Ms. Tree

Created by Max Allan Collins and Terry Beatty

Since Mike Hammer was originally planned for comic books, it only seems fitting that Spillane defender/apologist and hard-boiled renaissance man Max Allan Collins’ “female Mike Hammer,” MICHAEL TREE, should appear in the appropriate medium.

And who knows? Collins is probably most famous for his historical detective novels featuring fictional Chicago private eye Nate Heller or real-life untouchable Eliot Ness, or perhaps his continuation of the Dick Tracy comic strip after creator Chester Gould’s death or maybe even writing the graphic-novel-turned-into-a-major-motion-picture Road to Perdition but, as excellent and acclaimed as all that work may be, to tell the truth, I think the Ms. Tree series represents Max’s most ground-breaking and exciting work.

A female private detective in Chicago, Michael takes over her husband’s detective agency when he’s murdered on their honeymoon. Seems he was poking around a little too deeply into the business affairs of the Muerta crime family. And so, of course, she decides to continue the investigation, intent on avenging her husband, Spillane-style.

In fact, Collins has often said that the 9mm-toting character was inspired by Velda, Hammer’s secretary, who in his opinion was almost as tough as Hammer was. The basic premise of Ms. Tree was, “What if Velda and Mike Hammer eventually got married, and on their honeymoon he was murdered?”

As one CBR.com reviewer put it, “the premise sounded pretty cool to me. Mike Hammer finally marries his hot secretary and then he’s murdered on their wedding night, and she has to find his killer. Spillane — with a twist.”

And so, throughout the long-running series (arguably the longest running P.I. comic book in history), Ms. Tree wages war against the Muerta family, wreaking havoc on their business dealings and sending more than one member to the happy hunting ground, although not without some serious consequences, including arrest, a prison sentence, involuntary medication and even a stay in the looney bin. Mind you, the series offered more than just Michael’s scorch-and-burn holy war against the Muerta — that would have got tiresome quite quickly. No, Ms. Tree also took on other cases, ones that touched upon the social issues of the day. And serial killers, homicidal lesbians, child molesters, crooked cops, pro-life killers and the rest.

The rest of her life is equally complicated. Fortunately she has a great team behind her. Her small detective agency employs Effie, the secretary and business manager, and two other operatives, former D.A. Roger Freemont and young Dan Green. They’re loyal to a fault, although they don’talways agree with the boss’s tactics. Her home life is just as tangled and imbued with drama — besides running a small detective agency, she’s taken on the task of raising her husband’s adolescent son, Mike Jr. (of course), from a previous marriage. Later on in the series, there’s her own pregnancy to deal with, courtesy of an ill-advised affair with an old boyfriend. And so it goes, a personal life top-loaded with disappointments, conflict, tragedy and betrayals. Her decision to keep the baby was ignited a final head-spinning series of adventures with Michael  going after the bad guys, guns blazing, while dealing with pregnancy, birth and nursing. And at a time when private eye comics would historically cram sometimes two, three or more stories into a single issue, Collins and Beatty stretched out their stories over as many as issues as they needed, allowing plenty of room for the plots and characters to breathe, and for Ms. Tree to even engage in some actual detective work.

Right to the end, she was breaking ground.

I mean, look at the facts. How many other P.I.s have been institutionalized? Had an afterlife experience? Tracked down a killer while pregnant? Watched her husband murdered on her wedding night? Breast fed her kid while working a case? Dealt with the topics of homophobia, abortion, devil worship, child pornography, date rape and incest? And not just dealt with them, but asked some pretty damn hard questions that aren’t easily answered by either end of the political spectrum. And all this in a comic book!

But that’s the rub.

Anyone who follows this genre should know who Ms. Tree is. But many hardcore crime fans don’t even know she existed. Because she appeared in a comic book. Or dismiss her because she was written and drawn by men. But Ms. Tree was still, one of the most thought-provoking and exciting female private eyes around. In any medium.

It didn’t help, of course, that Ms. Tree made her first appearances simultaneously with the female private eye explosion of the early eighties. But in many ways, Ms. Tree was just as groundbreaking as Kinsey or Sharon or V.I.

Nor did it help that Ms. Tree’s publishing history was almost as complicated as her fictional life, as the creator-owned character jumped from publisher to publisher, going from black and white to two-tone and finally ending up, appropriately enough, at DC (which, of course, originally stood for Detective Comics) in full colour! An eight-issue final run as a quarterly, and an annual in both 1992 and 1993 was the seeming end, it seems, of a long and erratic run. Finally, in June 1998 Terry Beatty confirmed that there would be “No new Ms. Tree from DC. We were in line for something at Vertigo for several years, but could never get anything OK’ed. DC recently bumped the rights back to us. Whether we will do anything at this point, I don’t know.”

