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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.

My favorite Mickey Spillane book ever. Second favorite. Certainly the most introspective. Yeah, I said it.

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.

I think this may just be my favorite Gulacy painting ever.

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.

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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.

It was love at first sight for me. The hell with the Journal.

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.

Different than I was used to... but in a good way. Old-school.

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.

By all reports the duotones were a huge pain, but they sure looked great.

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.

I scored this one last week. Only took twenty years. Am I still bitter? Hell yes.

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.

Collins' Batman-- and even his Robin-- was very cool, though I wish it had lasted a little longer.

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.

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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.

Curly-headed guy there in the corner next to Nolan? Draws comics.

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.

The Tracy original novels are worth looking for. This is a really cool book.

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 enjoyed this book, but not nearly as much as Ms. Tree.

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…

Some people remember this fondly, I guess, but not me.

…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.

I laughed so hard when I came across this ad I startled my fellow passengers on the bus.

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.

This one was awesome too. It was inevitable that Ms. Tree meet Mike Mist.

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.

Johnny Dynamite was a hell of a feature, too.

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.

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An amazing little Batman prose entry in here, too. Just a nice package all around.

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…

This was a fun book, too; but Ms. Tree is still my favorite.

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.

Another cool entry from Collins' psychotronic years.

(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.

A very odd Batman Elseworlds, but nevertheless well worth checking out.

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.

A very nice book, though it'll feel like a rerun for some.

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.

As always, meticulously researched... but fun, too.

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.

Really looking forward to this, too.

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.

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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.


Great column as always, Greg. I almost always learn something from your columns, and when you’ve been reading comics & genre fiction for 30 years like I have, that’s no small feat.

For instance: I’ve heard of Ms. Tree, but I never knew the Mike Hammer connection before. That makes me want to start tracking down the back issues. Did Collins & Beatty use the actual Mike Hammer, or a stand-in character of some kind?

Collins’ Batman was all right but not spectacular in my book. I liked the idea of the post-Crisis Jason Todd being a street kid, but Fay Gunn seemed more like a Dick Tracy villain than a Batman one (Tracy & Batman both have gimmicky villains, but they’re two different types of gimmicky). And THANK YOU for calling out Jim Starlin on making Jason Todd such an asshole. There would’ve been no need to ever kill Robin off if Starlin hadn’t made him such an unsympathetic character.

Have you ever read any of Collins’ tie-in fiction, Greg? I have a pretty good NYPD Blue novel he wrote in the early 90s. It takes place in the weeks before the first season, leading into what we saw in the pilot. Collins also weaved in a subplot about 50s pinup models, which he obviously knew a bit about.

I will definitely be picking up that Ms. Tree novel when it comes out. Thanks for the tip, Greg.

Did Collins & Beatty use the actual Mike Hammer, or a stand-in character of some kind?

A stand-in, “Mike Tree.” But his visual was based on the Mike Hammer comic strip, and Collins has always talked about Ms. Tree’s creation in terms of a what-if featuring Hammer and Velda.

And Deadly Beloved is out, it’s been out for a few weeks now. The Titan Books reprint is — I think — a trade collection of the actual comics. Amazon says that comes in December.

As for the tie-ins, I really liked the Dark Angel trilogy. It was nice to see the loose ends tied up and I thought Collins did a great job.

I must say, Robert Aldrich’s filmic deconstruction of Spillane’s Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly destroyed the overly earnest kind of hard-boiled fiction so far as I was concerned.

That said, Collins’s preliminary novelization of Beatty’s Dick Tracy movie was better than the movie and worth reading besides.

Dan (other Dan)

March 1, 2008 at 1:43 am

Wow, these are always such nice posts! I’ve only read a few Collins Dick Tracy stories, but they were enjoyable. Was he involved in production of the Road to Perdition movie? I loved that film!

A little trivia: Ernie’s, a diner in Columbia, MO, has a 3 foot square cartoon on the wall drwan by Chester Gould. Dick Tracy tells the Kid that he loves Ernie’s chopped cow hamburger. It’s by far the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in a restaraunt; I would eat there just so I could look at it.

