Luke Cage History: From Hero for Hire to Hollywood
TV, Comic Books
Anyone who’s been reading this weekly thing of mine for any length of time at all will know how fond I am of crime fiction in general and crime comics in particular.
Specifically, I’ve been a fan of the crime fiction of Max Allan Collins since Ms. Tree premiered in Eclipse the Magazine, long ago.
I’ve always enjoyed Mr. Collins’ collaborations with Mickey Spillane, as well, in both prose and comics.
So when I heard Mr. Collins was finishing up several ‘lost’ Mike Hammer novels after Mickey Spillane passed away, my first thought was, “Of course. Who else is there?”
So when Tom Green at Titan Books offered me a review copy of the latest Spillane-Collins collaborative Mike Hammer book, Lady, Go Die! and added that he could arrange an interview with Max Allan Collins as well, I lunged at that like a bass.
I got the book last week and loved it. It’s technically the second Hammer Spillane wrote, taking place not too long after I, The Jury, for those of you who are continuity-minded; in fact, it actually shows us the moment where Mike and his smokin’-hot secretary Velda actually started to look at one another, well, THAT way, let us say.
The book itself is tremendous fun with every bit of the adrenaline rush that I expect from a Hammer book, and really captures the spirit of the original Spillane novels in a way that most series-continuation pastiches could never hope to (Yes, I’m looking at your James Bond books, John Gardner.) Beyond that, well, I don’t know what other review to give it. If you like Mike Hammer, you’ll like this. if not… well, the interview with Mr. Collins below is still interesting reading, I think. Anyway, here it is.
Can you tell us how, exactly, you wound up writing Mike Hammer? I know this is something Mickey Spillane specifically asked you to do, it wasn’t one of these hired-gun things like the new novels featuring James Bond or Jason Bourne– my understanding is that this is something you worked out with Mr. Spillane when he was still alive. How did that come about?
Mickey and I were friends. I’d been a huge fan of his as a kid, and later wrote a number of articles about him and his work, often defending him. He was a very controversial figure and, to some degree, still is. His first six Mike Hammer novels, and one non-Hammer (THE LONG WAIT), introduced a level of sex and violence into not just mystery fiction but popular fiction. And a lot of critics and social commentators didn’t like that. Anyway, after I began publishing in the early ’70s, we became friends and did a number of projects together, a whole bunch of anthologies and the MIKE DANGER comic book included. In the last week or so of his life, he called and asked me to complete THE GOLIATH BONE, the Hammer he was working on but would probably not be able to finish. I said that of course I would do that. Then a few days later, he told his wife Jane to round up all the unfinished materal from his sixty-year career — and there was a lot of it — and turn it over to me. That I would “know what to do.”
I was struck, reading these books– especially THE BIG BANG and LADY GO DIE– how seamless it felt, reading them. When you look at this sort of collaboration the temptation is always to try and figure out the division of labor but with these new Hammer books it really is a smooth meshing of styles. In fact, they almost felt more… I can’t think of a proper word. “Hammer-esque,” maybe…. more authentic in some ways than the later Hammer books like BLACK ALLEY. Can you talk about what your starting point is with these books, how much is there to work with, and how you go about adopting Mike Hammer’s ‘voice’? I’m assuming that’s a different writing process for you than doing your own books, but I was hoping you could describe the differences.
Each book has been different. Sometimes there are plot and character notes, sometimes the ending worked out. But all of what I’m calling the six substantial Hammer novels were manuscripts of 100 pages or more. LADY, GO DIE! was the shortest manuscript, maybe 80 pages, but I combined it with another much shorter one to bring up the Spillane content. I’m grateful that you find the work seamless, and frankly most reviewers have. My approach is one that might anger purists, but I treat Mickey’s 100 pages like rough draft, as if we were collaborating, which we are, really. I expand and extend his work, writing scenes that he skipped, and weave my writing in and around his, just as I do when I’m collaborating with my wife Barb on our “Antiques” series (as “Barbara Allan”) or with Matt Clemens, who I write thrillers and short stories with. This means there is Spillane content deep into the book, usually two-thirds of the way. So when his material drops out, and mine kicks in, it is fairly smooth.
This was far from your first collaboration with Mickey Spillane, obviously. Can you tell us about some of the others? You did some anthologies together, you did the documentary film about him… and my personal favorite, the comic book series MIKE DANGER.
Can you tell us any stories about some of those other projects? How was it to work with Mickey Spillane? What was it each of you brought to the table?
With the exception of a short story that I developed from a radio play of his, we didn’t collaborate on any fiction. The anthologies were just a matter of discussion about what stories to use, when we were selecting stories by other writers for a colection. When it was a collection of his short stories or his comic strip or his one-page fillers for ’40s comic books, it was just me convincing him the material was worth re-publishing. I wrote MIKE DANGER, but we created it together in a brainstorming session in South Carolina. Of course, the Danger character pre-dates Mike Hammer, but the idea of infusing the Danger stories with science-fiction, and specifically using time travel, came from our brainstorming. Mickey also did a draft of a Danger novel, which I hope to polish and publish one of these days. Mickey acted in two of my indie movies and fully cooperated on the documentary, “Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane,” which is featured on the Criterion Collection DVD/Blu-ray release of the great Spillane adaptation, “Kiss Me Deadly.”
Are there any other non-Hammer Spillane books that you’re planning to finish up?
There are two more that I think would make good Hard Case Crime titles some day. One is called A BULLET FOR SATISFACTION, there’s about 90 pages of that, and the other is a smalltown corruption tale like THE LONG WAIT. There are also four screenplays that would make good novels, one s-f tinged set in a carnival, another about a monstrous serial killer, and even a western that was written for John Wayne. There are a number of short Hammer fragments gradually being turned into short stories, and three more significant novel fragments, in the 40-page range, that may be developed as well. That depends on the public.
We live in a world now where almost any and every comic book series is getting the archival hardcover treatment, or at least some kind of trade paperback… and yet no one’s reprinting MIKE DANGER or MS. TREE or JOHNNY DYNAMITE. It seems to me like MS. TREE, especially, would be a natural, what with Kinsey Millhone and V.I. Warshawski on the bestseller lists.
Is there any hope that some of these comics will get the trade collection treatment?
First Comics will eventually do MS. TREE and a new MS. TREE novel. But the project has been stalled by other commitments that Terry Beatty and I have. Terry is drawing the PHANTOM Sunday page for King Features, you know. There is discussion about reprinting the MIKE DANGER comic book as graphic novels. The Dark Horse mini-series about Johnny Dynamite has already been reprinted. Some of the original Dynamite was reprinted in an anthology a year or two ago.
Any other projects you want to tell us about?
My wife and I have ANTIQUES DISPOSAL out right now, and the previous one (ANTIQUES KNOCK-OFF) is out in paperback.
That’s a very funny series and doing quite well. Amazon has reprinted the entire Nathan Heller saga, with a new novella collection out now (TRIPLE PLAY), and Perfect Crime has done the early Quarry novels and have just brought out the Nolan novels.
Heller has done exceptionally well in the e-book market — TRUE DETECTIVE made number one on the Kindle bestseller list — which I hope bodes well for the new Heller, TARGET LANCER, that will be out in November. That’s about the JFK assassination. A second JFK assassination Heller novel will be written this year — as soon as I finish COMPLEX 90, the next Hammer.
And there you have it. Thanks both to Mr. Collins for taking the time, and to Tom Green at Titan for setting it up. Lady Go Die! will be out in stores May 8th, and I hope this leads you to check it out. Seriously, Hammer fans, it’s the real deal.
See you next week.
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