Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Comic Noir: Sam Hill & Johnny Dynamite

On a recent visit to BCPL's Cockeysville Library to grab more titles from their impressive graphic novel collection, I scored Dan Nadel's fascinating Art in Time: Unknown Comic Book Adventures 1940-1980 (Abrams ComicArts, 2010), the follow-up volume to his Art Out of Time: Unknown Comic Visionaries, 1900-1969 (Abrams, 2006). Both Nagel books highlight the unheralded work of visionary comic books and cartoonists, with the author's stated goal of moving toward "a more open and inclusive understanding of what makes a compelling comic."

Dan Nagel's "Art": Time for rediscovery

Well for me the two most compelling comics were Harry Lucey's hard-boiled, wise-cracking gumshoe Sam Hill - the "Ex Ivy League halfback" private eye with a white streak in his hair and a sexy redhead secretary named Roxy - and Peter Morissi's Mike Hammer-inspired one-eyed "wild man from Chicago" who's as explosive as his name, Johnny Dynamite.

Like Sam Hill, Johnny Dynamite had a curvy secretary in Judy Kane, but after issue #4 he lacked Sam's extra eye and started sporting an eyepatch; in 1987 Max Allan Collins and Terry Beatty resurrected the JD character for four appearances in their Ms. Tree comic, then created a 4-issue Johnny Dynamite homage for Dark Horse Comics in 1994.

Max Allan Collins rekindled Johnny Dynamite's fuse

Both pencil-and-ink tough guy sleuths date from the Mickey Spillane-dominated 1950s era of detective comics, but I like Sam Hill better because he's less violent and more stylized like the pulp dicks of the '30s and '40s. He's cut more from the mold of a Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe or Paul Pine, whereas Johnny Dynamite is more like Spillane's cartoonishly mean-spirited Mike Hammer (or Donald Westlake/Richard Stark's Parker) - a pure brutarian who seems to enjoy killing a little too much. And, unlike Sam Hill, Johnny Dynamite is completely humorless; he only cracks hard, not wise.

I don't know a while lot about comics - certainly not as much as my pal Dave Cawley, who can spot one panel and instantly tell you who wrote it, who drew it, who penned it, and what company published it (whether you ask for a cornucopia of detail or not!) - but I love the hard-boiled PI genre, so my research choices were either the perpetually wired Dave Cawley or the intrinsically wired Internet. I chose the Internet and found out the following...

Sam Hill by Harry Lucey
7 issues, 1950, MLJ

"What the Sam Hill?" Premiere ish intro.

Born in 1950, Sam Hill lived fast and died young, lasting only seven issues. I guess the reader mail didn't come in "heavy enough" (as pitched below in the premiere ish), which is a real shame because Sam Hill is a fun read - and an eccentric personality as well - how many PIs drank milk and wore bow ties (pretty distinctive - guess that was the "Ivy League" touch of "class"!)?

Sam Hill's talking to you, chum!

I like how every adventure was called a caper ("The Cutie Killer Caper," "The Double Trouble Caper," etc.) and featured a preview of each caper's dramatis personnae on the first page (e.g., " indispensibe Gal Friday"; "Barbara lucious client"; "Rick Marks...Barbara's attorney"), not to mention the denouments that always seemed to find Hill flirting with his Gal Friday.

Dan Nagel writes that Lucey was influenced by film noir's "expressionistic angles" and probably Will Eisner's The Spirit, noting that his character's facial expressions and his panel-framing technique in presenting the narrative almost made words superfluous: "Remove the words from a Lucey story and readers still know precisely how each character feels and what that means for the plot. This strong technique makes Lucey's cartoon characters seem alive on the page like few others, and gives Sam Hill an urgency that raises it above its obvious genre and cinematic infleunces."

Creator Harry Lucey (1913-1979/1980) spent most of his career at Archie publishers MLJ, where he worked on Madam Satan, Magno, Crime Does Not Pay - and even Archie - between 1950 and 1970. In the 1960s he developed an allergic reaction to graphite and had to wear white gloves while drawing, and in the 1970s he contracted Lou Gehrig's disease, followed by cancer. He passed away in 1979 or 1980.

But he left behind these "7 Wonders" of Private Eye comics, as reproduced below:

Sam Hill #1

Sam Hill #2

Sam Hill #3

Sam Hill #4

Sam Hill #5

Sam Hill #6

Sam Hill #7

Johnny Dynamite by Pete Morisi
Comic Media, 1953-1954; Charlton 1954-1956

The early "Two-Eyed" Johnny Dynamite

Johnny Dynamite was created by writer "William Waugh" (nom du plume of Ken Fitch, who co-created Hourman and Tex Thompson for DC Comics) and artist Pete Morisi (1928-2003). Under the title Dynamite, Fitch and Morisi continued to write and draw the character until issue #9 (May, 1954), after which Morisi moved to Charlton Comics and revived the character between 1955 and 1956 under the title Johnny Dynamite.

According to the excellent online source Comic Vine (, "It ran three issues under that name, then three more as Foreign Intrigues, with Johnny retooled as a government agent..."

Johnny Dynamite turns Fed to battle the commies

Comic Vine continues the story: "...With #16 (November, 1957), [Charlton] dropped Johnny and took on the title Battlefield Action. As such, it ran, sporadically at least, until 1984, but Charlton never used Johnny Dynamite again." That's probably because Moresi not only left the series - he left the cartoon profession itself - at least for a while.

In 1956, Morisi became a NYPD police officer and started leading a double life. Because the NYPD forbade extracurricular work, he worked as cop by day and cartoonist by night. Using the pseudonym "PAM" (for "Pete A. Moresi"), he drew hundreds of comics for Charlton (like Thunderbolt and Montana Kid) up until 1976.

Of Morisi's technique, Nagel writes:
He was a master of moment-to-moment storytelling...each action, each pose, was fondly defined and crisply rendered so that a reader can't help but be immersed in his spaces. Morisi told his stories through a series of still images using every camera angle and filmic device he could think of. As if to accentuate the "screen effect, the panels all have rounded corners and there is nary a speed line, sound effect, or any of the other trappings in sight...his panels are crowded compositions full of close-ups on his hero's invariably agonized or beat-up face...the sheer crowded claustrophobia of a teeming city is always at the fore, and characters are always right up agaginst something, surrounded by buildings, trapped in rooms.

Though Johnny Dynamite remained lost for almost 30 years, he was rediscovered in the '90s by a fellow pulp comics fan. Comic Vine again picks up the story:
Widely regarded by fans of the genre as the best and most interesting of the 1950s comic book private eyes, Johnny Dynamite was a favorite of crime novelist and comics writer Max Allan Collins, one of Chester Gould's successors on Dick Tracy. Collins acquired the character in 1987, when many Charlton properties were sold. His first use of Johnny was as reprints in the back pages of his own Hammer-inspired character, Ms. Tree's comic book. Since then, he's branched out into new adventures from a couple of small publishers. His most prominent modern publisher is Dark Horse Comics, where Concrete and Hellboy started.

JD: Two-fisted (but one-eyed) action!

Related Links:
Johnny Dynamite (Toonepedia)
Sam Hill (Toonopedia)
Sam Hill @ Comic Vine (
Johnny Dynamite @ Comic Vine (

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

"What the Sam Hill?"

4:29 PM  

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