The day before Thanksgiving, 1993, my career decided to implode.
I'd been writing the Dick Tracy comic strip since 1977, when – with the blessing of the strip's creator, Chester Gould, who was stepping down after almost fifty years – I joined with his former assistant, Rick Fletcher, to put some life into that dying strip. Back 'in 77, the head of Tribune Media Services warned me the strip probably wouldn't survive another five years...the term of my contract.
But not only did the strip survive, we attracted a lot of attention with a return to cops-and-robbers basics, plus an infusion of characters the wildly imaginative Gould had abandoned, in particular by bringing a renewed emphasis to modern themes, like computer crime and video piracy. When the Warren Beatty movie came out in 1990, I was a creative consultant, wrote the novelization (still one of my best-selling books), appeared on all kinds of national TV shows, and generally enjoyed the ride. My five-year contract had turned into a ten-year one, with another five-year stint after that. For a freelance writer, a steady gig like this was a Godsend.
Then in the mail, the day before Thanksgiving, Tribune Media Services curtly informed me my services would no longer be needed. I had tangled several times with an editor at TMS (who had replaced the editor who hired me). A few months before, on the phone, I had told this editor, with no expletives deleted, what I thought of him, his ideas and his abilities – yet I had refused to see the handwriting on the wall (my wife Barb, on the other hand, overhearing me reaming my boss on the phone, had already begun searching through the want ads for a part-time job).
I called my agent, on that day before Thanksgiving, to give him the bad news about losing Tracy; he countered with more of the same: my current book contract had just been canceled.
A week or so before, the latest Nathan Heller novel, Stolen Away, had won the series another "Shamus" award, after which my Bantam Books editor had spent a three-hour one-on-one lunch with me, charting the glorious future of Heller at that publishing house. I had just delivered a book the editor loved; but now it was being returned, and my deal for two more Hellers rescinded – victim of one of the periodic changes of regimes so common in publishing.
Not long after, in 1994, I attended a comics convention in Oakland, California, while still in a rebuilding phase; I was in particular looking for something to do in comics. Over the years I'd done various projects for DC, including a year of Batman (not all of it well-received: my Robin is the one who, famously, inspired a phone-in campaign resulting in readers voting to kill the character). With my frequent collaborator, artist Terry Beatty, I’d created a costumed hero for DC, Wild Dog, and our long-running independent comic book, Ms. Tree, had shifted to the home of Superman.
At WonderCon, Andrew Helfer – editor of DC's Paradox Press, an ambitious line of sophisticated, non-superhero material – sought me out. As we sat in a hotel lobby, Helfer explained he was approaching established mystery writers to write graphic novels – these would be serialized in three issues in a format similar to digest-sized Japanese manga, then collected as trade paperbacks. Because I was the only established mystery writer currently doing comics, I was a logical choice.
Perhaps inspired by Helfer's manga approach, I pitched him an idea I'd been mulling called Gun and Son...a title the editor immediately rejected as "too cute, too comic-booky." But he liked the concept and I’d made a sale.
A new title, incidentally, came easily – I knew the father and son in this story were on the road to hell, and "perdition" popped into my head as the kind of Biblical name that so often turned up in the American heartland in frontier days. It'd be just like the pioneers to flee west from religious oppression, and – choosing Godforsaken land to homestead – name it after Hell.
While I always knew Road to Perdition would not be open-ended, I hadn't planned to bring it to its inevitable, tragic conclusion until I’d done several story arcs about the father and son who were on the run from mobsters while stealing from them. I envisioned a long, sprawling journey that would involve the duo with all sorts of people with all sorts of problems. Like The Fugitive’s Richard Kimble ducking Inspector Gerard even as he tracks the One-Armed Man, the story was designed to take a while and include side trips. But editor Helfer wanted to publish self-contained graphic novels, not ongoing stories.
The editor teamed me with British artist Richard Piers Rayner, who he said was, "Perfect for this project – he's not fast, just brilliant."
