Max Allan Collins is a name comics and mystery fans will recognize instantly, for his work on Dick Tracy, the Road To Perdition, and his collaboration with Terry Beatty, the dark noir Mrs. Tree.
His latest, Seduction Of The Innocent, arrives tomorrow and it’s a return to the Jack & Maggie Starr series, which sets mysteries among the early history of comics. And this time, Collins is taking on none other that Dr. Frederick Wertham.
Mr. Collins took some time to explain what fascinated him about this era of comics, what makes this series of novels unique, and just why he read the original Seduction of The Innocent so much as a kid. We also have an excerpt, courtesy of Hard Case Crime, and you’ll find it all under the jump.
Gamma Squad: How did the idea to set a novel during the ’50s comics “witch trials” first come to you?
Max Allan Collins: I originally conceived the Jack and Maggie Starr mysteries as two things: a trilogy, and a tribute to Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin novels. I’ve been writing the more overtly hardboiled, and rigorously-faithful-to-history Nathan Heller series since the ’80s, and I had three historical subjects relating to comics that didn’t quite suit that series. I wanted to deal with the creation of Superman by two teenagers from Cleveland, the feud between superstar cartoonists Al Capp (Li’l Abner) and Ham Fisher (Joe Palooka), and the attack on comics in the early ’50s, particularly on the EC Comics that I loved so much.
None of these real subjects involved a murder, though Fisher did commit suicide under unusual circumstances, so Heller was out. So doing a more roman a clef approach, with a Golden Age of Mysteries format, seemed perfect.
Gamma Squad: It’s great to see you and Terry Beatty, who offers illustrations throughout the book, working together again. Any chance we might finally see some reprints of “Mrs. Tree”?
Collins: Ms. Tree reprints are coming. If I can find time, so will a new graphic novel. Terry is very busy, though, as the Sunday page artist on the syndicated Phantom strip. Very proud of him.
Gamma Squad: You’ve written quite a few unique characters: Nolan, Quarry, Nathan Heller, Mallory. How is Jack Starr different?
Collins: Nolan is a thief, and Quarry is a hitman — those are early creations, and grew out of the anti-hero movies and books of the ’60s and early ’70s. Crook books, we used to call them. Nolan is highly influenced by Richard Stark’s Parker. Quarry is a more original creation, the stories told in first-person, and he has had real longevity. I just finished the tenth Quarry novel, THE WRONG QUARRY — he was created in 1972 at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop.
Mallory is another first-person character, a small-town mystery writer, very much in the private eye vein, very Chandler-influenced. I did five of those very early on in my career, and will probably not return to the character — he’s of my youth, and was actually a kind of hippie private eye, except he wasn’t licensed. Heller is probably my most significant creation, a private detective in the Sam Spade/Phillip Marlowe/Mike Hammer mold who operates out of Chicago in the ’30s through the early ’60s, and is involved in real crimes. The books are very tough, very violent, though Heller himself is an obvious descendent of Mallory, in that he has a sense of humor and is generally good company.
Jack Starr is kind of Nate Heller Lite, and very much reflects my love of how Archie Goodwin narrates the Nero Wolfe novels.
Gamma Squad: How much research did you have to do into comics in 1954?
Collins: Quite a bit, although I grew up in that era. I was very aware that comic books were under fire, even at age six or seven — that Parent’s Magazine was publishing lists of comic books parents shouldn’t buy, and that Dr. Wertham was on the warpath. I vividly remember the Comics Code Authority coming in, and how that stamp-like insignia was a guarantee that the contents would be watered-down pap.
My usual research associate on my historical novels, George Hagenauer, is a very knowledgeable comics historian, and he worked with me hand-in-hand on this one. We looked at not only books like David Hadju’s Ten-Cent Plague, but articles and newspaper accounts of the period. George had a huge stack of that stuff that we both plowed through.
Gamma Squad: Will we see any historical figures from the industry pop up?
Collins: The characters are suggested by the real people — Dr. Frederick is Dr. Wertham, obviously, Bob Price is Bill Gaines, both fictionalized but recognizable. Will Allison is a composite of Al Williamson, Wally Wood and Frank Frazetta. The Crime Does Not Pay crew gets a similar fictionalization.
Gamma Squad: Did you manage to track down a copy of Seduction of the Innocent for research? I’ve discovered myself it’s surprisingly hard to find.
Collins: I think I have a copy somewhere. I’ve read it many times. The Muscatine, Iowa, library had a copy that I checked out again and again as a kid and teenager. Here’s how we used that book: to know what comics to look for.
