There’s a strong chance that Max Allan Collins has written more words in the crime fiction genre than any other living author, and likely in any medium. The hard boiled/mystery writer worked on Dick Tracy for 15 years, has published several successful novel series’ (including the Quarry and Nate Heller books) some non-fiction work on Eliot Ness, Al Capone, and the Untouchables, alongside over a dozen movie novelizations. Collins also wrote the Road to Perdition graphic novels that the Tom Hanks/Sam Mendes film was based on. He’s been around the rainy block a few times.
Another of Max Allan Collins incredible contributions to the world of crime noir comics, is the character of Michael Tree, a feminist spin on the PI secretary archetype, created for the comic series Ms. Tree with artist Terry Beatty. The series was created in the early ‘80s and had a complicated publishing history and became the longest running, monthly, private detective book in comic history. Michael Tree launched a wave of female private investigators, but sadly this renaissance seemed short lived, all things considered. Thankfully, Titan Comics is reprinting the stories in a new series of collections, the first of which will be released this summer.
Max took some time out of his busy SDCC schedule to sit down with us and discuss all things hard boiled crime fiction. We talked about Ms. Tree, discussed some of the possible reasons behind the lack of lady PI’s, and we chatted about some of the pulp fiction genre’s more contemporary criticisms.
Andrew Bundy: As a huge fan of the genre I’ve always been disappointed there aren’t more lady detectives with a reputation like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. So, I think it’s amazing that this series is being reprinted. Were there any particular characters that inspired you when creating Michael Tree, Max?
Max Allan Collins: Absolutely. It came from my interest in Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer – who was the huge private detective of the 1950’s that was very influential on James Bond and other characters. Mickey was the bestselling mystery writer – book for book – of the 20th century. I’d been reading him since I was a kid, and he had a secretary who was basically his partner and she was a detective too. She carried a .32 in her purse. The basic core idea of Ms. Tree was: what if the secretary always in love with private detective – which is a trope of the genre – what if they finally got married and he was murdered on their wedding night. She took the agency over and that was the first case – her solving her husband’s murder. That was the idea for the graphic novel version of it, which appeared serialized in Eclipse magazine with not really an intention of doing a comic book – it was kind of a one-shot private detective story – and it was popular.
I’m always a little surprised when anything I do is popular. But I almost couldn’t believe it was inexplicable popular – and that makes it sound like I don’t like my own stuff, and I actually do – but it turned into kind of the hit of Eclipse Magazine, which was an anthology. There was really some top talent and really some good things in it. I think Paul Gulacy was in there, and Marshall Rogers was in there – who I got to work with eventually on a Batman project. So, we were just delighted when the editor Dean Mullaney came and asked; “would you like to do a monthly comic book?” And it turned into the longest running, monthly, private detective comic book of all time. Which is kind of like being the best looking guy at the all girls school. Often the janitor, or the principal, you know. The private eye comic book field rarely had lengthy runs.
There was a character called Sarge Steel, who ran for 15 books or something, and there were a number in the ‘40s and early ‘50s. It just never really hit. And there’s some good ones. Johnny Dynamite was excellent. In fact, Terry Beatty – the artist and co-creator of Ms. Tree – and I bought the rights to him and eventually used him as a character. We loved him. But again, it ran under 15 issues. We had a long run – from around 1982 to around 1993 – so we had a long run. So, this first collection, which runs about 250 pages, these 5 volumes – The Complete Ms. Tree – they represent probably about 1,500 pages of material. So, we had a long, long run with it and are proud of that fact; and – to some degree – I think we jumpstarted the idea of the female private detectives.
Shortly after us – not imitating us, mind you – my friend, Sara Paretsky, came up with V.I. Warshawski, an extremely popular and successful character. And then, the late, great, Sue Grafton with Kinsey Millhone. And then the whole subgenre of female private eyes began to pop up, and really dominated, the ‘80s and early ‘90s.
AB: I’ve always theorized that the reason behind the lack of female gumshoes in hard boiled fiction – why it remains such a boys club – is related to the genre roots; PTSD, World War II trauma. It’s often hyper masculine. But any person can experience trauma. That’s not limited to a male viewpoint.
