Max Allan Collins Interview

Max Allan Collins is the writer of the Nate Heller novels; has written numerous comics including Ms. Tree and DC?s Batman; wrote the Dick Tracy syndicated strip for 15 years; and wrote the graphic novel Road to Perdition which was recently made into a film starring Tom Hanks. This month he returns to comics with C.S.I. , based on the popular television show, published by IDW. Worlds of Westfield Content Editor Roger Ash recently spoke with Collins about this new mini-series.

Westfield: How did you become involved with the C.S.I. comic?

Max Allan Collins: I was approached during the first season of the show, before it had really taken off, to do two C.S.I. novels. It was doing well in the ratings, but I think there was a sense that because it was positioned after Survivor, which at that point was the hottest thing around, that they were just benefiting from Survivor. As the season wore on and Survivor went on hiatus, C.S.I. continued to do extremely well. It went from me doing what I thought was just a fairly routine licensing job to being involved with something extremely popular. The first novel was just kind of thrown out there by the publisher, like a routine TV tie-in. It sold extremely well. They now have gotten excited about it. The second book has just come out. It?s called Sin City. I just signed a contract to do two more and we?re in very early stages of talking about C.S.I.: Miami for books. But that?s a ways away. It really has taken off.

As a sidebar, let me publicly apologize to Frank Miller because Sin City was not my title. My title for the second C.S.I. novel was one of my best titles, Dead Nude Girls. Apparently somebody with a political correctness issue changed the title and didn?t bother to tell me. Whether it was CBS or Pocket Books, I don?t know. I looked at that and cringed with embarrassment. I think Frank had that staked out, plus I think it?s about the most obvious and dullest title you could come up with for a Las Vegas crime book.

That sort of got me tied to C.S.I. and Beau Smith at IDW gave me a call. I knew Beau a little bit from years ago. I think we were just starting to get some of the first wave of Road to Perdition publicity with the movie. I had kind of been out of comics. I haven?t really done any comics to speak of for quite a while. I got sidetracked into independent film and I was actually kind of discouraged about the world of comics. Beau said, ?you?re the C.S.I. guy where books are concerned, and we really respect what you did in crime comics over the years. Would you consider coming back and combining those two expertises?? And I said fine. I thought it sounded like a lot of fun. It was a five-issue mini-series and that was the right commitment for me. Get my feet wet.

Westfield : What can you tell us about the mini-series?

Collins : It?s allowed me to do something I?ve wanted to do for a long time, just as a basic concept. These are just dumb ideas I get and then I can?t shake them. I always thought it would be cool to do a comic book mini-series about a serial killer and call it Serial. That seemed like the ideal thing to do with C.S.I. . There were two basic ideas I was toying with that I had in mind to do at some point for a C.S.I. novel. I wanted to do something that either was a serial killer who was replicating other serial killer?s work - sort of like Ted Bundy?s greatest hits - or someone who was essentially replicating the Jack the Ripper crimes so that at some point the detective would realize what was going on. That also meant there was a kind of ticking clock. Once you had one or two girls dead, you knew that there were other victims out there that this killer was going to strike. But you also knew that if you didn?t find him within the prescribed 5 or 6 victims, he might just disappear the way the original Jack the Ripper did. I thought that was an interesting dual ticking clock concept. I also thought there?s a certain element of comics fans who really like grisly, dark material and if we?re going to do something with forensics, there?s nothing darker or grislier than the kind of victims Jack the Ripper left behind.

Westfield : How much research did you do for the book?

Collins : There?s quite a bit of research involved. I have a guy who?s an excellent writer and researcher whose name is Matthew V. Clemens. Matt gets a co-plot/forensics researcher credit on the C.S.I. comics. Matt works with me on the novels as well. He?s one of my oldest friends and we have collaborated on something like a dozen published short stories. Most recently we did one which isn?t out yet for a Buffy the Vampire Slayer anthology. We?ve signed a lot of things together. I knew that Matt was a fan of the C.S.I. show, plus he has done some true crime writing. He specifically did a true crime book called Dead Water that focused on what was essentially the first major case to deal with DNA evidence. So I knew he had forensics experience. He has connected with sort of the Gil Grissom of the Midwest. He has cultivated a friendship with this guy. He meets with him all the time and takes my specific questions to this guy and does all of the hard research so I?m not spending all my time on that. He plots the stories with me and he even comes up with a story treatment on the novels that I then base the novel on. He?s similarly working with me on the comic books. I had a plotting session with him yesterday. It?s a combination of he and I sit down and spitball the plot, then I ask him questions. I?ll ask him questions like, ?Find out whether or not you can get finger prints off a corpse?s neck.? ?Find out whether or not you can get the DNA of a killer off of a rope if he strangled somebody with it. Will enough DNA rub off the hands?? So I come up with these questions and then he goes and finds out the answers. Then I can look real smart when I put the right forensics in there. [laughs]

Westfield : Will all the major characters from the series be appearing in the comic?

