If you haven't heard the name Max Allan Collins by now or haven't seen ads for the film based on his graphic novel "Road to Perdition" yet, then you're probably in a distinct minority. But for the die-hard Collins fans who attended his Q&A panel, moderated by long-time friend Jeff Gelb, at Comic-Con International in San Diego on Sunday, "RTP" was one topic that they couldn't hear enough of and CBR News was on hand to hear Collins set the tone for the day with his trademark wit by saying, "Everything of mine is momentarily hot- it probably won't be when we walk out the door."
While the panel opened with Gelb and Collins discussing the latter's career in comics, novels and film, the discussion soon turned to "Road to Perdition," a project that has of course brought much joy to Max Collins, though he laughs, "I'm sorry, but Richard Piers Rayner is so goddamned slow and I'm so fast." Collins, not wanting to give the wrong impression, adds that he considers Rayner a superb artist and hopes to work with him in the future. "I've been anxious to make this point in front of a comics audience. In 1998, when the book finally came out, 'Road to Perdition,' I was very proud of it and thought it was the best thing I had ever done in comics by a long distance and I thought 'Finally, they're going to notice me in comics.' It came out, it sold maybe 3000-3500 copies, got a couple of good reviews, no Eisner nominations, nothing- I was devastated. So I quit comics. The problem is, nobody noticed! So my advice to you is that if you're going to make a grand gesture, you might want to make sure somebody's watching. And now of course I'm starting to write comics again, to show I have no integrity whatsoever."
Collins also explained that he stayed out of writing the "Road to Perdition" screenplay because he "respects the process" of writing a film, though he was happy to offer advice when asked for it. "There's a few things I could have improved, but basically I really liked what they did," said Collins of the screenplay for "RTP." "Most of what I tried to get changed was the inaccuracies out of the script- there's a few still in there, like I think the F-word is in there too much. Those who know my work know I'm not a prude about using the f-word but this is 1931 and these guys have not seen a lot of Martin Scorsese films, so they don't know to use the f-word every 30 seconds. And they use the Lone Ranger, which is about 2 or 3 years wrong, and I use Tom Mix, but they didn't think anyone would know who Tom Mix was and people would know who the Lone Ranger was, so it's an artistic license thing. At one point the script had phrases in it like 'ripped off' so I made it very clear to them that it wasn't a movie set in 1965. I think the Jude Law character, who I did not create, was a good creation and a good idea."
One has to wonder if Collins, a filmmaker and visionary in his own right, would have made "Road to Perdition" a different film had he been at the helm and the answer may surprise a few. "Surprisingly, I think it would have been somewhat similar. Just the dialogue would have been better and the plot holes would have been fixed cause Hollywood's just plot-hole happy. I'm enough of a mortar and bricks craftsman that I think it can all work, it can all make sense, it can all be logical- it's not that hard."
When asked if he had any other casting choices in mind, Collins laughed and answered, "No, this is fine, I'll settle for this. When fans come to me and say, 'Oh, but they didn't load all the action in it and you wrote it like a John Woo movie' and I'm like, 'yeah, I really wish I could tweak it and have it star Jean Claude Van Damme.' You gotta be realistic- this is the best thing that could have happened for me as far as my career goes. Interestingly, the changes they made, where they lessened the violence almost all the changes they made, made it seem like more of my typical work, which is very bizarre because I'm sure they're not familiar with my work. But the first thing I thought when I watched 'Road to Perdition' the first time was like 'I'm in the middle of a Nate Heller novel [a reference to Collins' successful series of novels], this is my shit, come to life.' So you basically have Sam Mendes and Tom Hanks making this two hour Max Collins infomercial."
