Muscatine Community College graduate becomes award-winning novelist, cartoonist, and independent filmmaker
When Max Allan Collins puts pen to paper, magic follows. It always has.
At the ripe age of eight, Collins knew he wanted to be a cartoonist. He’d draw in the pages of his sketchbook for hours while watching private-eye shows on his family’s television. He’d tune into NBC every Friday night to watch The Thin Man.
Much to his surprise, Collins would later discover that The Thin Man, as well as many other shows he religiously watched, originated from the pages of novels. Wanting to uncover the storylines before the episodes were aired, he began reading feverishly.
“I got very excited about the way that these writers wrote—the vividness, and of course the crime, the action, the love, all the big emotions—so the art, the cartooning, kind of fell to the wayside,” said Collins.
Now the dream was to become a writer. While in high school, Collins made it a goal of his to write a full-length crime novel during the summer months, then market it during the school year. He did this three times, sending countless books to publishers all across the country.
Once it came time to choosing a college, Collins knew he wanted to save money and stay close to home. Living in Muscatine, Iowa, the Muscatine Community College (MCC) campus was practically in his backyard. Collins enrolled in 1966.
“I knew community college was the best choice for me—it wasn’t going to be incredibly expensive to get an education. I could get more one-on-one help, there would be small classes, and I could get fixed on where I was in life.”
Upon his graduation in 1968, he was hired on as an English instructor at the college and married the love of his life, Barbara. Miraculously that same year, he got accepted into The Iowa Writers' Workshop, a master’s program at the University of Iowa, with just an associate’s degree in hand.
“The stuff I was writing—the mystery fiction and the crime fiction—was not the kind of literary thing that they were after. But, since I was already writing at a professional level, they accepted my application despite only having an associate’s degree.”
As a part of the program’s thesis, Collins submitted a series of three novels, collectively called The Quad-Cities Trilogy. Some years later, those novels sold to a publishing company and Collins left teaching behind to pursue a full-time writing career in 1975.
“I will not brag about myself as a teacher. A lot of people will come up to me and tell me they enjoyed the classes, but I believe that teaching is a calling. And I never thought that teaching was my calling. I always felt that storytelling was my calling.”
Critics would agree. Pretty quickly, Collins was able to make a name for himself as a crime novelist. His earlier works included the Quarry series (1976, Figure 1) and the Nathan Heller series (1983, Figure 2). These novels allowed him to break into the comic scene, writing for well-known comic strips like Batman and Dick Tracy.
Yet, Collins’ biggest break was still on the horizon. While at a WonderCon convention in Oakland, Calif., he had a chance encounter with an editor from DC Comics.
“The editor sat me down and said, ‘You know, we’re going to do a series of noir graphic novels and you’re a natural person to ask for the job. Do you have an idea?’”
Collins was ‘natural’ in the sense that he had worked with DC Comics previously, and was the only mystery writer who also had experience in comic writing.
In true writer fashion, he thought an idea up on the spot.
“There was a famous Japanese manga called Lone Wolf and Cub. It’s about a samurai that pushes his baby around in a cart, chases bad guys, and is getting chased by bad guys. I wanted to do a modern twist on that. I thought that a gangster who served the Godfather would be similar to a samurai serving the shogun. I had been doing some research for a novel and had stumbled across the real-life John Looney story, the Rock Island gangster, and his son Connor Looney, and I was familiar with that story.”
In that moment, one of Collins’ most prolific writings, Road to Perdition, was born. The editor loved the pitch and gave him just one directive: the story needed to be set in the 1930s, Great Depression era.
Much of Collins’ work reflects the criminal history and landscape of the Midwest. Looking at ‘America's Heartland’ today, many would be surprised to know that it has harbored some of the most-wanted criminals in the United States.
Think of players like Alphonse Gabriel ‘Al’ Capone; John Dillinger; Elliot Ness; Lester Joseph Gillis, “Baby Face” Nelson; George Clarence "Bugs" Moran; all with ties to the Midwest.
“I was always very aware of sort of the criminal history of the Midwest, being interested in Dick Tracy as a kid and later The Untouchables TV show. I think it resonated with me that the stuff that I was into at the time, mystery fiction, crime fiction, was rooted in reality. It changed the way I write.”
Road to Perdition is set in 1930’s Chicago and follows the story of Michael O’Sullivan, Al Capone’s most-feared enforcer. One day, O’Sullivan’s twelve-year-old son accidentally witnesses a gangland murder, and the entire family is marked for execution to cover up the crime. O’Sullivan and his son must go on the run and find themselves seeking vengeance. The 308-page graphic novel was published in 1998 by DC Comics' imprint, Paradox Press, with art by Richard Piers Rayner.
Four years later, Collins received a random call from his agent saying that the novel got optioned for a movie in Hollywood.
He didn’t tell anyone the exciting news, not even his parents.
“I’ve had a lot of things optioned by Hollywood over the years. You learn not to get too excited about it, because it’s usually not made. I didn’t tell my parents about it because I would tell my dad about these things and then he’d tell everybody. I’d be answering for years about, ‘well what happened to this, and whatever happened to that?’”
Despite Collins’ doubt, plans for the movie kept unraveling. It was initially picked up by the father-son-producer-duo, Richard and Dean Zanuck, who then pitched the idea to Stephan Spielberg. Shortly afterward, Spielberg set up the project at his studio, DreamWorks, and handed the film off to the award-winning film director, Sam Mendes.
“My phone was ringing off the hook. My agent would be on the other end asking me, ‘Who’s the biggest actor in Hollywood right now?’ And I would say, ‘I don’t know, Bruce Willis?’ He said, ‘No, it’s Tom Hanks and he’s going to play in your movie!’”
These phone calls would continue with news of other actors being cast like Paul Newman, Jude Law, Daniel Craig, and Stanley Tucci. Conrad Hall, a cinematographer known for his work in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and American Beauty, also signed on.
“It wasn’t until my wife Barbara and I were actually on the film set in Chicago with Paul Newman and Tom Hanks standing there, that I could finally say, ‘Okay, I believe this and now we will tell people.’”
Jokingly, he added, “I could tell my dad.”
Collins served as a consultant to the movie’s scriptwriters, but stayed out of most of the production.
“My main concern was inaccuracies. If I felt like they were using dialogue that was not appropriate to the early 1930s. But, I kind of feel like the movie is the movie and the book is the book. I’m a filmmaker myself, so I wanted to stay out of their way.”
Collins recalled this interaction with his son on the night of the movie’s premiere screening at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York City on July 9, 2002.
“My son was sitting next to me—probably 19 at the time—and he leaned into me, basically in the first minute, and said, ‘The music is really good, we’re going to be fine.’”
He was right. Road to Perdition eventually went on to gross $104.5 million at the U.S. box office and $181 million worldwide. The film also took home five Academy Awards, including those for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography.
Now, more than two decades after the film’s premiere, Collins’ story lives on. To date, he’s published over 240 novels and written works. Every idea, every character, every word, originating from his home in Muscatine, Iowa.
He credits much of his success to the Muscatine community, sharing this advice.
“If you can find a way to make a living doing something that you love or at least enjoy, then you’ve got it made.”
In September 2022, Collins collaborated with community members and MCC students and staff to debut a “radio-style” stage production of Encore for Murder: The New Adventures of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. Written by Collins, the sold-play was a special tribute to Mickey Spillane’s 1947 I, the Jury novel.
Watch the interview with MCC’s Muscatine Access Channel Nine.