Ms. Tree

Hard Case Crime Ms Tree

I discovered Grand Master ‘Edgar’ winner Max Allan Collins’ and Terry Beatty’s ground-breaking character Ms. Tree completely backwards: Not from the various comics series which debuted in 1981 and ran in titles by several different publishers through the early 1990’s, but in the one Ms. Tree novel, Deadly Beloved, published by Hard Case Crime back in 2007. And as it happened, I didn’t even buy that when it was released but several years later, and foolishly didn’t read it right away. But that delay didn’t diminish the enjoyment one bit. I was completely entranced with the character of Michael (not Michelle!) Tree, and determined to track down the comics. Easier said than done, as it turned out. I’ve never been lucky with comic shops’ back-issue bins, often as not muscled aside by some hard-core comics dude. In the end I only located one DC Comics Ms. Tree Quarterly. That one I grabbed and enjoyed a lot.

DC Ms Tree Quarterly

So I was thrilled to hear that Titan Comics Hard Case Crime line will reprint the Ms. Tree series later this year. So far I’ve been pleased with all of Titan’s Hard Case Crime comics that I’ve tried — Triggerman, Peepland and others —  and trust them to do an excellent job.

Ms. Tree. Well, just say it out loud. Misz-Ter-ree. Mystery. Get it? Cute.

Ms Tree Trio

Ms. Tree is writer Collins’ and artist Beatty’s ode to the classic crime comics which largely vanished in the aftermath of the 1950’s Wertham comics scare (Seduction of The Innocent, congressional hearings, etc.). Michael Tree took over her murdered husband’s private detective agency (the Mister also named Michael Tree) and the original series apparently dealt with her violent, vengeance-driven quest to solve his murder and ultimately bring the crime syndicate responsible to justice. Subsequent stories dealt with serious subjects for a time when comics still tiptoed around more mature real-world topics like pregnancy, abortion, homophobia. Ms. Tree herself is kind of a double for Mickey Spillane’s Velda, Mike Hammer’s secretary and paramour — An imposing six foot tall, sporting a Bettie Page hairdo and packing a gun in her shoulder bag (a bag that’s wielded as a nasty weapon in an emergency). Ironically, Ms. Tree turns out to be an even more effective P.I. than her husband was. The character preceded – or maybe even foreshadowed Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone, and helped to supplant outmoded notions of ‘stiletto gumshoes’ previously embodied in the G.G. Fickling’s Honey West and Carter Brown’s Mavis Seidlitz series. I don’t see release dates for this Titan Comics Hard Case Crime comics series, but will definitely be watching for it. Ms. Tree is not escaping me this time.

 

Sveta’s Sirens

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Graphic designer and illustrator Sveta Shubina may make her living doing stylized logotype designs, but it’s her whimsical take on retro hyper-feminized character illustration that finds her popping up all over the web. Look for more of this Rostov-on-Don, Russia artist’s work at Behance, Instagram and her own gallery/shop at Etsy…and there’s a lot to view.

Sveta Shubina 1

New Zealand’s pinup and fashion designer “The Velvet Decolette”(velvetd.com…a “less bitchy, more kitschy pinup posse”) did a brief interview with the artist, and she explained her influences, some of which ought to be obvious, like Dan DeCarlo, Jack Cole and Bill Wenzel, but also early Disney and Fleisher animation. To complete the homage to those mid-twentieth century cartoonists and pinup artists, Shubina not only replicates their drawing style and the period-perfect costuming, but distresses some of the art itself and fades the hues to add a vintage look. Cute stuff.

Madame Medusa

Benicio’s Girls With Guns

Jose Luis Benicio 1

It’s a peculiar American conceit: We think we dominate everything. No question, sometimes we do. In the vintage art and illustration arenas for comics, pulp magazines and book covers, titans like McGinnis, Maguire, Steranko, Kirby, Adams and so many others created a remarkable legacy of mid-twentieth century pop-cultural visuals. A person could spend a lifetime studying these artists and their work. But, I also like to snoop around Euro-Sleaze magazines, Giallo digests, and pop illustration in other markets from the UK to Australia and Mexico to South America. There’s a lot to be appreciated.

Centro Commercial

For example, commercial art studios in Spain reached out across Europe — and across the Atlantic as well – to become a powerful force in 1960’s – 70’s comic art art and illustration, most evident in the American market among the many magazine-sized monthlies from Warren Publishing like Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella, along with competing titles from Marvel and Skywald. Meanwhile, the work of talented young artists from Brazil and Venezuela made it into the regular U.S. comic book scene and the paperback cover market, though the latter was contracting so fast at the time, many U.S. artists had already migrated into more lucrative advertising and movie studio work.

