to the violence that's presented, while keeping the gore off-screen.
The Hunting Accident: A True Story of Crime and Poetry. Written by David L. Carlson, art by Landis Blair. 2017.
The Hunting Accident is another personal memoir linked to a well-known true-crime case: in this case, it serves as a coda to the story of Leopold and Loeb. The story is told mostly in flashback, as a teen in trouble with the law learns the truth about how his father — a blind poet — lost his sight, and about his time with Nathan Leopold.
The story is compelling: the father, as a teen, participates in a robbery that goes bad, and ends up blinded. Sent to prison, he becomes cellmates with Leopold (Loeb had been killed just before his arrival). The two begin a strange symbiotic relationship, where Leopold is helping the blind teen, but maybe just to help himself. For instance, Leopold learns Braille in order to teach the cellmate to read; or maybe just so he can get free books delivered, and read himself after lights out. Leopold and Loeb are so often presented as archetypes, as ideas, that seeing Leopold presented as a person in the aftermath of his famous crime is jarring.
The art has a heavily cross-hatched Edward Gorey vibe, punctuated with text sections, and is a brick of a book, bound and formatted like a Braille volume. The art isn’t detailed, but the impressionistic style suits the subject matter, and Blair does a good job at showing motion, especially during a critical passage involving a makeshift lighter. This isn’t a story I’ve seen elsewhere, and comics are an ideal medium for it: without a lot of filler, it wouldn’t be enough for a standard full-length text, but the novella-size story is perfect for a longer comic.
Treasury of 19th/20th century Murder. By Rick Geary. 1987-present.
No discussion of true-crime comics would be complete without the inclusion of Rick Geary’s long series (15 to this point, with the most recent from 2017) of true crime volumes. Geary is at his best when he’s covering lesser-known crimes: no one really needs another run through Jack the Ripper or the Black Dahlia, even if his take is better than average.
In general, Geary sticks to a “just the facts, ma’am” approach that would make for dull reading in a pure text format; here, the art breaks it up enough to be informative rather than tiring. This works best when he deals with unsolved cases, where he ends with a series of potential solutions to the mystery, an addition that makes the whole book feel like a police file to be scoured for clues. In this vein, my favorites are “Lover's Lane: The Hall-Mills Mystery” about a 1920s case in New Jersey, and “The Mystery of Mary Rogers,” about the death that inspired Poe’s “Mystery of Marie Roget” (that’s the one without the killer ape).
What makes these books work better than they could as text pieces is Geary’s eye for detail. The simple lines give the impression of a portrait in the Wall Street Journal, but there’s an enormous amount of architectural and period detail, and he isn’t afraid to include maps and diagrams, or even show the routes people take through those maps. I’ve read enough books about Lizzie Borden to know that the upstairs of the Borden house had a weird layout, but seeing it on the page makes the set-up a lot clearer (and raises more questions about what was going on in that house).
Geary is an award-winning cartoonist, but the books don’t feel too much like comics. Every panel of art switches characters or framing, meaning that he never takes advantage of the comic art trick of implying motion between panels. As such, the books feel more like illustrated prose than comics. Still, a quality 30-minute read about a case I’ve never heard of before (“The Bloody Benders,” for instance) is often exactly what I’m looking for, and Geary is a pro at delivering just that.
Kent State. Derf Backderf. 2020.
Backderf shows up on a lot of lists for his 2012 memoir My Friend Dahmer (later a movie), about his high-school friendship with the serial killer. The book is well-executed, but I’ve always been uncomfortable with the extent to which it portrays Dahmer as someone we can or should understand. For me, it occupies a similar place to Lolita: technically brilliant, but largely appealing to the prurient interest. As with Lolita, the author has shown the same technical brilliance in another work. For Nabokov, that’s Pale Fire; for Backderf, it’s Kent State.
In Kent State, Backderf makes a convincing argument for the rapidly growing campus in the midst of conservative rural Ohio as a microcosm of the tensions in the nation. He follows groups of students who will be caught up in the shooting as they go about their lives in the shadow of the increasing military presence. He also gives us some perspective from the other side, showing how a tragedy like Kent State could have happened, and isn’t afraid to assign blame.
Backderf’s art is heavily detailed but cartoony, exaggerated for effect. That’s valuable in a story like this, where the caricature-esque faces make it easy to tell one student protester from another. Early on, Backderf depicts his younger self reading Mad magazine (a personal connection to both Kent State and Dahmer is quite the early life), and the influence of Mad on the art and the lettering shines through.
Most of the other books on this list can be comfortably read in a sitting: doing so with Kent State would require a very comfy chair and probably a catheter. That’s not a bad thing: it’s eminently readable, and moves quickly. He also seems to have picked up some tricks from Geary, making good use of maps and diagrams when they're needed.
Becoming unbecoming. Una. 2016.
From one perspective, this is a memoir of growing up in the shadow of the Yorkshire Ripper. But it’s really much more about the set of societal assumptions and misogynies that allowed the Ripper to go uncaught for so long. Una (a pseudonym, for reasons described in the book) argues that the violence against women exhibited by the Ripper was only possible because of the pervasive violence and misogyny faced by British women of the time.