A few short stories have since appeared, and even a 2007 novel, and rumours of a television series kept popping up, visions of Teresa Russell dancing in Collins’ head.

Always one of my favourite P.I.s, and like Max, I’ve long hoped that somehow, someway, Ms. Tree would return, be it in comics or television or feature film.

Something.

Anything?

In a world of Jessica Jones, Dex Parios and Lisbeth Salander, the time is right for a Ms. Tree revival.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Creators Collins and Beatty are also responsible for Mike Mist, a comic strip update of the old minute mysteries, who has also shown up occasionally to help out Ms. Tree on a full-length case or two. They’re also responsible for the rebirth of Johnny Dynamite, Pete Morisi’s old 1950’s Mike Hammer-like comic book eye, first as reprints in Ms. Tree, and later as an all-new stand-alone mini-series in 1994.

BONUS!

  • Part of the undeniable fun of the Ms. Tree comics in almost all its permutations was that fanboys Collins and Beatty were obviously having the time of their lives. Comic book and pop (and pulp) culture geeks themselves, they delighted in seeding the stories with puns, wordplay and countless playful call-outs to other comics, past and present (Johnny Dynamite, Mike Mauser), as well as numerous literary, film and television characters–there were numerous hints dropped that Michael (née Friday) Tree was actually Joe “Dragnet” Friday’s daughter). They also offered all sorts of extras, like pin-ups of “famous detectives” contributed by other artists (Mike Hammer by Frank Miller, anyone?) and their own generally two-page Mike Mist mini-mysteries. Even the titles of the stories were drenched in pulp: “Death is a Little Black Book”? “One Grave for My Tears”?
    Meanwhile, Collins used the often-sizable letters column, Sealed with a Kiss (S.W.A.K) as a forum for promoting not just his and Terry’s own projects, but also many of their favourite films, television shows, comics and books. Pre-internet, S.W.A.K. was truly heady stuff, a trivia-laden virtual monthly crime fiction convention that served as a major inspiration for this site. It also might have inspired Ed Brubaker’s own bodacious “The Secret Ingredient is… Crime!,” which runs in his and Sean Phillips’ Criminal.
    And the shenanigans didn’t stop there. Along the way, there were “special” issues: a standalone 3-D issue (3-D specs included), a three-issue mini-series teaming Ms. Tree with Cuti and Staton’s Mike Mauser, and even a vinyl 45 (ask your parents) stapled into the 50th issue, featuring “The Theme from Ms. Tree,” with music performed by Collins and his band.

UNDER OATH

  • For those who prefer their comics a little harder, a little faster, and a whole lot pulpier (Ms.Tree) hit[s] the bullseye and blows it to pieces.”
    — Mystery Scene
  • “A saga rife with treachery, violence, and intrigue… a ‘must-read’ for mystery graphic novel connoisseurs.”
    — Midwest Book Review
    “(Marvel’s) Dakota North has often gotten dismissed as a knock-off of Ms. Tree, so much so that I point you to this amusing pair of advertisements (from a great 2008 CSBG column by Greg Hatcher)…”
    — John McDonagh

GUNS, GUNS, GUNS

  • Ms. Tree started out with a Sterling .380, which gun nuts considered “a poor choice,” although it certainly seemed to serve her well. But eventually Collins reconsidered, and upgraded her to a SIG P225 9mm, a far more serious choice. Regardless, she usually carried them in her purse, which she also used often as a weapon — you get cracked in the face with a handbag with a 9mm in it, you’ll know it.

COMICS

  

  • ECLIPSE
    (1981-83, Eclipse Enterprises)
    8 issues
    An anthology series

    • “I, for an Eye (Part One): The Girl in the Red Wedding Dress” (May 1981; #1)
    • “I, for an Eye (Part Two): One Grave for My Tears” (July 1981; #2)
    • “I, for an Eye (Part Three): Death is a Little Black Book” (November 1981; #3)
    • “I, for an Eye (Part Four): If a Tree Falls…” (January 1982; #4)
    • “I, for an Eye (Part Five): The Last to Know” (March 1981; #5)
    • “I, for an Eye (Part Six): Kiss Tomorrow Hello” (July 1981; #6)
  • MS. TREE’S THRILLING DETECTIVE ADVENTURES
    (1983-84, Renegade Press)
    10 issues
    Writers: Max Allan Collins
    Artists: Terry Beatty

