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Max Allan Collins on Perdition’s Sanctuary: SBC Q&A

Posted: Wednesday, November 26
Posted By: Tim O'Shea
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Max Allan Collins: Novelist, screenwriter and comic book writer (as well as musician, songwriter and plenty of other talents). SBC could try to sum up his numerous awards, achievements and such, or we could just send you here. This is the first part of SBC’s two-part coverage of On The Road To Perdition Book Two: Sanctuary (Part two, which will run in December will be an interview with artist Steve Lieber). Published by DC’s Paradox Press, here are the vitals facts from DC: “Written by Max Allan Collins; art by Steve Lieber; cover by José Luis Garciá-Lopéz. The second of three untold tales from the graphic novel and Oscar-winning movie! Where will gangster Michael O'Sullivan - on the run with his young son - seek sanctuary from the vicious bounty hunters on his trail? PARADOX PRESS | 96pg. | Compact Format (5 1/2" x 8") | B&W | $7.95” SBC wishes to thank Mr. Collins for his time and thoughts as well as DC’s Adam Philips for his assistance.

Tim O’Shea: I admit I run the risk of offending you with this lead question (so I'll apologize in advance). Unfortunately I have yet to read the original 1998 Road to Perdition graphic novel, I only share this because I was perfectly willing to track down the Perdition works prior to Sanctuary. But it was not necessary, as I quickly caught up to speed with the characters and the larger plot within mere pages of starting the tale, finding myself completely engaged and enthralled. When approaching the parts of the trilogy did you intentionally treat them each as stories that could standalone, as well as be part of the larger arc?

Max Allan Collins: I've dealt with series characters since the beginning of my career (as a mystery novelist), and I always strive to make a novel about a continuing character/characters work as a standalone, and be "entry level." This can be a challenge, because longtime readers may get bored. My editor on the first of the On The Road To Perdition novellas, Oasis, was worried that I spent too much time flashing back to the original Perditiongraphic novel; but I felt it was vital not only to ground new readers, but to bring old ones back up to speed. Writers of continuing series often make the mistake that their readers (or viewers, in the case of movie series) recall every incident in detail and revere every minor character from the previous story.

Much of the approach in the On The Road To Perdition trilogy of novellas is two-fold and slightly at odds with itself: first, that each novella stand alone; and second, that the three novellas, when collected into a single volume, would work as a single, unified graphic novel...because the end game here is to create a companion volume to the original Road To Perdition, which I had originally intended to be a much longer work than what was ultimately published (three 300 page arcs were my intention).

TO: As a successful novelist and screenwriter, what is it about the comics medium that continues to hold your interest? What storytelling benefits and/or assets do you feel you gain when writing for comics?

MAC: My enthusiasm for storytelling began with comics -- I've been a comics fan since age 5, and my ambition until high school was to be a cartoonist, both writing and drawing. But at around age 12 I got interested, seriously, in hardboiled detective fiction; and by junior high I'd begun writing detective novels and sending them (unsuccessfully) around to publishers. By college, the drawing had fallen by the wayside and the writing had kicked in, fully taking over.

So when, in 1977, after I'd published several crime novels, an editor from the Chicago Tribune called inquiring if I thought I would be able to write a comic strip...Dick Tracy...I at once said yes. It was a job I'd been unwittingly preparing for since childhood.

That's the history of it. The ongoing reality is that I'm a storyteller, and my greatest strength has been an ability to be at home in numerous storytelling mediums -- I'm as comfortable writing comics as novels, as at ease writing screenplays as comics; I've written video games, film criticism, pop culture histories, trading cards, have done a fair share of songwriting (music-and-lyrics) and just the other day got approached to write a pair of CSI jigsaw puzzles.

I'm sure my screenwriting -- a relatively recent undertaking, starting about 10 years ago -- has been positively impacted by so many years of visual storytelling in comics. And my screenwriting (and directing) has prepared me for writing tie-in novels -- novelizations of film scripts -- by allowing me to visualize the movie that will emerge from a screenplay.

TO: While you are a graduate of the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop, am I correct in assuming that you are as equally well versed in history? How much research did you put into developing the Perdition universe?

MAC: My college work centered on fiction writing and film, but I've always been a history buff, in particular interested in reading the real stories behind historically based movies and books. Road To Perdition was created when editor Andy Helfer specifically asked for a graphic novel variation on what I'd been doing in my long-running Nathan Heller detective series. Since the Shamus-award-winning True Detective in 1983, Heller -- a classic private eye in the Mike Hammer/Philip Marlowe mold -- has been solving real crimes, like the Lindbergh kidnapping and the Huey Long assassination. He works out of the 1930s/1940s Chicago of Al Capone and Frank Nitti.

