With Further Ado #092: Down These Mean Streets with MAX ALLAN COLLINS (part 2)

Let’s start with a beer. Shall we?

In the old days, Miller Lite TV Commercials presented the world as one big party for adult men. The long-running, phenomenally successful marketing campaign featured retired sports stars laughing, drinking and teasing one another. It was kind of a secret fraternity that wasn’t so secret. Anyone could join, and all you needed was Lite beer. It was fun, playful and good natured.

Among all the sports stars, two decidedly non-sports celebrities stood out – comedian Rodney Dangerfield, enjoying a bombastic second act to his career, and mystery writer Mickey Spillane.

Mystery writer Mickey Spillane? Really? We think of celebrity fiction writers, and it’s hard to conjure up their image.  F. Scott Fitzgerald? James Patterson? What do they look like? I guess most of us know what Stephen King or J.K. Rowling look like. Maybe we all would recognize Hemingway or Truman Capote.  But America was drinking beer and kidding around with one particular writer. Mickey Spillane was in our living rooms –  during every commercial break – when we were watching sitcoms and ball games, for years and years.

The line between Spillane and his literary creation, P.I. Mike Hammer, was blurred in these ads. In fact, it was smudged with a fat thumb smeared with ink and gunpowder residue. In a brilliant bit of personal branding, Spillane had seen to that years before with carefully crafted author photos.  Like the quintessential private detective, it’s easy to imagine another Mickey Spillane typing away late at night, wearing his fedora (his crumpled raincoat thrown over a chair) only to be interrupted by a leggy femme fatale sauntering into his office and breathlessly pleading for help.

His brutal writing was often scorned by critics and uptight librarians. “Nobody liked him but the readers,” says Max Allan Collins.

Spillane passed the writing torch to a prolific writer, Max Allan Collins. The midwestern writer loved Dick Tracy as a kid and then graduated to Mike Hammer novels. He’s become an awarding-winner writer with his own legions of fans. Collins has a deep love for all kinds of fiction, especially comics. He’s been a regular at San Diego Comic Con, and everyone who ever watched his band, Seduction of the Innocent, perform at the convention, remembers it with a wistful gusto.

Max Allan Collins latest posthumous collaboration with Mickey Spillane is called Masquerade for Murder. Titan Books, a paragon of geek culture publishing, lovingly debuted this one. Longtime comics and movie expert Andrew Sumner is the editor, and what a wonderful product this is to curl up with for a few lockdown nights.

Prepping for a Posthumous Collaboration

After collaborating on several books with his favorite author,  Collins now has his preparation for these Hammer novels down cold.  This thriller is set in the 80s (during the heyday of those Miller Lite commercials) and it’s comfortable without being nostalgic.

“My prep is The Killing Man, published in the 80s and Back Alley, in the 90s, to see where Mickey’s head was at and what the dialog sounded like.”

But Collins is able to take a big picture view of it all and fearlessly jump in. He explained he doesn’t make a big effort to sound like Mickey. “My focus is on writing the character well.”

And he certainly does just that in Masquerade for Murder.

“Overall – here’s how I view it,“ said Collins. He explained that for earlier Hammer novels, he had about one hundred pages of Spillane to work with; this time he had only a one-page synopsis.  “I didn’t just plop them down.” Mickey Spillane had famously told his wife that Max would know what to do with the partial manuscripts, and he was right.

”I don’t treat his stuff like Holy Writ. Even in this book – just two pieces – the very opening, the description of New York, and another one is the talk about why Mike uses a 45. That’s Mickey; “pure” Mickey.“

In fact, Collins reveals that sometimes he’s too good. There have been book reviews of these collaborations, when the reviewer will cite a line that they are positive are very typical lines that were obviously written by Mickey Spillane. “One would be written by Mickey, and one would be written by me. That meant that it worked.”

On the Road to Perdition Gotham City

During the conversation, we took a detour to Gotham City. Max Allan Collins applied his abundant talent to Batman, but it seemed liked the timing just wasn’t right.  In the 80s, there was such a freshness and excitement to the Caped Crusader, and fans, like me, were eager to have Collins take a crack at the character.

“That was ill-fated and had to do with two things,” recalls Collins. “Frank Miller had just exploded.” Indeed, Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns was groundbreaking, and arguments can be made the character, and the medium, still feels the reverberations today. “I followed Year One,” said Collins. “But I hadn’t seen Year One. They didn’t show it me.”

The second thing that hamstrung his Bat-success was the merry-go-round rotation of different artists during his run. There were eight different artists in a one year period.

Collins was assigned to write the short-lived Batman newspaper strip of ’89. The artist assigned Marshall Rogers, another artist who made quite an imprint on the Dark Knight Detective. Unfortunately, Tribune Publishing, the newspaper syndicate, urged Collins to quit, as they saw it as a conflict with the Dick Tracy comic strip he was writing at the time.

Mike Gold, who many consider both a wise sage and the conscience of a generation, gave Max Allan Collins valued advice. Collins was in the process of being “fired” from Dick Tracy, even though he was three months into his next contract, but Mike counseled him about leaving at the right time and being open to new opportunities. After all, Dean Martin had said the two greatest things were meeting Jerry Lewis and breaking up with Jerry Lewis. After leaving Batman, Collins went on to write The Road to Perdition.

Of note: One artist that Collins was paired with was the incomparable Eduardo Barreto. They collaborated on the Elseworlds story, Scar of the Bat, one of the very best entries of the series. They would later collaborate on Mike Danger, Spillane’s comic book private detective.

Mickey, Max, Mike and Masquerade  

What a treat it is to enjoy a mystery starring an aging protagonist, written by two longtime professional authors and find it all fresh and new.  Masquerade for Murder is a long way from those old Miller Lite TV commercials, but if you squint… you can almost see the Zenith television in the background of this story, and you can imagine Rodney Dangerfield, Bob Uecker, and Mickey Spillane laughing over a few beers.  It tastes great, and you know what?  It’s less filling.