Writer: Max Allan Collins
Artist: Richard Piers Rayner
Publisher: DC Comics / Pocket Books
Michael O’Sullivan was a soldier, first for the U.S. Army during World War I then as an enforcer for the Looney crime family in the Illinois Tri-Cities area. When his wife and child are slaughtered O’Sullivan sets out to protect his only surviving child and exact revenge. Set during the prohibition era of Al Capone and Elliot Ness, when criminal enterprise was the only law in much of small town America.
In his Foreword author Max Collins writes that he was strongly influenced by the long running ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ Japanese graphic novels - as well as the ‘Baby Cart’ Samurai films that they inspired - plus John Woo’s early Hong Kong shoot-em-ups; Woo was himself inspired by Sergio Leone’s ‘Clint Eastwood’ Westerns, as long as we’re playing six degrees of separation. Collins’ narrative pacing and action sequences mirror the abrupt, extreme violence that are the hallmarks of those books and movies. However, it is the emphasis on family drama, loyalty and honor that truly define the aforementioned works, which Collins faithfully captures in Road to Perdition.
Collins tells a pretty simple and accessible story, told in Flashback from the point of view of Michael O’Sullivan Jr, who recounts in his notebook the long, bloody road trip he took with his father in 1930. The setting is the Rock Island-Davenport-Moline Tri-Cities area, which shares the borders of Northwest Illinois and Eastern Iowa; hardly the locale I think of when it comes to the “Untouchables” period of organized crime. Collins, however, based the events in Road to Perdition on actual historical facts as well as interviews he conducted with local newspaper reporters. For example: there really was an Irish mob run by John Looney who conducted business with Chicago’s Al Capone, as the story goes to great lengths to depict. Collins evokes a definite air of authenticity within his fictional account.
During the latter years of the industrial revolution prejudice towards immigrants, especially the Irish and the Italians, was quite severe in the United States. Powerful crime families, like the Looney’s, rose up in towns both great and small across America providing safe haven and jobs to those of similar ethnicity. Loyalty to said families was absolute; the penalty for betrayal – true or suspected - was swift and final. Michael O’Sullivan Sr. had served the Looney family for years as an enforcer, whose quiet professionalism had earned him the nickname: “The Angel of Death”. O’Sullivan was also a devoted family man who strived to keep his wife and children ignorant of his ‘job’. When Michael O’Sullivan Jr. is caught spying on his father the Looney recourse is to erase the entire O’Sullivan household.
I had to scratch my head over this. Why would a crime family that prides itself on being a “business” take such rash, illogical action against one of their own, especially when the event in question was simply the innocent act of a child? Collins never fully explains the motivation; he is far too intent on setting O’Sullivan into action in the dozen scenes of gunplay that follow. The major, underlying dynamic in Road to Perdition is the father-son relationship of O’Sullivan’s Sr. and Jr. Unfortunately, Dad is so laconic that I never really grew to care about him, short of the empathy I had for his loss. Of greater interest, however, is the son, Michael Jr.; he bears witness to a number of violent murders that must undoubtedly turn him into a big, twisted nut as an adult.
Richard Rayner is an artist of unquestionable technical skill with pen and ink. His scribbled rendering and thick, simple blacks create some of the moodiest and most authentic looking locations I’ve seen in any graphic novel. He does a great job of keeping the visuals flowing as fast or faster than Collins tight narrative and dialog. Rayner’s characters are very believable, though it appears all were derived from photo-reference. I have nothing against photo-reference as an illustrative tool, sometimes it works and sometimes it looks like an elementary-school collage. However, Rayner does a fantastic, if not understated job with it here. Road to Perdition feels like it was yanked right out of the 1930s and that is praise enough.
Road to Perdition tells a familiar story of family, loss and revenge. Max Allan Collins, a successful mystery writer outside of comics, borrows liberally from Asian cinema. His story is effective though not astounding. Richard Rayner’s visuals are clean and there are several jaw dropping moments, particularly a riverboat explosion that must have taken him a month to complete. Ultimately, Road to Perdition is a solid, fast read, but it’s not terribly original or exceptional in its telling. Which causes me to wonder why Hollywood was so moved to adapt it into a movie starring Paul Newman and Tom Hanks. Hopefully that’s a positive sign for all of those other graphic novel authors out there.
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