Ms. Tree Quarterly, "Maternity Leave," Cover Date Summer, 1992
Written by Max Allan Collins, Penciled and Inked by Terry Beatty
"Who or what is Ms. Tree?" was my reaction when I saw this cover. I've always been more of a Marvel Zombie, but I thought I knew most of DC's books during this time, and I had never heard of any "Ms. Tree." Fortunately, wikipedia exists, and I was able to discover that Ms. Tree is a detective in the classic pulp tradition, who inherited her husband's business after he was murdered by gangsters. By his own admission, Max Allan Collins conceived of the series as a sort of "what if" Mike Hammer married his secretary, Velda, and then was killed?
First published by Eclipse Comics, then by Dave Sim's Aardvark-Vanaheimthen, then Dave's ex-wife Deni Loubert following her divorce from Sims, and finally, DC Comics. The character starred in 10 specials for DC, lasting until 1993. In 2007, Collins wrote a Ms. Tree novel, "Deadly Beloved," published by Juno founder Charles Ardai and his "Hard Case Crime" imprint.
Having read Ms. Tree quarterly, here were my reactions, in no order. 1) “Ms. Tree is great!” I quickly looked around to see if more Ms. Tree stuff was available, and downloaded a sample of Max Collins’ 2007 novel. 2) “Ms. Tree is a maniac!” Maybe that’s intrinsically related to #1, but I love the idea of a classic noir private eye woman who may or may not be a completely kill-crazy lunatic.
The issue begins, en media res, with Ms. Tree, very pregnant, and in the rain wearing cowboy boots, shooting into the rain, then grinning as she hears a crash and an “arrgghhh” off camera. Perhaps to assuage her guilt over murdering someone, she reflects on several sayings in a word soup, common to noir protagonists and people who have suffered mild brain damage, before collapsing in the street, holding her belly.
We flash back to earlier, where the rest of Ms. Tree’s detective agency calls an emergency meeting/intervention to tell her to take her maternity leave. She calls the meeting a “goddamn mutiny,” but they convince her that maybe she should take a few weeks off to actually have her baby. As she’s leaving, one of her co-workers points out that she never did announce who the father was. The other male co-worker says “I think we both know who the father is,” but it’s quickly explained to the reader, who has no idea. Apparently a high school friend seduced her as part of a master plan to get her to kill his wife. The plan worked, but it ended up with him dead, too.
At lunch, Ms. Tree opens up to her receptionist about why she decided to keep the baby: namely, that she had previously gotten an abortion during her marriage to dead husband Mike, because she’s closing in on 40, and because she feels a little bad about taking another life (the wife's), after the presumably hundreds she’s already taken. After lunch, Ms. Tree is nearly hit by a speeding car with obscured license plates.
After a heart-to-heart with her step-son Mike, she nearly loses her balance on a staircase, where he notices someone has adjusted the screws so that the railing would fall apart when she put pressure on it.
Ms. Tree meets with old enemy Donnie Muerta, she learns that there’s actually an order of protection for her and her family, since Mike is engaged to Donnie’s daughter. Ms. Tree calls a meeting, and someone finally figures out that whoever is after her is apparently just trying to kill the baby, not her. This leads them to suspect someone in the father’s family. Ms. Tree goes to visit the head of the Powers family in a country estate, and while at first the old man is hostile to the woman who indirectly caused his son’s death, he hugs her when he learns she’s carrying William’s child. The old man’s butler makes a phone call, and snitches on his boss to his heir-apparent boss.
Ms. Tree heads to a house in upstate New York, previously owned by Mike’s wife that is apparently empty and furnished. She’s followed by two goons, and we see that their plan is to wait for her to be alone to stage an accident in the house. The next night, her secretary goes out to pick up some groceries (and a pizza), while Ms. Tree takes a nap. One goon breaks in a basement window, sneaks up on the sleeping pregnant lady… and then unwraps some duct tape right behind her, waking her up. He overpowers her and duct tapes her wrists and ankles, and mouth, but as he drags her towards the basement, she recovers and shoulders him down the basement stairs, where he apparently breaks his neck. Renowned maniac Ms. Tree grins through her gag.
Then, instead of calling the town sheriff (who she knows), she knocks on the car door, and after the goon mistakes a pregnant woman for his friend, she pulls a gun on him. Then, as he’s driving away down a city street, she shoots him in the back, causing him to crash his car. I get that the other guy tried to kill you and all, Ms. Tree, but shooting people as they are leaving with their back to you is generally called “murder.” Her smug, post-murder smile is interrupted as she grabs her stomach and falls to the ground, as we’re all caught up with the story’s beginning.
Elsewhere, the Powers heir meets with Muerta. He complains that the freelance muscle he hired hasn’t been doing the job. Muerta tells him two men were found dead, the latest victims of the pregnant serial killer on the loose. Muerta isn’t concerned about the dead men though, he’s mad because Graves didn’t bother to tell him his target was Ms. Tree. Annoyed, Muerta has his goons kill Powers. Back at the hospital, Ms. Tree has a baby girl. She says she’s going to call her “Melodie,” after Billy Powers’s dead wife, as a memorial to the one person she wishes she hadn’t killed.
Also, in a King Faraday short, King Faraday runs across a man with a harlequin mask who seemingly hates intelligence agents and kidnaps a Money Penny type named “Carol” before she can complete what should be a simple field mission. Pretty forgettable, except for some 90’s Carmine Infantino art.
It’s probably clear from my early turn from “who” to seeking out more information about the character, but I really enjoyed this story. Wikipedia says that Ms. Tree was a book that dealt with “issues” without taking easy answers, and giving birth to a man you killed’s baby because of remorse you killed the man’s wife isn’t exactly Saturday morning cartoon material. The story gets a bit too “we all love each other” for my tastes, with multiple "hug it out" type scenes, but this is also discovering the character at the end of her adventures: she had a regular comic for a few years in the 80’s, then 10 specials before disappearing in 1993.
Of course, the story getting a bit sentimental is balanced by her murdering two guys in cold blood. Again, one is self-defense, no sweat, but it’s not like the other guy was driving off with her stereo (a perfectly acceptable reason to shoot someone until they are dead).
Part of the reason this book is surprisingly good is the talent involved. It’s not a huge surprise, considering the gangsters in this series, but Max Allan Collins is perhaps best known for his comic “Road to Perdition” (he's known to CSI novelization readers as the writer of several of those). Terry Beatty clearly has pulp art roots, as he went from this series to inking the “animated” style Batman comics, to working as the artist for Sunday comic strips like “The Phantom” and “Rex Morgan, M.D.” I have no idea who reads those comics, but good for Beatty, whose work here is solid. The action is limited but looks great, and he does an excellent job conveying facial emotions. Ms. Tree’s satisfied smirk under duct tape while looking at a mangled corpse is a highlight. There’s also some good framing where the bottom right panel of a page centers around a goon’s cigarette as he mentions burning Ms. Tree’s house, then a top left panel of steam rising out of a tea kettle in a similar position. It’s certainly not a new trick in 1992, but it’s still good storytelling, more Will Eisner than Apartment 3-G.
Overall, this was a surprisingly fun read. I know DC bought up a lot of properties in the 80’s, but it’s nice to see that with books like this they really didn’t get in the creators way. If you like the Rocketeer's 90's take of 40's/50's nostalgia, check out Ms. Tree. It's kind of the same, but with a stone-cold killer instead of Bettie Page.