When cartoonist Terry Beatty and I were approached in 1981 by Dean Mullaney to contribute to his comics anthology, Eclipse Magazine, we were honored...and surprised.
Other contributors would include Steve Ditko, Marshall Rogers, Steve Englehart, Howard Cruse, P. Craig Russell, Gene Colan, Don McGregor, and Trina Robbins – major names in the field. Our presence might well be labeled: “What’s wrong with this picture?”
Dean knew me from my scripting of the syndicated Dick Tracy comic strip, which I’d taken over from creator Chester Gould late in 1977. He knew Terry from our Mike Mist Minute Mist-ery feature running in The Chicago Reader.
I met Terry when he was a high school kid working at a local pizza parlor. He was the son of a favorite junior high teacher of mine and an aspiring cartoonist working on underground “comix.” I was a local author who had written a couple of novels (Bait Money and Blood Money) with a major character who was a comic book collector (as was I). In those days, comics fans were a rare commodity even among nerds and we quickly bonded. Terry would often tag along with Barb and me to movies (in particular Phantom of the Paradise, repeatedly) and binged with us on tapes of Prisoner Cell Block H sent by a fellow comics fan in Chicago where the over-the-top Australian series was airing.
As Terry’s artistic skills blossomed, we began trying to land a paying gig together. We’d submitted try-out strips to the Chicago Tribune Syndicate (my Tracy employer) for new versions of Harold Teen, Winnie Winkle, and Little Orphan Annie. We had some encouraging response, particularly to the latter, but eventually nothing came of it – some newcomer named Leonard Starr beat us on Annie.
Together we developed The Comics Page, a single-page of comics with Mike Mist its main feature; this we syndicated ourselves to weekly newspapers and giveaway shoppers. We did that for about a year and, while it was a good idea and well-enough executed, handling the syndication ourselves was overly ambitious. But we did land The Chicago Reader, who chose to use just Mike Mist.
Dean liked Mist well enough to offer us a slot in Eclipse Magazine, where our dream was to hold onto a berth after our six-issue commitment ran out. We were doing only eight pages an issue, after all, doubled to sixteen for the concluding chapter of “I, for an Eye.”
My notion for Ms. Tree, which I thought up on the phone when Dean asked me if I had a series in mind, was: What if Mike Hammer finally married his secretary Velda, herself a tough PI, and on their honeymoon (SPOILER ALERT) he was murdered? Wouldn’t she take over the agency and make solving his murder her first case?
That was the premise, and Terry took to it – I’d already infected him with the Spillane bug – and began to design Ms. Tree herself. Initially, probably because Velda had been described by Mickey as having raven hair and bangs, she looked like Bettie Page. Terry and I came to feel that was too pandering (soon our pal Dave Stevens would have no such hesitancy in creating The Rocketeer) and went instead for an attractive woman, big and bold but no babydoll.
To our surprise, of the new features introduced in Eclipse, Ms. Tree was the hit, and Dean offered us our own comic book. Initially – and I admit complaining about this – the comic book was called Ms. Tree’s Thrilling Detective Adventures; but by issue four, it was just Ms. Tree.
The initial serial, “I, for an Eye,” was in black-and-white, reflecting the approach of Eclipse Magazine. (The comic book was in color.) I have always loved Terry’s artwork in “I, for an Eye,” its rich use of black, its layouts revealing his (and my) love of traditional story strips.
We were mounting “an experiment in coherence,” as comic book storytelling seemed fixated on design at the time. Fifties master Johnny Craig (of EC’s Crime SuspenStories and Vault of Horror) was our template; but lots of other influences came into play, including the work of the late, great Ray Gotto of Ozark Ike and Cotton Woods fame (I was lucky enough to develop a story strip with Ray, although it did not come to pass...but it did contain the seeds of my Nathan Heller novel series).
The first serial in the color comic book, “Death Do Us Part,” found Terry developing a more realistic style, which matured further in “The Cold Dish.”
My roots – both professionally and as a reader – were as much in comic strips as in comic books. Soap opera elements (in a good sense) came in, as with the introduction of a third Michael Tree, her late husband’s son, previously unknown to her.
I like stories that grow out of stories, novels in a series that develop into a saga. That element of Ms. Tree set it apart, just as our stubborn insistence on writing mystery and crime fiction in comic book form put us in a lonely niche of our own. But many would follow us there.
Mike Gold – then an editor at DC – was another booster of the Collins/Beatty team, having published our homemade costumed hero, Wild Dog (later seen on CW’s Arrow and recently disrespected in a Suicide Squad comic book). In 1990 Mike found Ms. Tree a berth at DC, where Terry and I would do considerable work over the years – notably my Road to Perdition, and Terry’s Eisner-winning Batman Adventures.
We wound up doing ten issues, each of which was a graphic novella. “Gift of Death,” the first of these, was designed in part to bring new readers up to speed. Over our four-year DC run, five novellas comprised one big graphic novel, collected by Titan/Hard Case Crime in Ms. Tree Vol. 1: One Mean Mother. In my view, this was similar to Dashiell Hammett serializing The Maltese Falcon and other novels of his in the classic pulp, Black Mask.