MAC: Yeah, I think you’re exactly right. In 1981, we weren’t really trying to do something hugely feminist, in terms of the modern sense of the word – the #MeToo era wasn’t in anyone’s mind at that point – but the very fact that we used Ms. in the title, indicates that there was a certain amount of feminist intent there. I was also very keen on what had come before. The only forerunner would have been Modesty Blaise, the female James Bond. And, it’s not that I didn’t like Modesty Blaise. I loved Modesty Blaise, but she had to be better than all the men, and I always thought there was something vaguely sexist about that idea. I thought it was quite enough for her to be just as kick-ass as any guy would have been. So, I never felt we took it over the top. There’s a lot of dark humor in it, no question about it. She would hand someone a bullet and say; “The next one will be traveling faster.” That kind of fun, dark humor. But I never wanted to make her a superwoman in a trench coat, you know? In some ways I wanted her to be a standard, tough detective, but also be vengeance driven – which is what Mike Hammer was.
The other thing I wanted to do is have the things that she did, once we knew we were going to do an extended story, is correct a problem that I’ve always felt any genre fiction often has; what I call “episodic amnesia.” Like, Captain Kirk has a brother in this episode, but we’ve never heard about him before, and we haven’t since; because all of these writers that come in and they’d throw in some idea and never pay attention to what they were doing. I wanted: if Michael Tree does something that gets her thrown into jail, the next issue would have her being thrown into jail. She eventually was institutionalized as a psychotic, so her psychotic behavior had ramifications. And, as a writer doing serious stuff, I’ve always liked stories growing out of stories; so that had a lot to do with the approach.
And then, a big part of it was to do topical material. One of the unintentional ironies here is just how much of what we’re doing – in this material that was being published in the ‘80s and ‘90s, that’s now being released again – is still out there. We’ve made precious little progress. There’s still abortion clinic bombings and date rape and homophobia. All of these topics are still in the news and it kind of depresses me that we haven’t made more progress. Then, on the other hand, it’s kind of nice that these stories haven’t really dated much, if at all.
AB: Do you find it’s feeling like more old school minded, contemporary crime fiction is increasingly difficult to tackle with more modern sensibilities – especially with all the violence towards women as a staple? Some crime noir stuff doesn’t translate as well; people seem much more critical of it now.
MAC: They do. They do. And I think one thing they miss in their criticizing is the femme fatale. There are a lot of them in crime fiction of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, but we shouldn’t forget that they are strong women. They may be misguided. But they are formidable foes. To me that’s almost feminist, in and of itself.
AB: Have you watched Ed Brubaker and Nic Refn’s new show, “Too Old to Die Young”?
MAC: I haven’t seen it yet! No.
AB: I think it’s fascinating, but it’s getting a lot of flak. It starts with this hateful, misogynistic conversation between corrupt cops. But it’s almost so much of a deliberately nightmarish commentary on post-Trump polarity that it really works in a sort of messed up way, I think. But most people seem of the opinion that it takes the content too far, and maybe shows like it simply shouldn’t exist anymore.
MAC: You know, this is a real problem, I think, for… let’s call them pulp fiction writers. You have to be able to depict a negative character without – as a writer – being assumed to be in agreement with said narrative character. Sometimes it’s so absurd. For example; my character Quarry – who is in one graphic novel that Titan put out! – that’s in a bunch of books Hard Case Crime has reissued, he sleeps around a bit. There are sex scenes in those books. And I will get complaints about the sex scenes in those books. But no one complains that he is a professional murderer. Something is a little off balance there. So, there’s a selective outrage, I think, that gets in the way when you’re just trying to tell a story.
AB: Definitely. Are you working on more Quarry’s War stuff?
MAC: I don’t think we’re planning another graphic novel but there is going to be more Quarry. We have one coming out, called “Killing Quarry,” and if we kill him that’s going to make the series tougher. But you’ll have to read it to find out. That should come out late this year; I believe November.
AB: Given the various mediums you work in – not just comics and prose, but film stuff too – does your process alter when developing a character or outlining a story, does it change drastically, or is only the collaboration process different?
MAC: Well, I often have young writers ask me about that. I felt that I could always be a storyteller who operated in different mediums – in order to protect myself, just as someone trying to make a living.
“Can you do a movie script?” “Yeah, sure I can.” But I also had to be ready for it.
