Thursday, 28 February 2013

An Interview With Max Allan Collins On His "Seduction Of The Innocent" Novel, Politics, Craftmanship, Genre, Social Problems & Pop Culture

Terry Beatty's inside cover for Seduction Of The Innocent.

Not being a particular fan of Golden Age mysteries, I handed over Max Allan Collins's Seduction Of The Innocent to my wife when it arrived. Given that she's dedicated several bookshelves to a collection of mid-20th century Penguin detective novels, with their beautifully austere and iconic green covers, I thought she might be better qualified to comment on the virtues of Collins's book. For though I'm fascinated by Seduction Of The Innocent's setting, which ingeniously comments on Fredric Wertham's baleful mid-century career, I'm really not the audience for what the book's back-cover describes as "hard-boiled crime fiction".

But we were both taken by surprise by Seduction Of The Innocent. I thought I'd struggle with its genre, while my wife carries not an atom of either knowledge of or interest in comicbook history. Having asked if she'd mind casting an eye over the novel's first chapter, she disappeared for several hours before returning with an enthusiastic opinion of the whole book. Despite my reservations, I soon found myself repeating the same process, and to the same effect too. Yes, it's a sharp, witty mystery, and yes, it's a knowleagable skewering of the anti-comics moral panic of the mid-fifties. But both aspects of the book are so smartly and seemlessly combined that Seduction Of The Innocent carries the day through being that rarest of things; a thoroughly enjoyable read whose virtues speak to readers from beyond what today's marketing logic would declare its core audiences.

I was writing a review of the book when the welcome opportunity to interview Max Allan Collins arrived. Much of what I was intending to discuss in it ended up in the questions that I asked him, and the broad outlines of what would have been a highly favourable piece should be obvious in what follows. In the end, adding a review as a prequel to the interview seemed an expression of blogger's hubris. Max Allan Collins's own words makes a far better case than I ever could for Seduction Of The Innocent.

Of course, anyone in the comics blogosphere who's given the chance to ask a question or two of Mr Collins should grasp at the prospect. With more than 40 years worth of experience as a professional writer, his contributions to comics include the Road To Perdition graphic novels, the Dick Tracey newspaper strip, a run on Batman, and, of course, the Ms Tree stories produced in collaboration with Terry Beatty. Beyond comics, his achievements as a novelist and screenwriter are so numerous and notable that I can only suggest the neophyte cast an eye over his Wiki page.

Each chapter arrives with an appropriately fifties-esque Terry Beatty illustration, which helps underscore the sense that Seduction Of The Innocent has been a project that mattered to all involved.
       
1. It strikes me that Seduction Of The Innocent is, after its own fashion, a particularly ambitious book. It's a mystery, a historical novel, a discussion of a little-known aspect of America's cultural past, and, amongst several other things, a homage to Rex Stout's work too. And all of that had to be used to create a novel which readers who know little if anything of such things can thoroughly enjoy. Did it seem to you that you'd set yourself a daunting challenge? Even as I enjoyed the book, I couldn't help but think how much work must have gone into it being so easy and enjoyable to read. You've described yourself on Facebook as being "blue-collar" and "self-employed". That being so, there must surely be an easier way for you to earn a living?

These are very flattering comments, but what I appreciate most is that you have identified the various elements that came together to make up Seduction Of The Innocent. Even though the Jack and Mgagie Starr novels (1) don't deal with real crimes - as the Nathan Heller books do (2) - the research is fairly rigorous. I have enormous help from George Hagenauer, who has been with me as my research associate on everything from Heller to Elliot Ness, from the Road To Perdition stories to Jack and Maggie Starr. George and I met through comics fandom, and both of us are of the generation who grew up reviling Dr Frederic Wertham and loving EC Comics. So the subject matter was already of interest, and we were more familiar with it than on many previous occasions.

As for the Archie Goodwin/Nero Wolf homage aspect, and the Golden Age mystery one as well, that was just sheer fun to write. The hardest thing was balancing the history with the mystery - I usually have a really good feel for that, but both my agent and editor and agent felt I'd overdone the comics history and I edited out maybe five thousand words that would have thrilled comic book fans and bored the socks off everybody else.

This is hard work, I'll admit it. But it's creatively rewarding, obviously, and hey, I get to work at home. On the other hand, no one should think writing is easy. I have been doing this professionally since college - 1971 to be specific - and my wife Barb will tell you she frequently hears me say, "When is this going to start getting easier?"

*1:- The Jack and Maggie Starr books each deal with an aspect of comics history.  "A Killing In Comics" presents a fictionalised version of the debate over Superman's ownership, while "Strip For Murder" is based on the ill-starred relationship between Al Capp and Ham Fisher.
*2:- A long-running series of historical detective novels, in which Heller's investigations involve prominent figures from the period between the Thirties and the mid-Sixties.

