12 June 2012

"Road To Perdition" by Max Allan Collins

Road To Perdition
Written by Max Allan Collins
Art by Richard Piers Rayner
Lettering by Bob Lappan
Editor: Andrew Helfer
Date of Publication: 1 July 2002 (movie tie-in edition)
Cover Price: $14.00
304 pages
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What follows is my review, as posted on Goodreads.

Like many, I was first introduced to the film adaptation before reading Max Allan Collins's original graphic novel. A friend of mine was keen on the movie and brought the DVD over one night to watch. I liked it, but I wasn't as in love with it as he was. To this day, I've not gotten around to buying my own copy. For that matter, I've not seen it since! While returning The Middleman to the library, I discovered they now had the graphic novel available. It had been on my To Read list for quite some time anyway and I'm currently heavily into a comic book phase again so I checked it out and read it late last night/early this morning in bed.

Collins explains in his "shamelessly autobiographical introduction" where the genesis of Road to Perdition fit into his career just as he had lost his decades-long stint writing the Dick Tracy comic strip for the Trib and simultaneously, Bantam dropped his Nathan Heller novels. I got the sense that Perdition was one of those works that an artist makes when he's free to do something that speaks to himself.

What really caught my attention was that the key figure at DC Comics's Paradox Press imprint was Andrew Helfer. Casual readers likely gloss over such things as the names of editors, but I came to be familiar with "Andy" during his tenure as Archie Goodwin's assistant editor on Legends of the Dark Knight (which remains my favorite Batman comic to date). I had a sense of Max Allan Collins's storytelling, but knowing that Helfer had overseen it ensured that I was in for a high quality tale, indeed!

Collins also makes note that Richard Piers Rayner took quite a while to create the art for Road to Perdition and that investment of time clearly was worth it. Just recently, Ron Marz has made a point on Twitter of how overlooked comic book artists have become, and how readers seem to take comic book artists for granted to the point of not giving them their due. I think a big part of it has to do with computerized coloring. Especially in the era of Pixar and CGI animation, there's a sense I think that when we see art so polished, it feels artificial. I was very conscious of this as I turned one mesmerizing page after another of Rayner's art here.

Part of what makes the art here so striking is that it's black and white. I'm not looking at a digitally perfected palate, creating very smooth imagery. This is rawer than that. Rayner's attention to detail from costumes to sets and props (to use film terms) has a lot to do with it. Yet when I pull back from each panel and take in a page as a whole, I'm very conscious that a person drew this. It's the work of a human being with pencil and ink. It feels organic, and because of this it is far more impressive than it would have been had it been colored. I can imagine a sort of gray tone coloring scheme that might have suited this story, but it could never have been colored on a computer without entirely diminishing Rayner's work.

His faces are captivating, each expression clearly conveying the inner thoughts and feelings of each character while avoiding the pratfalls of being "cartoonish." Page 67, when Conner Looney kills Annie O'Sullivan, is absolutely heartbreaking. We never even see her face on that page; she's turned away from us, unsuspectingly welcoming her killer. We see the cold joy on Conner's face, his gun raised, and our heart sinks. The third and final panel shifts to a closeup up the clueless young Peter O'Sullivan reacting to the gunshots. Our sunken heart breaks.

This is one of those instances where the art can make or break a story. It's difficult enough to strike the balance between drama and overt manipulation in any medium, but perhaps hardest in the comic book/graphic novel format. If Rayner's facial expressions aren't played straight enough, then we're cynically taken out of the moment. That image of Peter's innocent face - eyes wide, mouth open - is genuinely haunting.

I found myself reading Road to Perdition at a curious time in my life. I have, of course, only just recently returned to Chicago with my friend in April for the C2E2 convention. I caught myself trying to work out some of the panels showing the city, reckoning where it was and from which perspective, etc. For instance, the famed Lexington Hotel figures prominently into the story. That used to be on Michigan & 22nd. Google Maps tells me it was 1.3 miles directly north of the Hilton Hotel, where my friend and I stayed in April. We had walked right past the site of the Lexington.

It was demolished in 1996, two years before my first visit to Chicago with my friends, but four years after my first time in Chicago on an overnight school field trip. I distinctly recall the bus driver pointing out the Lexington and commenting on it having been where Al Capone had set up shop back in the day. Enough Chicago architecture has endured the intervening decades that I had a visceral "Hey! I was just in that area!" reaction to much of Rayner's art.

Moreover, though, I read Road to Perdition just a few days away from Father's Day. I have never had a good relationship with my own dad and that's made this annual "holiday" suck for me. Much more importantly, though, I have been fixated of late on the twins my wife and I lost in a miscarriage. They would have been six years old this month. I couldn't help but to empathize with Michael O'Sullivan in a very personal way. He and I lost our families in very different ways, but I connected with him anyway. Part of me envied him, having someone to actually take revenge on; who was I going to stalk? God?

Part of me, though, envied him still having his son Michael (curiously, never called, "Michael, Jr."). I know I was supposed to fear for the life of his son and I was supposed to empathize with that poor boy for witnessing such atrocities and more often than not, that's how I would have reacted had I read this at nearly any other time in my life. This particular reading, though, caught me when it did and so I connected with The Angel instead.

In these ways, then, Road to Perdition resonated with me in very specific, personal ways. There was a pervasive sense that while I didn't live where O'Sullivan lived, I knew the area; not merely the geography of Chicago but a sense of his anguish. I would never suggest my experience is comparable to anyone else's or anything so egocentric or crass. But I do have a clearer kinship with that kind of pain than I had before the miscarriage and I've recently come to see the extent to which it has haunted and dominated me these last five-plus years.

Post script: I did identify very specifically with the boy during his driving lessons. The very first time I operated a car, it was to pull my mom's Dodge Diplomat into the driveway. I tried to just coast up the driveway, but the hill was too steep. I "misunderestimated" how much pressure was needed to apply to the accelerator and we zoomed up the driveway, me barely keeping it straight at all and nearly crashing the car with my mom and brother into our own home. My mom yelled out for Jesus, the dog in the backyard watched on in horror from the other side of the chain link fence and as soon as I stopped the car, my brother ran out of it laughing hysterically. I relived that entire experience while reading pages 167-169.

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