Gamma Squad: How much of Frederick Wertham do you feel wound up in Dr. Frederick?
Collins: There’s considerable historical research backing up Dr. Frederick — how he runs a clinic in Harlem, for example, and is not entirely a bad guy, just a misguided one. But I’m doing a fairly broad kind of work here — sort of like an episode of the old Ellery Queen TV show with Jim Hutton. Dr. Frederick is a caricature, but like all good caricatures, built on reality.
On the next page, you’ll find an excerpt of Seduction of The Innocent; it’s on sale tomorrow.
In the spring of 1954, New York is the entertainment capital of America.
Sure, Hollywood has its movies, but lately it’s been stealing its scripts from TV—dramatic stuff like Marty and 12 Angry Men, comedies like Visit to a Small Planet and No Time For Sergeants…all originally produced on live TV right here in Manhattan.
You know what they shoot out in Hollywood, for TV? Kiddie crap like The Lone Ranger and Cisco Kid. Sure, there’s the rarity like Dragnet or I Love Lucy, but for real quality TV, it’s Studio One, The Philco-Goodyear Playhouse, and The Hallmark Hall of Fame. And for laughs, you got Uncle Miltie, Sid Caesar, and Jackie Gleason, then on Sunday night, so stiff he’s hilarious, Ed Sullivan. Live television out of New York.
Your morning starts with The Today Show with Dave Garroway and your day ends with The Tonight Show with Steve Allen (local now, but heading for network this fall). In between you have game shows like Beat the Clock and I’ve Got a Secret, soap operas like Love of Life and Guiding Light, not to mention the news with Douglas Edwards (CBS), John Cameron Swayze (NBC), and John Charles Daly (ABC) …dawn till dusk, dusk to midnight, live broadcasts from New York rule the airwaves.
Meanwhile, on the radio? Bob and Ray. Top that, California.
And where do the Hollywood producers look to find their next box-office bonanza? Broadway, where right now Can- Can, Picnic, and Tea and Sympathy are playing at the Shubert, Music Box and 48th Street Theatre respectively. And over at the Brill Building, any popular song that doesn’t come from a Broadway musical is getting pounded out on a piano by one tunesmith or another.
When Broadway isn’t providing grist for the Hollywood mill, the book publishing industry is. Do any of these ring a bell—The Robe, Battle Cry, From Here to Eternity? All major publishing resides in Manhattan, from class acts like Knopf and Random House to paperback outfits like Pocket Books (reprints) and Fawcett (originals). All the rags about Hollywood movie stars are published out of Manhattan, too, and so are the big-time news mags, Time, Life, Look.
Then there’s that powerhouse publishing industry that nobody talks about, or anyway when they talk about it, it’s either in hushed tones or outraged yells. No, I don’t mean the skin magazines, though a lot of the guys in the biz I’m talking about started out there (and some still work sleaze as a sideline).
I am talking about funny books, kids.
The most popular entertainment medium of all, here in 1954. My city boasts twenty comics publishers putting out 600-some titles every month, selling eighty to one hundred million copies a week, reaching an audience larger than movies, TV, radio and magazines combined (they figure a comic book gets passed around or traded to six or more readers).
It’s an industry employing a thousand-plus writers, artists, editors, letterers and assorted spear carriers, men and women, white and Negro and what-have-you. It’s a form of story- telling that arrays newsstands with superhero fantasy and talking ducks, though those are outnumbered of late by monsters both supernatural and human, as well as cowboys and Indians, romance and war, and science fiction…even adaptations of classic literature (“Turn to page 345 in Great Expectations, class—Timmy, that’s page 16 in your Classic Comics”). The chief audience is kids but grown-ups indulge, too, especially veterans who learned to read portable funny books, bought at the PX, in the Second World War and more recently Korea.
Me, I work in that industry, albeit on the fringes. My name is Jack Starr, and I’m the vice president of the Starr Syndicate, where that more respectable brand of comics is sold to news- papers nationwide—the comic strip. As it happens, Starr is, of the various syndicates, the one most closely aligned with the comic book industry. I’ll tell you more about that in the pages to come, and about myself and my interesting boss, Maggie Starr, who happens to be my stepmother as well as the World’s Second Most Famous Striptease Artist (after Gypsy Rose Lee) (retired).
What’s important for you to keep in mind is how big, how popular the comic book industry is right now.
And how everybody and your Uncle Charlie wants to kill it. What the hell…every murder mystery needs a victim….