Greatest Detectives in Comic Book History

Batman: The Killing Joke greatest detectives

When one thinks of comic books, most think of superheroes, muscled men and women in tights who solve problems with their fists. And yet, detectives have been and remain part of the medium. In fact, Batman himself made his debut in 1939’s Detective Comics #27, a series that continues publication today. 

And yet, not all detectives have the same keen eye for detail and analytical mind to stand out in the pages of four-color adventure stories. These greatest detectives, who all debuted in or have long appeared in comic books, have the skills to solve crime in a universe filled with outlandish criminals. 

1. Batman (DC Comics) 

Batman (DC Comics)
Image Credit: DC Comics.

Is every Batman story a crime caper? No. Does Batman sometimes solve problems with his fists or his wonderful toys? Sure. But Batman is canonically the World’s Greatest Detective and for every story that fails to take advantage of his deductive powers, another shows the Dark Knight following the clues. In stories such as Batman: Year One and The Long Halloween, readers see the razor-sharp mind underneath the pointy ears, which make the Caped Crusader a formidable opponent to Gotham City’s underworld. Credit Batman for not only being a great detective but also for training some of the greatest detectives in comic books. More on them in a moment…

2. Ralph and Sue Dibny (DC Comics)

Ralph and Sue Dibny (DC Comics)
Image Credit: DC Comics.

While investigating the secrets of the world’s greatest contortionists, Ralph Dibny learned about Gingold, a rare fruit juice enjoyed by all masters of the art. Ralph used a concentrated version of Gingold to give himself super-stretching abilities, taking the name Elongated Man. But Ralph deployed that extreme agility as part of his detective work, which he underwent alongside his loving wife, Sue. Even after Ralph and Sue shuffled off this mortal coil, the couple reunited in the afterlife to become Ralph and Sue Dibny, the Ghost Detectives. 

3. Tony Chu (Chew, Image Comics)

Tony Chu (Chew - Image Comics)
Image Credit: Image Comics.

Most of the characters on this list have some special power that aids their sleuthing, none as strange as the skills enjoyed by FDA Agent Tony Chu, hero of the Image Comics series Chew. As a “cibopath,” Tony can read psychic energy from anything he eats. By munching on all manner of food, which sometimes includes corpses, Tony cracks every case thrown at him by writer John Layman and artist Rob Guillory. These cases may be stomach-churning, but they’re never in bad taste. 

4. The Question (DC Comics)

The Question
Image Credit: DC Comics.

For the first part of his adult life, aggressive reporter Victor Sage delivered pitiless punishment to bad guys as the Question, a faceless vigilante in a blue hat and trench coat. After a near-death experience drove him to change his ways and embrace Eastern philosophy, the Question improved his already impressive investigative skills, which he uses to fight corruption in Hub City. Years later, Vic trained former Gotham City detective Renee Montoya in the same techniques, preparing her to become the new Question after Sage’s death. 

5. Misty Knight (Marvel Comics)

Misty Knight (Marvel Comics)
Image Credit: Marvel Comics.

With her robotic arm and no-nonsense attitude, Misty Knight knows how to handle herself in a fight. And it’s a good thing, too, as Knight often finds herself in trouble when she solves the crimes that authorities ignore. Alongside her friend and enforcer Colleen Wing, Misty runs Knightwing Restorations Ltd., a private investigation service housed in New York City. Misty brings a hard edge to her detective work, uncovering hidden truths and battling the baddies when things get tough. 

6. Jessica Jones (Marvel Comics)

Jessica Jones (Marvel Comics)
Image Credit: Marvel Comics.

Jessica Jones never wanted to be a detective, initially fighting crime as the costumed crusader Jewel. But when her superhero career ended on a tragic note, Jones realized she couldn’t leave people helpless. Instead, she started Alias Investigations, a P.I. firm devoted to helping those who can’t get help anywhere else. Despite those lofty ideals, Jones’s work often brings her into the world of superheroes, taking cases for Daredevil, Luke Cage, and others. 

7. Batgirl (DC Comics) 

Batgirl (DC Comics)
Image Credit: DC Comics.

Barbara Gordon counts as teachers two of the finest minds in the DC Universe, her mentor Batman and her father Commissioner Gordon. A love of adventure and a rebellious streak may have compelled her to don the cape and cowl as Batgirl. Still, Barbara’s brain and prowess as a researcher allowed her to disrupt mafia operations and hunt down villains like Penguin and Catwoman. 

8. Rorschach (DC Comics) 

Rorschach (DC Comics)
Image Credit: DC Comics.

Rorschach might be the most unhinged and cruel of the Minutemen the crimefighting team at the center of Alan Moore and David Gibbons’s groundbreaking series Watchmen. But he’s also the smartest of the group, at least short of the world’s smartest man, Adrien Veidt. After all, it’s Rorschach who first takes notice of the cape killer after the death of the Comedian, and it's Rorschach who follows the clues to convict Veidt as the killer. Of course, the deductive abilities that made Rorschach such a powerhouse also reinforced his merciless worldview. 

9. Detective Chimp (DC Comics)

Detective Chimp (DC Comics)
Image Credit: DC Comics.

