Back in the day, I was a big fan of Ms. Tree by Max Allan Collins and Terry Beatty. I liked hard-boiled fiction (and still do), but this comic was different. Somehow Collins and Beatty took everything that private-eye fans liked, jumbled it all up and delivered a new series that seemed fresh as a counterfeit sawbuck and as enticing as a nightclub singer’s over-the-shoulder wink.
Collins and Beatty developed a rapport with the readers, and soon we all began to understand the stuff that influenced their work on Ms. Tree. Soon it become clear that it all started with the hard-boiled detective author Mickey Spillane, although there was a little Dragnet in there too. They also revealed they were influenced by a 50s Private Eye comic series, Johnny Dynamite.
Johnny Dynamite was a character who – “ahem” – borrowed many of the attributes of Spillane’s detective, Mike Hammer. Ms. Tree comics reprinted the old Johnny Dynamite stories, and the character Johnny Dynamite even ended up crossing paths with Ms. Tree. Eventually, Collins and Beatty created a new Johnny Dynamite mini-series (with great Mitch O’Connell covers).
And it’s taken a while, but now, in the summer of 2020, there’s an explosive new Johnny Dynamite collection just published by the good folks at Yoe Books. It’s a stunner.
I reached out to Max Allan Collins to provide some details:
Diehard fans of my comics work may recall that when artist Terry Beatty and I created Wild Dog for editor Mike Gold at DC in 1987, we continued with the monthly Ms. Tree, meaning we had to limit the number of pages for that latter title, to be able to meet double deadlines. Out of the blue we had the opportunity to buy the rights to the 1950s Johnny Dynamite character and all the existing stories that had been done about him. We were approached because both Terry and I had been vocal about our love for the feature, and in particular for its Mike Hammer pastiche nature and the great Pete Morisi’s artwork.
So, we began reprinting, in black-and-white, the Morisi stories in the back of the Ms. Tree comic book, so that Terry and I would have fewer pages of that character to produce concurrently with Wild Dog.
Now, thanks to the redoubtable Craig Yoe, we’ve had the opportunity to collect the complete Morisi Johnny Dynamite stories in a beautiful full-color volume. Both Terry and I have provided introductions. Mine is very long and detailed, explaining to modern comics readers just how important Mickey Spillane and Mike Hammer were (as well as Mickey’s background in comics), as Johnny Dynamite is a direct imitation – and among the best of countless imitators in novels, television, movies and comics.
I can’t say enough about how physically beautiful this book is. Yoe and his team have outdone themselves. It’s a hardcover worthy of any book shelf of either hard-boiled fiction and/or comic book reprints.
It’s getting great write-ups, though one reviewer complained about my intro being “excessively long.” I plead guilty but will say that I only wrote the word length requested of me by Craig Yoe himself. And I doubt anyone who follows my work will have a similar complaint.
Collin’s frequent collaborator, Terry Beatty, is excited too. “I’m thrilled to have had a hand in getting this collection of Pete Morisi’s Johnny Dynamite into print — and even happier with how handsome the volume is,” said Beatty. “For my money, it’s the best-looking book Craig Yoe has produced so far.”
He’s right. The book itself is gorgeous. The cover employs spot varnish to make old art seem new, and, as mentioned, there are also two introductions. Also, to bring it full circle, there is cool Collins/Beatty Johnny Dynamite adventure included in this volume.
A Little Different From What You Are Used To
There’s one thing about these stories that I didn’t realize at first.
Morisi employs a slightly off-kilter story-telling style that may take a little while for modern readers to get used to. But once you ‘get it’, it’s strangely compelling. Rather than portray each story beat, as a modern story with conventional comic art would, Morisi leverages each panel as a spot illustration to support a snippet of prose. It’s like you’re reading a Spillane story, but certain parts are punctuated with an illustration.
Sometimes the action is off-panel, and the reader is forced to fill in the rest of the scene with his or her imagination. For example, in the Johnny Dynamite story “An Eye for an Eye” there’s a particularly gruesome revenge sequence. The femme fatale is served her grisly just desserts, and it’s all off-panel. Ewww!
For Film Noir fans, private detective fans and/or vintage comics fans – this one is a must read.
One More Film Noir Note:
It seems like the Batman mythology has been explored and mined from every possible angle. We’ve learned all about young Bruce Wayne’s early days in print and on screen. We know all about Catwoman’s pre-criminal life. TV shows like Fox’s Gotham and Epic’s Pennyworth explored the backgrounds of secondary characters like Commissioner Gordon and Alfred. There’s a recent announcement about a new Gotham Police Dept Show on HBOMax. But late one night, while watching an old movie, I stumbled across an early Chief O’Hara adventure.
Chief O’Hara always seemed a bit bumbling in that cushy role of Gotham Police Chief in the 1966 Batman series, but I now think that may have been act. The film noir thriller Shield for Murder tells the story of a desperate cop who makes some bad decisions. And one of the ‘good cops’ in the squad room is none other than… Chief O’Hara. Stafford Repp (who played the part in the Batman series) delivers a riveting performance, despite the fact that he only has about three lines in the whole picture.
I can’t help but wonder if the events in this old film noir movie (spoiler alert: actor/director Edmund O’Brien dies in the end) made O’Hara request a transfer to Gotham City. Who could blame him? With Batman around, it had to have been a cushy job.