Max Allan Collins is a name familiar to most mystery and comics fans. In the world of comics, he worked on a number of Batman projects, co-created and wrote the long running independent comic “Ms. Tree” — in addition to other projects like “Johnny Dynamite,” “Wild Dog” and “Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer” — and enjoyed a long run on the “Dick Tracy” comic strip. His best known comics work is the graphic novel “Road to Perdition,” which was turned into an award-winning film starring Tom Hanks and Paul Newman.
As a novelist, Collins is widely regarded as one of the great writers of historical mysteries. He’s written about private detectives and thieves, mystery writers and hired killers across dozens of novels in addition to historical figures including Eliot Ness and Wyatt Earp. Collins is also the author of the Jack and Maggie Starr books, a prose series set in the comics world of the ’40s and ’50s. Collins is completing a number of books left unfinished by his mentor and friend, the late Mickey Spillane, in addition to working with the Library of American Comics on their reprints of the classic “Dick Tracy” comic strips.
This year alone Collins has written or co-written more than half a dozen books including a new Nathan Heller book — his first in nine years — about the death of Marilyn Monroe and a new graphic novel, “Return to Perdition” at Vertigo Comics. Picking up where his prose sequel “Return to Paradise” left off, the book concludes the Perdition saga. CBR News reached Collins by phone and what follows isn edited transcript of a lengthy, free-ranging conversation about his new graphic novel, historical research and remember his former collaborator, the recently deceased Eduardo Barreto.
CBR: You’re always working on many books and are an incredibly prolific novelist, but you write few comics so it’s always exciting when you have a new graphic novel. What is “Return to Perdition?”
Max Allan Collins: “Return to Perdition” is a graphic novel and it is it is the final chapter in the Perdition saga. What’s unusual about the way this has taken shape is that it began as a graphic novel with “Road to Perdition” and then I ultimately did a second graphic novel that’s material I hadn’t gotten to in the original book. I did two sequels in prose form, “Road to Purgatory” and “Road to Paradise.” This book is in part a sequel to those two prose novels so I’ve come back full circle to graphic novels again. It’s pretty unusual. I can’t think of any other series or saga that has had three graphic novel entries and two prose entries. We can also count the movie novelization I did for “Road to Perdition” as a prose iteration of the original story, too. I don’t know what to call it. It’s ungainly but it gets the job done.
Why did you decide to write a sequel? “Road to Paradise” ended nicely, though it did have a hanging plot thread that led to the sequel.
I always intended a subsequent book. I had in mind the notion of this road for vengeance becoming generational and just continuing on until finally, enough’s enough. I always had this image of the third Michael coming to kill his father and confronting him in a confessional, not knowing that he was facing his father. That was an image I thought was powerful. This is perhaps the sick humor that you find in my work occasionally — well, more than occasionally — but the notion of Michael O’Sullivan being a priest and giving the final rights to someone he shot appealed to me. I thought that was a nice ironic touch. The punchline of “Road to Perdition,” which was not used in the film of course, was to reveal that he had become a priest. When I began sequels people were asking, “How can he be a priest because he’s doing this and he’s doing that.” I thought, “Well, stick around and you’ll find out.”
As you say, the movie had a different ending and it was exciting to read in “Road to Paradise” how you pulled the movie continuity and the graphic novel continuity and made it all come together nicely.
Thank you. People have asked why I decided to do this one as a graphic novel. Partially it was because I was no longer doing business with the publisher who had done the first two Perdition novels and I was still in business with DC Comics. The other connection between the very first book and this one has to do with the cinematic influences. The first book, “Road to Perdition,” was really heavily influenced by Hong Kong cinema and specifically John Woo. When I wrote that book in 1993-94, John Woo wasn’t that well known here. I was getting his and a lot of other Hong Kong movies on VHS tapes that I’d get in the mail. There’s a term for a lot of the Hong Kong movies, “heroic bloodshed.” Woo was somebody who would put really extreme Peckinpah-level violence in there with melodrama right out of a Douglas Sirk movie; the family melodrama being married to the high-level action bloodshed. That really informed that book. This book, which takes place in the ’70s, is really influenced by the action cinema of the ’70s. Everything from blaxploitation films, Charles Bronson movies and Clint Eastwood movies and a lot of lesser movies that I consumed in those years. I wanted the book to have the pace and snap and even appearance of a ’70s action movie.