    • “Death Do Us Part (Parts One-Three)” (February 1983; #1)
      “The Woman in the Black Bikini,” “Second Honeymoon,” and “One Lonely Nightmare”
    • “Death Do Us Part (Parts Four-Five)” (April 1983; #2)
      “Going Down” and “Somebody Tried to Kill Me”
    • “Death Do Us Part (Parts six-Seven)” (July 1983; #3)
      “My Cold Dead Fingers” and “In the Final Analysis”
    • “The Cold Dish (Parts One-Two)” (October 1983; #4)
      “The Right to Remain Silent” and “No Use Crying”
    • “The Cold Dish (Parts Three-Four)” (November 1983; #5)
      “Paying Respects” and “Forgive Her Trespasses”
    • “The Cold Dish (Parts Five-Six)” (February 1984; #6)
      “To the Slaughter” and “Urbane Renewal”
    • “The Cold Dish (Parts Seven-Eight)” (April 1984; #7)
      “Visiting Hours” and “Knee Deep in Death”
    • “The Cold Dish (Parts Nine-Ten)” (May 1984; #8)
      “Accounts Payable” and “Murder Go Round”
    • “Murder at Mohawk” (June 1984, Ms. Tree #9)
    • “Deadline (Parts One-Two)”  (August 1984; #10)
      “Black and White and Red All Over” and “-30- is a Dangerous Age, Sidney”
  • MS. TREE
    (1984-89, Renegade Press)
    40 issues
    Writers: Max Allan Collins
    Artists: Terry Beatty, Gary Kato
    Guest artists: Frank Miller, Ray Gotto, Mike Grell

    • “Deadline (Parts Three-Four)” (September 1984; #11)
      “Dancing in the Dark” and “Tag! You’re It…”
    • “Deadline (Parts Five-Six)” (October 1984; #12)
      “That Was No Lady–That Was My Life!” and “Blue Friday”
    • “Deadline (Parts Seven-Eight)” (November 1984; #13)
      “Sex and the Singles Slasher” and “Jigsaw”
    • “Skin Deep (Parts One-Two)” (December 1984; #14)
      “Crown of Porn’s” and “Negative Image”
    • “Skin Deep (Parts Three-Four)” (January 1985; #15)
      “Indecent Exposure” and “Photo Finish”
    • “Runaway (Parts One-Two)” (February 1985, #16)
      “Life is Hard…”
    • “Runaway (Parts Three-Four)” (April 1985, #17)
      “The Sick and the Dead” and “The Tree Treatment”
    • “Muerta Means Death (Parts One-Two)” (May 1985; #18)
      “Homecoming” and “Hook or By Crook”
    • “Muerta Means Death (Parts Three-Four)” (June 1985; #19)
      “Appointment with Death” and “The Dead Don’t Dream”
    • “Muerta Means Death (Parts Five-Six)” (July 1985; #20)
      “The Gathering Storm” and “Double Cross”
    • “Muerta Means Death (Parts Seven-Eight)” (September 1985; #21)
      “Murder Menu” and “Deja Vu”
    • “Right to Die (Parts One-Two” (October 1985; #22)
      “Death Factory” and “Explosive Issue”
    • “Right to Die (Parts Three-Four” (November 1985; #23)
      “Baby Boom” and “Ashes to Ashes”
    • “Prisoner Cell Block Hell (Parts One-Two)” (December 1985; #24)
      “Do Not Pass GO” and “New Kid on the Block”
    • “Prisoner Cell Block Hell (Parts Thrtee-Four)” (January 1986; #25)
      “Lace Curtain Jail” and “Cell Block in the Sky”
    • “Heroine Withdrawal (Parts One-Two)” (February 1986; #26)
      “By Reason of Insanity” and “The Little Man Who Wasn’t There”
    • “Heroine Withdrawal (Parts Three-Four)” (March 1986; #27)
      “Pronounced Normal” and “Men in Black”
    • “Roger’s Story” (April 1986; #28)
    • “The Other Cheek (Parts One-Two)” (May 1986; #29)
      “She’s All Better Now…” and “Road Show”
    • “The Other Cheek (Parts Three-Four)” (June 1986; #30)
      “The Killing Line” and “Sitdown”
    • “The Other Cheek (Parts Five-Six)” (July 1986; #31)
      “Time to Take Your Medicine” and “Dying Time”
    • “Runaway II (Parts One-Two)” (September 1986; #32)
      “Who Killed My Daughter?” and “Golden Rule”
    • “Runaway II (Parts Three-Four)” (October 1986; #33)
      “And So to Bed…” and “Skin Game”
    • “Runaway II (Parts Five-Six)” (November 1986; #34)
      “Exposure” and “All Through the House”
    • “New Year’s Evil (Parts One-Two)” (December 1986; #35)
      “Party Crasher” and “A Holiday Toast”
    • “When Dynamite Explodes” (1987, Ms. Tree #36)
      Featuring Mike Mist and Johnny Dynamite
    • “Like Father (Part One)” (February 1987; #37)
      “Friday’s Child”
    • “Like Father (Part Two)” (April 1987; #38)
      “This Bloody Badge”
    • “Like Father (Part Three)” (May 1987; #39)
      “City of Angels”
    • “Like Father (Part Four)” (June 1987; #40)
      “Like Daughter”
    • “Coming of Rage (Part One)” (October 1987; #41)
      “This Awful Heritage”
    • “Coming of Rage (Part Two)” (November 1987; #42)
      “Sins of the Mother”
    • “Coming of Rage (Part Three)” (December 1987; #43)
      “Collision Course”
    • “Coming of Rage (Part Four)” (February 1988; #44)
      “Victim of Circumstance”
    • “Murder Cruise (Prologue and Part One)” (April 1988; #45)
      “Grave Reservations” and “Golden Voyage”
    • “Murder Cruise (Parts Two-Three)” (May 1988; #46)
      “Shipmates” and “Death Goes Dutch”
    • “Murder Cruise (Parts Four-Five)” (August 1988; #47)
      “Photo Finish” and “Life’s a Beach”
    • “Murder Cruise (Parts Six-Seven)” (November 1989; #49)
      “Masquerade”and “Blackbeard’s Tower”
    • “Fallen Tree (Parts One-Two)” (May 1990; #49)
      “Rendezvous with Death” and “Check-Out Time”
    • “Fallen Tree (Pars Three-Four)” (May 1990; #49)
      “Go to Hell, Ms. Tree!” and “The Death of Ms. Tree”
  • MS. TREE QUARTERLY
    (1990-1993, DC Publications)
    8 issues
    Quarterly