Detective Chimp knows that people laugh at him. He spent years as part of a sideshow act and performed tricks with Rex the Wonder Dog. Those degrading theatrics hid the mighty mind of Bobo the Chimp, an intellect much greater than those of his evolutionary descendants. Detective Chimp turns people’s assumptions against them, luring suspects into a false sense of security that invites them to lower their guard. And when that doesn’t work, Bobo simply deploys the facts as he sees them, overcoming baddies with the force of a better argument. 

10. Jim Gordon (DC Comics)

Jim Gordon (DC Comics)
Image Credit: DC Comics.

In the alternate universe story Injustice, in which a despotic Superman sparks a superhero civil war, Gotham City Police Commissioner Jim Gordon warns his daughter Barbara against putting on her Batgirl suit to join. When Barbara asks how he figured out her caped alter-ego, he responds with frustration. “How?!?” he retorts. “I’m a detective!”

In fairness to Barbara, it’s easy to forget Gordon’s job before becoming Commissioner. But even while meeting the demands of his desk job, Gordon shows a keen awareness of the facts, so sharp that he hasn’t divined Batman’s secret identity only because he doesn’t know the man behind the mask. 

11. Spider-Woman (Marvel Comics)

Spider-Woman (Marvel Comics)
Image Credit: Marvel Comics.

Marvel commissioned comics about a character called Spider-Woman not because they saw a need for the hero but to prevent others from encroaching on their copyright. As mercenary as that genesis may have been, Spider-woman (aka Jessica Drew) soon grew into a compelling character, apart from Peter Parker. When not leaping around New York City in a red and yellow costume, Jessica has been a double agent infiltrating the evil organization HYDRA and later a private investigator for hire. Even when returning to regular superhero duty for the Avengers and other teams, Spider-Woman put her detective skills to use, solving problems that require more than muscles or powers. 

12. Martian Manhunter (DC Comics) 

Martian Manhunter (DC Comics)
Image Credit: DC Comics.

If he wanted to, J'Onn J'Onzz could be the greatest detective on Earth, cracking every case he encounters under his human guise as John Jones. After all, in addition to super-strength, near invulnerability, and flight, the Martian Manhunter can read minds, he can change his shape, turn invisible, and phase through solid objects. In short, he can see even the most minuscule clue and uncover the deepest secrets. It’s only J'Onn respect for human dignity that prevents him from violating dignity, so he restricts himself to using just his superior mind to find evil-doers. 

13. Madrox the Multiple Man (Marvel)

Madrox the Multiple Man (Marvel)
Image Credit: Marvel Comics.

For the first few years of his existence, the mutant Jamie Madrox stayed in the background of X-Men and Fantastic Four comics, using his ability to create endless duplicates of himself to complete mundane tasks in various labs. When writer Peter David started working on the character in the pages of X-Factor, Madrox gained the personality of a prank-loving trickster and later a private detective. Using his duplicates to cover more ground than the average gumshoe, Madrox gets to the bottom of every case with a twinkle in his eye and a smirk on his face. 

14. Zelda Pettibone (Aftershock Comics)

Zelda Pettibone (Aftershock Comics)
Image Credit: Aftershock Comics.

Zelda Pettibone doesn’t need to figure out who is behind the mass killings in New York City. She knows that it’s Maniac Harry, the knife-wielding slasher who cuts his way through the big city in the series Maniac of New York. No, Zelda deploys her cleverness against the bureaucratic red tape that stands in her way and prevents government workers from addressing the City’s biggest problems. Written by Elliott Kalan and drawn by Andrea Mutti, Maniac of New York provides a more grounded look at detective work, outside of the immortal monster at its center. 

15. Robin (DC Comics) 

Robin (Tim Drake) (DC Comics)
Image Credit: DC Comics.

All the young people who operated under the name Robin have the skills to be a first-class private eye, given the training they received under Batman. But of the Robins, Tim Drake — the third kid to serve alongside Batman — stands out. Tim won the job as a thirteen-year-old when he discovered Batman’s secret identity and the truth about the previous Robin, Jason Todd. When he started wearing the Robin mask, Tim used computers, books, and all other resources to discern clues. In time, Tim’s abilities will even surpass those of his mentor. 

16. Hannibal King (Marvel Comics)

Hannibal King (Marvel Comics)
Image Credit: Marvel Comics.

Every detective on this list uses their ingenuity to track down evil-doers, but few have stakes as great as Hannibal King. Hannibal King sniffs out vampires, the bloodsuckers who hide among humans and prey upon unsuspecting victims. King does this work because he is also a vampire and fights to prevent others from following the same horrific fate. Movie fans may know King as the wise-talker played by Ryan Reynolds in Blade: Trinity, but the comic book version of King is a more sedate and clever man, who augments his dark powers and mental might with a host of gadgets. 

17. Sandman (DC Comics) 

Sandman (Wesley Dodds) (DC Comics)
Image Credit: DC Comics.