The book veers back and forth between Una’s adolescence, the investigation into the Ripper, and polemic. But when the polemic is as informed as Una’s is, and contextualized within her own experiences, it gains extra weight. The art is simple, with occasional use of collage and reproductions of newspapers, but effective. This is one case where a more polished approach might have been been too much. As it is, parts look and read a little like a fairy tale, and the contrast makes the actual story even more upsetting. It also does something we might want to see a lot more of in true crime, really centering the victims, not just as people, but within a societal context.
From Hell. Written by Alan Moore, art by Eddie Campbell. 1989.
Okay, I know I said earlier that no one needs another run through Jack the Ripper, but Alan Moore (Watchmen and V for Vendetta, among many seminal works) is the premier stylist of comics for a reason, and his take on anything is worth a look. Moore isn’t really concerned with who the Ripper was — he follows Stephen Knight's Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (1984) in naming doctor William Gull as the killer — but is much more interested in power structures within British society. Knight’s argument that the killings were carried out by a combination of the Royal Family and the Freemasons is wild, to say the least, but Moore uses it as a jumping-off point. Suppose that all the conspiracy theories were true — what does that world look like? What would it mean to discover that satanic cults and human sacrifice were part of the fabric of your society? For Moore, the Ripper killings are a way to explore that concept in a comic that’s part true crime, part imagined, all in the service of a horror narrative.
Moore is notorious for the details in his scripts, which lay out every detail of every panel, running to far more than the actual length of the book (for comparison, the most recent edition of From Hell runs almost 600 pages). There aren’t that many artists who can cope with it effectively, but Campbell is among them. The art is sketchy and detailed in turns, as needed for the story, and succeeds in both making the action clear, setting the desired oppressive tone, and managing the pacing of the story, something that’s always difficult in a comic.
This one is regarded as a classic for a reason, and if you haven’t picked it up, it's worth the read.
Torso. Written by Brian Michael Bendis and Marc Andreyko, art by Bendis. 1999.
Bendis is best known today as the creator of superheroes like Jessica Jones and Miles Morales (the other Spider-Man), but he made his name as an indie creator in Cleveland, making books like this one, about a post-Untouchables Eliot Ness leading the investigation into a serial killer in the 30s.
This is one of those books that’s been in Hollywood development hell since it came out (Paul Greengrass is attached to the most recent iteration), and it’s clear why. Bendis and Andreyko aren’t afraid to add in scenes and details from outside the historical record to make the story more compelling, and keep the action moving. The presence of Ness — who’s generally more akin to Pecos Bill than an actual person in the public imagination — as someone in over his head is also a big part of the appeal.
The art is serviceable: Bendis is a better writer than an artist, but he knows it, and hides a lot of detail behind black ink to give the impression of a crime noir. Like The Hunting Accident (and past comic greats like Jack Kirby), he also makes frequent use of collage, bringing in news reports and photographs in a way that’s just not possible in other mediums.
Where Bendis really shines, though, is in the dialogue. The rapid-fire back-and-forth he gives his characters has invited comparisons to David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin. Sometimes, that means that his characters — in this book, his two lead detectives — sound alike (there’s more Yiddish than you’d expect from Depression-era Cleveland), but it’s undeniably entertaining.
Dan Cassino is a professor of Government and Law at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and has been reading true crime since 3rd grade, when his grandma really wanted to talk about Fatal Vision with someone.
If you aren’t now saving your tax refund to buy some of these titles, might you consider a paid subscription to Best Evidence? Your sub dollars let us pay fantastic contributors like Professor Cassino — and fund series, like Susan Howard’s upcoming look at the Edgar nominees. Plus, it makes a great gift. — SDB
Still waiting for Elon Green’s Last Call to hit your library or mail slot? Pass the time with “The Dissenter,” Green’s piece from The Appeal earlier this month about former Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson. The piece opens with a “withering” dissent written by Johnson, that court’s first Black woman justice, that took aim at racist sentencing practices, then zooms out into a biography of Johnson:
Johnson, 77, retired at the end of last year. She was often a sole voice arguing for justice. It was a lonely position, for which she fought ferociously. That the chief’s enemies, on and off the court, had for decades been so intent on limiting her influence—even colluding to prevent her from assuming the position of chief justice—made her accomplishments all the more impressive.
Green’s writing has a way of reminding you about institutional biases that fills the reader with righteous, productive rage (this is in fact a compliment!) and “The Dissenter” is right on brand there. — SDB
Five UK fishermen got over a hundred years in prison for cocaine smuggling — but did they actually do it? Anna Moore digs into the case of the “Freshwater Five” for the Guardian; here’s an excerpt:
The men, now known as the Freshwater Five, were not typical multimillion-pound drug smugglers. They had no previous convictions relating to drugs or dishonesty, no forensic evidence linked them to the cocaine, and a Proceeds of Crime Act inquiry assessed their gains from criminality at zero. They did not lead lavish lifestyles, and how they planned to distribute such a quantity of drugs was not made clear. The case has rocked the island, dividing friends, family and fishermen. While Birtwistle and Payne are out on licence, the remaining three men are nine years into 24-year sentences. Now new evidence means their case is coming back to the appeal court, a chance for all five to clear their names.
The piece has a lot of the things I like in a true-crime longread — a mystery; “bickering” over lobster; the phrase “rufty-tufty” — and you can check it out for yourself right here. — SDB
Friday on Best Evidence: I don’t know what we’ve got on tap to talk about yet; I do know I hope you’ll come by and find out.