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An Interview With Max Allan Collins About His Two Newest Books

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I confess I had never heard of Max Allan Collins before I received not one but two unsolicited books by him in a short span of a few months. After reading Wikipedia’s entry on him I realized it was surprising I had not heard of him because since he’s quite a prolific writer and I like to think I’m well read, especially in the mystery genre.

I decided I did want to interview this author to talk to him not only about the books I was sent but also about his career and how diverse it has been. He agreed and this interview is the result.MAC - press photo

The first of his two new novels is called Seduction of the Innocent and it is his fictional take on the government war on comics in the 1950s. As he talked about in the interview, this witch hunt was sparked by Dr. Fredric Wertham and others telling the public that comics were dangerous to society and especially to children. Wertham’s most famous book was called – and, of course, this is no coincidence – Seduction of the Innocent. More on that shortly.
The second is a book, Complex 90, he co-authored with Mickey Spillane, the late author of the Mike Hammer books.

Collins’ past work ranges from the graphic novel Road To Perdition (which became a movie) to novels based on movies and TV series ranging from Saving Private Ryan, Air Force One, CSI, Bones and NYPD Blue. He collaborated with the late Spillane on four anthologies and he also made an award-winning documentary, Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane.

Let’s get to the interview.

Nice to meet you,Max. How and why did you decide to write a novel, as you put it, “inspired by the real-life 1950s witch-hunt against Tales From the Crypt publisher EC Comics”?

I’ve been a comics fan since childhood, and grew up in the Fifties. I have a vivid memory of the witch hunt period, of seeing the comic books I’d just discovered, like the ECs, suddenly gone, and the rest heavily censored, even comic-strip reprints like Dick Tracy. Parents Magazine would have a list every month of comic books parents should not let kids see, though fortunately my mom was pretty loose about it. Still, it was a very, very early, even formative experience where censorship was concerned.

As comics fandom became some less solitary — I was the only kid reading comic books in my high school, that I know of, the early round of Lee/Kirby/Ditko Marvel comics — a unified feeling about Dr. Wertham and what he represented grew up among fans. In the late eighties, when Bill Mumy, Miguel Ferrer, Steve Leialoha and I put together a rock band to appear at comic cons, the name of the group was immediate: “Seduction of the Innocent.” Miguel, who’s in the new Iron Man film incidentally, came up with it. In a flash. To mix in another comics reference.

The Jack and Maggie Starr series was designed to do two things — first, to pay homage to Nero Wolfe, Archie Goodwin and Rex Stout; and second, to give me a platform to explore areas of comics history that interested me. My Nathan Heller series deals with 20th Century unsolved or controversial crimes in this fashion, and the Starr books were a kind of sideways spin-off.

Do you you think the witch-hunt had any merit or was it just misguided clueless politicians and others? Or something in between?

No merit whatsoever. Just politicians and dogooders beating the drums and their gums. This is not to say some comic books weren’t in poor taste, but the premise of the witch hunt — that comic books were inherently bad for children — was false. Comic books at that time were widely read by adults, particularly under-30 adults, in part reflecting GIs coming home from the war with the comics habit. Comics, which were sold at PXs, were portable and easy to read. The notion that Tales From the Crypt was aimed at the same audience as Little Lulu is beyond absurd. Wertham, though obviously a publicity hound, may have been well-meaning, but he only shows that the dangers of censorship come from both the right and the left. McCarthy represents the right-wing lunacy of that era, Wertham the left-wing lunacy.

I always say that the place where the far right and the far left meet is a book burning. They’re just bringing different books.

What has been the long-term impact of the 50s witch-hunt against comics?

Even now, there is a stigma attached to comics, but we have come a very long way. I’m proud that my graphic novel Road to Perdition was part of that re-evaluation of comics as a storytelling medium. The major impact of the witch hunt was immediate — stunting that industry, turning it back for a time into a kiddie medium, throwing publishers out of business, ending careers for writers, cartoonists and others in the field. It was a long hard road back. Stan Lee must be credited with bringing humor and a degree of intelligence to his super-heroes, attracting a teenage audience. No question that the Underground Comix movement, spearheaded by Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton, was key in rehabiliating the medium, ironically through sex and violence and, of course, satire.

I like the touch of having the book contain a dozen new illustrations done in EC Comics style by comic book legend Terry Beatty – was that the plan all along or did that happen after you wrote the book?

That’s been the format of the Jack and Maggie Starr novels from the start. An editor at Berkeley Prime Crime wondered if I could do a mystery series that utilized graphic-novel technique. I came up with the idea of having Terry kick off each chapter with an illustration that included the chapter title, and then doing an Ellery Queen-style “challenge to the reader” before the final chapter, in comic-book form. Actually, the first two books have more of this kind of material, including Beatty covers and a longer “challenge” section.

You seem, based on the piece on you at Wikipedia, to have participated in a a diverse set of projects. I was a little surprised to learn the same guy who wrote the graphic novel Road to Perdition wrote books based on CSI, Dark Angel and Bones. Do you liked having such a diverse set of projects going on? Or do you just follow your interests where they lead? Don’t get me wrong I think it’s fascinating.

Writing tie-ins was, for about 20 years, a sort of day job, a way to support my own work. I enjoyed being able to do a multiplicity of things in those novels. I am typed as a suspense writer, which is fine, but it was great to also write science fiction, as I did in Waterworld and Dark Angel, to do sword and sorcery, as I did in The Scorpion King, horror in the Mummy novels, Clancy-esque thrillers in Air Force One and In the Line of Fire, even a western in Maverick. The CSI novels were a little more in my wheelhouse, and were a way to introduce new readers to what I do.

How do you feel about Entertainment Weekly dubbing you “the novelization king”? How do you interpret that compliment?

