Hard-Boiled Friday

by  in Comic News Comment
Hard-Boiled Friday

The funny thing was, it all started for me because of a bad review.

And it was scathing. Make no mistake. When the Comics Journal reviewed Eclipse the Magazine #1, long ago, they eviscerated it. They were snotty about every strip in the book but one they singled out for special attention was Max Allan Collins and Terry Beatty’s Ms. Tree. They hated everything about it. It was tired. It was cliche. It was all sorts of terrible things.

But in order to review it, they had to describe it. And honestly, from the description, the premise sounded pretty cool to me. Mike Hammer finally marries his hot secretary and then he’s murdered on their wedding night, and she has to find his killer. Spillane — with a twist.

That was what sold it for me. Because literally the month before, at a secondhand bookstore on Mt. Hood, I’d discovered Mickey Spillane. I’d spent $1.50 on six Mike Hammer paperbacks and fallen completely in love with them.

I spent most of 1980 and 1981 wallowing in hard-boiled mystery fiction — Hammett, Chandler, John D. MacDonald — but somehow I’d never gotten around to Spillane. Honestly I think I was being snooty about it; everything I’d heard suggested the books were junk. Travis McGee was as low as I was willing to go.

On the other hand, these were cheap (a quarter each!) and the covers looked cool and the paperbacks looked to be the only thing to get me through an otherwise miserable family vacation, so I figured what the hell, I’d risk a buck and a half. I took them back to where we were staying and settled in with My Gun Is Quick….

…And didn’t get out of the chair for the rest of the weekend. Saturday was My Gun Is Quick, One Lonely Night, and Vengeance is Mine; Sunday was Kiss Me Deadly, The Girl Hunters and The Twisted Thing. I was hooked hard.

Yeah, the writing style was as blunt as I’d heard, but what all those sniffy assessments of Spillane left out was the sheer adrenaline, the emotional power of the prose. A Mike Hammer novel is a headlong rush towards an explosion. There are no pauses; the books start fast and get faster.

Plus Spillane could plot a whodunit. My Gun Is Quick has, I think, one of the best-constructed mystery plots I’ve ever read. Yeah, Hammer was a thug compared to Spade or Marlowe, but he was a smart thug, he could deduce motives and follow clues. And for me it’s not a real mystery without some deductive reasoning in there somewhere.

In the years since, I’ve found that Spillane is one of those guys where there’s no middle ground. You either are on board for the ride or you’re not. You willingly enter his world and accept its conventions, or you shouldn’t pick up his books at all. Sort of like Westerns, or superheroes, or any kind of genre fiction for that matter: there’s a certain amount of playing along that’s necessary to enjoy the experience.

Clearly the Journal was not interested in playing along with Ms. Tree. But I was, kind of, especially since I saw the review so soon after my Spillane binge. It sounded cool.

I finally got to see the Ms. Tree strip for myself, on one of my pilgrimages to the hipster bookstore in downtown Portland. (The same place I found Star*Reach and MediaScene and — irony!– The Comics Journal.) I flipped through the “Ms. Tree” pages and was disappointed that it was the last installment.

So I didn’t buy the magazine. I regretted that decision for years afterward, especially since I thought that cover was the greatest thing I’d ever seen from Paul Gulacy. (It’s still a favorite of mine.)

I was kind of drifting in and out of buying comics, then; I’d sold off most of my books in an effort to generate some quick cash, a depressing turn of events I don’t want to go into here (I already told that story.) But every so often I’d wander into the drugstore and look through the racks, maybe skim a couple of Bat books just to kind of catch up on what was going on. And sometimes, if I had a couple of bucks, I’d cave in and buy something.

One of those times, I saw this waiting for me. No skimming the book in the store this time — I grabbed it and bought it.

I didn’t even stop to think about it — remember, these were the long-ago days before there were such things as regularly scheduled trade-paperback collections, and comics shops themselves were a pretty newfangled idea in ’82. Most of the time, the rule was that if you missed it on the stands, that was the ball game; it was down to haunting secondhand bookstores and magazine dealers praying you got lucky enough to find at least a couple of the parts to a multi-part story. I’d been annoyed with myself for missing out on Ms. Tree the first time and I wasn’t going to let it happen again.

And I really liked it. Collins’ story was classic tough-private-eye stuff, and the art from Terry Beatty was evocative without being showy, and meticulous without being overworked.

It was a terrific package, as well; in addition to the lead story, there was also a chatty intro/lettercol from Collins, a pin-up from Frank Miller, and — my favorite extra — a “Mike Mist Minute Mist-ery” that challenged the reader to solve the murder of “Harry Roth” of “The Comics Enquirer.” Apparently I wasn’t the only one that took some exception to the Journal‘s bad review. They say living well is the best revenge.

Anyway, I was on board. I tried hard to keep up with the book, despite spotty distribution and a lack of comics shops where I was living at the time. Ms. Tree changed publishers a couple of times, too, which made it more of a challenge.