Collins : Yeah. If you look at the shape of it, at the end of the day, it?s something they could make a good two-part episode out of. It?s longer than a regular series episode. It?s not as long as the novels I?m doing which are rather massive. These novels are about 100,000 words. I really go into depth and we find out a lot more about the characters in the novels than you do on the TV show. The comic book in that regard may be a little bit more like the TV show because, in the first issue for example, we begin with the Las Vegas scene setting approach that they take at the beginning of every show. We have the discovery of the first victim by some civilians, which is very typical of the show. And there?s an ?A? plot and a ?B? plot. The Ripper story is the ?A? plot, and that deals with Grissom, Warrick and Catherine. The ?B? plot, which has to do with a woman who?s found dead in a dumpster behind a casino, is Nick and Sara. Then, of course, the doctor comes through and Greg Sanders. It?s the whole cast.

Westfield : Something interesting about the comic is two different artists are working on it, Gabriel Rodriguez and Ashley Wood. How did that idea come about and did you work with them differently?

Collins : I?ve done one issue, I?m just starting work on the second issue of the five, and I also did a 3-page story for TV Guide that?s real interesting because it?s only the second time, I think, that they?ve done a comic book story. This shows how hot C.S.I. is and how much attention this comic book is attracting. The comic book immediately attracted major attention from USA Today and CNN. I think it was a combination of how hot C.S.I. is and that they happened to do that at a moment where there was a lot of attention being given to me and graphic novels and Road to Perdition. I would love to claim this idea of the two artists which I think is a stroke of genius, but unfortunately, it was Kris? idea at IDW. The notion is that on the show, they have this very specific look for the forensics moments, like when you?re in the autopsy room and you see a bullet as it punctures a kidney. Then, you also have some kind of interesting film style used when the various reenactments are being done; when you?re seeing potentially the way the crime happened or sometimes you?ll see Grissom standing in the midst of the room watching the killing go down. They always use some kind of different sort of heightened reality film style. The smart people at IDW who, like Matt, make me look good, came up with this notion of having one artist do all the forensics and flashbacks, and the ?regular? artist do all the straight storytelling. What I do in the script is simply indicate which artist I think should be drawing what. It?s a little bit challenging for me to try to make sure that there?s enough to justify the presence of the second artist without letting the tail wag the dog.

Westfield : What challenges do you face translating a TV series into a comic?

Collins : I think certain concepts, particularly science fiction and fantasy concepts, would lend themselves quite well to comics. I just did Dark Angel, and Matt helped me on that too, for Del Rey and that?s just out as a novel. That?s science fiction. I would say that Dark Angel would lend itself easily to comics in part because it has so much action. What?s tricky specifically about C.S.I. is that it is a very cerebral show. It is one of the least character driven shows around. It really is Sherlock Holmes meets Mission: Impossible, but you?re doing Mission: Impossible backwards, finding out how the mission got accomplished. It?s a very interesting concept that works extremely well on TV when it?s populated by charismatic actors and has directors and cinematographers who are shooting the hell out of the story. Now you come to comics and I find myself with this crime show, which everybody thinks of as somewhat dark and grisly, but if you really look at the show, there?s almost no action. Gil Grissom has had a gun in his hand I think twice in two seasons. I think there have been two shots fired. Catherine shot somebody at the end of the first season for example. That really isn?t conducive to what we traditionally think of as comics. I?m actually of two minds here. There?s the idealistic, purist me which says screw convention. If it?s an issue that?s nothing but talking heads, let?s be grown-ups and understand that comics is just another way of telling a story. Then there?s the me who hopes to get another comic book job some day. That?s the me who?s sitting there every issue saying, we?ve got to have some kind of action in here. We?ve gotta make sure the visuals are compelling, because it?s a visual medium and because people think of comics in this kinetic way. It?s not unlike the problem that I faced over 70 issues of Ms. Tree where Terry Beatty and I were doing about as traditional a hard boiled detective story as anybody?s ever dared do in comics. And we ran probably 5 or 6 times longer than the runner-up to us. Every issue I had to face that problem of, as she was going around doing her investigating, how do I make this more than just a succession of 5 interviews. That?s part of the trick of it. So I have this TV show that everybody thinks of as an action/adventure TV show, that if you go back and look at it, almost never has any action or adventure in it. That?s tricky. And I?ll be right up front with you, that?s one of the reasons why I chose the Jack the Ripper subject matter. I know I?m going to have 5 or 6 grisly murders flung across these issues. That?ll satisfy the blood thirsty little bastards. [laughter]