Both characterizations were spot on – Richard was brilliant, all right, but it took him until 1998 to complete Perdition. I would write 25 or 30 pages of script for the three hundred-page project, send it to Helfer, along with research materials on the real people and places depicted, and then months later I'd get a call.
"I need pages," Helfer would say.
"You know – for Richard."
"Road to Perdition."
"...Oh! Yeah, yeah, I remember...."
And I would re-read everything I'd done to date on the project – to remind myself what the book was about – and do another 25 or 30 pages. Also, I'd receive photocopies of Richard's work – minus any dialogue or captions – and here is where the collaborative, elusive, even magical aspect of this project comes in. The somber tone of the drawing, invoking classic pulp illustration served the narrative beautifully, keeping me on track. Richard's amazing contribution is why Road has a different voice than you'll find most anywhere else in my work.
My fiction has, from the start, often had a father-and-son theme. My first published novel, Bait Money (1973), charts a surrogate father/son relationship between professional thief, Nolan, and his young accomplice, Jon. The first three Heller novels – “The Nitti Trilogy" – explore the detective's sometimes frightening relationship with surrogate father Frank Nitti; and a key aspect of Heller’s character is guilt over his real father's suicide.
All of these stories look at the father-and-son dynamic from the son's point of view. Until my son Nathan was born, in 1982 – the same year as Nathan Heller – I had not looked at that dynamic through the father's end of the telescope. My two mid-‘90s Mommy films (and novels) had explored a homicidal parent viewed from a child’s perspective. Road to Perdition retains the perspective of the child, but informed by the new emotions, responsibilities and experiences of parenthood.
In part, Perdition is an unabashed homage to Lone Wolf and Cub, not just the manga but the six movies of the early '70s written by Kazuo Koike himself, starring charismatic Tomisaburo Wakayama and precocious Akihiro Tomikawa in the epic saga of a samurai betrayed by his shogun, setting out on a road of bloody vengeance pushing his infant child along in a weapon-laden "baby cart." My son Nate had watched these films with me, younger than is advisable; but they played a role in his own building fascination with Asian culture and his eventual profession as a Japanese-to-English translator of novels, video games and manga.
Another Asian influence was Hong Kong cinema – in particular, the "heroic bloodshed" of director/writer John Woo. In the early '90s, Woo was a cult figure, Hollywood still in his future, VHS tapes of his bloody yet poetic movies circulating from film buff to buff. I was taken by the over-the-top, beautifully choreographed, carnage-filled action scenes in the context of unabashedly melodramatic epics of family, friendship, loyalty, love, betrayal and redemption – and was struck by Woo’s disparate influences, from Douglas Sirk and Jean-Pierre Melville to Sam Peckinpah and Don Siegel. He had even done his own Lone Wolf and Cub homage – Heroes Shed No Tears (1985) – a mercenary and his young son caught behind enemy lines in a jungle war.
And I had learned of John Looney and his loony son Connor when I was researching the first Heller novel, True Detective, a portion of which takes place in the Iowa-Illinois Quad Cities. When I would talk “Tri-Cities” era gangsters with the likes of Davenport, Iowa, newspaper columnist Bill Wundrum and Rock Island, Illinois, historian BJ Elsner, the name Looney would immediately come up.
"Oh, you have to write about Looney," they would say, and off they'd go into wild anecdotes about the tabloid newspaper publisher who blackmailed the subjects of his stories, controlled local politics, and collaborated with the Chicago Outfit in all manner of illegal doings, from bootlegging to prostitution to gambling.
The father-son dynamic – and knowing that Looney had betrayed several loyal lieutenants – got me thinking about Lone Wolf and Cub – wasn't a Godfather like a shogun, and a mob enforcer like a samurai? But rather than an infant child, why not a coming-of-age story, with a loss of innocence for both father and son? My anti-hero’s offspring would be an adolescent, capable of comprehending the terrible (and wonderful) things his father was capable of.
