Review Or Die

“From the Files of… Mike Hammer” in Review

Mike-Hammer-strip

They dropped the package at my door in the dead of Minnesota winter, where the bright and unclouded sun shone down in a sweet lie – just touching the door handle with your bare hands would burn you with winter’s grip. Ten seconds is the longest you can open the door for without protection, or the ice will burrow in to your bones, like a parasite that drinks the heat from you. I couldn’t close the door before the count hit fifteen.

“Every time a package comes, you do this,” I swore at myself. “The comic can’t be that good.” I rubbed my hands together, a few moments reprieve before the parasite stole that too. I tore open the package straight down the middle, the way an animal gets its meat. In a way, that’s all I was. Weeks of waiting had made me hungry.

The cover was nothing special, with a design decades out of date. Solid red, the hue somewhere between blood and roses. A square-jawed hero eyeing a smoking dame – both of them with cigarettes. And the name: “From the Files of… Mike Hammer.” At first glance, it looked more like a romance than a two fisted detective strip. But the collection was complete, and I figured for the price, I’d have a decent afternoon’s read.

I opened to the first story, and by the time I got to page three I was reading as fast as the bullets flying on the page. In the middle of a strip, I couldn’t help but curse. Only one thought ran through my mind: I would kill to write like this.

I’ve discussed two newspaper comics on this blog before, both by Don Rosa. And looking at The Pertwillaby Papers especially, I was intrigued – what else had I missed by focusing my attention on comic books, rather than comic strips?

Quite a lot, it seems. Hermes Press’s single volume of “From the Files of… Mike Hammer” collects the 1953-1954 newspaper strip adaptation of the popular Mike Hammer books by Mickey Spillane. An action and mystery series with just the right hit of noir, the strip is comprised of nine stories, six black and white dailies and three Sunday-only stories. Spillane was heavily involved in the strip, co-plotting each story, and wrote first two Sunday stories on his own. But the art throughout, and the majority of the writing outside of those two Sunday tales, came from the highly talented Ed Robbins.

I cannot understate the quality of Robbins’ work on the strip. First as a writer: not only did he craft an effective plot with each story, he never wasted a strip or a panel on something extraneous. With noir narration and heavy dialogue, it never once felt bogged down by the density of the words, because the prose sings on the page. Max Allan Collins, a novelist and comic strip writer in his own right, makes a point of praising the narration in the introduction, and rightly so. And Robbins hit my hallmark for a good mystery with each story – I wanted to read the book again as soon as I’d finished.

But failing to discuss Robbins’ talent as an artist would be a tremendous disservice. Hammer’s subtle expressions, no small feat on a newspaper page, gave him a range of emotion that humanized the character and kept him from seeming flat. The way he used shadow throughout the book is always impressive, lighting a scene just so to highlight the place and mood, even within the confines of black and white. His character designs were unique and identifiable, without ever moving in to caricature. It is my belief that the (perhaps syndicate colored) Sunday strips are lesser to their daily counterparts because of their colorization, the printing quality of the time unable to showcase his work to its fullest potential.

Comic strips have a reputation as being a bunch of talking heads, and I am happy to say that Robbins avoids that pitfall masterfully, using dynamic angles, establishing shots, a wide range of emotion across the cast, and no small amount of action. My personal favorite showcase of this was a strip-long phone call between Hammer and a kidnapper. The first panel, a threatening demand. The second, we zoom in on Mike’s face as he responds. The third, his fury boiling as we see just his eyes and mouth, swearing he’ll crawl on his hands and knees if he has to to end their plot. And the fourth panel, Mike silently walking away, the phone swinging on its cord off the edge of the bar, and the bartender watching in quiet terror.

That said, in September of 1953, something strange happened. The delicate lines and hatching showcased in the first few stories was gone, leaving the panels far more cluttered. On Monday, a strip would be filled with signage in proper perspective, while the Thursday strip would have no background at all. While it is possible that they couldn’t find better quality versions of the source material, I would speculate that time (an unusually tight schedule is briefly mentioned in the introduction) and inferior inking, perhaps by a change in assistants, was likely the culprit. Eventually he found an equilibrium, and it was starting to climb upward before the strips untimely cancellation. This loss of quality doesn’t kill the stories by any means, but it does detract from their presentation.

For a strip that I already thought hit the ground running, over the course of a year Robbins refined his craft as a writer, with each story improving on the last. Unfortunately, just as Robbins had started things firing on all cylinders (and could perhaps have hired a better inker), he made a fatal mistake. For a strip that pushed the envelope for a 1950s newspaper due to its visceral action and storytelling, the cancellation came from one panel on a Sunday cliffhanger. A more cautious editor might have altered the strip, or nixed it altogether, but it went to print – a scantily clad woman bound to a bed, about to be interrogated by way of lit cigarettes ground in to her feet.

While the daily and Sunday stories were allowed to come to their conclusion (a small mercy, as the final daily story is my favorite), Mike Hammer was finished. The specifics of the situation are not mentioned, whether it was an exodus of newspapers willing to carry the strip from the small syndicate, angry readers, or the syndicate itself canceling the strip. Regardless of the circumstances, Robbins was distraught. He burned the Sunday pages from an incomplete tenth story, and all but retired from comics.

That is not to say the bonus features are unsatisfying. Max Allan Collins’ lengthy introduction and discussion of each story, the bevy of promotional art, and even a look as to Hermes’ restoration process are all intriguing, filling out what would otherwise be a lightweight collection due to Hammer’s brief run. While the strip may have been cut short, the year of comics Mickey Spillane and Ed Robbins put out are not just a gripping read, but a great tool for any writer or artist to learn from.

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