    • “Gift of Death” (Summer 1990; #1)
    • “The Devil’s Punchbowl” (Fall 1990; #2)
    • “Skeleton in the Closet” (Spring 1991; #3)
    • “Drop Dead Handsome” (Summer 1991; #4)
    • “Cry Rape” (Fall 1991; #5)
    • “Horror Hotel” (Winter 1991; #6)
    • “The Family Way” (Spring 1992; #7)
    • “Maternity Leave” (Summer 1992; #8)
  • MS. TREE SPECIAL
    (1992-93, DC Publications)
    2 issues
    Annual

    • “One Mean Mother” (1992; #9)
    • “To Live and Die in Vietnam” (1993; #10).
  • THE P.I.s
    (1985, First Comics, Inc.)
    Writer(s): Max Allan Collins
    Artists: Joe Staton, Terry Beatty
    Featuring Ms. Tree and Nicola Cuti and Joe Staton’s Mike Mauser

    • “Four Color Crime (Part One): The Odd Couple” (January 1985; #1)
    • “Four Color Crime (Part Two): All in Color for a Crime” (March 1985; #2)
    • “Four Color Crime (Part Three): You Will Believe a Man Can Die” (May 1985; #3)
  • NON-SERIES COMIC BOOK APPEARANCES
    • “Close Shave” (June 1984, Grimjack)
      Ms. Tree at Munden’s Bar
    • “Death, Danger and Diamonds” (August 1985, Ms. Tree 3-D; with MIKE MIST)
    • “Music to Murder By” (August 1986, Ms. Tree Summer Special #1)
    • “Ms. Tree’s Three-Dimensional Crime” July 1987; a collection of JOHNNY DYNAMITE reprints introduced by Ms. Tree)
    • “Word Warriors” (1987, Word Warriors)
      A special issue to benefit literacy, published by Literacy Volunteers of Chicago, also featuring Streetwolf and Jon Sable.

SHORT STORIES

  • Non-graphic short stories by Max Allans Collins
  • “Red Light” (1984, The Files of Ms. Tree)
  • “The Little Woman” (1985, The Files of Ms. Tree, Volume 2)
  • “Louise” (1992, Deadly Allies)
  • “Inconvenience Store” (1994, Deadly Allies #2)

COLLECTIONS

 

  • The Files of Ms. Tree, Volume One (1984) Buy the book
  • The Files of Ms. Tree, Volume Two: The Cold Dish (1985) Buy the book
  • The Files of Ms. Tree, Volume 3: The Mike Mist Casebook (1986) Buy the book
  • Ms. Tree (1988) Buy the book
    Mass market paperback collection, reprints issues #16-23.
  • Ms. Tree, Volume One: One Mean Mother (2019) Buy the book Kindle/ComiXology it!
    First collection of the DC/Vertigo run.
  • Ms. Tree, Volume Two: Skeltons in the Closet (2020) Buy the book Kindle/ComiXology it!
    Second collection of the DC/Vertigo run.
  • Ms. Tree, Volume Three: The Cold Dish (2021) Buy the book 
    Third collection, reprinting some classic tales. (September 2021)

NOVELS

TELEVISION

  • Optioned numerous times, including once by ABC, scripted by producer Michael Braverman (Life Goes On), and tentatively scheduled for 1994 season (it didn’t make it). Collins liked it, despite “some cosmetic changes — a locale shift, some alterations of names, a few composite characters.”

FURTHER INVESTIGATIONS

Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith, with a special thanks to John McDonagh for the heads up on the Dakota North/Ms. Tree ads.

 

Leave a Reply