That ties into something I wanted to ask about because with “Return to Perdition” and the most recent Nathan Heller novel, you’re still writing historical novels, but now you’re writing about a period that you remember.
That’s true. Although I didn’t take notes, so I still have to research. [Laughs] The first time that came up was I believe in “Road to Paradise.” I found myself researching what the songs were in the top 40 and what TV shows were on what night and looking at fashions and home decoration and not remembering it as hideous as it turned out to have been. [Laughs] It was peculiar because when I was writing “True Detective” and even when I was writing “Road to Perdition” I was obviously writing about an era that I did not live through. An era that my parents lived through and that I was intimate with through popular culture. I have a fascination and an affinity for that period.
I wrote “True Detective” in 1983 and I was writing about 1931-32, so when you do the math we’re about the same amount of time from the ’60s now as I was from the ’30s when I started writing those books. You notice I’m being very vague about the math because I don’t want to actually have to try to do it. [Laughs] I’m not known for my math skills. People will actually do the math and say, “Well shouldn’t Heller be this old? Didn’t that happen eleven years ago?” It’s not me being sloppy. It’s me being a very average math student. [Laughs]
Does that change how you work, since you can fill in a lot of the background details yourself?
I think there’s some truth to that because I do remember the ’60s. I vividly remember the early ’60s because I was a young teenager so I know the era. I know the feel of the era. The minutiae of the era I always have to check up on. That’s not that different. I’ve always used, for example, Sears catalogues because I can look at furniture, at clothing and you get a real sense of things. Research has gotten a lot easier because of the Internet. There are times when I think back at the absolute torture of working on a Heller book in the 1980s when I would lose three hours because I had to leave to go to a library to search for one fact where now I just do a search, find it, and hop back into the writing process.
Probably the most bizarre thing about the research, I find myself using a lot of men’s magazines, particularly “Playboy.” I finally am a guy reading “Playboy” for the articles. I finally am that guy because I’m looking at the politics and looking a lot at the advertisements. And of course it brings things back to me about the era. I still have to use my imagination about what Nate Heller’s life would be like in Chicago in 1963, because it didn’t have a lot to do with what my life in Muscatine, Iowa was like in 1963. [Laughs]
The artist on “Return to Perdition” is Terry Beatty, who is someone you’ve worked with many times over the years.
We haven’t done a lot in recent years, but we’ve always been friends. I don’t think there’s a decade we haven’t worked together. We haven’t done “Ms. Tree” since 1993 but we still work together.
One of the projects that you’ve worked on together is the Jack and Maggie Starr novels. I know that you have a new one coming out.
Yes. I just plotted it. I haven’t started writing it yet. I just broke it down into chapters. He does an opening comic drawing. He also did a fake EC cover that will be the frontispece. He’s not doing the cover. Glen Orbik did the cover and a fantastic cover based on an homage to a famous EC cover. Then we’re doing a challenge to the reader right before the last chapter, stopping and reminding the reader who all the suspects are and what some of the clues are, which comes from the old Ellery Queen TV show.
Could you speak about the series? It’s something I imagine most comics fans would be interested in, though they’re not that well known. They’re fictional versions of real life events that have happened in comics.
I did them for Berkeley Prime Crime and Berkeley Prime Crime didn’t really know how to get them the kind of attention they needed to in the comics world. They are set in the world of the comics industry. These are roman a clefs. Basically, the first one was a mystery novel taking off on the creation of Superman and the way the creators, Siegel and Schuster, did not come out well early on. The second book was about Al Capp of “Li’l Abner” fame and Hamm Fisher who was the cartoonist of “Joe Palooka,” where Capp had been an assistant. The two hated each other. It was a father-son relationship gone very bad. The third book is going to be about the McCarthy era EC horror comics controversy.