Westfield : How much input did people involved with the show have?

Collins : CBS and the producers and writers of C.S.I. have been fabulous with us. On the very first book I did, we had quite a bit of input. My shoulder was looked over quite a bit. Then, what I delivered they really liked, the book came out and not only sold well but was extremely well accepted by the C.S.I. fans. In fact, I have to be honest with you, I don?t know if I would have blundered into C.S.I. if I?d had any concept of what the fanatical level of the C.S.I. followers turns out to be. The C.S.I. fans make Star Trek fans look normal. I still get emails about how I didn?t put Brass? desk in the right place. I had no idea I was getting into that kind of world. The rewarding thing is that, with the exception of so-and-so?s got the wrong kind of gun complaint, they loved this first book. So CBS and the C.S.I. producers looked at that and they didn?t make me do anything over in the second book. They approved the TV Guide 3-pager without a comment, and they?ve approved the first issue of the comic book. My researcher met Anthony Zuiker, the creator, at a forensics convention in Las Vegas, fittingly, a couple months ago. Zuiker was thrilled about what I?ve been doing and sent a beautifully inscribed script of the pilot that had an inscription so embarrassing even somebody with my ego wouldn?t tell you what it said. I have to tell you, I haven?t even told the IDW guys this yet, but the creator of the show was ecstatic that there?s a comic book. He said that of everything that?s happened with C.S.I. , this is the thing that everybody is like a little kid about. The actors are like, ?I?m gonna be in a comic book!? They haven?t got their action figures yet, so they?re thrilled about it. And I think CBS is really happy that I take the show seriously and that I like the show and that I?m doing a good job.

Westfield : If the mini-series does well, would you like to do more C.S.I. comics?

Collins: Yesterday, Matt Clemens and I were discussing forensics over pizza. I want you think about that for a moment. I usually drive up to Davenport where Matt lives and we meet at this pizza place and over a big, saucy pizza, we discuss all of our forensics research. We talked yesterday about whether or not we thought C.S.I. would make a monthly comic book. I haven?t talked to IDW about this, but my desire would be to do one 5-issue mini-series every year, year-and-a-half, as opposed to rolling into a monthly thing. I love the idea of doing four or five issues, and always conceiving it as a graphic novel, and then seeing it collected. Then after a few months off, rolling into another one. I think it would be fun to do three or four of those.

I?m at an interesting point in my career. After essentially walking away in 1998 from comics, disappointed that Road to Perdition didn?t get any kind of attention, it felt like a bad marriage. I gave 20 years of my life to this marriage and exactly what did I get out of it? I?ve said a couple of times that I quit comics and walked away. The embarrassing thing is that nobody noticed. When you?re doing a grand gesture, it?s always a good idea that somebody?s watching. I think I did one comic as a favor to a friend of mine between 1998 and now. Then Road to Perdition came out and the world, not just the comics world but the world of civilians, took to it. We got on the New York Times best seller list, USA Today, Entertainment Weekly. All over the place. All of a sudden I became the graphic novel poster boy, explaining to civilians in every walk of life what a graphic novel is. On the one hand, I find myself with a little more heat and recognition than I?d had. On the other hand, I hear myself talking about the validity of comics as a story telling medium and all of a sudden I get interested again. I did Dick Tracy for 15 years, a syndicated strip; something like 70 issues of Ms. Tree

; I did a couple years of Mike Danger; I did a year of Batman. There was a period of about 20 years where I was doing comics all the time. It was probably a very good thing for me to step away. Now that the phone?s ringing again and we?ve got C.S.I. and there?s discussion about a Road to Perdition follow-up in graphic novel form, but that?s not firm yet. Andrew Lis at Marvel called me and had me do a Captain America story for the big fancy Captain America book they just put out. All of a sudden, I?m back on the industry?s radar. I may fall off in two or three months, who knows, but I?m really enjoying getting back in and dealing with the medium. When I have something like C.S.I. come to me, which isn?t like somebody calling me and asking me to do some third-rate superhero that I have no interest in, but when they?re saying we want you to do a crime story, then I?m there. I?m thrilled. It?s fun to be back writing in panels again.

