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Good Read Column for May 19, 1998

Road to Perdition

Written by Max Allan Collins
Art by Richard Piers Rayner
296 pages, Paradox Press, $13.95

(of a possible five)


Max Allan Collins is a solid mystery writer, with a number of prose novels under his belt in addition to his comics work on Ms. Tree and Mike Danger and others. He is also something of a historian, having previously produced well-researched novels on such topics as the Lindbergh kidnapping (to this day, my wife is convinced it happened just the way he said it did).

So it should come as no surprise to find him authoring a tight little masterpiece of a gangster-era bloodbath, a tale of Michael O'Sullivan, nicknamed the Archangel of Death, up against his former boss and eventually Al Capone and all his minions. Bullets fly every few pages, and if there is a criticism, it is that the Angel kills too many men, walks away from too many battles where he is far outnumbered. It's too much like some old Bruce Lee movie, but with guns instead of karate kicks.

Except it's all true.

Well, not all true, perhaps. It is billed as a novel, and Collins does hedge his afterword, saying it is "true enough" and that it all happened "more or less." It's possible that O'Sullivan's feats are exaggerated, or perhaps in real life he had more help than a frightened little boy. My guess is, though, that while some of the story is invented or supposed (I imagine no one knows who did some of the things attributed to O'Sullivan in this book), the most outrageous improbabilities are in fact well-established.

The story begins with Michael Jr. stowing away in the back of his father's car. He wants to see just what it is his father does when he goes out on what Michael Jr. and his brother Pete refer to as their father's "missions." They don't know what their father does for John Looney - and they are far too young to realize that Looney is a gangster, controlling booze, brothels and even a gambling boat. All they know is that it's something exciting - their father carries a gun "like Tom Mix" when he goes out.

Michael Jr. finds out more than he wants to, witnesses his father and Looney's son, Conner, shooting men down in cold blood. He is discovered, and Conner Looney's about to shoot him when O'Sullivan stops him. Conner pretends to be believe his assurances that the boy won't talk, but the Angel's next mission turns out to be a set-up. The message he is carrying from John Looney to a wayward sub-boss turns out to say "Kill O'Sullivan and all will be forgiven." And while the Angel of Death is supposed to be meeting death himself, Conner Looney goes to his house and kills his wife and son.

Michael Jr. is out at a birthday party - Conner kills his brother Pete thinking it's him - and arrives home just as Conner is leaving. O'Sullivan kills the sub-boss and two of his henchmen, then goes home to find Michael Jr. crying over the body of his mother.

O'Sullivan goes to Looney headquarters and kills a dozen men, but Looney has already left town. He then goes to Chicago to see the Looney's ally, Capone. Capone's not available, but he talks to his right hand man, Frank Nitti. Nitti finds what the Looney's have done to be deplorable, but refuses to help, tacitly admitting Capone is hiding Conner Looney and citing business concerns. So the war extends to the Capone mob, and the Angel of Death kills another 16 men, by my count, escaping.

Since hiding Conner is "only business," O'Sullivan decides to make hiding him an expensive proposition, hoping Capone will decide he's a liability rather than an asset. He hits mob-connected banks, stealing secret hordes of cash and telling crooked bank managers to let Capone know it will stop if he gives up the younger Looney.

He also meets Eliot Ness in the cemetery by his wife's grave and gives him the evidence he needs against the elder Looney. Ness is surprised he is content to see Looney in jail instead of trying to kill him. "Looney's an old man," says the Angel, "I prefer to see him die slowly . . . in prison . . . living with the knowledge that his son died violently."

"Conner Looney killed?" asks Ness. "When did this happen."

"Soon," says the Angel.

There are lots of great moments like that, and having the whole thing told by the son, years later, looking back (and admitting he is reconstructing many scenes from exactly the kind of research Collins had to use to write the book in the first place) is a nice touch.

And, as I often do, I find I have spoken at length about the story without mentioning the art of Richard Piers Rayner. And here, especially, that's really too bad. For the art is perfect. The style, the manner, the choice of when to depict detailed backgrounds and when to just put figures with no background at all . . . there's not a false note anywhere. I wasn't familiar with Rayner before this, but I'm extremely impressed. There's a reason why Collins chose to use this format rather than prose to tell this tale, and Rayner shows us what it is.

All in all, a remarkable book. Going over it while writing this my opinion of it has gone up even higher. The art, for instance, is unobtrusive in its service to the story but on close examination reveals itself to be even better than remembered. And, at nearly 300 pages, I'd put "Road to Perdition" on the small list of works actually worthy to be called "graphic novels."

(NOTE: Added 5/25/1998)
Since writing this review, I've received communication from Mr. Collins. It seems I read the afterward a little too enthusiastically. Although there was a betrayed Looney lieutenant in real life, the fact is that O'Sullivan and his son are invented characters. I assume by that that the actions of several other people were attributed to O'Sullivan for narrative purposes, since the afterward definitely asserts that most of the events of the novel did occur. The Bruce Lee analogy turns out to have been pretty close, for the whole was intended as an obvious homage to a work I'm ashamed to admit I have not read, though I've heard much about it: Lone Wolf and Cub.

He also mentions that for the first time in 20 years, he has no comics projects currently on his plate, and this may be his swan song in the medium. I urge everyone reading this to write every comics company you can think of and ask them why they don't have a Max Allan Collins project in the works. (Like why isn't there a Max Allan Collins story in Vertigo's Gangland anthology miniseries?)

Somebody keep this guy writing comics!

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