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Consider Brazilian artist Jose Luis Benicio, apparently regarded as the ‘King Of The Pinups’ in his own country, though his work actually dealt more with Brazilian film studio posters and regular advertising assignments. Perhaps he really ought to be known as the painter of ‘Girls With Guns’, for his extensive work on period-sexy action/espionage paperback series.

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Born in 1936 near Rio Prado, Benicio originally planned on a career in music, but abandoned the piano for a paint brush, initially starting out as an apprentice in Porto Alegre at only 16, then hitting the big time in Rio de Janeiro in the mid-1950’s. There he worked for various studios and small agencies, eventually forging a lucrative long-term relationship with the Brazilian office of McCann-Erickson advertising by 1961, which led to work for Coca Cola, Esso and others. Tireless in his prime, Benicio also produced, by his own reckoning, over 300 movie posters for the government-backed Embrafilme Studios.

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At the same time, Benicio worked for various publishers on popular Modesty Blaise-style knock-off series like Giselle and Bridgette In Action, nearly all featuring the series’ provocatively posed heroines brandishing a gun. Tame by both U.S. and European standards, these ubiquitous ‘Girl-With-A-Gun’ covers actually brought him some unwelcome attention from the conservative military government. Eventually political changes in Brazil brought an end to the government backed film studio system, and portions of Benicio’s lucrative movie marketing work dried up. He began working with some American publishers, but by this time, digital graphics were already sounding the death knell for traditional illustration.

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Benicio normally worked in gouache, today considered by many to be a dying art. Gouache, which is more or less ‘fine-arts’ tempera paint, combines the brilliance of the purest oils but with unparalleled opacity. Due to its quick drying time, it’s the perfect medium for commercial illustrators. I worked with it a little back in school days, and was impressed with its bright, intense colors and buttery viscosity, but found it pretty tricky to handle. (Which is probably among the many reasons why I’m not a successful commercial illustrator!) More of the well-known vintage U.S. paperback and pulp magazine covers than you’d think were actually done in gouache, not oils.

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To be clear, ‘girls with guns’ aren’t the only thing Benicio painted. But they are among the familiar pop culture images the artist is widely known for, particularly in the South American market. Do dig around a bit on your own if you’d like to see more of the Brazilian illustrator’s work. There are two books on Jose Luis Benicio, though neither is likely to be on a shelf at your local bookstore: Sex & Crime: The Book Cover Art Of Benicio by Reference Press, 2011 and Benicio Created The Woman by Goncalo Junior, originally published in 2006 and re-released in 2012.

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Stumptown

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One way for rabid readers to keep from going broke is to learn to love their public library. I have. The one closest to me is a charming and well-designed facility, though all that décor apparently left no funds for books. But the next library over is an enormous two-story treasure trove, and its graphic novel section could outdo many comics shops. That’s where I came across writer Greg Rucka and artist Matthew Southworth’s great contemporary hard-boiled series, Stumptown.

Stumptown 1

Dex Parios is my favorite kind of ‘stiletto gumshoe’: Wonderfully flawed. Army vet and inveterate gambler, Dex is both bad-ass and wise-ass, and occasionally a bit of a screw-up. It makes for a lethal combo.

Stumptown 4

Sounds like near-future small screen options won’t be short of intriguing girlz-with-guns and lethal ladies, even though I’m still processing the sad news that Netflix cancelled the amazing Jessica Jones series with Krysten Ritter.

Cobie Smulders

ABC just announced a new Stumptown series by Jason Richman and Ruben Flesicher. Hard-boiled Dex Parios will be played by Canadian actress Jacoba Francisca Maria Smulders, better known as Cobie Smulders. Marvel universe fans know Cobie as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill from the Avengers. TV channel surfers know her as Robin Scherbatsky from syndicated-everywhere How I Met Your Mother sitcom reruns. Seems like a good casting decision to me, and I’m betting she can bring Dex Parios’ hard-boiled grit and glimpses of vulnerability to life on screen just fine. Looking forward to this one. And still enjoying Rucka and Southworth’s comics.

Stumptown Hardcover

Nancy Drew, High School Hipster

Nancy Drew by Tula Lotay

The prior post noted that the CW Network will soon launch a Nancy Drew series, starring Kennedy McMann as the iconic teenage sleuth. From what I can glean of the planned storyline, I get the feeling the series’ inspiration comes less from the classic ‘Carolyn Keene’ books and perhaps more from the Dynamite Entertainment Nancy Drew comics series that started last year.

Nancy Drew 1 by Tula Lotay

In writer Kelly Thompson’s reimagining of the Nancy Drew universe, the plucky girl detective’s in a hipster high school world with old pal Bess and gay punkette George forming her ‘Scooby’ gang of investigators. The interior art is by Jenn St-Onge (look for more of her work at the artist’s site, jennstonge.ca) with each issue released with multiple covers (that annoying trend among greedy comics publishers) and I’ve gone with the ones drawn by British comic and illustration master Tula Lotay. I’m only four issues into the series so I think I have some catching up to do, but it’s a good read for a “Teen+” marketed title, and it sure ‘feels’ a lot like what the CW is touting for its network Nancy Drew series.

