Collins Mixes Comics and Murder in "Seduction of the Innocent"

Max Allan Collins is a figure familiar to many comics fans. He's the writer behind the "Road to Perdition" series of graphic novels, one of which was adapted into an acclaimed film starring Tom Hanks. He wrote the "Dick Tracy" comic strip for many years and has written many other comics ranging from "Batman" to "Wild Dog" to "CSI" and his long-running "Ms. Tree" series, but Collins is primarily known as a novelist.

His newest novel, "Seduction of the Innocent," will be released February 19 from Hard Case Crime. The most recent of his Jack and Maggie Starr novels, the book involves a Frederic Wertham-like figure and a murder that happens in the midst of the anti-comics hysteria of the 1950s. Like his earlier novels in the series, all of which are set in the world of comic books, the characters have been fictionalized and feature a number of figures that comics fans might know.

Collins took time out to talk to Comic Book Resources about whether this is the last we've seen of the Starrs, the future of Nathan Heller and when we can see more "Ms. Tree."

CBR News: For those unfamiliar with the series and its characters, who are Jack and Maggie Starr?

Max Allan Collins: Jack Starr is the son of one of the late pioneers in the comic book industry, and is working for his stepmother, Maggie Starr, who is the president of the comic strip syndicate she inherited. Jack is the vice president but also a troubleshooter who deals with problems the talent -- not only cartoonists, but syndicated columnists -- may have with threatened lawsuits, among other things. He's a licensed private eye with one client -- his stepmother, who also happens to be a beautiful, retired and very famous stripper, on the Gypsy Rose Lee/Ann Corio model. They are not an item.

The novels are intended to be a tribute to Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mysteries, with Jack a fairly direct Archie Goodwin clone but Maggie a very indirect Wolfe. The set-up allows me to explore the history of comics through a Golden Age Mystery looking-glass. I wanted to do something similar to my Nathan Heller historical mysteries, but lighter, a little less tough, and to deal with some historical cases that weren't quite right for Heller -- for example, the very nasty conflict between cartoonists Al Capp ("Li'l Abner") and Ham Fisher ("Joe Palooka"), which resulted in the suicide of the latter. That was "Strip For Murder," while the story of Siegel and Shuster getting screwed out of Superman was "A Killing in Comics." Unlike the Heller books, I change the names and fictionalize freely.

"Seduction of the Innocent," as one might guess from the title, is based in part on Frederic Wertham's crusade against comics. Talk a little about the scenario and how you've fictionalized it.

Wertham's anti-comics screed, "Seduction of the Innocent," was very famous, and fed and even led to the McCarthy-era attack on comic books, which resulted in the watering down of the medium by the industry self-censoring board, the Comics Code Authority. It ruined comics for several decades. As a very young kid in the early '50s, I was aware of Wertham and recall vividly how my mother would look at the monthly list of comic books in Parent's Magazine that were declared unfit for children. Fortunately, she saw her own favorite comic strip, "Dick Tracy," represented, after which she never took it very seriously.

Anyway, for my novel of the same title, I enlisted my usual researcher, George Hagenauer -- a real expert on the history of comics -- to get the facts about the anti-comics crusade in general and Wertham's role particularly. Early on it became clear that the thing to do was to make every comic book fan's wish come true, and "kill" Wertham. I made him, or anyway Dr. Werner Frederic, his fictionalized stand-in, the murder victim in my mystery. No shortage of suspects. Despite the mystery, the historical underpinnings are very solid.

Some of the characters in the book who are suspects in the murder are based on creators a lot of CBR readers might know like Al Williamson, Charles Biro, Bob Wood and Max Gaines. Why them specifically?

The two companies who were the most successful and were then decimated by Wertham's crusade were William Gaines' EC comics and Biro's Crime Does Not Pay line. Gaines was a colorful guy -- I actually met him in the '80s -- and his cartoonists, among them editor/writer Al Feldstein, who I was on a panel with at San Diego Comic-Con maybe ten years ago, were bright, talented men, young writers and artists who were doing terrific work and having the time of their life. The character who you figure is based on Williamson is a composite, with some Wally Wood and Frank Frazetta mixed in there, while my "Bob Price" is very much Gaines, whose Captain Queeq-like meltdown at the anti-comics Senate hearing made him a natural for the novel. And the meltdown is in there.

