EXCLUSIVE: Max Allan Collins On SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT, Controversial Comics And More
Best-selling author Max Allan Collins (Road To Perdition) talks exclusively to CBM about his brand new novel Seduction Of The Innocent. He also shares his thoughts on the controversies surrounding the likes of Amazing Spider-Man #700 and Gangster Squad.
Max Allan Collins is perhaps best known for his graphic novel Road To Perdition. In 2002, it was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film which starred Tom Hanks and was directed by Skyfall helmer Sam Mendes. Collins is also an award winning author who has written many best-selling novels, including the popular Nathan Heller and Mike Hammer series. It was last year revealed that Harrison Ford will star in an adaptation of his book Black Hats, a story about Wyatt Earp, who ended his career as a private detective in Los Angeles. We spoke to Max last year about all of the above and more, but we recently caught up with him again to talk to him about his newest book, Seduction Of The Innocent (on sale now from Titan Books). He also shares his thoughts on controversial comic books and movies, as well as offering an update on the upcoming Mike Hammer movie.
What can you tell our readers about Seduction Of The Innocent?
It's a mystery in the Golden Age manner -- in other words, think Nero Wolfe, Charlie Chan, Ellery Queen -- and the early '50s setting takes advantage of that nostalgic vibe. But there's a strong underpinning of history, because we're in New York at the height of the anti-comic book "witch hunt" of that period, spear-headed by psychiatrist Dr. Frederic Wertham, author of the original SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT.
And how about lead character 'Jack Starr'?
He's similar to my character Nate Heller, the private eye who tells the story in the first-person. Heller is a child of Hammett, Chandler, and Spillane, however, whereas as Jack Starr comes out of Rex Stout's Archie Goodwin in the Nero Wolfe novels. Maggie Starr is my unlikely Nero Wolfe -- not a fat armchair detective, but a beautiful, famous ex-stripteaser, on the order of Gypsy Rose Lee. Both Wolfe and Maggie are recluses, though.
As it was inspired by real-life events, what sort of research was required while writing the book?
I grew up during the attack on comic books. As a very small child, I knew that dogooders were trying to take my comics away from me. And they succeeded, because that Comics Code Authority stamp-like symbol meant the comic in question had been watered down and censored, or created under extreme restraints.
My frequent research partner, George Hagenauer, is an expert on comics history, and he had a whole file of magazine and newspaper articles from the period. He had a lot to do with this novel.
What exactly was it about the 1950s witch-hunt against crime and horror comic books that interested you?
Apart from my childhood hatred of Wertham and his disciples -- oh, I knew who he was even when I was six years old -- I think it's important to remember...or learn...that the McCarthy era wasn't just right-wing lunacy. It was also left-wing lunacy. The place where the far right and the far left meet is at a book burning -- usually carrying different books, but the effect is the same.
Just how closely does the book mirror what actually happened during that period?
Well, it's obviously meant to be a fun ride, something of a cartoon itself. But a lot of it is fact-based -- the Congressional hearing is very accurate. Even the opening scene, where an anti-comics segment on a TV show is interrupted by a cartoonist who wanted to tell his side, that happened. The show was a remote broadcast from a steak house, which is the case in the novel. The female cartoonist who prances around in the nude, as her own model, is based on a real and very beautiful woman. So quite a bit actually.
The book features artwork from Terry Beatty. Tell us more about this.
This is the third Jack and Maggie Starr novel. The idea from the start was to incorporate Terry's artwork into the novels, since they had a comics theme, and that Terry -- a great mimic -- would do artwork appropriate to the story at hand. STRIP FOR MURDER, the Capp/Fisher novel, has very LI'L ABNER style artwork. Each chapter opens with a comics panel, the chapter number and title in a speech balloon. Then before the final chapter, we do an ELLERY QUEEN-style challenge to the reader, with Jack and Maggie going back over the suspects and clues, to give the reader a chance to figure out the mystery.
Has there been any talk of adapting the book into a film? Is this something you would be interested in?
That hasn't happened yet. Several of my things are in the Hollywood pipeline right now, but not Jack and Maggie Starr yet. I think they would make good cable TV movies.
A recent example of a "controversial" comic book would be Amazing Spider-Man #700; an issue which saw the apparent death of Peter Parker and writer Dan Slott receive death threats from some readers. What are your thoughts on that situation?
It's just possible some fans take all this stuff too seriously, isn't it? I had death threats when I depicted Amelia Earhart as a bisexual in my Nate Heller novel, FLYING BLIND, and a good deal of hatred came my way for some of my BATMAN work in the '80s. What can I say? There are idiots out there. Let's hope they are just blowhards and not dangerous.
What is your stance on violence in contemporary films, video games, and comic books?
It's always a matter of taste -- there are things out there I don't care for. But I am anti-censorship, and in part SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT is a cautionary tale. Jack says early on in the book that comic books are just the latest "whipping boy" -- that dime novels and pulps had proceeded them, and TV would be next. When a tragedy like a school shooting happens, violence in media is a convenient scapegoat.
Gangster Squad for example was recently delayed and re-shot due to similarities to a real-life shooting. Do you agree with studios taking those sorts of steps?
Having seen GANGSTER SQUAD, I wish they had turned the master copy into guitar picks. But that kind of step is a necessary response. I once got attacked for having a shooting occur in the DICK TRACY comic strip on the day there was an assassination attempt on the Pope. Well, obviously I didn't just whip that strip up to take advantage of a tragedy in some bizarre tasteless way -- I had written it something like twelve weeks before.
Since we last spoke, it has been confirmed that Mike Hammer is headed back to the back to the big screen. Is there anything more you can tell us about the project?
Still at the contract stage, but apparently happening.
What else do you have lined up?
I have recently completed a new Nate Heller novel, ASK NOT, a sequel to my JFK thriller TARGET LANCER, published a few months ago. I also have a non-series thriller called WHAT DOESN'T KILL YOU coming out from Thomas & Mercer -- a kind of American answer to THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. And I wil shortly be starting my draft of the latest novel in the ANTIQUES series of comic mysteries that I do with my wife Barb, under the name Barbara Allan. The new one of those will be out in May -- ANTIQUES CHOP. And when I say "comic," I don't mean graphic novel, but light-hearted.
It’s 1954, and a rabble-rousing social critic has declared war on comic books – especially the scary, gory, bloody sort published by the bad boys of the industry, EF Comics. But on the way to a Senate hearing on whether these depraved publications should be banned, the would-be censor meets a violent end of his own – leaving his opponents in hot water. Can Jack Starr, private eye to the funny-book industry, and his beautiful boss Maggie unravel the secret of Dr. Frederick’s gruesome demise? Or will the crackdown come, falling like an executioner’s axe…? An illustrated whodunit inspired by America’s real-life “war on comic books” in the 1950s, from the award-winning master of the historical detective novel, MAX ALLAN COLLINS.
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