Mostly I was able to hang in there, though, and I really loved the duotone approach to the color that came with the move to Aardvark-Vanaheim. Terry Beatty did extraordinary things with it, and I was awed at his skill at doing it all by hand. In the course of my years kicking around the edges of commercial art and illustration, I’ve stripped negatives and hand-cut rubylith for “black-plus-one-color” printing, and it’s really goddamn hard. The idea of doing an entire 22-page comic book that way was daunting in those pre-Photoshop days, believe me.

I became an evangelist for Ms. Tree and pushed the books on anyone and everyone I knew who liked mysteries, until I made the mistake of loaning them to a girl I knew who’d read the first Eclipse magazine arc and enjoyed it. She ‘lost’ them (I’m convinced that she sold them for drug money; she did eventually end up as a junkie.) The episode cured me of loaning out single issues. I’m still a little bitter about the loss of those books, and I am, to this day, picking away at replacing them, one eBay lot at a time.

Shortly thereafter, I moved up here to Seattle. I was getting back into comics for real by this time and Ms. Tree was the first one I put on a reserve list at my new comics shop, when I found a retailer that I liked. And I was delighted to see that Max Collins had signed on to write Batman as well.

He drew the unfortunate assignment of doing the post-Crisis revamp of Jason Todd, and though I quite liked what he did, other writers came on afterwards and really screwed it up. But let the record show that turning the Jason Todd Robin into a jerk was NOT what Collins did. That happened afterward. The Collins version of Jason had rough edges, but he wasn’t the asshole that the character became under Jim Starlin’s tenure.

Max Collins’ time on Batman was further marred by artist problems… for whatever reason, no one seemed willing to stay on the series. Chris Warner did an issue, Ross Andru did an issue, Dave Cockrum did a couple of issues, but the look of the book never really seemed to gell. At any rate, it didn’t last. I was disappointed to see him go, and not only because he was one of the few writers ever to work on Batman that actually understood how to plot an honest-to-God mystery that plays fair with the reader and still is entertaining to read. There had been a real sense of fun about Collins’ take on Batman, which actually may have been his downfall. In the wake of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight and Year One, the one thing everyone seemed to be sure of in 1987 was that Batman should NEVER be fun. Batman was SERIOUS BUSINESS.

Oddly, the thing that Max Collins was best-known for in comics, breathing new life into Dick Tracy, I never got to see. No papers ever seemed to carry it where I lived.

But I did get to see some of his novels. The nice thing about a Max Collins comic is that it usually comes with a Collins letter column or a Collins text page, and in the course of that, he’ll cheerfully catch you up on all his current projects. So I knew he wrote novels and I had even bought one of the Nolan books when I’d happened across it at a secondhand shop.

It was okay, but I didn’t like it enough to go find all the others. I did, however, get a kick out of the little in-jokes and comic book references scattered throughout — Nolan’s young friend Jon is a comics geek and aspiring cartoonist.

It was around this time that the Dick Tracy movie with Warren Beatty hit theaters, and the bonus that came with that was that it put a lot of Tracy tie-in books on the shelves. And some of them were from Max Collins. Finally I’d get to see what everyone was talking about.

I wasn’t disappointed. The Tracy movie was okay, but the novelization from Max Collins was terrific. He followed it up with two more original Tracy novels that were just as good, Dick Tracy Goes to War and Dick Tracy Meets His Match, as well as a wonderful collection of stories he co-edited with Martin Greenberg, Dick Tracy: The Secret Files.

These are all well worth looking for, if you haven’t already seen them.

And there were some other projects for DC, as well. Wild Dog, again in collaboration with Terry Beatty, was a very different take on the masked vigilante than what we were used to.

I don’t know why it wasn’t more successful. Maybe it was a little too realistic; the series seemed to be predicated on the idea of doing Charles Bronson’s Death Wish as a superhero comic. I enjoyed it, and I especially enjoyed the follow-up serial that ran in Action Comics Weekly, but it wasn’t really a big hit. I think the naturalistic approach might have hurt a little; superhero readers are trained for huge, over-the-top, operatic stories. Wild Dog, with its deliberately unglamorous approach to the superhero vigilante, must have looked too pedestrian.

But always first in my affections among Max Collins creations was Ms. Tree, who kept chugging right along. The pistol-packing, tough-talking lady P.I. was a big hit, and certainly the only successful crime book in comics that dared to do it without costumes or shared-universe crap or superpowered antics of any kind. Even Daredevil and the Punisher, for all their ballyhoo about “reviving noir in comics,” couldn’t claim that. Marvel tried jumping on the tough-girl detective bandwagon briefly with Dakota North…

…but mostly wound up embarrassing themselves. Dakota was a poser and we all knew it. Certainly Collins and Beatty knew it; it didn’t take them long to run this ad in response.

Best response ever!

This is not to say that Ms. Tree ignored popular tricks to generate reader interest… but the stunts were good stunts. There were crossovers here and there, for example, but still strictly P.I. stuff, and Collins and Beatty were always careful to keep their girl in character and the situations plausible.

