Star-Bulletin Features

Sunday, July 28, 2002



Richard Rayner's evocative drawings for "Road To Perdition" placed readers both in the 1930s and in the minds of gangsters.

Guns & Sons:
The art of Perdition

The Tom Hanks movie
is based on a graphic novel
that took years to create

By Burl Burlingame

Graphic novels aren't comic books. They have a dramatic arc, a story with three acts and, when it ends, you've come full circle. Comic books are more like soap opera — they're about characters with stuff thrown at them to keep 'em hopping. If the characters are entertaining enough (or if you identify with them) then you're along for a ride with no end in sight.

"Road to Perdition," written by Max Allan Collins and drawn by Richard Piers Rayner, is 296 pages of storytelling that's equally balanced between the talents of Collins and Rayner. If the title sounds familiar, that's because a big-budget film based on the graphic novel is currently in theaters. It's a big-deal $80 million production, and marks director Sam Mendes' first time out since his extraordinary turn with "American Beauty," and it stars someone named Tom Hanks.

Making a movie from a graphic novel must seem like a gift to moviemakers. The script's done, the storyboarding is done, the art direction is done, the edit-pacing is done, the effects and photographic budgets can be closely estimated, and best of all, it's in a format that a big-shot Hollywood producer can understand.

By all accounts, the film follows the original work quite closely, particularly in regard to mood and vision. Mendes did have another major character added so that he could employ his friend Jude Law.


I'm not that familiar with Rayner's previous work, and according to the book's notes, this project took more than four years to complete. He's clearly methodical and plodding, and the work doesn't have the joie du dessin of an artist who just lets fly with a pen. But the visual storytelling is superb, and Rayner's evocative black-and-white drawings of the Depression-era Midwest are stunning. They transport you right into that world, and the gloomy noir settings clearly grabbed the filmmakers.

Curiously, Rayner is British and did it all with research and by photographing friends as models (which provides a swell continuity of facial realism for the characters).

In fact, Collins and Rayner never met during the project, doing it all by emails and fax. Rayner worked so slowly that Collins would have to be reminded of the project every six months or so and reread what he'd already done.

COLLINS HAS STATED that this is likely his last comics project, which is too bad, as he has an economical flair for the medium, adding just enough words and plots to keep the story flowing. This project began when he was bounced off the "Dick Tracy" comic strip in the early '90s after 15 years of scripting, and he admits in the book's forward that he might not have begun work in other mediums if he were still drawing a comfortable paycheck from daily strips.

Since then, Collins has developed a reputation as a solid mystery writer, with a number of novels and film adaptations on the shelves. He also wrote the comic books "Ms. Tree" and "Mike Danger" and became a writer-director of low-budget thrillers (look up the fabulously creepy "Mommy").

What's going on in "Perdition?" Your basic dangerous-loner-against-the-world meditation, with the added flip of father-son bonding in inappropriate ways. Kids wants to be like their dads, but what if dads hate what they do?

And what if dad is a bloodthirsty gunman on a mission of revenge? There's lots of stylized gunplay and blood-splatter in "Perdition," and if it all seems like a samurai revenge-drama, you'd be right. Collins was heavily influenced by the "Lone Wolf and Cub" manga books and the "Babycart" movies.

Tom Hanks and Tyler Hoechlin star as father and son in the film version of "The Road to Perdition."

Many of the events and characters in the book are true, as Collins is something of a historian. I was happy to see a ruthlessly venal and corrupt newspaper publisher named Looney among the scofflaws, and doubly amused to discover Looney actually existed. (Alas, the filmmakers changed his name to Rooney for the film.)

And how can you resist tight writing like this? Here's an example: The gunman-father meets famous G-man Eliot Ness in a cemetery — standing over his wife's grave — and gives Ness the evidence he needs to convict Looney, which surprises Ness. Wouldn't he rather kill him?

"Looney's an old man," says the gunman, "I prefer to see him die slowly ... in prison ... living with the knowledge that his son died violently."

"Conner Looney killed?" exclaims Ness. "When did this happen?"

"Soon," promises the gunman.

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