San Diego, the city in which I live, is a comic book town. Comic book shops adorn many streets, several famous comic creators live here and, of course, we have ComicCon, the yearly orgy of comic book and pop culture adulation that takes over the streets of San Diego's Gaslamp district, filling every tavern, coffeehouse and bookstore with drunken Incredible Hulks, Bat-Men and scantily clad Princess-Lieas-when-she-was-enslaved-by-Jabba-the-Huts.
I love comics but I tend to avoid ComicCon due to my general loathing of humanity. However, this past July my girlfriend and I decided to trek down to the city center during the event and do some "people watching." ComicCon full throttle is a sight to behold and belongs on everybody's bucket list. Being that the Convention Center (which makes a passing attempt at containing the festivities) is right next to the city's newly constructed, giant mechanical penis of a library, I decided to take the opportunity to return some books. While there I popped into the library bookstore and discovered that they were selling a large selection of comics for 25 cents apiece. With a little digging I discovered more than two dozen issues of writer Max Allan Collins and artist Terry Beatty's 1980s gritty detective comic "Ms. Tree." I eagerly gobbled them up (well, actually I bought them) and a brimming anticipation filled the rest of the day as I looked forward to reading them.
Excitement over finding Ms. Tree comics might confuse some (lesser) people. She's hardly a known comic book entity, certainly not a Spider-Man, Flash or Green Arrow. No movie version of her adventures are imminent. And this is a shame because she's one of the most interesting characters in the annals of comicdom.
I was familiar with Ms. Tree before my recent library discovery. More than 20 years earlier I had found the first three issues of the Ms. Tree comic in a grab bag of comics I had purchased. Even to my primitive, hormone-saturated teenage mind, Ms. Tree was fascinating find. Written by veteran crime novelist Collins* the Ms. Tree comic told the story of a tough, female private dick who dispensed justice by using a prickly combination of honed intellect and callous vigilante-ism. On one hand, she could detect clues with the best of them, on the other she had no qualms about blowing bad guys away. She was like Death Wish's Paul Kearsy but with a bigger vocabulary.
*Collins eventually went on to write the graphic novel "The Road to Perdition" which turned into the succesful Tom Hamks film of the same name.
Those first three issues had intigrued me but I never followed them up and soon traded my interest in comics for that of guitar playing and girls. (I was far more successful with the former.) When I read through the bulk of the rest of the series it was all new to my eyes. And quite entertaining. As mentioned, Ms. Tree was a tough detective, much in the vein of classic men's fiction heros like The Destroyer or the Executioner, but she was, obviously, a woman, which put an interesting twist on it all. And while the classic vigilantes of film and pulp novels tended to tally up a body count with no harm to them legally or psychically, Ms. Tree's ready use of a gun took a toll on her life. Her friends and allies were often targeted in revenge and she was even committed to an insane asylum. (She got out and eventually returned to her regular gun-totin' ways.)
Beyond the character, the stories were quite interesting, often tackling controversial topics and themes of the day. In one episode Ms. Tree had to protect a beauty queen who is being blackmailed because of her past as a porn subject (bringing to mind the then current drama of Vanessa Williams.) Another case centered around a high school acquaintance of Tree's who'd been gang raped. A later story focused on devil worship and religious hypocrisy. Yet another issue (that I have to yet to actually find a copy of and only learned of through the letters column) dealt with abortion. This stuff might seem commonplace in today's world of Breaking Bad and Law and Order:SVU but in the less mature-themed 1980s it was groundbreaking.
When you're dealing with dark stories, it's always natural to wonder about the writer's politics. Given Ms. Tree's penchant for dispensing justice with a gun it would be easy to presume Collins hails from conservative territory but such is not the case; he describes himself as "left of center." Close inspection of the comics showed that Ms. Tree herself had a certain political ambiguity. She had no problem blowing away bad guys but seemed neutral on most social issues and at times even sympathetic towards some criminals (sometimes while shooting them.)
Collin's handling of the female Ms. Tree character was unusual for the comic book world. She was a woman protagonist who was almost never exploited for titillation (She almost never took off her trench-coat!) and possessed a self-assurance and potency that seemed to make her a feminist ideal. But it opened up the question as whether the ideal women is simply one who possesses an abundance of male qualities. The always unresolved tension of this debate was part of what made the character so intriguing. (It's a debate that's been reignited recently in film theory in discussion of the "strong female character" archetype.)
Collin's confrontational stories were matched with the classic comic book art of Terry Beatty. Beatty is what one would call a realistic artist---his faces and bodies maintained a police sketch artist's dedication to capturing people as they actually appear. Additionally, he almost exclusively framed the characters of his panels at eye level ---never peering at them from above or below---which gave the comic a certain documentary flavor. In later years comic books would become saturated with wild angles, over-muscled heroes and fantastical facial expressions, but Beatty's drawing had a "just the facts, ma'am" approach that lent a sense of authenticity to the series.
* It's worth noting that Beatty was not the only artist who contributed to Ms. Tree. Beatty was assisted by artist Gary Kato who had drawn---in a style very reminiscent of original Spider-Man artist Steve Ditko---a cult comic I was a great fan of: Mr. Jigsaw.
Beatty rendered the character Ms. Tree with a very particular look: small mouth, tall chin and glaring eyes. She was attractive but in a cold, unglamorous way. Even in the art, the suggestion of Ms. Tree as a man in a woman's body persisted.
The Ms. Tree comic lasted 50 issues, ending in 1989. At this point the comic had gone through three separate publishers and had trouble hitting deadlines. By Collins and Beatty's own account the economics of publishing the book were difficult and while working on Ms. Tree they began working on the DC comic Wild Dog which featured another outside the law vigilante. As the pair got further enmeshed in the DC machinery they did revive the Ms. Tree character for a series of long story "Ms. Tree Quarterly" comics that lasted a few years in the 90s. But that eventually ended and, aside from a novel penned by Collins, the character hasn't been heard from since.
Wil Forbis is the pen named shared by such noted authors as James Ellroy, Katie Roiphe, and Jim Thompson. E-mail him, I mean, them, at firstname.lastname@example.org
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