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We’ll All Be Jones-ing For Some Jessica Jones.

Jessica Jones 1

A lot of people will be furious (or already are) over the news that Netflix just cancelled its remaining Marvel series, including Jessica Jones. Lets be clear: To me, the Jessica Jones character may be one of the comics world’s best-ever non-costumed-superhero female detective/crime fighting characters. The Netflix series has rightly been showered with awards and nominations, and lead actor Krysten Ritter has done a consistently spectacular job of bringing that complex, dark, flawed yet heroic character to life on screen. Disappointed that it’ll be over soon? You bet.

But surprised? Strangely, not at all.

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Even before the media landscape morphed and fragmented into the multi-platform world that it is today (and this evolution continues, till we won’t recognize ‘television’ in a few short years) I learned the hard way not to become too invested in any series. Enjoy them when they’re around, but be prepared for sudden and disappointing cancellations that often have nothing at all to do with a show’s popularity, critical acclaim or ratings. I think ABC cancelling Agent Carter really did it for me. I really loved that show, and was heartbroken when it ended prematurely. Now, I know better.

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In Jessica Jones’ case, Marvel’s owned by Disney, which will be launching its own platform soon. So, of course they’re pulling valuable properties from what will very soon be their competition.

So it’s just not healthy to let yourself become emotionally invested in a television series, or worse, turn into hardcore fanboys and fangirls, blurring the lines between the actors and the characters they play, writing fanfic and starting blogs destined for obsolescence. I’ll bet there are legions of former WB/CW Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel fans still hoping for a renewal with original cast members, even though the Sunnydale teens are all in their 40’s now (just checked, and Charisma ‘Cordelia’ Carpenter is nearing 50).

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So we’ll enjoy the last of Jessica Jones, cross our collective fingers that Disney’s new platform finds space for a continuation, re-start or spinoff, and if so, that Krysten Ritter is available if that happens.

And keep in mind, there are always the comics where it all began.

 

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Fight Like A Girl.

Mike Millar olivier coipel The Magic Order

And I’ll just bet she does, so watch out. Spanish comics writer Mark Millar’s The Magic Order (issue 6), with art by French illustrator Olivier Coipel.

Blackjacked & Pistol-Whipped

Crime Does Not Pay

The Crime Does Not Pay comic book series debuted in 1942, the first of its kind to publish such unvarnished, gritty, violent crime tales in a marketplace that had become saturated with good-guys and their sidekicks flitting around in capes and tights, following the success of Superman, Batman and other costumed ‘superheroes’. The title lasted till 1955, though it was pretty watered down by then, following the parental and even Congressional scrutiny of the comic book marketplace.

This handsome trade pb from Dark Horse Books includes two dozen beautifully reproduced vintage Crime Does Not Pay tales, along with an introduction by Brian Azzarello and an informative essay by Denis Kitchen, which details one of the comic’s founders (Bob Wood) own criminal legacy: He arrested for the gruesome murder of his lover in New York’s Gramercy Park Hotel. Seriously, it’s a real life story straight out of Crime Does Not Pay comics. Even 70+ years later, these stories are still pretty, rough, tough and violent. Just how ‘true’ they are…well, who cares?

rime Does Not Pay Back

 

Primal Spillane

Primal Spillane

Some dismiss him, some revere him, and some 1950’s-60’ literary critics actually reviled Mickey Spillane, certain that he represented the end of American arts & letters. But nearly 250 million book buyers apparently thought otherwise. I’ll proudly admit to being among the adoring faction, having read all of his novels and re-reading a couple faves more than once. Sure, some of his later work can’t hold a candle to his first few Mike Hammer novels. So what? The man’s a hard-boiled genre icon. I’m glad that Iowa mystery writer Max Allan Collins forged a relationship with Spillane in the golden age great’s latter years, assigned to sort through his papers following Spillane’s demise, and authorized to complete several of Mickey Spillane’s unfinished novels (which I’ve enjoyed as well).

Primal Spillane is a collection of ‘short-shorts’ the emerging writer penned as filler material for comics back when he was starting out before his WII service. There are over 40 short pieces here, covering a lot of ground – not Mike Hammer stories so much as adventure stories, war stories along with some crime stories. Pretty uniformly, they employ those trademark Spillane gotcha endings and make the most of ultra-short word counts, which is a lesson in economy for any writer. There’s a good intro written by Collins, and the book was compiled with the able assistance of his researcher, Lynne Meyers.

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