While the movie may have been a pleasurable experience for Collins, the scribe isn't shy about explaining how penning the novelization of the film was a horrible experience for him. "It was not the happiest experience." Collins explained that he had to work from the movie script, as is standard procedure, but having an experience in filmmaking helped him to visualize the movie, take some liberties and put together a fluid novel. "I didn't put in scenes from the graphic novel as much as I put in scenes that made it a bigger, richer novel. I turned in 90,000 words- I'm trying to not swear- the licensing at Dreamworks, who I had two or three of the worst months of my life with, the bottom line was they made me put in the dialogue from the movie and use no other dialogue. I couldn't tweak the dialogue. I couldn't put any other dialogue in and I had take out anything that wasn't in the movie or didn't directly bear on the movie- I cut 40,000 words from a 90,000 word book. The real book is one of the best books I ever wrote- my agent loved it, the editor at MAL said it 'the best movie novelization I've ever read- how wonderful we have the creator writing it' and those dumb, short-sighted bastards, they made me castrate my child. It's bad enough to have your own child castrated - sorry Nate [Collins apologized to his son, who was seated in the audience]- but to have to use the rusty can opener yourself is not fun. That said, what's left, I always bring all my craft to bear, it's a good 50,000 word book and it still has a lot of stuff in it, a lot of history in it and readers still really, really like it, but readers don't know what they're missing. So I do recommend it, but understand you're basically getting the junior scholastic edition."
In the end, Collins does feel that the success of the film outweighs the downside of the novelization experience and feels proud of what has been done with his work. "I think that the movie will be around a long time. I think it's the closest I've come to have a little immortality so far because you know I'm not going to heaven."
As has been previously reported, the follow-ups to "Road to Perdition" will not be graphic novels but will instead be novels entitled "Road to Purgatory" and "Road to Paradise," published by William-Morrough, which detail how Michael O'Sullivan reaches the place he does at the end of "Perdition." "When the kid says at the end of the movie that he's never going to pick up a gun again, that's not true," explains Collins. "He's gonna pick up a gun. He's gonna pick up lots of guns. When Frank Nitti says to Rooney, 'don't you think this kid is gonna grow up and remember?'- Oh yeah, he is."
For those who believe Collins should have proceeded with the sequels as graphic novels, the author explains his reasoning for going the route of the novel sans the graphic. "People keep saying, 'you should do them as graphic novels, you should do them as graphic novels.' It's great that I've become the poster child for graphic novels in the last two weeks, but the fact is for my career, I need to hit a mainstream audience and I won't by going out and only selling 3000 copies. The graphic novel is doing really well in it's reprint editions- it got on the New York Times best seller list with a trade paperback.
"I have been approached by a major publisher- not DC- and I can't say who it is, but they're the "Spider-Man" company, they've come to me and asked me what I wanted to do and I said what I wanted to do is 'Tales from the Road.' In the graphic novel I set up a six month period- in the movie it's six weeks- where the father and son are on the road pulling all these robberies and doing all this stuff, and I wanted to do a 'Lone Wolf & Cub' kind of series about the adventures they had with a thread through it so it can be published as a graphic novel. We're trying to involve Richard Piers Rayner, probably to do the covers and maybe to do the last issue, which I'm planning to write first because I'd like Richard to be involved. My original concept was for three graphic novels that would have the finite ending that the graphic novel has, but it wouldn't end till the third one. So there would have been lots of adventures like 'Lone Wolf & Cub' because I wanted this to be an epic of a father & son, the wandering samurai, and that actually got squelched by [editor] Andy Helfer who wanted a finite ending on the first book, but told me I could follow the son. So I give Andy Helfer credit for the hurdle that grew into all this.
"If you've seen 'Road to Perdition,' Tom Hanks isn't the main character- the son is the main character. To really understand the movie and why it works on people and why people identify with this awful hitman, it's because he's a secondary character, it's the boy who hasn't done anything bad and he loves his father, who loves his son right back. I've had to answer all these questions about the amoral hero, and I've written plenty of amoral heroes, but in fact this is Michael Jr's story not his father's story."
Let it never be said that Collins isn't one to laugh at his own tastes, as he admits to have a propensity for less than "cool" names. "The proposal [for 'RTP'] was called 'Gun & Son,' but remember I was thinking of it as a comic book that would go on so you would have 'Road to Perdition: A Gun & Son novel,' but Andy hated it and called it, 'wonderfully cute.'"