So the Perdition universe is part of Nate Heller's universe. John Looney and his homicidal son Connor are real people. I live near the Iowa-Illinois Quad Cities (called the Tri Cities in the '30s) and had long been fascinated by stories of the Rock Island Irish "godfather," Looney, and took the opportunity of Perdition to explore that.

TO: Could you see yourself doing more stories with the Perdition landscape? I myself would love to see more stories with Queenie McQueen. On a related note, is she based on anyone in real life?

MAC: As I said, I always intended Road To Perdition to be longer than a single 300-page work. Now we'll be up to 600 pages. Another increment of 300 would be a possibility, though this at least satisfies my urge to depict the father-and-son journey as a longer one.

The Two Jacks and Queenie were specifically designed to be spin-off characters -- whether that will ever happen is unknown at this point. Just as O'Sullivan and son were an homage to Lone Wolf and Cub, these bounty hunters are an obvious homage to another Asian pop culture work that I love...but nobody has noticed, or figured it out, yet. So don't ask.

TO: Do you feel like you're taking a storytelling risk when you draw out the action in a scene (clearly on one level to build suspense) almost in a cinematic fashion--the risk being potentially losing the reader's attention if you pace the scene too slowly? I thought of this when reading the scene where Doolittle discovers the fate of his brothers. Rather than making it two panels between two characters, you utilized the chain gang communication element allowing the scene to build over two pages. The scene completely works, but I could sense if it had gone a panel or two longer it may have derailed the story's pacing somewhat.

MAC: The biggest risk about the sequence you mention is that it's too overtly a reference to a famous similar moment in the film White homages aren't usually as "on the nose" as that, but I couldn't resist. (In fact that sequence combines memorable scenes from two James Cagney gangster movies, the other being Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.)

One of the really wonderful things about comics is having the ability to slow things down and speed them up, by creative and judicious use of panels, which are the little slices the story is cut up into. You have a control in comics that is even greater than film, where to some extent reality can slow you down (and efforts to manipulate reality in film, via slow motion and speeded-up footage, are often distracting).

TO: What qualities/values are added by having Steve Lieber as the artist on this story?

MAC: I've been blessed on Perdition with brilliant artists, starting with the
incomparable Richard Piers Rayner. When Richard wasn't available for the On The Road To Perdition trilogy, I admit to being concerned. I requested -- and got -- Jose Luis Garcia Lopez, who'd been on my original "short list" of artists for the original graphic novel. He's a great storyteller, and I was thrilled by his performance, aided and abetted by inker Joe Rubinstein.

When Jose couldn't do the second novella, my new editor, Joan Hilty, gave me her own short list, which included Steve Lieber...who I immediately gravitated toward. His work on Whiteout speaks for itself. To me he brings a great noir sensibility to the work, somehow splitting the difference between illustrator Rayner and storyteller Lopez. We hope to have Jose and Steve work together on the final novella. Richard Rayner did design the Oasis cover, by the way.

TO: Late in Sanctuary there is a scene between Michael Jr. and one of the Two Jacks, where the boy seems like more of a seasoned "player" than Jack. Was that what you were trying to subtly convey with the scene, or was I reading too much into the dialogue?

MAC: That's humor, obviously; but the idea isn't so much that Michael Jr. is a MORE seasoned player than Jack...just that this boy is indeed a seasoned player, LIKE Jack.

TO: Given the role of Catholic churches in the b>Perdition narrative, have you ever gotten a reaction or feedback from the Church in any way?

MAC: No reaction from the church, although people have often made the wrong assumption that I'm Catholic myself, in part due to my last name, which belongs to a lot of good Irish Catholics. If you go back far enough in my heritage, Irish Catholics can no doubt be found...but when the Collins clan moved west, they eventually ran out of Catholic churches and turned Protestant out of necessity.

The stories have a lot of Catholic imagery because I'm dealing with Irish mobsters...and Christian imagery because of the theme of a good man giving his family a good life in hard times by doing bad things.

TO: Back in 1997, you donated your papers to the University of Iowa Libraries (I think few of your contemporary comic book writers can make such a claim). I'm curious if you know if the use and interest in your papers increased after the Road to Perdition film adaptation was released?

MAC: They actually approached me long before Perdition. As someone who has stayed in his home town, in his home state, and had some national success, I've attracted a certain amount of local celebrity in this part of the world.

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