Glen Orbik's purposefully pulp-exploitation front cover.

2. On your blog, you discussed the irony that you make your living from writing about pop culture while not feeling entirely "in touch" with the pop culture of today. But it struck me that one of things that SOTI does very well is discuss the culture - pop or otherwise - of 2013 as well as 1953. Is that me reading things into your work, or does SOTI comment on the present day too? From news broadcasters stirring up moral panics to "Parents (who) are always glad to have something or somebody to blame for why their brats are brats", it certainly seems so.

I am a pop culture junkie, though the drugs currently out there don't always tempt me. A lot of my fiction explores the roots of popular culture - Nathan Heller is, in part, an attempt to look at the truth behind the truth of the cliches of the private eye genre - for example that P.I.s always seem to be have been traumatised in one war or another, in one war or another, in vague back story, so I took Heller to Guadalcanal and wrote about a third of the novel (The Million-Dollar Wound) as a war story - showing how he got screwed up in the war. And Heller is a different character in books set after the war. Looking at Al Capone, Elliot Ness and Wyatt Earp in novels that hew close to history, that depend on tons of research, is a way to look at the real people from whom our pop culture have been drawn.

Seduction Of The Innocent is very much about how comics and other pop culture make an easy scapegoat. That the book came out in the shadow of the Sandy Hook tragedy - and the inevitable glib anti-pop culture knee-jerk stupidity from both the right and left - is coincidental, yet not surprising, because these tragedies are always right around the corner, thanks to the proliferation of guns in America and attitudes toward mental health.

Look at the way Wertham used data derived from his Harlem clinic to blame comic books - saying, absurdly, that any juvenile delinquency these ghetto kids were caught up in had to do with the comics they read, not the poverty or racism they were brought up in. I have said it before and will say it again; the place where the far right and far left meet is at a book burning ... they just bring different books, although in the cases of comics and now video games and what have you, both the far right and far left are in agreement in their choice of scapegoats. When the left and the right agree, put your hand over your wallet and keep your head down. Way down.

3. It must be difficult for a writer to discuss the prejudices of the past without sounding jarringly anachronistic. I enjoyed the way that SOTI talked about social problems such as racism, and homophobia without seeming to be preaching from a tolerant, informed 21st century perspective. These social issues do seem important to you, and I wonder how difficult it can be to present the past in a way that rings true while also challenging its prejudices?

I always have to attach a note to my manuscripts telling the copy editor that politically incorrect usages must be allowed because of the historical nature of the material - that African Americans will at times be referred to as "colored", that women may be called "girls", and so on. I have been fighting that since the beginning, with True Detective, Nate Heller's 1983 debut. Homosexuality is a problem, because a guy like Heller would almost certainly have attitudes that jar today, would use a word like "fag", for example. Jack Starr, on the other hand, has been part of the theatrical world of New York, because of his stepmother Maggie, and has been more tolerant, even enlightened attitudes. You have to be true to the times and the character.

But historical fiction, like science fiction, is a great place to talk about the problems of today ... chiefly because history repeats itself, or anyway people allow it too. The Irag War was the biggest shock of my life, because I was certain that if we had learned anything while I was on the planet - anything - it was not to do Vietnam over again. And yet we did. And are.

     
4.Fredric Wertham's name is still thrown around by comics fans and pros alike as a deadly, and often kneejerk, insult. In fact, I was called that by a prominent comicbook editor just last year. Yet you choose to emphasise the admirable as well as the repellent aspects of "Werner Frederick", your take on his character. Were you ever tempted to paint him in less favourable colours? You have, after all, described being a boy in the 50s and being well aware of just what a baleful influence he was.

I was pretty rough on Wertham, but that's because Dr Werner Frederick is a caricature version of him. On the other hand, Wertham, the great hater of comics, was kind of a cartoon in life. But even in a novel like Seduction Of The Innocent, where you're doing larger-than-life melodrama, you can't, or anyway I don't think you should, paint characters one-dimensionally, especially a murder victim. So I gave my cartoon version of Wertham the attributes of the real man - he was very concerned about the plight of African Americans in this country, for example.

So was he misguided or a cynic chasing media fame? Probably both. On the very day - just last Tuesday (February 19) - that my novel Seduction Of The Innocent was published, the New York Times revealed that Wertham's data had been faked, according to a University of Illinois assistant professor who studied Wertham's papers at the Library of Congress (3).

*3:- "Scholar Finds Flaws In Work By Archenemy Of Comics", by David Itzkoff, New York Times, 19/2/2013, here

5. You've talked about SOTI being the last in a trilogy discussing aspects of comics history that you "wanted to explore". Thankfully, you've also mentioned in interviews the possibility of writing more mysteries set in the medium's past. Have you had any further thoughts of doing so? What issues and events in the industry's history might tempt you to return to the Starrs and their investigations? You do, after all, have decades of your own experience in the comics business to draw on.