I also liked the idea of combining gangsters of the Capone and Nitti ilk with outlaws of the Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson breed. I’d explored this notion in the second Heller, True Crime (1984), and saw tremendous graphic-novel visual potential in charting the twin, occasionally intersecting worlds of'30s gangsters and outlaws.
After all, no movie ever impacted me more than Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967). I was just out of high school when that film got me excited about movies in a new way, and started me researching the real people and crimes behind the moving images. I saw Bonnie and Clyde countless times, and once I dragged my father along. Dad was a musician – a brilliant one – but he cared more about sports than movies, so getting him to go to Bonnie and Clyde took doing. He was rarely impressed by movies, and only went to them grudgingly. But during Bonnie and Clyde – specifically a sequence involving the shooting of Buck Barrow and his blinded wife Blanche in a clearing scattered with bloody bandages, bullet holes punched in the metal of a stalled getaway car – my father seemed visibly shaken. Whitening, he shifted in his seat, his discomfort palpable.
Afterward, he explained: he'd had no memory of it, till he saw the movie; but his parents, to demonstrate the Wages of Sin, had taken him as a small boy to that very scene – in rural Iowa – where he had seen the morning-aftermath of the shoot-out, the discarded crimson bandages, the shot-up automobile. The filmmakers had closely patterned their scene on news photos, and had captured it so unerringly that traumatic childhood memories came rushing back to Dad.
I had my first driving lesson – on which the driving lesson in both the graphic novel and film is based – on a country road in Iowa. My father and his friend, Keith Larson, took me out, near Keith's farm. My first real mentor, Keith was a poet and a fine teacher of college English and literature; but he was also an Iowa farmer – very dry, soft-spoken, understated in that Midwestern way shared by most farmers and some gangsters.
Almost immediately I drove the car into a ditch – a fairly scary moment.
My father took the wheel, and got us up out of the ditch, while Keith, in the rear, remained silent. When the car was again on the gravel road, Keith leaned up and said to my dad, "Get him back behind that wheel. He has to get right back up on the horse and ride."
My dad said he agreed with this notion.
Keith said, "Good." Then he got out of the car and walked across the nearby field to his farmhouse.
Though the film version tightened up the episodic graphic novel, it did so in a mostly good way and the Hollywood ending was perhaps the only major misstep. I love the film but also treasure having the opportunity to interact with Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Daniel Craig, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sam Mendes and other luminaries – Chicago, New York and London premieres, what more could an Iowa boy ask?
The only negative aspect of the experience was when I volunteered to write the novelization of the movie, not wanting anyone else out there writing a Road To Perdition novel. I crafted an 80,000-word book, staying faithful to the screenplay but bringing the narrative more in line with its source, adding back story, expanding scenes, generally tidying and tightening things up. But my being the originator of the property held no weight with DreamWorks licensing – only after I’d turned the book in did they make the unusual (and rare) edict that the novelization could include nothing that wasn‘t in the film itself. They made me cut it to around 45,000 words.
As director Sam Mendes edited the film and certain scenes came out, those scenes had to be cut from the novel as well. I believe ultimately it ran about 40,000 words – I think of it as the Junior Scholastic version.
For years I was frustrated that I’d written a full-length prose version of my most famous work only to have it butchered...by me. But my revenge came by way of writing two prose sequels – Road to Purgatory and Road to Paradise, following Michael Jr.’s adult path – and two more graphic novels, one of which (Road to Perdition 2: On the Road) filled in the blanks of the original graphic novel’s truncated road trip, while Return to Perdition followed a third O’Sullivan generation to the end of the journey.
If any story seems unlikely to have a happy ending, it’s Road to Perdition. But when Lee Goldberg and Joel Goldman at Brash Books brought out lovely new editions of Road to Purgatory and Road to Perdition, they negotiated the rights to publish my complete movie tie-in novel of Road to Perdition.