Although legendary crime writer Mickey Spillane died in 2006, his most famous character, private investigator Mike Hammer, lives on in this Titan Comics/Hard Case Crime four-issue series. The history of this story is almost as complicated as the mystery Hammer must solve.
The hard-boiled detective made his debut in I, the Jury (1947). Spillane published a dozen more Mike Hammer novels in the ensuing half-century, as well as several film, television, comics and radio adaptations. A radio series, That Hammer Guy, ran from 1952-54. Spillane wrote “The Night I Died” for that series, but it was never produced. A few decades later, Spillane worked with comics author (most famous for the 1998 graphic novel Road to Perdition) to convert the radio script into a short story for Private Eyes (1998), the crime fiction anthology the two co-edited.
Before he died, Spillane asked Collins to keep the Mike Hammer saga going. This posthumous collaboration has produced 11 novels so far. Now Collins is working with artists Marcelo Salaza and Marcio Freire on this comics adaptation of “The Night I Died.”
Although originally conceived as a radio play, this story works well in a visual medium. For one thing, Spillane began his career in comics, writing for Batman, Superman and Captain America stories. His original conception of the hard-boiled detective (first known as “Mike Danger”) was as a comic book anti-hero. His first collaboration with Collins was a return to this original conception in Mickey Spillane’s Mike Danger (1995-97).
In addition, Spillane’s work is heavy on action and dialogue, both of which translate well to comics. This issue contains a flashback scene that establishes Hammer as brutal, unforgiving and streetwise, although perhaps a little too trusting of the many femmes fatale that populate his world. We then jump ahead a year to see Hammer deal with the fallout of the earlier case.
The comic concludes with a reprint of another Spillane piece that calls back to his time writing for the funny pages. Postal regulations in the 1940’s required comic books to include two full pages of text to qualify for a cheaper shipping rate. Spillane wrote about 50 stories of exactly two pages to append to comics during this period. “Trouble . . . Come and Get It” appeared in the spring 1942 issue of 4 Most, which featured now-forgotten characters like Dick Cole, the Wonderboy, and an Iron Man prototype called The Target. Aimed at a younger audience, this story stars Dick Baker, an aspiring private detective whose desire to prove himself lands him in trouble.
Both stories move briskly, with plenty of action and just enough backstory to keep the plot moving. The difference in tone between them is a bit jarring, but the short story is more of a bonus feature than an integral element. It’s probably no stretch to say that Dick Baker is Spillane’s idea of Mike Hammer as a young man, not yet jaded by the corruption he will see. Both stories end on cliffhangers that will work themselves out over the remaining issues. In addition to solid Spillane storytelling, artists Salaza and Freire capture the noir esthetic perfectly, working from a dark palette. The only bright color is the red of a moll’s lips or the spurt of blood from a goon’s broken nose.
Fans of the hard-boiled detective genre and grittier comics will enjoy Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. The casual sexism and senseless brutality may offend modern sensibilities. But taken as a product of the time in which it was originally created, this is a beautiful adaption, keeping alive one of pulp fiction’s most distinctive characters.