Biro and Bob Wood were vivid characters, too, Biro an oddball who had a monkey perched on his drawing board, and Wood a violent, boozing skirt-chaser who wound up very bad, in a very ironic way for a guy whose flirt with fame and success was drawing "Crime Does Not Pay."

We should also mention Glen Orbik's great cover for the book. Whose idea was the cover?

I specifically wanted the cover to be based on an EC cover, in part to give diehard comics fans a buzz, and also to allow me to write that specific cover image into the Senate Hearings. Editor Charles Ardai at Hard Case likes to have the covers reflect a scene in the book. I came up with two EC covers, and Glen did roughs based on them both. Charles and I picked the fall-from-the-window one. It's great, one of the best covers I've ever had for my books.

I'm curious about the difference between writing these stories, where you're taking real characters and situations and then fictionalizing them and your Nate Heller novels where you're taking a fictional lead character and placing him in a real setting and interacting with historical figures.

Part of this grew out of wanting to do something lighter than Heller, more fun, in the Rex Stout way. Early on I came up with the idea of using Terry Beatty to do spot illustrations for the chapter breaks and to do a comic-book version of the old Ellery Queen "challenge to the reader" near the end, recapping the clues and suspects. Heller is such a rigorously fact-based exercise that I wanted to loosen up, a little, but still play with history.

On top of that, the subjects I wanted to explore weren't necessarily crimes, at least not in the technical sense. Certainly what was done to Siegel and Shuster was a crime in the moral sense. Ham Fisher's death, in real life, was a suicide, but in "Strip For Murder" it's presented as a murder. And, as I say, nobody ever killed Dr. Wertham, though plenty in the comics field wanted to.

I know that you planned the Jack and Maggie Starr books as a trilogy, but have you pondered any possibility for a fourth one?

I have considered taking Jack up through history and have him around at the birth of comic book conventions, and maybe do something in the era of Underground Comix. Right now I am specifically thinking about doing the death of George Reeves. I had already put together a plot outline for a Nate Heller book about the murder of the Superman actor, and had done considerable research, when the Heller-esque film "Hollywoodland" came out. That obviously meant I had to shelve the idea. But now that nearly a decade has passed, I may revive it for a Jack Starr book.

Are you a big EC fan?

I have been an EC fan since childhood. One of my earliest comics memories is reading a coverless copy of the "Vault of Horror" issue with the Johnny Craig Christmas story, "All Through the House." I bought "MAD" as a comic book and then as a magazine.  But I came in on the tail end of EC, right when the censorship started. I remember how frustrating it was not being able to buy "Captain Marvel," which stopped due to DC's outrageous plagiarism lawsuit, and EC because of Dr. Wertham. When I was older, in my twenties, I collected ECs as best I could -- they were very expensive for a young freelance writer. I have some nice pieces of EC original art on my wall -- a Johnny Craig "Vault" splash hangs near my computer, as does a special drawing of the Old Witch that Craig did for me.

Another project you have coming out in February is "Mickey Spillane's From the Files of Mike Hammer," the collection of Mike Hammer comic strips from Hermes Press. For people who don't know about it, talk a little about the project and the challenge of assembling and editing the book.

Dan Herman at Hermes and his talented staff did the hard work. I provided introductions, the "guts" of the book, which is to say the strips themselves, and other visual stuff. I just received an advance copy today and it's lovely. They did some very impressive clean-up on the material. It's a thrill to see the Sunday pages published in color. There does remain a missing Sunday page, which seems never to have seen print. During the first Sunday-only story, papers were picking up the feature gradually and there were several jumping on points. Dan searched and searched for that missing, fairly early page, and finally decided it must not exist. I hope he's wrong, but I have looked for it for decades and suspect he's right.