I also like different mediums and so I like to understand them. But when a writer says; “Well, I’m a screenwriter; that’s what I do.” Or they say, “I’m a mystery writer,” or “I write comic books,” you’re closing yourself off to other options. But you do really have to pay attention in the difference between mediums. And comics make for a very interesting medium; it is words and music. It’s very visual as a medium, but it does require a mastery of the English language as well. Storytelling has different demands for different mediums. A lot of novelists are terrible screenwriters. Because they can’t think visually. I think comics is a great place to learn how to tell a story visually.
AB: Is there anything particular about comics, aesthetically, that you find accentuates the story visually more than say what cinematography can do for a film; what about doing fiction in comics excites you?
MAC: Well I’ve always liked the fact that particularly if I’m doing narration – a kind of traditional hard boiled narration – I like to have the image at odds with the words. So, the narrator can be telling you something that doesn’t quite match up that makes you wonder if the narrator is a trustworthy observer of your own life. So, I think that’s very good. But narration, when you don’t need it, is one of the prime sins of graphic storytelling. I mean if the picture says it, get out of the way.
AB: Were you happy with the “Road to Perdition,” adaptation? Can you talk about that experience a little?
MAC: Any time somebody on the level of Tom Hanks and Sam Mendes wants to make a movie I’m available. I thought they did a fantastic job. One of the things I think people don’t understand about that, cause I do have people come up to me and say, oh I want you to know liked the graphic novel so much better. That doesn’t break my heart but, I like the hear that, but it was actually conceived to be 3 issues essentially that were going to be collected.
AB: 3 one-shots, or… ?
MAC: Well, before Vertigo, or simultaneous perhaps, there was this thing called Paradox Press where they came to about 8 of us and they said we want to do noir graphic novels but going to serialize them in 3 issues. So, I conceived that in that kind of episodic way, so that when it was done as a film at had to be turned into a more conventional narrative. So, there’s stuff that happens in the graphic novel that really didn’t have any place in the movie, so it didn’t happen in the movie. One good example is the Jude law character. In the graphic novel there are a succession of hitmen who come after the protagonist and his son.
AB: And they combined that into one big bad hitman?
MAC: Yeah, they made them into one instead. And I didn’t actually create that character, but I think he’s very much in keeping with what I was up to.
AB: Interesting. I feel ashamed, I must admit, I still haven’t read the original source material, so they were less quirky, more traditional assassins?
MAC: Yeah and almost faceless. There was one based on a real guy who was named Sam “Golf Bag” Hunt in real life because he carried his submachine gun in his golf bag. *laughs*
AB: Wow. It’s always amazing to me how many characters in these pulpy genres, whether it’s James Bond stuff or this kind of crime fiction, just how many people are inspired from real life figures. But I guess the truth has sometimes got to be stranger than the fiction?
MAC: Well, you go back to Dick Tracy and you the first villain is Big Boy – who is Scarface/Al Capone – and I think Gould was really effectd by all those outlaws. Pretty Boy Floyd. Baby Face Nelson. Don’t those sound like Dick Tracy villains?
AB: I don’t know how that never correlated with me, but totally. One thing I personally love about Dick Tracy is his – for lack of a better word – more boy scout tendencies in contrast with how dark the genre can get. Did you have fun writing a character like him, who you can be a little bit looser with?
MAC: With Dick Tracy, I always kept him pretty straight. And he was based – as I found out from Chester Gould himself – on Eliot Ness. And I’ve done a considerable non-fiction work on Eliot Ness. There’s a book called “Scarface and The Untouchables,” about the real Eliot Ness and the real Untouchables and Capone himself – which is quite different from the film and the TV shows. But it’s fascinating to me that Al Capone generated virtually every fictional gangster – all the various Scarfaces we’ve had, including Tony Montana – I mean, he generates them all and Ness basically generates Dick Tracy in all the trenchcoated, snap-around-hat detectives, which are not quite the private eyes you and I have been talking about.
AB: You talked about the “integrity and coherence” of how you’re reprinting these collections in the introduction; so, moving forward, the collections will be specifically curated?