Man, Bib is gonna be LIVID.

Tom Fitzpatrick

March 1, 2008 at 8:13 am

You like hard-boiled mysteries?

You should be reading Andrew Vachss’ Burke novels.
Reading it is like having a 4-inch spike and a sledgehammer to drive the point home.

Collins’ Batman and Wild Dog were great. I remember reading them and being blown away as a child, especially by Wild Dog, which was just way, way too gritty for me to comprehend at that time.

“Man, Bib is gonna be LIVID.”

I’m glad I wasn’t the only one to think that…

Man, I love Ms Tree. About as perfect as a crime comic gets.

Collins also directed a great documentary about Spillane. I went to a screening at a con and talked to him about it. He’s a great guy.

Crime-lit snobs who poo-poo Spillane seem not to understand that Hammer is an unreliable narrator. They quote Hammer’s obnoxious self-justifications and right wing rants, but I’m convinced that those passages are supposed to be exactly what they seem like today, disingenuous attempts to deal with his own violent impulses (on Hammer’s part, NOT Spillane’s). I think Hammer is a complex, desperate, angry man, beautifully rendered, but not actually endorsed, by Spillane. These are great novels.

Good news: Checker is reprinting Collins’ wonderful run on Dick Tracy. The bad news: they’re overpriced and poorly designed (three strips per page and tons of white space? What the hell?). Check ‘em out from the library, it’s great stuff.

I just finished DEADLY BELOVED earlier this week, and I thought it was great. Collins’ best work in some years, as far as I’m concerned, but that’s no surprise; Ms. Tree has always brought out his best; his one (!) Edgar nomination was for the Ms. Tree short story “Louise.” I read A KILLING IN COMICS last year, and enjoyed it, but it was a little too in-jokey for me. I wonder what non-comics readers made of it.

Max Allan Collins’ Dick Tracy is, for me, the definitive version of the character. Back in the early ’90s I found a collection of the strips (probably for the character’s, what, 60th anniversary or somesuch) which featured a history of the character by Collins punctuated by storylines by Chester Gould. But they reprinted several of Collins’ continuities (including his first, back-to-basics, story which literally blew up the excesses of the last two decades of Gould) and they were gripping, powerful examples of how great that dying breed of daily adventure strips really could be when it had the right personnel behind it. Amazing stuff.

I’ve managed to purchase a lot of great 80s comics on eBay but I really should go after Ms. Tree. I didn’t read it back in the day, but I think I will based on your recommendation!

Long, long before I knew who Collins was I enjoyed Wild Dog, a miniseries that seems to have fallen into semiobscurity. I haven’t laid hands on a copy in what must be 18 years, but I remember it being amazing.

This was a great column — I never knew all of the history of Ms. Tree. (I started reading only with the DC issues.) Kudos for laying it all out!

And I want to second Tom Fitzpatrick’s comment, above. Andrew Vachss is a terrific writer. And for any reader who sets a value on deductive reasoning in a thriller, there is none better than his protagonist Burke.


Great column!

I’ve been a Collins/Ms. Tree fan since the beginning, and have had the privilege of working with him a few times in the last couple of decades. I was, in fact, the editor of the above-mentioned MIKE DANGER series.

My own upcoming crime comic FEMME NOIR, owes no small debt to Collins & Beatty – the artist, Joe Staton, even drew the P.I.s comic shown above.

I’ve also reviewed a number of Collins comics in my crime comics blog, http://gunsinthegutters.blogspot.com/

Damn, I needs to read me some Ms. Tree. I read the first installment of the Wild Dog sequel in ACTION COMICS way back when, I should track some of that down.

What a treat to see such a nice write-up on Max’s work and the Collins/Beatty collaborations! I think it’s fair to say we’ve had more than our share of negative fan press — so it’s a pleasure to see such a positive piece and to know that someone “gets it.” Max, who was thrilled with the piece, sent me the link today.