Right now I have two Jack and Maggie books in mind. I'd been planning to do a Nate Heller about the death of George Reeves, had done all the research and even had a book proposal ready ... and then the movie Hollywoodland came out. So I tabled it. Now it's been almost ten years since that film, which is an eternity in popular culture, so I may be able to do the novel after all ... and Jack and Maggie Starr seem better for it than Heller.

I'm also toying with something that looks at the sometimes rocky relationship between a big-time syndicated cartoonist and his assistant or assistants. I touched upon this in Strip For Murder, but that was two successful cartoonists who hated each other. I had a close look at Rick Fletcher when he assisted Chester Gould on Dick Tracey, and I got to know Dave Graue, the assistant to V. T. Hamlin on Alley Oop. I actually did a documentary a few years ago called Caveman: V. T. Hamlin & Alley Oop. Doing that documentary, I realized that the relationship between Fletcher and Gould was identical to that between Graue and Hamlin - it began as a father-and-son kind of thing and over the years deteriorated into downright resentment and even hatred, from both sides. There's a murder mystery in that.

My thanks to Max Allan Collins for answering my questions - you can find his website here -  and to Lauren Woosey at Titan for organising it all. I make it a point of not getting involved in the likes of blog tours when I've any reservations at all about the product concerned, but I have to say, I enjoyed and admired Seduction Of The Innocent, I really did.

  
And finally, Lauren tells me that a copy of "Seduction of The Innocent" might be won if a Tweet containing the phrase “I would like a copy of Seduction of the Innocent @TitanBooks #MaxAllanCollins” should be sent out into the Twitterverse.

.

10 comments:

  1. Thank you for all this -- and I apologize for seeming a little incoherent at times. The nature of a blog tour is that you do a bunch of back-to-back interviews at the risk of getting punchy...which I clearly did here at times. But these were extremely thoughtful, sharp questions and I wanted to thank you for them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello Mr Collins:- Thank you for the kind words. I didn't think your answers were incoherent at all. Quite the opposite is true.

      All the best, and thanks again for taking the time in what must have a truly exhausting schedule to respond to these questions.

      Delete
  2. I came across this book yesterday when I was buying comics, and almost got it immediately, but not being familiar with the author and not necessarily a fan of crime fiction (except for Chester Himes and the occasional Agatha Christie in my youth), I decided I'd wait and do some internet research and ask around before plunking down the dough.

    Well, lo and behold, one of my favorite comics bloggers gives it a hearty recommendation the next day! Why couldn't you have posted this on Tuesday! ;)

    But I will be getting the book. - Seems like it would be fun, plus as you know I am a little obsessed with Wertham. A flawed figure if there ever was one, but one that I think deserves a little more respect than he gets.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello Osvaldo:- well, this is the book for you then! It does give FW far more respect than a great many texts, though it's a hardly a positive view of the man and his worl.

      I can of course only apologise for not letting you know sooner :) I think your interest in FW and the period will make it a worthwhile experience anyway, but there's a great deal else to say for SOTI.

      Delete
  3. Man, I have to have this book, like yesterday! Didn't even know about it until I saw this.
    Great interview as well, Colin.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello Edo:- Thank you for saying so. And do drop a line letting me know how you got along with SOTI, when and if it falls into your hands. I'd love to know :)

      Delete
    2. It's not a question of if, I'm definitely getting it; in fact, I've now firmly decided to track down and get Collins' other two "comic mysteries" as well (I'd heard of them before but they weren't really high on my list of priorities). As to when I'll get around to reading them - can't really say, as currently I've started slogging through some Pynchon books that have been sitting on my shelf collecting dust for way too long - so it might be a while. However, I'm sure once I do get around to them I'll like them - I've thoroughly enjoyed everything else by Collins that I've read (a whopping 2-3 books).

      Delete
    3. Hello Edo:- There's going to be a change in pressure from Pynchon to Collins, although I don't mean by that, as I believe you'll know, that I believe there's any high/low art problem there. I never could divide my tastes into high/low,good.low, art/trash, and I suspect you're the same. There's just work I like and admire, and work I don't.

      And I have a great liking for both writer's work. Mind you, it's been years since I've read any Pynchon. I really ought to put that right!

      Delete
  4. im going of topic. why isn't there any showcase presents/essential marvel style,or the 2000ad style reprinting of the ec comcics?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello H:- I fear I have no idea at all. But it must be economics which determines it. The cost of licensing the material must prohibit cheap collections. A shame, because I'd buy them all!

      Delete