MAC: Yeah. I made this decision – and I’m very pleased that the folks at Titan went along with me – to lead with the material that we did at DC, which was the last material that Terry Beatty and I did. We did about 10 issues that were essentially short graphic novellas – about 56 pages each – which was a really nice format for us. And I thought Terry was at his best. I thought my work was good. I really felt that we were at our best. For the first one, I gathered the 5 interwoven stories that could comprise one graphic novel; I thought leading with something that had that kind of narrative integrity would be a good way to introduce the character for new and old readers. The second volume collects the rest of the DC material, and these will all be collected in full color. The previous issues were mostly done in – sometimes I call it duotone, but Terry gets mad at me because that’s not exactly right – but, basically we used the shades of one color; we’d use the shades of blue, or shades of green or shades of red, to give it a look. And it had kind of an interesting look that nobody else had going at the time, and also it was cheaper than full color – to be quite frank to you. We haven’t really determined if we’re going to do full color for the later volumes; I don’t know if we’ll be maintaining the coloring that Terry and I originally did. But I thought we should lead with our strongest material. And also, some of the material had been reprinted before and I thought, “Let’s get this stuff out that hasn’t been seen in a while.” So that was the strategy.
AB: It hooked me right away, so I think it was a sound strategy. I loved the opening.
MAC: Well, it’s kind of a soft reboot.
AB: Yeah. When you described her origin, I was thinking “this sounds like some of the stuff I just read.”
MAC: Right, right.
AB: I really like the introductory exchange between Dominique and Michael in the collection. Do you find developing relationships the between the genre staples creates a different character dynamic than your proto-typical PI’s and cigar-chomping crime bosses?
MAC: Well I started with Dominic, Dominic Muerta. You more typical mob guy, and then when we bumped him off I thought it would be hilarious to have the next boss be Dominique Muerta. And, yes, I thought that if we’re going to have a strong woman as the private detective let’s have a strong woman as the antagonist. So that was a lot of fun to play with for a long time. Then eventually Don Donnie Muerta comes in – who is sort of the Yuppie. I was having fun with it, you know?
AB: *Laughs* I love plays on names like that.
MAC: Yeah! Well, when you’ve written Dick Tracy for 15 years it’s hard to get that out of your system.
AB: I’m so impressed with your body of work as a crime fiction writer. Given how much you’ve done – and how much quality stuff is out there – how do you keep things fresh?
MAC: The thing about mystery and crime fiction that you have to remember is that you are going to get the criticism – we touched on this earlier; you are going to get the sex and violence criticism – but, sex is life, violence is death; those are the topics. You add to that – in crime comics, and in crime fiction – that there’s a crime; well, that means there is a conflict, and conflict is what drives the story. And that’s always going to work. It’s not going to go away and get out of fashion. The nature of the crimes are going to be different. The attitudes are going to be different. But something’s always going to be a crime, people are always going to care about life and people are always going to care about death.
AB: I think that’s a brilliant way of putting it. So, is there anything else you’re working on now, other than these collections and the new Quarry’s War book you mentioned?
MAC: Yeah. I actually just finished my second draft of one of the non-fiction books – the very long non-fiction books about Eliot Ness, co-written with A. Brad Schwartz. He’s A. Period. Brad Schwartz. *Laughs* I’m like, “Are you sure you want to do that? You might be A. Brad Schwartz but I’m the Max Allan Collins.” But he’s an incredible writer, he’s a Princeton Scholar. He’s getting his doctorate at Princeton and – while I do some research – he’s just done phenomenal research. Things like Eliot Ness and Al Capone even lived on the same street for a while in Chicago. Which was never known. Just things like that. So, I just finished my draft of that.
Next up is a Mike Hammer for Titan, which is called “Masquerade for Murder,” and I’m working from Mickey Spillane’s outline and a short fragment of manuscript. Titan has been great about… we’re kind of calling it the “Spillane Legacy Project,” which is to take these things that Mickey started and didn’t finish, because he asked me to do it. Which is amazing really, and a great, great honor. And then my wife Barbara Allan and I do a series together – the opposite style; a cozy series about an eccentric mother and her not eccentric daughter. And that’s a lot of fun. They’re called “The “Trash ‘n’ Treasures” mysteries and the new one is called “Antique’s Ravin” and it is about an Edgar Allen Poe festival that goes awry. So, I’ve got a lot of stuff going on – a Nate Heller book coming out next year. You got to get that money coming into the mailbox! *laughs*
AB: Of course. Well, thank you so much for your time, it’s been amazing talking. I love crime fiction.
MAC: Thank you! That’s great. Read Hammett, read Chandler, and James M. Cain, if you haven’t read him!