After very long break, Collins and I are working together on various projects again. There will be at least one more comics-themed murder mystery that I’l be illustrating – and I just revised the “mystery map” for the third of the “Barbara Allan” antiques-themed mystery novels by Max and his wife Barb.

TV pilots are in the works for both Ms. Tree and Johnny Dynamite — and that means there’s a darn good chance Max and I will be doing some new comics — probably graphic novel format — for both properties (nothing set in stone yet, though).

Ok — I’ve got to run. In addition to inking “The Batman Strikes” every month, I’m currently “visiting artist” at MCAD here in Minneapolis — teaching in their comics program, and I need to prep for today’s “Comic 3″ class. We’re going to be looking at some Johnny Craig and Bernie Krigstein EC stories today — should be fun! And one of these days, you’ll be reviewing work by some of my students — there’s a lot of talent in my classroom!

Thanks again!

Terry is right — I am thrilled with this posting. With the exception of ROAD TO PERDITION, my comics stuff tends to get lost in the shuffle of my body of work.

I would say only that Greg you might want to look for SPREE, the final (to date) Nolan novel, which I think you might like better than BAIT MONEY (which was written when I was 21). You should also read the Hard Case Crime novel THE LAST QUARRY (recently turned into a film called THE LAST LULLABY from a screenplay I co-wrote).

And my best work in any medium is the Nate Heller series. These are much more noir in flavor than the somewhat similar Jack Starr series. Heller is more Hammer-esque. Try my take on the Black Dahlia — ANGEL IN BLACK or maybe the Ameila Earhart one, FLYING BLIND. These do not have to be read in the order they were written — the chronology is all over the place.

As for Andrew Vachss, he would be the first to admit that there would be no Burke without Mike Hammer. Some years ago Andrew gave me a glowing comment about the Heller (and Eliot Ness) novels that I’m still getting mileage out of.

This is my 60th birthday, by the way, so this was a great gift.

I’m actually a big fan of the Heller books; I just felt they were a little out of the scope of the article, which was getting away from me as it was. (I was going to plug the Black Box video collection too, and forgot.)

This is a terrific set.

Great news about all the new projects. Bless you both for dropping by — I’m blushing like a schoolgirl. Thanks for all the great reading over the years.

Wild Dog has to be one of the worst comics I’ve ever read. It was like a kiddified version of The Punisher.

Really bad!

I hate to have to defend my own work, but it’s ironic that this wonderful write-up from Greg Hatcher, which begins with a comment on an unfair review about MS. TREE, would end with another bad review (this time about WILD DOG).

Frankly, a certain segment of comic book fans have never “got” what I do, and this reader is typical — he thinks there could actually be “a kiddified version of THE PUNISHER,” not understanding the absurdity of that statement, since THE PUNISHER is obviously inherently, ridiculously juvenile.

WILD DOG, for those who bothered to do more than glance at one issue and look past Terry’s Johnny Craig-esque “clean” art, would have found it to be a gritty crime story with lots of violence but also the ramifications of violence. It was meant to be a real-world vigilante hero story, hence the cobbled together elements of Wild Dog’s “costume” and weapons.

I don’t think it was a masterpiece, but it did some interesting things.

[…] As often happens, in the course of writing a column I am reminded about something I was going to check into, and in writing about Ms. Tree it occurred to me that it had been a while since I went noodling around online looking to replace the back issues I’d lost years ago. Just for the hell of it I did a search on Amazon as well as eBay and the usual haunts, and the Amazon search turned up something called Ms. Tree (Bogie’s Mystery) by Collins and Beatty. […]

That was a mass market paperback reprinting some of middle period stuff (as opposed to the three trade paperbacks from our regular publishers).

We are talking to Titan about reprinting the DC material, by the way.

“I hate to have to defend my own work, but it’s ironic that this wonderful write-up from Greg Hatcher, which begins with a comment on an unfair review about MS. TREE, would end with another bad review (this time about WILD DOG).

Frankly, a certain segment of comic book fans have never “got” what I do, and this reader is typical — he thinks there could actually be “a kiddified version of THE PUNISHER,” not understanding the absurdity of that statement, since THE PUNISHER is obviously inherently, ridiculously juvenile.”