I have to ask about "Ms. Tree," which was of course drawn by Terry Beatty, who contributed illustrations to "Seduction of the Innocent" just as he did the other Starr novels. I know when we spoke over a year ago you mentioned that you were in talks about a new "Ms. Tree" story and reprinting the old ones.

Terry is now doing the "Phantom" Sunday page, and I'm just loaded down with work, which is a nice problem. But we are committed to doing a new "Ms. Tree" graphic novel, and the series of reprints is finally starting to shape up. I am the bottleneck here. I have slowed things down. My fault.

Do you know when we might see the reprints?

I think reprints are likely to start yet this year. The graphic novel depends on my schedule and Terry's.

I have to ask about Nate Heller, just because I'm a huge fan if nothing else. In your most recent Heller book, "Target Lancer," you took on the JFK assassination and while I'll be honest, I wanted less Sally Rand and more conspiracy, it was a great book. What do have planned next for the series?

I prefer Sally Rand to conspiracy. Generally I prefer beautiful women to conspiracy, but thanks -- I'm proud of that book. It's a small window on the larger case, and I think demonstrates that there was undeniably a conspiracy between CIA elements, Mob elements, Cuban exiles and right-wingers, by way of revealing the attempt on JFK's life that was meant to take place in Chicago earlier in November of 1963.

"Target Lancer" is book two of a JFK trilogy. "Bye Bye, Baby," covering the Marilyn Monroe murder, was first. The third novel, completed not long ago, is "Ask Not," which takes place in 1964 and explores the dead witnesses that proliferated in the wake of the assassination. It comes out in October of this year.

I am not writing a Heller book this year -- too many other commitments, plus I'm taking a breather. Sally Rand sex scenes or not, they are brutal to do. But I am looking at one or two books about RFK and possibly a Martin Luther King. Watergate is not out of the question, and then if I live long enough, I'll go back and pick up some earlier things, like the Rosenberg case.

Thank you for answering with the line "I prefer beautiful women to conspiracy" -- now I'll get crap from my girlfriend and all the dancers I know -- but seriously, it is nice to hear you have more Heller ideas. I'd love to see a Rosenberg story and hopefully we'll see you write more with Jimmy Hoffa.

I want to deal with RFK's war on Hoffa, and then on his assassination and whether Hoffa was involved. I'm not sure yet if that's one book or two. I originally had considered the material in "Target Lancer" and "Ask Not" to be one massive work, like "Stolen Away," but I'm not sure I could market a Heller of that length in this market. Also, it's a monstrous undertaking, and dividing it into two novels is just easier.

In the past couple years a lot of your books have come back into print. The Mallory novels and the Disaster books came out in December. All the Heller books are available. Are there any plans to reprint the old Nolan or Quarry books, or the Eliot Ness novels?

All are back in print now -- check Amazon and you'll see. Perfect Crime has brought out Nolan and Quarry, and Speaking Volumes has the four Ness books. Most of my work is back in print, with the exception of a couple of things I'm holding onto, in case movies emerge.

I know that you're always in the midst of many things. Are there any movie or audio projects in the works right now?

"Black Hats" appears to be alive, and there is a "Quarry" TV series being very seriously explored. Mike Hammer has sold for movies to Warner Bros., and I'm involved in several capacities. I may be doing a Fangoria "Dreadtime" stories movie, writing and directing, based on one of my radio scripts for that ongoing Fangoria audio series. I'll be doing more scripts for them, almost certainly -- I've done half a dozen or more. No more Mike Hammer audios are currently in the works, unfortunately, though one of them was performed live with radio sound effects a while back, and more of that may happen. Gary Sandy played Hammer -- he was in my movie "Mommy's Day." I am thrilled that Stacy Keach is going to continue to read the audio books of my Hammer novels -- he did "Lady, Go Die!" recently, and will be doing "Complex 90," which will be published in May. An actor named Dan John Miller does the Heller novels for Brilliance, and he's terrific -- his reading of "Flying Blind" won an AudioFile award recently.

"Seduction of the Innocent" is available February 19.

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