The main character, the narrator, is Jack Starr who’s a private eye with one client, the Starr Syndicate which is his stepmother who’s basically Gypsy Rose Lee, a striptease artist who retired and inherited [the syndicate] from his late father. He’s working for the syndicate as a troubleshooter when there are problems with any of the talent. It’s very much me doing my homage to Rex Stout. This is me not doing Mickey Spillane but Rex Stout with Jack Starr as Archie Goodwin and my Nero Wolfe is an ex-stripper. She’s a little different than Nero Wolfe. Weighs probably a quarter or a fifth of what Wolfe did. I’m having fun. It was an attempt to do something that was not quite as hard boiled as what I usually do, but wasn’t a cozy. There’s a whole area of mystery fiction that I really like that is in between cozy and noir and that are books by people like Erle Stanley Gardner, the Perry Masons for example, and the Nero Wolfe-Archie Goodwin books by Rex Stout, and I love that stuff. This new book will be a little tougher than the first two because it’s for Hard Case Crime and that’s a red meat audience. I’ve got to throw them something to chew on.
Will that be coming out next year?
It’ll be delivered very early next year so either late next year or early in . Right now I’m between books so I do things like the introductions to the “Dick Tracy” collections. I’m writing some radio show scripts for “Fangoria” that you can download on their website. I’m working with Carl Amari, who was the producer of the Mike Hammer radio play audiobooks that we did over the last couple years with Stacy Keach playing Mike Hammer. That was a very cool project. Working with Stacy Keach was a real blast.
The radio play format was very cool. Will we be seeing more?
We did two. Well, they did three. They did one and then I approached them and said, you should let me write these. They agreed and I did the next two. I’m imagining that they’re going to do a box set pretty soon and there is a possibility we might do a new show for the box set. Those were great fun. I was working from Spillane material although I wrote the scripts, but I had a short story I used for the first one and a one-page plot for a novel that I found in Spillane’s files that I used for the second one. The irony is that out of all the Mike Hammers that Stacy Keach has ever done, this is the only time he ever did anything directly based on something Mickey Spillane wrote. They’re the most authentic Mike Hammer that he was able to play and he loved doing it and I would hope I get to do more projects [with him], even if they’re not Mike Hammer. What an incredible guy and a phenomenal actor.
Is there a chance we’ll see any new “Ms. Tree” comics or reprints of the old comics?
Yes. We’re in very serious discussions to do a graphic novel next year and to begin the reprinting of all the other material. I think the first thing that will be reprinted is the DC material because I feel it’s the strongest and I want to put our best foot forward. I have an idea for a story and with any luck Terry will be starting to work on it very early next year.
A lot of people know you worked with and were friends with the late Mickey Spillane, who was a comics writer when he started out and later did a Mike Hammer comic strip. I think he just wrote the Sunday, not the dailies.
He supervised the dailies. He essentially plotted the dailies but his friend Joe Gill wrote them for quite a while. Eventually the artist Ed Robbins took over [the writing]. In that era there were a bunch of strips like that — Nero Wolfe, Perry Mason, Sherlock Holmes — and to my knowledge Mickey was the only guy who was actually really involved in the production of the strip. He was very proud of his background in comics. He really loved those years. That was when he became a professional writer and he wrote all kinds of stuff. He wrote some “Captain America” and “Sub-Mariner.” He did something outrageous called “Jap Buster Johnson.” He was very active in comics.
Will we be seeing a collection of the Mike Hammer comic strips one of these years?
I’m working with Hermes Press right now to do a complete collection of the daily and Sunday strip. I did a book called “Byline Mickey Spillane” that included the two existing Mike Danger comicbook stories from the ’40s and the one Mike Lancer. Before Mike Hammer the character was called initially Mike Danger and then Mike Lancer. Mike Hammer is a comic book character. There’s no question about that.
I wanted to ask about Eduardo Barreto, who died recently, because I know you worked together on “Mike Danger” and “Batman: Scar of the Bat.”
