There are many kinds of people in the world. There are heroes and there are villains. There are those of us to whom life is not so black and white. We are those in the middle. There are also those who don't fit in the middle at all because they are the people who reconcile the dark and the light into a colorful amalgam of both Hero and Villain. In short, those are the people who are the most dangerous.
Max Allan Collins knows how to capture these people in a perfectly sharp and poignant prose as he did in the Dick Tracy comic strips he wrote for more than a decade, in his Nathan Heller historical fiction mysteries and even in his creation of Jason Todd, Batman's second Robin sidekick who was a hero with tendencies so divergent from a hero's that DC Readers voted in a telephone campaign to have him killed. In the Mid-Nineties, under the editorship of Andrew Helfer, Collins embarked on a new project also harkening to the true history of one of America's most tumultuous settings... prohibition-era Chicago Gangland. All of the principles are there from Capone to Nitti to even Ness. However, although so much of the prime movers of this story are based in reality, Collins focuses his attention on one lieutenant of mobster John Looney... a lieutenant who doesn't fit into any of the three categories I outlined before, but combines the heroic and the villainous into one conflicted, sympathetic whole. Being a graphic novel (that's right, Road to Perdition is a Comic Book!), how would one go about telling the story of such a colorful character to whom nothing is quite black and white? Why by having British illustrator Richard Piers Rayner draw each frame and panel in stark, disturbing Black and White. Irony? You don't know the fourth of it!
Road to Perdition is primarily the story of Michael O'Sullivan, the very definition of "family man!" A devoted husband and father who never drinks or smokes or cheats on his wife, and works his steady hours for the man before coming home to his picturesque household. The difference between Michael O'Sullivan and, say, Bill Cosby is that Bill Cosby never made his living as a paid assassin for the Looney division of the Al Capone family (which probably would have come up during a stand-up performance by now)! Nicknamed "The Archangel of Death" O'Sullivan, a World War 1 Veteran, was as dutiful as a soldier of Looney as he was honorable in the rest of his life. And he got really good at what he did. The balance between the light and dark shatters one day as Michael O'Sullivan Jr. tags along with dad in a secretive perversion of "take your kids to work day" and he witnesses first hand what the old man does for a living. When Old Man Looney hears of the witnessed witness he sets in motion a domino effect to take just about everything from the O'Sullivans... who aren't so easy to take from, especially when on an unfixed adventure on the road.
What follows is (as the title suggests) an unabashed "Road" picture from the darkest reaches of the mind, replacing Bing and Bob with a noble savage and his son. There is more than a little homage to Lone Wolf and Cub here, not to mention other Japanese additions like a Yojimbo influence (O'Sullivan defines "Last Man Standing"). The two Michael O'Sullivans intend to travel from Illinois to their supposed refuge, a small town in Kansas called Perdition. Is "Perdition" a town that can live up to its name (a synonym for "damnation" or "Hell")? As Michael Junior says "I don't want to go to Hell, Papa." His father's response: "This is Hell, Michael."
The beauty of this work is the journey itself. If the road to Perdition was a short one, there would be no need for a full, three part Graphic Novel, much less the Sam Mendes Film it inspired. Here we see an almost Fugitive-like cat and mouse where Looney embodies both Gerard and the one armed man! As both the hunter and the prey, the Archangel of Death doesn't pretend to be on a camping trip with his son, and does spill a few gallons of blood (and not a drop of it his) on the title road, but he also stops to be hero to both his son, and any innocent caught in the crossfire. O'Sullivan makes it a point never to kill those who are undeserving of the bullet, and while the things he does aren't exactly models by which the citizenry should mold themselves, some of his actions are truly those of peace and honest rearing for a good son. There is an overall episodic nature to the story that further gives the feel to a series rather than a one-shot arc.
The story is told by a now-adult Michael Jr. all in flashback. There is a realism to the way he speaks both as character and narrator which is rarely seen in such works. He isn't the boy he was, and he isn't a pretender to omniscience. Instead, the narrator is careful to explain when he is extrapolating a scene based on his knowledge of his father (which is great) or recounting that which was reported by true-crime historians. There is a feeling of surety that the narrator might not be perfect but can offer a much better representation of the truth than anyone else. Michael Junior makes no excuses for himself or for his father, and instead gives an un-glamorized and sometimes ugly portrayal of the events of the road.
Rayner tells Collins' story with a serious black and white that is reminescent of a series of dark memories. However, it is Rayner's great detail that makes the story so beautiful. His use of light and shadow is perfect and causes no character to look just the same way twice, but to still be immediately recognizable. There are times when what can only be described as a sketch is brought to so much life by Rayner's hands that one actually believes that a black and white photo was placed on the page. Further, his use of negative space to showcase some of the more important action is just frame-able, and his use of great detail in buildings and landscapes when needed shows what a wonderful artist he is.
It's Collins' writing that fuels the entertainment and shock, though. While he credits Rayner's "dailies" as guiding his pen to an extent, the brilliance of Collins is unquestionable. Each character has his own voice and manner and is recognizable. This might not be as steep a feat in full prose, but imagine being confined to a word balloon. It must have been harder than a brick bat. Collins (along with the fitting artwork) keeps the reader white knuckled and just about seething for an ending that eventually comes as a shock to the reader and to those on the page. No, there is no twist ending that no one can see coming or any Fred Sanford Chest-Clenching stun blasts, but the ending is fitting and has some real surprises to it. Likewise the fate of the narrator is just amazing.
Road to Perdition is just shy of being perfect and aside from one or two things it is just incredible. It's clear that Collins wanted to jump right into the story at hand and have the shocking sights that Michael sees be the basis for the rest of the book, however this causes the character development to come later in the story, and we're essentially following the journeys of two guys we don't know, leaving behind people we only really get to care for in principle. True the character development afterward is strong, so we know plenty about them soon, but at first everyone's practically a stranger. This is also a very bloody story (though there isn't a dollop of red ink to be seen on any page). The action is incredible, and it's almost impossible not to root for our Archangel Michael, but for the squeamish, I say duck! There is also one pretty implausible moment involving an impossibly effective disguise for Michael Sr. Implausibility in a Comic Book, you say... come on! Well when a comic book is this serious and this dead-on to reality, yeah, it's notable when a major character pulls an unlikely Lon Cheney out of his hat.
I encourage you all to read Max Allan Collins' introduction if you decide to buy (or check out from the library as you can now) this Graphic Novel. It's somewhat long-winded, and it's not necessarily needed to understand a story with such attention to detail, but it does give some great background about the writer and the series of events both fortunate and not-so-much that fueled this work.
Four Stars out of five for Road To Perdition! It's one of the best action tragedies ever written with an engrossing story and an ending that hits you like a Sextuple-Decker bus. It's episodic nature leaves a few holes that can be easily filled by new stories, so if you like this (and I think you will) look for more from Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner. I also recommend this to anyone out there who would dismiss a comic book story as a lesser art form. That person should start here, and then graduate to Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell and maybe take a walk through the Land of Oz courtesy of Caliber Press. Road to Perdition isn't the exception to the rule, it's a fine testament to a great tradition of grown-up Graphic Novels. It's worth your time!