Well, as shown here
Gerry Conway created the Punisher as a Comics Code approved underling of the Jackal version of the Executioner (Don Pendleton series), so Mr. Collins has some justification in his objection.


The original Shadow had more than a little in common, attitude-wise, with writer Don Pendleton’s popular (and much imitated) “Mack Bolan” character, whose bloody, one-man war against organized crime is chronicled in the EXECUTIONER paperback series. While I’ve never been overly enamored of Mr. Pendleton’s creation, myself… even he deserved far better than the wholesale swiping of his conceptual mainsprings enacted by comics scribe Gerry Conway (during his lengthy tenure on Marvel’s SPIDER-MAN series), re: The Punisher.

Quite simply: “Frank Castle” (a.k.a., The Punisher) was lifted, wholesale — origin; motivation; and motif — straightaway from the better-known (and immensely popular, at the time) EXECUTIONER series of novels. A man whose family is wiped out during a “mob” crossfire; the near-psychotic obsession with (and totemization of) “the holy, cleansing power of firearms”; the hag-ridden quest to rid the world of all gangsters, everywhere — preferably, one bullet at a time. “And so” (in the words of the immortal Vonnegut) “it goes.”

Stuff this shameless and opportunistic goes well beyond any reasonable definition of the word “homage”… particularly when the original creation (to say nothing of its author) is never afforded so much as a tipping of the hat by latter-day parvenus. Were I Mr. Pendleton’s legal counsel… this sort of thing would have occasioned a hefty little lawsuit decades ago.


I recall few people huffing of the Exterminator as a Punisher rip-off. Well, “we all live in glass houses”….


Yes, the Punisher came out in 1973, and the Exterminator came out in 1980. However, I seriously doubt that they had the former character in mind when this film came out. In any event, somebody got ripped off.

“Basically, the Punisher always seemed to me a very direct rip-off of the Executioner, the lead character of a long series—eventually over three hundred of them—of pulp drugstore paperback books starting back in 1969. Mack Bolan was a Vietnam special forces vet, his family was killed by the Mafia, and used his combat skills to kill, ultimately, thousands upon thousands of mobsters. Frankly, I’m amazed there was any organized left in this country by the time he was done.

The Punisher was basically the Executioner, a murderous sorta-hero awkwardly inserted into the Comics Code-supervised Marvel Comics superhero universe back in a 1974 issue of The Amazing Spider-Man. It wasn’t until later, when Wolverine of the X-Men confirmed a taste for anti-heroes, that the Punisher started getting his own series (and by now he’s had quite a few). In these the superhero aspects of the universe were downplayed in favor of often baroque but straighter killing-the-gangsters stuff. I’ve never really been sure why Marvel was never sued over the Punisher. Perhaps he floated around so long as a minor character that when he hit it big, it was too late to retroactively sue for copyright violation”.



A helpful book by Brad Mengel will detial the paperback original adventure series trend, including the vigilante characters, with a release date in June.

Gerry Conway also admitted the influence of the Shadow.


“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.” As Max Allan Collins noted, we should note call the Shadow (as depicted in the original pulps, he had no metahuman powers), Zorro, or Wild Dog super-heroes, as they have no metahuman powers. We should call them costumed heroes, masked heroes, disguised heroes, adventure heroes, or mystery men.

Nice article! I have collected all of the Ms. Tree comics, and a lot of reprints, posters etc., plus the collections that the short stories appeared in, and you managed to expand my knowledge base! Thanks!

[…] Dark, Lara Croft, Elektra Natchios, Chloe Sullivan, Sydney Bristow, Veronica Mars, Honey West, Ms. Tree, Zoë Carter , and The Powerpuff Girls. Even Buffy, who descends from matrilineage of superheroes […]

By the way, in Amazing Heroes#119 in 1987 (two years before the Michael Keaton film), MAC had an interview. He said the following:

“I’m afraid what I’m running smack up into is the old Batman TV show controversy: the old business about, Gee that was a TV show that made fun of Batman and made fun of comic books, so we have to show people that Batman and comic books are serious and they’re adult and accordingly all the fun goes out of it. There was a reason why that TV show was played for laughs and that is when you put actual human beings in those costumes and act out those stories, it looks stupid. They betray their juvenile roots. It can’t be done straight. I defy them to do the movie straight”.

