Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Bike on the Moon: The Science Fiction of Mickey Spillane [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

There was one job in comics that was lower than the guy who cleaned the ink pens. That poor fool was the one who had the job of writing the two-page text feature that comics offered up until recent times. This story was included not because the editors thought comics needed text stories or because readers clamored for them. The reason these short pieces were included was strictly economic. In fact, we can thank the US Post Office for them. Back in the old days, publishers could mail out their Pulps at the 4th class rate. Publications that were not text based had to pay the severe 1st class rates. Comics, having come from the Pulps, walked the middle ground and included those little stories (usually 2 pages) to be included in the 4th class category. I can remember as a kid in the 1970s ignoring those two pages of boring text. I wanted artwork, color and... comics!

Whether you read them or ignored them, somebody had to write them. Most often they were slapped together by a junior editor, but in some cases more interesting people were hired to type away those 500-word masterpieces that nobody read. Comics that were created by Pulp chains were known to grab a veteran author from the bullpen occasionally, such as Donald Wayne Hobart or Jim Kjelgaard, but the biggest coup perhaps was when Marvel (then called Timely Comics) and Novelty Press shared for a year the work of mystery superstar, Mickey Spillane. (Mickey would start the Mike Hammer private eye series in 1947 with I, The Jury. This novel alone sold six and half million copies in the US. He was the superstar of the late noir period. His hard-boiled style would be encapsulated in the joke about the PI who beats confessions out of crooks: "Let me Spillane it to you.")

But before stardom, Spillane began in the comics. In 1940 he met Joe Gill (who would be a force at Charlton Comics) who hooked him up with his brother Ray Gill at Funnies Inc, a packager for the comics. In the early days of comic books, companies did not produce their own strips, but bought them from different outfits. Writing for these suppliers, Spillane worked on Golden Age comics such as Superman, Batman, and Captain Marvel. Unlike today, this was a low-paying, almost anonymous job. The only thing lower, was that guy writing the two page filler. After Pearl Harbor, Mickey enlisted, but continued to write the short two-pagers in 1941-42.

Most of Spillane's tales fall into two categories. The first are war stories such as "Fresh Meat For a Raider" (Sub-Mariner Comics #4, Winter 1941). An Anti-Nazi tale, it features a brave, American crew fooling a German U-Boat and destroying it. Typical of wartime comics, the Americans are always victorious, courageous, and lantern-jawed, while the enemy is cunning, but evil. These stories are the least interesting in terms of Spillane's later career, but they do serve as an historical look at a time when comics did their share to defeat Hitler.

More interesting are the mystery and suspense stories like "No Prisoners" (Target Comics V3 #4, June 1942) in which a cop, acting more like a private eye, single-handedly tracks down a gang of criminals and kills them all in a shoot-out. This is the Spillane we all expect to find in these short pieces. The style is tough, terse, and action-packed. All I could think of throughout the story was, "Why doesn't he call for back-up?" But occasionally, amongst the cops and newspaper reporters, the soldiers and tough guys, you find an odd little story like "The Man In the Moon" (All-Winners Comics #5, Summer 1942 with its cover featuring Namor and Captain America defeating a Nazi sub). Science Fiction! Mickey Spillane writing Sci-Fi!

Mickey spins the tale of Bruce Henderson, a frustrated inventor. He has created a rocketship in the Brazilian jungles because everyone laughs at his idea of going to the moon. Defying humanity, he flies off alone to see the Earth grow small, as bits of space dirt rasp along the hull. He sees a comet fly by and asteroids, before landing on the moon with a bump and then a long slide. At last, he walks on the moon, experiencing its lesser gravity. Henderson has prepared a space suit of sorts that supplies heat and air, but finds a pair of shorts handy as well for walking on the moon's sunny side. He has also brought a shovel, which he uses for weeks as he digs a mysterious trench in the lunar surface.

Finished with this project he produces a bicycle that he rides to the moon's mysterious dark side. He now wears the full spacesuit to endure the cold. In the darkness he thinks he sees an asteroid hit the surface of the moon, but it is actually another ship! He encounters another form of life, not a lunarian, but another visitor from space. This ugly alien is ten feet tall, with eight arms and large saucer-sized eyes. Bruce is armed with a rifle, but the creature dies from the impact, melting to a jelly and disappearing.

Henderson has had enough of the moon. He fires up the rocket and flies back to earth. Upon his return he tells the papers of his adventures, but is branded a liar. He isn't worried though. A new telescope in California vindicates him, for written upon the surface of the moon, dug in three long trenches, are the letters USA. Henderson has claimed the moon in the name of his country.

Spillane's science is terrible, but let's remember that this is 1942 and a visit to the moon was still considered "that silly Buck Rogers stuff" by most people. I would think that Mickey was familiar with some Pulp SF and comics, perhaps the early Astounding with its bug-eyed monsters or Fiction House's Planet Comics. The sting at the end of Spillane's tale, the man writing USA on the surface of the moon was used again by a much more respected author, Arthur C Clarke in "Watch This Space" (Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, February 1957). In Clarke's tale, it isn't a ditch cut into the lunar surface, but a cloud of gas in space. The idea is the same though, if more plausible. Clarke, being more cynical - or perhaps less patriotic - has the gas spell out a brand name of a soft drink instead of a country.

The two-page fiction of Mickey Spillane was collected in 2003 in a book called Primal Spillane: Early Stories 1941-42 (Gryphon Press), edited by Max Allan Collins and Lynn F Myers Jr. This out-of-print book is hard to find, so I recommend you check out many of the original Spillane stories at Digital Comic Museum or Comic Book Plus.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.
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