The Prince of Pulp

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Writer Mickey Spillane poses on location for the "The Girl Hunters" in New York in this July 1963 portrait

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Crime writer Lawrence Block believes Spillane did more than spice up a genre; he created a format that bridged midcult and low art, print and picture. Block notes that Hammer "was originally intended as a comic-strip hero. The fast cuts, the in-your-face immediacy, and the clear-cut, no-shades-of-gray, good-versus-evil story lines of the Mike Hammer novels come straight out of the comic-book world. Mickey Spillane was writing something else — comic books for grown-ups." I, the Jury, then, can lay claim to being the first graphic novel, just without illustrations.

It was a connection not lost on some of Spillane's excoriators. Frederic Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent was an indictment of comic books and their supposedly toxic influence on kids; the only novelist Wertham mentioned was Spillane. In a way, that was acute. The kids who read comics before World War II were ready for stronger stuff, but with the same bold, obvious, shall we say cartoonish verve. And Wertham was right in fearing that the comic-book worldview was one that would not fade, like acne, as the kids grew up. They would demand adolescent popular art forever.

That came from Spillane. His influence is everywhere evident in the popular culture that followed him. I've written before that the 20th century can be neatly divided in halves: for the first 50 years, middle-class pop culture imitated the upper class; in the next 50, it aped the underclass. (Still does.) The first period tried for elegance, the second for outlawry. Astaire; Spillane. This change could be gauged seismographically in the movies, music and comic books of the 1950s. But Spillane was there first, as pioneer or prime corrupter.

The Spillane obsession with spectacularly cantilevered women finds its modern expression in the gargantuan, silicon-sweetened contours of Pamela Anderson and her pin-up siblings. As for Spillane's attention to the particulars of violence, it has pretty much taken over action films, including the most ambitious ones. It's in the acrobattles of Sin City and the blood-love of Quentin Tarantino. The crimson orgasms that Sam Peckinpah brought to the screen in The Wild Bunch, Spillane had put on the page 20 years earlier, and reaped much the same condemnation.

The difference is that, in the late '40s and early '50s, mainstream culture was still defined by the standards of good taste, whatever that is. Usually it meant congratulating a work of fiction for its modernist notions and humanist politics. That wouldn't fit Spillane at all; his novels were, arguably, post-humanist. No tastemaker admitted to enjoying the pulps, though they contained some of the most vigorous writing around. Few critics defended Spillane, even to establish their contrarian credentials by going against the genteel grain. (Spillane's one cheerleader among serious novelists was Ayn Rand, a dogmatic right-winger. That didn't help sway the establishment.) Hammer, who dominated the mass book market in the early '50s as monopolistically as Harry Potter did a half-century later, couldn't be ignored and, dammit, wouldn't be praised. He was both unavoidable and indefensible.

Remember that even Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, though they were published by the most reputable house (Knopf) and wrote popular books that became hit movies, weren't considered the equals of "serious" novelists. They wrote genre fiction. The New Yorker critic (and novelist) Edmund Wilson could find "the boys in the back room" lacking. Then came another irony. Later generations of critics threw off their pretensions and mined the gritty glories of pulp fiction; they cogently argued that Hammett and Chandler, and Thompson and David Goodis and others, were worth cherishing (and that writers like Wilson, who's forgotten today as a novelist, weren't.) Yet in this rush to validate the pulps, Spillane was curiously forgotten — a prophet without honor. But with profit. Those royalties kept rolling in.


He was born Frank Morrison Spillane, the son of a Brooklyn barkeep. Raised on the wrong (indeed, only) side of the tracks in Ellzabeth, N.J., he wrote for slick magazines, then shifted to comics, composing the two-page prose fillers that were oddly required by law. During the war he spend four years teaching pilots how to fly and left a Captain, returning to New York. Before the war he had peddled a comic-book character named Mike Danger, the Hammer prototype. Now he updated it, fleshing it out with traits of a Marine friend, Jack Stang (whom he later proposed should star as Hammer, even directing a short film with Stang in the role, but it didn't take.) He also gave Hammer a contact in the police force, Captain Pat Chambers, to serve as go-between, confidant and stooge; and a girl-Friday, the voluptuous, resourceful, loyal Velda — based, Spillane says, on Wilma, "an old girlfriend of mine, a long time ago, before the war."

That gave him the makings, and suddenly he had a motive. "I had to get out of New York City," he says in Mike Hammer's Mickey Spillane. "I couldn't stand that place." So he moved up to Newburgh and, when told a home he wanted to build would cost $1,000, speed-wrote I, the Jury. The hardback version, published by E.P. Dutton, sold OK, nothing special, about 20,000 copies. But when issued in paperback in late 1948, the book stoked a furor. (The year's other literary sensation that year was Spillane's polar opposite, the lounge kitten Truman Capote.)

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