Never judge a book by its cover, they say. Well, here’s a comic with a beautiful cover by veteran pulp artist Robert McGinnis. Sadly, that McGinnis cover is the best thing about Mike Hammer Issue #1.
Now, I’ve long been a fan of pulp fiction and love hard-boiled detective fiction, whether that’s classics such as Chandler and Hammett, or the modern work of James Elroy. I’ve not read that much Mickey Spillane, and what I did was a long time ago, but seeing this new Mike Hammer series from Titan Comics, I was hoping to get a classic pulp feel in comic form. More than that, I was hoping for something that didn’t just appeal to pulp detective fans, but managed to show readers new to this genre just what makes it so compelling.
Sadly, this just isn’t the comic to do that.
(There’s a magnificent comedy sketch from classic Brit double-act Morecombe and Wise featuring conductor Andre Previn having a nightmare as Morecombe attempts to play piano (see it on YouTube). The punchline… “I’m playing all the right notes. But not necessarily in the right order”. And that’s just how I feel about this first issue of Mike Hammer.)
Sure, fans of pulp detective fiction are going to love it. The story has all the classic elements expect, but for me it simply isn’t strong enough, and the art has far too many problems that commit the cardinal sin of taking me out of the moment. I’ll forgive art many, many things, but that’s something I can never ignore.
[**Spoilers for issue #1 below!]
Everything starts pretty well, with writer Max Allan Collins establishing Mike Hammer’s brutal and uncompromising way of doing things, chasing a hitman across the rooftops, ending up with him hanging from a ledge, making a deal with Hammer, information as long as he lets the hitman go. And Hammer sticks to the deal. His way. Yep, there’s no better way of letting us all know just what this detective is like than having him drop the suspect off a roof and watch him fall.
Then it’s back to report to the wife of the man that hitman killed. And Collins lays on the femme fatale with a trowel here.
She’s a classic Spillane woman, pure pulp noir, wrapping herself round Hammer as soon as he walks through the door…
Even if you hadn’t had it spelt out for you in the first few pages, you just know she’s bad news.
But having it spelt out isn’t necessarily that bad a thing. After all, Hammer is the epitome of the hard-boiled detective, and part of that is filling these pages with all the genre tropes, all the classic elements. The dialogue, the action, the characters, they’re all cliches of course, but the cliches are what made the genre.
I don’t have a problem with that at all, it’s what made the earliest volumes of Frank Miller’s Sin City so impressive. No, what I have a problem with the manner in which it’s all put together. It reads as a practical checklist of genre ideas, added in without thinking of how the flow of the story is working. Or, in this case, not working.
And then there are the issues I have with the artwork. It starts off rather impressively. That opening sequence of Hammer chasing the hitman over the rooftops has the feel of John Cassaday’s beautiful artwork about it. That look of classical figures captured in the moment, frozen yet gorgeous portraiture.
But then it starts to go wrong. I can certainly see just what Marcelo Salaza & Marcio Freire are trying to do, but there’s just too many panels where the anatomy is just that bit off, or the static image just can’t portray the action.
Here’s a classic example from that opening sequence…
Hammer’s meant to be leaping from the roof, launching himself into space. Yet, the legs are just wrong, no-one jumps off anything that way, and the static nature of the artwork actually makes it look as though he’s just somehow floated himself off the roof rather than jumped.
After that first story, we jump forward a year, and Hammer’s in deep trouble again. When he was looking for the hitman, he’d initially thought he’d been sent by mob boss, Carmen Rich. Hammer being Hammer, chatting to Rich ended with the mobster’s knee having a big bullet hole through it. Not unsurprisingly, Carmen Rich wants Hammer dead. What was surprising (at least to me) was that he’d seemingly taken a year to mull it over. Again, those holes in the storyline.
Hammer’s latest case is babysitting a rich jewelry business guy in town for a deal. He wants to meet Hammer. At midnight. In one of Carmen Rich’s clubs. Oh, the trouble smells as strong as Hammer’s trenchcoat.
And, of course, the trouble has a woman attached. Not the femme fatale this time, more a classic damsel in distress. A blonde. They’re always blondes in these things. She’s in trouble. Again, aren’t they always? Getting her out the club lands Hammer in the sort of trouble that’s going to take the rest of this four-issue series to sort out.
Although it’s all decent enough, there’s a real lack of flow in the pages. Some of that is down to Collins’ writing, but again, we have those same art issues as I’ve already discussed.
Take this for an example of the art just not working…
You see what the artist is trying to do, but it just doesn’t work. Hammer looks like a child wearing his dad’s coat and using his dad’s arm to hold the gun while he’s at it.
And then there are those moments where I’m simply yanked out of the narrative by the storytelling problems. It might be Collins at fault, it might be the artists, it’s most likely both. But it’s one of those moments that pulls you right out of things.
In the first panel, Hammer and the girl are running down the corridor towards two goons who must be a good 10 feet or more away:
The first problem is that it looks for all the world like Hammer’s picking up the coat-check desk/plinth thing (which, because of the shadows, looks more like a huge waste bin).
And the second problem, well that’s all about the panel to panel transition going on. Here’s the next couple of panels:
Are we really meant to believe Hammer makes the distance to take both goons down before they can fire? Nope, just another thing in a too long list of things that don’t work here.
The issue ends with a Spillane short prose tale, ‘Trouble… Come And Get It’. It’s just 2 pages, but continued next issue. A new PI on a decoy job for a bank, carrying the empty bag as some other stiff holds the real things. His job is to stand there and let the crooks snatch the dummy bag if they want. “Just stand there and look scared” is what they want him to do. Dumb kid. Wants the glory, wants the excitement. Figures he’ll handcuff himself to the bag. That way, if they want the case, they’ll have to take him as well. Dumb kid. Dumb, dumb kid.
Again, it’s classic Spillane. Frankly, your enjoyment of it really is going to depend on how much you like Spillane. But, having said that, the odds of many folks who aren’t Spillane fans picking up Mike Hammer is pretty slim anyhow.
All in all, this sadly feels like Collins doing his best impression of Mickey Spillane, adapting his story, ‘The Night I Died‘ a piece originally written in the 50s as an unproduced screenplay. But, although it has all of the elements of classic Spillane, none of them seem to gel together properly, and what we’re left with is a comic by one of Spillane’s greatest fans, written seemingly just for the fans. A shame.
Mike Hammer Issue 1 is published by Titan Comics. Story by Mickey Spillane & Max Allan Collins, Written by Max Allan Collins, artwork by Marcelo Salaza & Marcio Freire, Letters by Tom Williams.
Cover A by Robert McGinnis (that’s the thing of beauty at the top of this review). Cover B by Alex Ronald and cover C by Mack Chater are below.