Unexpected Comic Strip Creators - Mickey Spillane

Mike Hammer

Detective stories and comics have gone hand in hand ever since the early days of the medium. One of the most famous comic heroes, Batman, first appeared in the pages of Detective Comics, which has become one of the longest running comic books in history, as well as lending its name to one of the two biggest comic companies, DC Comics. Even before Batman's debut, Dick Tracy and others were solving crimes and mysteries on the newspaper page. Those kinds of stories have always been popular with readers, but I imagine they were also popular with writers and newspapermen, given that mysteries and intrigue gave readers a big reason to pick up the next day's paper to find out what happens next. In order to create a popular detective strip, it seems logical that a newspaper syndicate would look for someone already skilled in writing that kind of narrative. In 1934, King Features had done it with Dashiell Hammett, who I've written about previously, and in 1953 a much smaller syndicate, Phoenix Features, would get their own detective comic strip written by another star of hard-boiled detective fiction, Mickey Spillane.

While Spillane is certainly not someone you would expect to write a comic strip, the detective character in most of Spillane's books, Mike Hammer, is also not someone you would expect to appear in one. Spillane's books were known for their extreme violence, and Hammer was the type of character to literally take no prisoners and shoot first and ask questions later. While justice in other detective stories usually involved the culprits being taken to jail, perpetrators in Mike Hammer stories tended to end up dead, and usually by Hammer's hand. Spillane would receive quite a bit of criticism for this over the course of his career. The books proved extremely popular, however, and even though his first book was published in 1947, by 1953 Hammer began appearing in several other forms of media. That year saw the release of the movie based on the first book, I, the Jury, as well as a Mike Hammer radio show. Spillane was not involved in the writing or production of either of those, but that was not so for the comic strip that would appear that same year.

Unlike Hammett, writing a comic strip was a job that Spillane was quite well equipped to do. In fact, if Spillane had had his way, this is how Mike Hammer would have begun. Spillane got his start writing for comic books, working for a company called Funnies, Inc. who provided comics publishers with scripts for their comics. Spillane's scripts appeared in books published by Timely Comics, the company that would eventually become Marvel, as well as some published by Fawcett Comics, the company who published Captain Marvel (better known these days as Shazam), among others. It was during this time that he began developing the character that would become Mike Hammer. In 1942, he wrote a comic script for a story about a private eye named Mike Lancer, which appeared in an issue of Green Hornet. His name would later be changed to Mike Danger, and a cover was drawn, but the comic was never published. Spillane would finally settle on calling him Mike Hammer, but abandoned the idea of his character being in a comic book and instead wrote the first Mike Hammer novel. Still, he always envisioned Hammer as a comic book character, and wrote his novels as if he was scripting a comic book.

Also unlike the King Features situation with Hammett, it wasn't the syndicate that approached Spillane about a Mike Hammer comic strip, but it was Spillane who approached them. Jerry Iger, who had founded Phoenix Features years earlier with Will Eisner, had worked with Spillane when he was at Funnies, Inc. Spillane wanted Hammer to be shown the way he had always envisioned him, and pitched the idea to Iger. Iger agreed to sell the strip, and hired comics writer Joe Gill, who had also worked with the two of them at Funnies, Inc, as well as artist Ed Robbins. When the strip began, Gill wrote the daily strips, and Spillane wrote the Sunday strips, which were a different continuity. Even though Gill write the scripts for the dailies, Spillane was still in charge of plotting. Gill was not able to keep up with deadlines, so Spillane and Robbins ended up stepping in to assist on scripting the dailies as well. Notably, the strip is not an adaptation of any of the books. The stories in the strip were written specifically for it. This may have been by necessity, as if it had been an adaptation it's unlikely that any newspaper would run it.

Predictably, despite not being an adaptation, many newspapers were hesitant to run the strip for fear that it would contain the kind of violence and sex that Spillane's novels had. Spillane was able to keep things sufficiently toned down for the newspaper market, so while circulation wasn't as wide as Phoenix Features would have hoped, it was wide enough to keep it going for at least a few months. It seems it would have kept going, too, if Spillane had been able to continue the toned-down approach. Unfortunately, this was not the case. The cliffhanger panel in a particular strip from January of 1954 depicted a woman in a, shall we say, compromising position that I think, according to descriptions, would still be quite racy even by today's comic book standards. The strip was dropped from nearly all the papers it was in, and it ended less than a year after it began. Ed Robbins took responsibility for the offending panel, but given Spillane's penchant for being very descriptive and specific in his scripts, I don't think Robbins is really to blame for the strip's demise. After that, clearly realizing that the newspaper page was not the correct medium for his work, Spillane decided to stick to writing novels, as well as being somewhat involved in the movie adaptations (including playing Mike Hammer in one of them).

For more information:

TwoMorrows Publishing, for an interview with Spillane about his time at Funnies, Inc.

The Thrilling Detective, for more info on the character Mike Hammer

Hermes Press, for the collected Mike Hammer comic strips. Also includes an introduction by Max Allan Collins with lots of great background information.