I just saw that today. I did not know Eduardo very well. We had a typical long distance collaboration. I only actually met him once years later, but he was a joy to work with. I thought he knocked the ball out of the park on the six issues that he did of “Mike Danger.” Just a fantastic artist. I would have loved to have worked with him again. He was fantastic. Very underrated.
Another topic I wanted to touch on is that you signed a deal with Amazon earlier this year to reprint some of your backlist titles.
I’m doing some work with them. They’ve brought all my Nate Heller books out and also did a new Nate Heller collection. Whether or not I’m going to do any original material with them is still in the discussion stages, but it’s pretty certain that they’re going to do some more of my backlist. This is a controversial area. There are bookstores and publishers that are or could be irritated with me for doing business with Amazon. I certainly understand the frustrations that people are feeling, but the rule is adapt or die. Figuring out how to deal with ebooks, for example, makes a lot more sense than decrying ebooks. They’re not going to go away. We’re at that same junction that we’ve been at so many times before where the radios and movies are controlling everything and suddenly there’s this thing called television. We had the same situation with home video. As a content provider, I’m just looking for places that can provide my content. It’s that simple.
You’ve worked with numerous publishers over the years. What has your experience been like, and where do things stand now from your perspective?
In publishing today, it’s very difficult to have to build a series. It’s really common right now where you come in and write one or two books and if they don’t work, they drop you. I’ve been lucky enough to have been around long enough for a guy who is not up there in the sales with Dean Koontz to be able to survive and to be considered reliable. You don’t get a chance to build and grow like you used to. Not that it was ever easy, because it certainly wasn’t. So when publishers act like a writer is betraying them by dealing with Amazon I have to kind of say, when was it that the publishers were on the writers’ side in a major way? Maybe it’s Alzheimer’s setting in, but to me it’s always been a struggle and it’s only gotten tighter and tighter and tighter. One of the miracles of the Nate Heller series is that I have been able to jump from publisher to publisher. What has happened in the last fifteen years is that if you change publishers they want a new series. They don’t want the old series. Everybody wants a home run at your first time at the plate, which is not realistic. That’s my view. I’m just trying to keep the lights on.
We’ve already talked about “Ms Tree.” Is there a chance we’ll see more comics from you in the near future?
I would really like to do some more “Road to Perdition” stuff. I have a prequel I want to do and I would really like to do it with Richard Piers Rayner. I would like to do graphic novel versions of the two prose books. That’s on my wish list right now. Again, it’s publishing. I have to wait and see how “Return to Perdition” does.
I’ve stayed alive, I think, because I can write comics and I can write screenplays and I’m willing to do TV and movie tie-ins. That gives me a flexibility that continues to allow me to avoid a real job. It has been a glorious forty years for me. The last real job I had was packing groceries. That may be my future as well, but I’ve been able to lie for a living in part because I didn’t define myself with really controlled parameters. Right now I may be writing a sports biography. That’s completely outside of my wheelhouse, but I know how to do this. I think that’s always been my strength. If they ask if I can do it, I just say yes and then learn how to do it.
I have to ask, just because I know Hard Case Crime is publishing an unpublished James M. Cain novel next year and I know you played a role in making that happen. Can you elaborate on that?
Yeah, I’ve been staying after Charles [Ardai] for years trying to make that happen and for years the Cain estate would say no. First of all I informed him of its existence and second of all every time I talked to him I said, “You’ve got to get that Cain book out.” I’ve been basically a cheerleader, but I have done that earlier. I was the guy who told Otto Penzler about the existence of the two other posthumous Cain books that were published. This was just me reading academic work and seeing references that these books existed and then going to New York publishers and people that I knew and saying, “Hey, these books exist.” None of these are things where I made any money off it. Charles has been very good about giving me credit, but I’m a Cain fan and I don’t think you should have James M. Cain’s books sitting unpublished. Some people say, “Well, it’s not going to be ‘Double Indemnity’ or ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice.'” No it isn’t, but it’s going to be a James M. Cain book. I mean, to me, that’s ludicrous. These were books that he wrote that he intended to have published and they should be published.
“Return to Perdition” is on sale now from Vertigo Comics.