Modern readers know the Sandman as the goth-looking Lord of the Dreaming in Neil Gaiman’s acclaimed series, but DC Comics’s first Sandman was far more pedestrian. Plagued by vivid dreams about suffering and wrongdoing, the diminutive Wesley Dodds armed himself with a gas gun and mask and took to the streets as the Sandman. Using the intuition provided to him in dream states, Dodds uncovered all manner of wrong-doing among the upper classes, proving that no one escapes justice. 

18. Bishop (Marvel Comics)

Bishop Marvel Comics
Image Credit: Marvel Comics.

Lucas Bishop made his debut as a musclebound time traveler with a giant gun. Despite the “shoot first, ask questions never” quality of his first appearance, Bishop soon established himself as a brilliant detective. Whenever mutants face a mystery that cannot be solved, Bishop comes to the rescue, asking incisive questions to get at the truth. 

19. Dick Tracy (Fantagraphics)

Dick Tracy (Fantagraphics)
Image Credit: Fantagraphics.

Some might think Dick Tracy has a pretty easy job. After all, every bad guy in Tracy’s world looks like a bad guy, brought to life as unforgettable grotesques by the hand of artist Chester Gould. It doesn’t take more than a glance at the wrinkled Pruneface or the muted Mumbles for Tracy to figure out whodunnit. Ocular evidence aside, Tracy still needs to do good old detective work to uncover the bad guys’ plans and throw off their plots, often in two-fisted fashion. 

20. The Flash (DC Comics) 

The Flash (Barry Allen) (DC Comics)
Image Credit: DC Comics.

Barry Allen doesn’t often get mentioned in conversations about comic book detectives, and it’s easy to see why. With his bright red costume and super-speed, he seems more like a traditional superhero than a cerebral powerhouse. However, when he’s not racing around Central City, Barry Allen works as a forensic scientist, working crime scenes to find details about the latest supervillain activities. He may be faster than the average gumshoe, but Barry Allen still has to slow down and search for clues. 

21. John Constantine (DC Comics) 

John Constantine (DC Comics)
Image Credit: DC Comics.

No one doubts John Constantine’s mental might or his mastery of the dark arts. Still, most would call him a con artist before calling him a detective. To be sure, Constantine most often puts his knowledge to work for his own ends, as when he swindled a trio of demons into curing his terminal cancer. But that level of skill and knowledge reveals the mind of a detective, even if he isn’t always using it on the side of the angels. 

22. Joe Golem (Dark Horse Comics)

Joe Golem (Dark Horse Comics)
Image Credit: Dark Horse Comics.

The brainchild of Hellboy creator Mike Mignola and novelist Christopher Golden, Joe Golem is a detective who specializes in the occult. Unlike Constantine, Golem devotes his knowledge to helping people plagued by forces they cannot understand. Golem understands these forces because he, as his name suggests, is himself one of them, albeit now in human form. Working artist Peter Bergting and colorist Michelle Madsen, Mignola and Golden keep the feeling of classic hardboiled fiction while exploring the depths of the supernatural. 

23. The Dead Boy Detectives (DC Comics)

The Dead Boy Detectives (DC Comics)
Image Credit: DC Comics.

The kids who would become the Dead Boy Detectives made their debut in the pages of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, as ghosts who come to haunt an English boarding school after Lucifer absconds from Hades. Charles Rowland and Edwin Paine decided to stay on Earth after the Sandman restored order, using their spectral abilities to help people in need. The boys don’t have the same experience or wisdom as others on this list, which limits their crime-fighting powers. But they make up for it with endless enthusiasm and empathy. 

24. The Shadow (Dynamite Entertainment)

The Shadow
Image Credit: Dynamite Entertainment

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows! Originally a radio character performed by Orson Welles, the mysterious Shadow has been a mainstay in comics for decades. In addition to the power to cloud the minds of his victims, the Shadow employs a variety of pseudonyms — most famously Lamont Cranston, but also Kent Allard, Henry Arnaud, and others — as well as a team of assistants, including cabbie Shrevvy and communications expert Burbank to work as one of the world's greatest detectives. With these tools at his disposal, the Shadow makes quick work of every puzzle, hunting down the evildoer and reciting his famous warning: “The weed of crime bears bitter fruit! Crime does not pay.”

25. John Hartigan (Dark Horse Comics) 

John Hartigan (Dark Horse Comics)
Image Credit: Dark Horse Comics.

Basin City is a tough town and it needs a tough cop like John Hartigan, one of the central characters of Frank Miller’s noir series Sin City. An older man with a lot of miles behind him and an x-shaped scar on his face to prove it, Hartigan maintains a hard exterior to protect the softness inside of him. That soft side makes Hartigan loyal and incorruptible, even when facing pure evil, like the vile son of Basin City politician Senator Roark.  

Author: Joe George

Title: Pop Culture Writer

Expertise: Film, Television, Comic Books, Marvel, Star Trek, DC

Bio:

Joe George is a pop culture writer whose work has appeared at Den of Geek, The Progressive Magazine, Think Christian, Sojourners, Men's Health, and elsewhere. His book The Superpowers and the Glory: A Viewer's Guide to the Theology of Superhero Movies was published by Cascade Books in 2023. He is a member of the North Carolina Film Critic's Association.