Next up on Collins' plate from DC is the oft-discussed Kia Asamiya Batman project, which has been translated, but that Collins will be making more palatable for American audiences. It is a fairly large project too, coming in at about 300 pages and set to be released as a hardcover some time in 2003. "One of the things the story is about is there are people who take this drug and become like the Joker or Two-Face or become Penguin and it's all very cool but there's no justification in it. I did insert some DnA/phoney baloney stuff to give it a little science fiction. I know audiences want it a bit more real. I'm dubbing the Godzilla movie, but it's a very cool Godzilla movie and I've got all kinds of freedom. I've changed plot things, character things- the lead girl is very wimpy in the original and I've been watching a lot of 'Cowboy Bebop' with my son and I've been completely taken with the Faye character, so I turned [the lead] into Faye. I gave her a lot of spine- I've just got a lot of freedom on this project."
Collins also mentioned that he has some other projects possibly on tap, including a Mike Hammer script that has become hot in the last two weeks, potentially as the vehicle for a "very famous TV star" who most fans "wouldn't believe" if Collins were able to admit the name. "If this thing happens, the Daffy Duck sound you hear emanating from Ohio will be me." He's even got a "Mike Danger" screen treatment that's making the rounds, as well as a "Johnny Dynamite" (the Dark Horse mini-series by Collins a few years back) screenplay that's been optioned and Collins believes the timing is "wonderful." "To give you an example of my feelings on the changes in 'Road to Perdition,' if they ever make 'Johnny Dynamite,' it's nothing like the mini-series: I threw all my own stuff out. I made it modern day. I put the whole story in Las Vegas because I knew it'd be a cool place to shoot- you have to rethink these things because they're movies. So if anybody else's name had been on the screenplay and they'd made it, interviewers would be asking 'what about this guy who just screwed you out and just changed all your stuff?' That's just not the way it works. You have to re-imagine it because movies are movies and comics are comics." Collins also confirmed the continued interest in "Ms.Tree," noting that the television series would have been launched had it not been replaced at the last minute by a new show named "NYPD Blue," and "as you know, no one's ever head of that show again!"
"I think what we can learn from 'Road to Perdition,' (God, I hope we learn from it) is that Hollywood finds comics or graphic novels very user friendly. They don't like to read books- they can't read books without moving their lips. The fact that you give them something visual that is in-between novels and films, they're visual storytellers and they think in pictures and so by giving them pictures and words, they can relate. If we're smart as creators and as an industry we will finally, finally shake ourselves out of the superhero ghetto and use this medium for all kinds of stories. I see signs of that when I go to the Eisners and see a lot of different kind of things, like Eisner's latest brilliant novel 'Name of the Game.' Anyway, if we could just convince the world what we know, which is that comics are just as valid a medium for storytelling as film or prose, then we could be mainstream, sell stuff to Hollywood everyday of the week and probably outsell novels. But it's not the creator's fault really, it's publishing- we're a mainstream art form that has become a niche in publishing and I'll give you an example. I go into a bookstore in Iowa city, a college town in Iowa, very hip, won't find a hipper town in Iowa, which isn't saying much, but it's a very hip town. I go into the hip book store where every major writer goes and where I've done signings. I walk in the other day and remember, 'Road to Perdition' is on the New York Times best-sellers list and the gal behind the register sees me, 'Max, Max, I loved 'Road to Perdition'' and people are talking to me and I'm looking around the store and I say, 'Do you have any copies [of 'RTP']?' and she replies, 'I think we have 2 or 3 upstairs in the graphic novel section.' That's the problem. We're winning a little bit with 'Road to Perdition.' Take the Borders chain for example- I walk into their stores and I see 'Road to Perdition' with the new trade paperbacks in the front of the store and they're selling like crazy. I go into Barnes & Noble and find it in-between 'Superman vs Batman' and who knows what else. And who, besides the converted, is going to go looking for that book on the second floor amongst manga- wonderful stuff? I'm not putting it down- but they're just not perceiving it as a book. And I've been doing book signings and sell scads of these books to civilians. You don't get on the New York Times best-sellers list by selling to comic book fans. There's a lot of education that has to happen here, a lot within the industry," says Collins before pausing, laughing and adding, "and that's why I'm bailing and writing novels. You guys fend for yourselves- I've got a family to feed and put through college here."