Wednesday , February 28 2024
Max Allan Collins & Terry Beatty's psychotronic hard-boiled graphic novel. . .

Johnny Dynamite: Underworld

Reading Max Allan Collins & Terry Beatty’s Johnny Dynamite: Underworld (AIT/Planet Lar), I found myself pondering one of those questions you periodically run up against in mainstream comics criticism. To wit: what do you do when a creator you enjoy is so enamored of another writer that they actively work to emulate that voice – and the writer they’re replicating is a purveyor of total crap?
As the creator of crime comics (Ms. Tree, a decent run on “Dick Tracy”) and paperback pulp (I’m particularly fond of his Nate Heller books), Collins is a solid pro. But his love for that pinnacle of hackdom, Mickey Spillane, is downright confounding. A best-selling writer of hardboiled fiction in the 50’s, Spillane’s known for bringing a believable brutishness to the world of tough-guy p.i.s. As a writer, though, he was thoroughly tin-eared and as a plotter, he was slapdash to the extreme. Pulling from the world that Spillane created – where a hero is just as likely to gut-shoot a nemesis as the villain – requires a certain level of off-kilter inventiveness that a straight-laced writer like Collins can’t muster, no matter how many “psychotronic” ingredients he may toss into the stew.
This brings us to Underworld, which stars an obscure Spillane-indebted comic book hero, Pete Morisi’s eye patched private dick Johnny Dynamite, in a period tale of Chi-town gangsters, voodoo and deals with the devil. Rendered by longtime collaborator Beatty in his usual stiff blend of Johnny Craig & Steve Ditko (appropriate for the material, though Beatty can’t create a distinctly sexy dame to save his soul), the four-part story originated appeared as a mini-series for Dark Horse, who for some reason apparently passed on the trade. (Poor initial sales, perhaps?) The front cover makes a point of telling prospective readers that this is “From the author of Road to Perdition,” Collins’ gangster era tribute to Lone Wolf and Cub (now there’s a series to emulate!) though the two works are very different kinds of genre exercises.
The story, in the best hard-boiled tradition, is narrated by an aged Dynamite, speaking to an unseen interrogator. The Windy City p.i. is enlisted by the first of two blond actresses, former girlfriend Vicki Vickers who is attempting to escape the clutches of gangster movie producer Tony Mal. After the “V-Neck Venus” is murdered in Dynamite’s bed, our hero enacts I, The Jury vengeance on the mobster and hitman responsible. Only thing is: the latter, an aptly named Freddy Faust, is brought back to life by Satan Himself – and now Freddy wants to get back at Dynamite.
Collins strains his construction by having the narrating Dynamite, who should have no real knowledge of the specifics behind Faust’s resurrection, describe an elaborate dessert scene with the gut-shot gunsel sealing the deal with the Lord of Darkness. (Know who would’ve been an ideal artist for this wackiness? Coop.) Once revived, Faust takes over his late boss’ mob & movie bizness, hooking with a second big blond actress in the process. Thanks to Satan’s connections, Freddy (now going by the name “Felix Sartana”) also gains an army of zombie gunmen to aid him in his dark handiwork.
In the hands of a writer/artist team less staid, this could make for good gonzo fun – but Beatty manages to make even the art of blowing zombies’ brains out look dull, while Collins’ largely unsurprising story is as lackadaisically constructed as Spillane at his most indifferent. (Our detective hero spends most of the book reacting to the actions of others – and doing zip in the way of real detecting.) May work as a tribute to the Mickster and his Charlton Comic imitators, but, for me, all it leads to is a loudly indifferent So What?

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

Check Also

Mystery Game Review: ‘The Night Hunter’ from University Games

Players must unravel the mystery before a serial killer claims another victim.