Westfield : Do you have any other upcoming projects you?d like to mention?

Collins : There?s a lot of talk going on about doing Road to Perdition again. I actually was approached by both Marvel and DC ? that never happened to me before. I?m close to coming to an agreement. I think we?re going to be doing a follow up which is not a prequel and not a sequel. It is essentially what I would call a continuity insert which will be some adventures about the father and son on the road. I always intended Road to Perdition to be much longer than it was. I had hoped to do three 300 page books. I did see it as the American Lone Wolf and Cub. I wanted to have the father and son on the road longer. But two things happened. It took my wonderful friend Richard Piers Rayner so long to draw the material, and I?m glad he did because he did such a beautiful job, but it took him so long that by the time we actually turned the book in, the Paradox Press mystery/crime publishing program had essentially had time to fail. We were the last thing published. As we were working on the last third of it, I heard from Andy Helfer, ?you better wrap this up. I wouldn?t leave this open ended because I?m not going to be able to publish any more of these.? While the ending of Road to Perdition was always inevitable, it wasn?t gonna happen at the end of the first book. So I left a window in the story. If you read it, you?ll see I say that the father and son were on the road for six months. My hope is I?m going to get to do three essentially short graphic novels of about 100 pages each, that will be collected into a 300 page book that would be a companion to the first one. We haven?t signed that, but it?s looking positive.

I?m also talking to Andrew Lis at Marvel about another concept; a new concept. I like to do hybrid stuff. In my Nate Heller novels I do the historical novel meets Raymond Chandler. I?m gonna do a horror/detective concept which I?ve talked to Andrew about but haven?t presented in a formal way that I hope will be the first major thing I?ll ever do at Marvel. I?m crossing my fingers on that as well.

Westfield: Any closing comments?

Collins: It?s very gratifying to me to see how many people outside the world of comics have discovered the graphic novel of Road to Perdition. To do book signings and sell dozens and dozens of copies to people who?ve never set foot in a comic book shop, who are in their teens and 20s and 30s and 40s and 50s and 60s, and are managing to get past that prejudice against comics. It?s like they have permission to read a graphic novel. I wrote a movie tie-in novelization of the graphic novel, published by Signet, that I did for two reasons. One, I was afraid if I didn?t do it, somebody else would. And second, I did not think that civilians would read the graphic novel. In fact, the graphic novel has done as well or better than the novelization. It was the graphic novel that got on the New York Times best seller list, not the novelization. And the graphic novel was a trade paperback that cost $14, whereas the novelization was a $6 mass market paperback.

That gave me hope because it?s been my dream as somebody working in comics that the medium would be seen as something that could be used for any story that seemed appropriate. A storyteller should be able to say this story would work really well as a movie and then sit down and write a screenplay. Or the storyteller should be able to say I think the interior nature of this story means that we really ought to tell it as a novel. We want to be inside the narrator. Or this would be a really good story to put in comics form because it?s visual. But you know the reality has been that you can?t do that. The reality has been that there?s only certain kinds of stories you can get away with in comics. You have superheroes and fantasy and so on, and sometimes you can do artier kinds of stuff, and a little bit of crime. If I called up a comics publisher 2 years ago and said, ?let?s do a war story. We?re going to call it Saving Private Ryan,? I don?t think I could have sold it. Maybe today I could. I think that?s what we need. I want to go into the graphic novel area of the bookstore and not have it be this weird superhero/fantasy ghetto next to the science fiction section. I have nothing against superheroes. I like superheroes. But it?s as if in 1940, when westerns were extremely popular, Hollywood decided to make 98% westerns and 2% everything else, and it?s now the year 2002 and we?re still making 98% westerns. That?s what happened to comics. One genre became synonymous with what a comic book is. So to the fans of that genre, I say God bless you. I like Westerns. I just want a diet as a reader that has all the food groups. As a creator, I don?t want to have to go to the closet and pick out the new cape and costume every time I write a comic book. That?s the hope I now have.