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Pulp Leadership

Mickey Spillane, a crime novelist who sold over 200 million books, teaches us that pretension never gets us far. “Authors” he says “want their names down in history; I want to keep the smoke coming out of the chimney.”

Spillane started his writing career in the comic business. He helped write stories for Batman, Superman, Captain America, and other popular superheroes. But comics didn’t pay well so Spillane decided to give the pulp fiction world a shot. 9 days later he was done with his first book, I, The Jury and it was published soon after.

Critics hated it. Anthony Boucher, a critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote at the time of its publication, “Able, if painfully derivative, writing and plotting, in so vicious a glorification of force, cruelty and extra-legal methods that the novel might be made required reading in a Gestapo training school.” The 25-cent paperback sold 3 million copies and Spillane made a name for himself instantly. It also marked the debut of Spillane’s popular character Mike Hammer, a hardboiled detective who fought for justice without following any rules.

Critics today still haven’t quieted down. Spillane’s work at its worst offends and at its best shocks. “It was just after the war and there was rough stuff all around” Spillane said in defense of his gritty prose. “That was the way it was.”

Spillane was also trying to hook readers, “Nobody reads a mystery to get to the middle. They read it to get to the end. If it’s a letdown, they won’t buy anymore. The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book.” Spillane wasn’t in the business of finesse or thoughtful prose–his literary influences he once said were “dollars.

“I’m a commercial writer” he boasts, “not an author. Margaret Mitchell was an author. She wrote one book.”

Spillane frankly assessed his priorities and wrote for a wide audience without bothering to craft master works filled with literary themes and symbolism. “Hemingway hated me.” Spillane said, ” I sold 200 million books, and he didn’t. Of course most of mine sold for 25 cents, but still… you look at all this stuff with a grain of salt.”

And this brings us to our point. Spillane found success by being direct and bold. He sold 200 million books by focusing on his audience–not his critics. He never let them get him down or tie him up. He was the Mike Hammer of the literary world–he did whatever it took and broke all the rules to make his audience happy and keep them reading.  While it’s always sound to listen to critics and revise your approach to problems–it can, as Spillane proves, be better to stick to your proverbial guns.

But I’m not advocating bullheadedness–I’m just suggesting you assess your priorities clearly and go after them regardless of what high-nosed critics might say.

And if you make a mistake it won’t be so bad. “If you’re a singer you lose your voice.” Spillane said, “A baseball player loses his arm. A writer gets more knowledge, and if he’s good, the older he gets, the better he writes.”

I think the same goes for the field of leadership.

Photo Credit: Digital Sextant (Illustration from Spillane’s book The Big Kill)

BLG Leadership Insights

Shaping Creative Energy: The Birth of the Graphic Novel

Yoshihiro Tatsumi is the father of the graphic novel. He took his passion for Japan’s daily children’s cartoons (Manga) and used it as a vehicle to tell gritty, poetic, stories that attracted adult readers.

He called his new art form Gekiga and it became explosively popular in Japan throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Thirty years later Gekiga, Tatsumi’s idea of a graphic novel, would become popular in Europe and America.

In the 800-plus page autobiographical graphic novel, A Drifting Life, Tatsumi explains how he created Gekiga and the obstacles he faced while he changed the face of the publishing industry in Japan.

Tatsumi was 10 years old when Japan lost World War II. He grew up poor, his older brother was desperately sick, and his father was a perennial business failure. Tatsumi, named Hiroshi in the book, found excitement, humor, and fast thrills in the daily comic strips that ran in newspapers, magazines, and books. He spent the entirety of his free time copying the comics he liked and sending his original ideas to cartoon contests and publishers. By high school Tatsumi was published in many comic books and had even completed two-book length comics.

Tatsumi failed at getting into college because he was too focused on drawing comics and earning the respect of his idols in the industry. While his friends began their studies, Tatsumi started to sell his work in order to support himself and his family.

In these formative years Tatsumi wasn’t happy mimicking the trends and styles of other magna artists. Further, he didn’t enjoy seeing his work fall under the children-aimed label of ‘manga’ since it trivialized his work and discouraged adult readers from developing an interest. He wanted to define himself and reach a new audience.

Tatsumi began to insert adult plots into his comics and borrow camera angles and cinematic tricks employed by directors like Hitchcock and Kurosawa. Later he would draw a great deal of inspiration from the pulp-fiction writer Mickey Spillane, the progenitor of hard-boiled prose (“I walked and I smoked and I flipped the spent butts ahead of me and watched them arch to the pavement and fizzle out with one last wink.”)

His comic innovations became widely popular in comic rental stores that charged customers by the hour to read the merchandise. He mastered the art of the high-impact short story and began composing serious full-length graphic novels. The energy and creativity of his work attracted fellow magna artists who began to emulate his work and bring in their own influences. Geika, the graphic novel movement, was born.

Tatsumi’s story can be read as a classic sweat-to-spoils story, but it is more nuanced than that. He wasn’t simply trying to reach a new market and find a bigger paycheck; he was looking for the best way to translate his imagination and interests to readers. It’s really a story about a kid trying to learn how to use his creative energy.

The entirety of A Drifting Life is focused on Tatsumi’s relationship with his work. The highs he gets from creating, the lows he feels when he can’t write, and the anger he experiences when he gets lazy. It’s about the quest for new ideas and the ingenuity it takes to turn them into sellable concepts. Tatsumi tells us about the back-breaking work involved in shaping a dream into the confines of a money-making industry.

It’s essential to remember that Tatsumi wasn’t simply the creator of a good idea; he was also its primary pusher, salesman, accountant, and secretary. Tatsumi gives us a simply drawn account of the work and the skills necessary to take an idea and mold it into a reality that you can be proud of. Tatsumi concludes that he has always made demands of his dreams and it’s the reason he has achieved his success.

Buy the book here: A Drifting Life

Picture: Yoshihiro Tatsumi Drawing, Credit: The Doodlers