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An Introduction to Crime-Inspired
Graphic Novels and Comics

By Joshua Corin

It’s 1962 in Milan and a former fashion model, Angela Guissana, is looking for material for a small publishing house she and her sister Luciana have opened.  She studies the reading tastes of the local commuters and concludes that thrillers—such as those featuring criminal mastermind Fantomas—are in.

Rather than hire someone else to forge ahead with their new thriller, she and her sister write the book themselves. To increase its appeal, they present the book as a fumetto, an Italian variation on the comic book format that has recently proven so popular in Europe with Tintin and Tex Willer—also thrillers. They make sure that each volume can fit inside a businessman’s coat pocket.

Thus, the Guissana sisters create Diabolik, which has in the 60 years since its inception, sold more than 150 million copies.

Diabolik is a mysterious master-of-disguise who crisscrosses the continent, stopping every now and then in some exotic locale to rob the local criminal element. He does so without apology or remorse, and if a few innocents get hurt along the way, so be it. However, Diabolik does receive occasional help along the way from his on-again, off-again lover, Eva Kant, but it’s clear—especially in the early stories—that romance for him is merely a means to an end.  Through it all, he’s pursued by lawful, relentless Inspector Ginko, whose black-and-white worldview harbors no mercy for anti-heroes like Diabolik.

By the late 1960s, Angela and Luciana would step back from the day-to-day work on Diabolik, hiring ghostwriters for the scripts and, in 1969, a journeyman illustrator, Sergio Zaniboni for the art—Zaniboni continues to remain the book’s primary penciler to this day, having now drawn nearly 800 of its issues.

Angela and Luciana Guissana

It’s vital to note here that the success of a comic book thriller Diabolik is not an abnormality.

If you surveyed the top-selling comic books produced outside of North America, you’d learn that nearly all of them fit into the thriller genre. One Piece, the bestselling manga in Japan, is a pirate adventure story; Japan’s oldest continuing manga series, Golgo 13, is a spy thriller. The bestselling British comic book, not counting the quasi-porn of Viz, is 2000 AD, internationally known for one of its feature characters, the crimefighter Judge Dredd.

Joshua Corin

While the history of the American comic book from the 1930s on is intertwined with superheroes, and while American superheroes have long been a popular import abroad, the history of the international comic book is decidedly lacking in tights and a cape. The primary subject of the international comic book is adventure—and its protagonists often do battle in the shadows.

And here we have the primary subject of this new column: Getting Graphic. Over the next few months, we’ll ride along with the gangsters and super-spies that populate international comic books.

Because popular culture is America’s most pervasive export, it’s easy to conflate primacy for exclusivity—but the truth, as always, is so very much more interesting.

About the Author:

Joshua Corin is the author of six novels (most recently American Lies from Random House) and a bunch of comic books (most recently Spider-Man/Deadpool from Marvel).  He served as the awards chair for ITW for five years.

To learn more about Joshua and his work, please visit his website.