But the monthly book was where the action was. In addition to the best letter column in comics — it was a message-board community in print — somewhere along the line they’d picked up the reprint rights to Pete Morisi’s Johnny Dynamite, which was one of the toughest, coolest strips I’d ever run across; and vastly preferable to the lame backups like “The Scythe” that Eclipse had put in there.

They really seemed to be hitting a groove on the book, which is why I was horrified to hear that it was getting canceled with #50, a story that was rumored to be “The Death of Ms. Tree.” Say it ain’t so, fellas!

Well, the story turned out to be a NEAR-death experience. And so did cancellation. Ms. Tree was moving to DC, and getting a whole new format.

I was a little sad that it was only going to be quarterly, but they were HUGE quarterlies, and done-in-one. The backups were good too, while they lasted.

Unfortunately, it didn’t last all that long. There were eight quarterly issues and then a couple of specials — ten in all. And that really WAS the end of Ms. Tree.

Well, it had been a good run. Fifteen years. Hell, that’s longer than the whole Silver Age.

Certainly, it wasn’t the end of Collins/Beatty detective stuff. Johnny Dynamite got re-imagined as an occult detective strip set in Las Vegas…

Because, really, where better to beat the devil than Sin City?

And Collins teamed with Ed Barreto to give us a revamped Mike Danger, taking Mickey Spillane’s original comic-book tough guy and putting him in a science-fiction milieu.

(I think of these books as being from “Collins’ Psychotronic Period.”) Mike Danger was easily the best thing that came out of Tekno-Comics-slash-Big Entertainment, a short-lived publishing venture in the 90’s. It only lasted twenty-one issues, though, and that included being canceled and re-started.

Collins even found time to check in on Batman one more time.

Scar of the Bat was an entertaining Elseworlds that put Batman in the world of the Untouchables, taking on Al Capone.

But it wasn’t Ms. Tree. I still missed her, damn it.

I actually got to tell Max Collins this myself in 2001, at the San Diego Comic-Con. I was doing press for CBR (really, I was — look) and I bumped into him in the pro lounge. I told him how much I’d enjoyed his speech the night before — he’d accepted the Eisner Hall of Fame Award on behalf of the late Chester Gould, and had talked about what Dick Tracy had given not only to comics but also private-eye fiction in general. Mr. Collins was gracious and appreciative, and emboldened by this, I asked him if there were any plans to bring back my favorite lady P.I.

“She’ll be back,” he assured me, and added that there were TV and movie people sniffing around. This didn’t surprise me since I’d always thought “I, For An Eye” seemed like a natural for the big screen.

Well, it didn’t happen. We got Road To Perdition instead, which in fairness was certainly worthwhile Max Collins crime comics, and he absolutely deserves all the success he got from that. That was a magnificent book and so are the sequels that sprang from it. But between that and Terry Beatty seemingly settled happily on DC’s animated books, honestly, I’d pretty well written off the idea of ever seeing Ms. Tree again. Fifteen years is a great run, I would tell myself. Don’t be greedy.

Guess what? She’s back.

Deadly Beloved is a novel that adapts the first two storylines from the comics into a single novel, but it’s quite a bit more than that; in a cheerful, conversational afterword (reminiscent of the old letter column chats, actually) Collins explains that this is a book adapting the Ms. Tree screenplay that didn’t get filmed. As such, there’s a certain amount of deja vu to the plot for those of us that go back a few years with Ms. Tree, but hell, I don’t care. I’m just glad to see her again.

And yesterday a new kind of Collins/Beatty collaboration arrived that I’m enjoying every bit as much.

A Killing In Comics is tremendous fun. It’s a novel featuring thinly disguised fictional versions of famous comic-book characters of the Golden Age, as well as the people who worked on them. Those of us in the know will have a ball figuring out who’s who — Collins doesn’t make it that hard, he knows half the fun is picturing the real-life counterparts going through these paces. But you don’t NEED to know the history. I was delighted to discover that this is the first in a series, and the sequel, Strip for Murder, is due out in May.

If much of Collins’ previous work is him channeling his inner Spillane, these books featuring wisecracking Jack Starr are Max Collins channeling his inner Rex Stout. They have the same breezy attitude you find in Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels, and are often just as laugh-out-loud funny. Recommended.

I had originally planned to end this column with a plea for some publisher to at least collect the old Ms. Tree comics in trade paperback, but according to Amazon, Titan Books is doing exactly that in December, and I’ll be first in line. Twenty years is quite long enough to wait to replace some of my favorite crime stories ever done. It’s worth noting that before there was Kinsey Millhone or V.I. Warshawski or any of those other lady detectives burning up the best-seller list, Ms. Michael Tree was pistol-whipping hoods into submission. That’s a groundbreaking piece of pop culture that deserves preserving and it’s about time someone got around to it. Good on Titan. I hope this book is the first of many and they intend to give us the whole run.

If they don’t, well, I hope this column has inspired some of you out there to go looking for these comics. Because I don’t care what the Comics Journal said; they are just plain good, period.

See you next week.