Collins then said “I predict it [the then upcoming Batman film] will be an embarrassment if they try to do it without a sense of humor”.

Collins later says “I think that Miller’s Batman is the ultimate extension of the backlash against Adam West. The ultimate expression of We write comics, but we’re Serious, Thoughtful people “.

The writer Max Allan Collins actually fought this trend of violent foes-not out of any concern about violence in the media, since in his novels for adults, he features some very hard violence. In an interview in Amazing Heroes#119, he said that, in reference to a Frank Miller written story which had Catwoman as former prostitute, he found that inappropriate, the equivalent of doing Peter Pan and having them face historically accurate pirates who commit rape. Collins considered Catwoman as derived from children’s entertainment, and therefore people should keep that in mind when handling her. Again, Collins did not say this from any prudishness (since he strongly supports the freedom of speech/1st amendment), but he felt it incongruous to have such an idea in something derived from children’s entertainment.
(The 1988 Time magazine Superman 50th anniversary article mentioned the same general concept.) As the Batman does indeed represent a more overtly juvenile version of the Shadow (look at Robin’s old costume), Collins’ idea has some merit.

This prompted me to peruse about half of The Drowning Pool – 133 pages or so – to see how many similes I could count. (I’m using the Vintage Crime Black Lizard edition from May 1996). I counted thirty four and no doubt missed a few. I haven’t done the legwork, but I think some of the later books might have a slightly higher ratio. That’s a lot, but in any case I would argue that many of Macdonald’s similes are so strong that they infinitely enrich the work. Not only that – they are so strong that they put many “serious” writers of fiction to shame.

Rather than reading the Archer stories solely as mysteries, thrillers, entertainments, and detective stories (though of course they can exist solely on that level for readers who are interested in them as such), we’d do ourselves a favor to consider them in a few other ways as well. In the massive reference work World Authors 1950-1970, published by the H.H. Wilson Company, Macdonald wrote that The Galton Case and Black Money “are probably my most complete renderings of the themes of smothered allegiance and uncertain identity which my work inherited from my early years.” Of course, in Black Money the smothered allegiance occurs between the lovers Ginny Fablon and Tappinger.

Here’s a quote about John D. Macdonald that I often see bouncing around the web (I hesitate to quote from Wikipeida, which we all know is generally stuff we can wipe our asses with, but this seems legit). “Macdonald is by any standards a better writer than Saul Bellow, only Macdonald writes thrillers and Bellow is a human heart chap, so guess who wears the top grade laurels?” That’s from Kingsley Amis.

In studying the Lew Archer novels of Ross Macdonald I’ve tried to identify certain characteristics, themes, motifs, images – call them what you like – that crop up frequently throughout the various books. I don’t claim that the following are particularly important or have any special significance or meaning; nor do I say this is a comprehensive list. They are simply some things I’ve noticed in more than one of the novels. Some of these appear in quite a few of the Archers. In time I hope to post the results of reading through each of the books individually while searching for these ‘repeaters’.

In reading through the first five Travis McGee novels by John D. MacDonald – The Deep Blue Good-By, Nightmare in Pink, A Purple Place for Dying, The Quick Red Fox, A Deadly Shade of Gold – I’ve tried to identify some characteristics and motifs that seem to repeat themselves. The plots of these novels are extremely complicated at times; the characterizations are consistently razorsharp, perceptive, funny, and generally on point; but I think the underlying blueprints are what really give the tales their addictive readability.

In studying the Lew Archer novels of Ross Macdonald I’ve tried to identify certain characteristics, themes, motifs, images – call them what you like – that crop up frequently throughout the various books. I don’t claim that the following are particularly important or have any special significance or meaning; nor do I say this is a comprehensive list.

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