Some movies (read: Spider-Man) wear their comic-book roots like a Hawaiian shirt, loud and proud. And then there’s Road to Perdition, which sports its comics pedigree inconspicuously, like a tommy gun tucked away under a gangster’s topcoat. The movie is based on a 1998 graphic novel written by former Dick Tracy comic-strip scribe Max Allan Collins and illustrated in stark black and white by British artist Richard Piers Rayner.
For Collins, it’s been more like the road to bonusville. A seemingly tireless pulp-fiction machine, the prolific Iowa-based author, 54, juggles comics work with his series of Nathan Heller historical detective novels and tie-in novelizations for movies such as Saving Private Ryan and Windtalkers. But for all Collins’ creative enthusiasm, Perdition’s low-profile publication — coupled with some previous Hollywood development disappointments — hardly had him thinking big-screen adaptation. ”We didn’t get any [comic-book] award nominations or anything, and I was so bitter that nobody noticed, I actually quit comics,” he says, then laughs. ”But nobody noticed that, either.”
Well, not exactly. Producers Dean and Richard Zanuck noticed the graphic novel (which was recently reprinted by DC Comics/Paradox Press) — even if, as Collins recalls, they needed some filling in as to just what a graphic novel was. Not so for Perdition screenwriter David Self, who’s followed comics on and off since childhood (and, not coincidentally, is working on a script featuring Marvel Comics’ Sub-Mariner). What impressed him most was how unique the story was — for any medium, never mind comics. ”Every other one of its ilk is usually about the crime family or the rise of the kingpin,” Self says. ”This wasn’t about that at all.”
While admitting a twinge of regret that he didn’t get a crack at the Perdition screenplay, Collins — who has written and directed such microbudgeted indie films as Mommy and Real Time: Seige at Lucas Street Market — is full of praise for Self and director Sam Mendes. Sure, Collins’ film version might have reflected the Asian pop-culture imports that inspired him: His comic was influenced by the Japanese manga Lone Wolf and Cub. ”I was thinking John Woo,” he says. ”But they made The Godfather, and that’s just fine with me.”
Still, Collins did get to write Perdition’s novelization. ”Pretty peculiar — a novel based on a screenplay that I didn’t write, based on my book,” he says. ”[Now] I say, ‘Gee, I hope you liked this — now go out and read the graphic novel!’ ”