Pulp Fiction #1: Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer

“The roar of the .45 shook the room. Charlotte struggled back a step. Her eyes were a symphony of incredulity, an unbelieving witness to truth. Slowly, she looked down at the ugly swelling in her belly where the bullet went in.

“How c-could you”, she gasped.

I only had a moment before talking to a corpse. I got it in.

“It was easy”, I said. “

– from I, THE JURY by Mickey Spillane, first published in 1947 by EP Dutton

Mickey Spillane’s PI Mike Hammer made his debut in I, THE JURY, and set the shocked literary world on its collective ear with its sex-and-violence laden story. Critics savaged Spillane, but the book buying public ate it up, turning I, THE JURY into a best seller and launching Hammer as a pop culture icon. Hammer’s roots were deeply set in the bloody pulps and another 20th century phenomenon… the four-color comics!

Spillane got his start writing for both mediums. Born in Brooklyn in 1918, the tough-talking Irishman found he had a knack for storytelling, and by the 1930’s managed to make a few sales to the pulps. Spillane soon joined the fledgling comic book world, cranking out stories for Timely’s (later known as Marvel Comics) Human Torch, Captain America, Sub-Mariner, Fawcett’s Captain Marvel, and a ton of those two-page “fillers” publishers used to print to meet the cheaper second-class postal rates. Like most red-blooded American males of the era, Spillane joined the service during WWII, and when it was over he returned to grinding ’em out. Only this time, Spillane had an idea.

Spillane dreamed up a tough private eye named Mike Danger and, together with artist Mike Roy, looked to sell it to the lucrative syndicated newspaper comics market, without success. Undaunted, Spillane took his project and wrote a novel based on the character, now renamed Mike Hammer. The writer (“I’m not an author”, he once claimed) elevated the levels of sex and violence, whipping up his lurid adaptation in a little over a week. Publisher E.P. Dutton bought the book, titled I, THE JURY, and history was made. The critics lambasted Spillane’s literary style (or lack thereof), but post-war readers grabbed onto all the sex and violence within the book’s pages and begged for more.

“The guy was dead as hell. He lay on the floor in his pajamas with his brains scattered all over the floor and my gun in his hand”

  • – from VENGEANCE IS MINE , first published in 1950 by EP Dutton

Mike Hammer is Spillane’s macho fantasy alter ego. The PI was, like his creator, a World War II vet, now a Cold War Anti-Communist who played by his own set of rules. He was a law-and-order guy dishing out vigilante justice, not interested in waiting for an incompetent system that rarely worked for the little guy. Hammer had a way with the ladies, yet the love of his life was loyal secretary Velma. His two best friends were NY Homicide Captain Pat Chambers and his trusty Colt .45, which served him well when delivering just desserts to the lowlifes and corrupt officials who deserved them. Say what you will about Hammer’s misanthropic methods or misogynistic viewpoints; he was a stand-up guy who got the job done… by any means necessary!

Ralph Meeker as Hammer in “Kiss Me Deadly” (1955)

Spillane’s terse, graphic novels exploded in the public conscience like a .45 slug through flesh and bone, and it was inevitable Mike Hammer would blast his way to the Silver Screen. Tough guy actor Biff Elliot was the first to play Hammer in a 1953 adaptation of I, THE JURY, which of course was considerably toned down for the screen. Probably the best known movie Hammer was Ralph Meeker, who starred in director Robert Aldrich’s KISS ME DEADLY (1955), as bleak and violent a film noir as you’re likely to find. Robert Bray next stepped into Hammer’s shoes for 1957’s MY GUN IS QUICK, a low-budget but fairly entertaining entry. A syndicated television version of MIKE HAMMER was run from 1958-60, with Darren McGavin as the PI, a series decried by critics for its excessive violence – hey, what did they expect?

Mickey Spillane as his creation Mike Hammer in “The Girl Hunters” (1963)

Mike Hammer took a ten-year hiatus before Spillane resurrected him in the 1962 novel THE GIRL HUNTERS. Believing his beloved Velma dead, Hammer’s been on a booze soaked bender before learning she’s actually alive, and he begins his regeneration from drunken bum to instrument of vengeance. This book was made into a film a year later with none other than Spillane himself cast as Hammer! It’s as violent as you’d think with the author doing a not-bad job. Spillane had always been a self promoter, and in later years he made the rounds of TV talk shows and even starred in a series of commercials for Miller Lite Beer!

Stacy Keach, TV’s greatest Mike Hammer

Hammer was back with (what else?) a vengeance, and a new audience was turned on to Spillane’s sex-and-violence fueled world. In the Reagan-era 1980’s a new TV version was broadcast on CBS, starring Stacy Keach, by far the most popular of Hammer portrayers. The stylish series was a hit, that is until Keach got busted in Britain on cocaine smuggling charges and had to serve time in prison. He returned to the role in (appropriately enough) the 1986 TV movie THE RETURN OF MIKE HAMMER, and again the 90’s with the  syndicated MIKE HAMMER, PRIVATE EYE series.

“There isn’t a Coliseum anymore, but the city is a bigger bowl, and it seats more people. The razor-sharp claws aren’t those of wild animals, but man’s can be just as sharp and twice as vicious. You have to be quick, and you have to be able, or you become one of the devoured, and if you can kill first, no matter how and no matter who, you can return to the comfortable chair and the comfortable fire. But you have to be quick. And able. Or you’ll be dead”

-from MY GUN IS QUICK, first published in 1950 by EP Dutton

Tough as a two dollar steak, Mike Hammer refuses to die, even though his creator Spillane passed away in 2006. Mystery writer Max Allan Collins, who once took over the Dick Tracy comic strip and penned the graphic novel THE ROAD TO PERDITION, has been chronicling the hard-boiled adventures of Hammer since 2007, working from Spillane’s own unfinished manuscripts. As long as there’s a need for a ruthless avenger to take on the dirty jobs no one else can, there will be a need for Mike Hammer, political correctness be damned!

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