The ten issues of Ms. Tree Quarterly also allowed us to use our title character and her supporting cast in self-contained stories, displaying the aspect of Ms. Tree that allowed us to survive for a very long time in a field that was not conducive to our non-superhero, noir-ish comics series. We were exploring controversial crimes and themes in a “ripped from the headlines” fashion mirroring what I was doing at the time in the Tracy strip. (The covers of the DC issues and the eventual Titan/Hard Case Crime Comics were by a wonderful array of artists.)
In assuming the scripting of the famous feature from Gould, I’d taken to heart Tracy’s papa’s own credo that his strip was as much journalism as entertainment. Chet felt he was competing with the front page (and the sports page and everything else in a daily and Sunday newspaper). I followed suit, dealing with video piracy, terrorism, vigilantism, cloning and other the relevant topics.
When Dean Mullaney first approached me for Eclipse Magazine, I knew I would not be bound by the censorship that came along with writing a syndicated family-newspaper comic strip. This immediately gave me the notion of creating a detective comic using crimes I’d pitched that my Tribune Syndicate editors rejected.
In the first fifty issues of Ms. Tree, we dealt with abortion clinic bombings and abortion itself; mental illness; pornography; a pedophile serial killer; and other topical, controversial subjects.
In our DC run it was natural to spend some of the time following that same edgy path (these are collected in Ms. Tree Vol. 2: Skeleton in the Closet). “Devil’s Punchbowl” explores Satanism and religious cults, while “Skeleton in the Closet” takes on homophobia, even while making a sympathetic recurring character (Mike Jr., Ms. Tree’s stepson) the homophobe. In that same story, we reveal the gayness of a longtime recurring character – possibly the first mainstream comic book to do so. “Cry Rape!” explored college-campus date rape.
“Horror Hotel” was topical in the sense of reflecting a popular culture interest in exorcism, thanks to the film of that name and its many imitators. But really it provided two longtime horror fans – Beatty and Collins – to have some fun doing a nasty little terror tale, with a particular nod to Richard Matheson’s novel Hell House (1971) and the film it spawned, The Legend of Hell House (1973).
“To Live and Die in Vietnam” touched on the M.I.A. controversy even as it reflected my own interest in Hong Kong crime films, specifically the work of directors John Woo, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark. (Road to Perdition similarly reflected that interest.)
We started Titan’s series of archival collections at the end of Ms. Tree’s run, with the ten DC issues. In some ways those graphic novellas, and the five that comprise “One Mean Mother,” represent our best work. But the ability in those earlier issues to allow serialized stories to play out as long – or as briefly – as felt right gave us a freedom.
The third Titan collection, Ms. Tree Vol. 3: The Cold Dish, goes back to the beginning; several future archival collections will continue on chronologically, honoring the saga-like nature of the intertwining stories. These new editions were a long time coming, and probably should have emerged in the wake of Road to Perdition calling attention to my comics work. But both Terry and I were consumed by other projects – fiction and film for me, syndicated strips (The Phantom, Rex Morgan M.D.) for Terry.
Meanwhile (as we say in the funnies), in the thirty-eight years since her first appearance, Ms. Tree has attracted considerable Hollywood attention.
Michael Braverman, in 1993, was one of the hottest creators in TV, his 83-episode run of Life Goes On having just wrapped up. He had a “play or pay” deal, and would be paid in full for his next series even if ABC-TV decided not to make it. Braverman optioned Ms. Tree and wrote a script called Cassidy Tree, the setting shifting to the West, the “Cassidy” an obvious reference to Hopalong Cassidy.
Despite this, and beyond the modern-day western trappings, the script was solid. Astonishingly, it was more violent and sexier than what I had written. I have had a number of things optioned that have gotten to the script stage, but never before had somebody upped the “sex and violence” ante on me. I was pleased.
Additionally, serious discussions were underway with Raquel Welch to play Ms. Tree. Which in 1993 would have been a big damn deal.
Then we began to hear that ABC-TV had two very sexy, violent detective shows in the works, and the controversial nature of both meant one had to go. And ABC-TV went with a show called NYPD Blue. Whatever became of that?
Ironically, I later got hired to write two NYPD Blue TV tie-in novels (Blue Beginnings and Blue Blood). Another odd little resonance is that Bill Smitrovich – star of Life Goes On – was later one of the leads in the Quarry movie, The Last Lullaby (2008).
A dozen years ago or so, the Oxygen Network optioned Ms. Tree. I would, in another “play or pay” deal, write the script. I delivered it, but there’s no indication it was ever read. Writer/director, Kat Shea (Stripped to Kill) delivered a decent script that was read, but not made. As for my screenplay, it did get made, in a way – into a novel by me, published by Hard Case Crime (Deadly Beloved).
Among a handful of prose short stories I’ve written about Ms. Tree is “Inconvenience Store,” which became the basis of my very low-budget indie film, Real Time: Siege at Lucas Street Market (2001), with scream queen Brinke Stevens (who also appeared in my films Mommy and Mommy’s Day) in the Ms. Tree-esque lead. That’s “esque” and not Ms. Tree, because when we made the feature, Ms. Tree herself was still tied up in the Oxygen deal.
So if you track down that little film, know that Ms. Tree does not exactly appear in it. But Brinke makes a fine “almost” Ms. Tree, and the closest we’ve come to having the real thing on screen.
Currently Terry and I have signed another Ms. Tree deal for TV. All we can say is, “Stay tuned,” but don’t hold your breath.