Not sure it’s a compliment, and my reign is probably over — I haven’t been offered a movie tie-in in a while, and I’m not sure I’d do another at this point. Plenty of my own stuff to do. But I am proud of that work. Some of those books are really strong novels — Windtalkers, Saving Private Ryan, American Gangster. Though the movie itself is no classic, my book Daylight is probably my best movie novel.

How has Mickey Spillane been an influence on you? How did you two get to know each other? How is it that he trusted you to help finish some of his books after his death?

Spillane was my favorite writer, starting in my teens. I’ve been influenced by plenty of others in the mystery genre — Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Donald E. Westlake — but Spillane and his Mike Hammer captured my imagination when I was 13. He has the same magic as Edgar Rice Burroughs, and is somewhat apart from the other giants in his field. He was a pulp writer without literary pretentions or aspirations, and yet was a great artist. I was especially influenced in the way he writes action scenes, their speed, their brutality. And the theme of rough justice, even revenge, recurs in much of my work.

Mickey was the brunt of a lot of criticism — he still is. He was critically reviled in many quarters, and as a young man, I sprang to his defense in articles I wrote for mystery fanzines. I became known as his defender, and I suppose I still am. Because of this, I was invited to be the liaison between Mickey and the Milwaukee Bouchercon in 1981. Bouchercon is the big mystery fan convention. I interviewed him before maybe a thousand attendees — he had never been a guest at a con before. We really hit it off, and I began visiting him once a year or so in his home in South Carolina. We became professionally close — doing many projects together, anthologies, a comic book, a documentary — and personally close, as well. He’s my son Nate’s godfather.

He respected me as a writer. He liked my Nathan Heller novels. He knew he was dying and called me, days before he went, to ask me to complete The Goliath Bone, his last Mike Hammer. Then, a day or so later, he told his wife Jane to hand everything else unpublished and unfinished over to me — that I would know what to do with it. Just an amazing honor. And responsibility.

So how did this work with Complex 90, for example? Did you finish what he started or did you go back and rewrite some parts he wrote? Or some combination of those?

As much as I respect Mickey, I view this unpublished material as a rough draft, as raw material. I interweave my own stuff, and do my best to extend his material deep into each book. For example, if Mike Hammer refers to something off-stage that happened, I may write that as a chapter. A good example in Complex 90 is that Mike Hammer only talks about his Russian trip, when he’s interrogated at the Pentagon. I used that interview material as the basis for an extended flashback, bringing the Russian trip on stage.

Each manuscript has been in a different shape. Sometimes there are notes on plots and characters, sometimes not. Sometimes there are alternate versions of chapters, sometimes not. Occasionally he’s written the ending, other times not, although he had shared many of his endings with me in conversation — he was a genius where punchy endings were concerned, and often shared them with me, laughing at his own outrageousness.

These are not scraps. I always have 100 or 125 pages to deal with, out of a 300-page manuscript. Plenty of Spillane material in these, and of course the story and the famous characters are his. Typically, his 100 pages is expanded into 200 or more. By the time the Spillane material runs out, the reader and I are both in the groove.

Why do you think Spillane’s books are so popular? Why was he so successful?

Mickey was a comic book writer. He had done Captain America, Submariner, even Batman. He brought that same kind of excitement and visual style to his writing. He was also very emotional and poetic in a noir sense. Mike Hammer is a traumatized combat veteran, and the theme of the post-war world being a corrupt disappointment is strong in the early novels. Hammer is a vigilante and was the first popular hero who just set out to kill the bad guy. Not hand him over to the authorities, where a crook can play the system, no. Just flat out kill them. This was startling in 1947, and it still is. There’s be no James Bond or Jack Bauer without Hammer. No Dirty Harry or Shaft or Billy Jack or any of them.

If someone is finding their way just now to Mike Hammer books – perhaps through your new ones – where would you suggest they start?

These novels are all pretty user-friendly. No reason not to pick up Complex 90, which is a really wild ride. Lady, Go Die! will be out in paperback soon, and it’s an early story, the sequel to I, The Jury. There are nice anthologies available that collect the first, very famous Hammer novels, three to a book. The classics are I, the Jury, My Gun Is Quick, One Lonely Night, Vengence is Mine!, The Big Kill and Kiss Me, Deadly. The latter, of course, is the basis for the great film noir classic. My documentary about Mickey is a special feature on the Criterion DVD and blu-ray of Kiss Me, Deadly.

What does it mean to you to be trusted by Spillane to finish his books and to have worked with him on the Mike Danger comic book series and the four anthologies you did together?

To call it a dream come true would be an understatement. But let me take another angle on this, because I get asked this a lot. One of the frustrations of being a Spillane fan, a Mike Hammer fan, is that Mickey was not prolific. He took a 10-year break at the peak of his popularity. He published only 13 Mike Hammer novels in his lifetime — compared to other famous fictional detectives, that’s an incredibly small output. Poirot is in 75 books or so, Nero Wolfe the same, Perry Mason is one hundred. There are dozens of Spenser novels. Only 13 Mike Hammers. So as a fan, as that 13-year-old frustrated waiting between novels, I am so very pleased to be adding these new Mike Hammers to that list, particularly since they are all books Mickey began and planned. This is not some writer continuing a famous series for a buck. This is a writer chosen by the creator of Mike Hammer to complete projects that were already in the works. They are real Mike Hammer books.

Let’s end with what I call my bonus question: You can ask yourself a question, maybe a question you wish you would get asked more often or a question you just enjoy answering, and then answer it.

That’s easy. It would be somebody at HBO or Showtime calling me up and asking me if I want to write and supervise a series based on my Nathan Heller novels. The answer would be yes. By the way, the new Nate Heller novel — Ask Not, about the dead Kennedy assassination witnesses — will be out in October.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.