The Original 'Road to Perdition'

  • Share
  • Read Later
The Depression-era gangster picture "Road to Perdition" earned over $20 million during its opening weekend, continuing the trend of successful movie adaptations of non-superhero graphic novels. Last year's quirky "Ghost World," based on the Dan Clowes book, and "From Hell," the Jack-the-Ripper story by Alan Moore, both became box-office hits. Originally published in 1998 by the DC Comics imprint Paradox Press, "Road to Perdition" (304 pp.; $13.95), written by Max Allan Collins and drawn by Richard Piers Rayner, has been reprinted to coincide with the release of the movie, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Tom Hanks. Except for a pair of sharp-eyed Hollywood producers, the book received virtually no attention when it first appeared. That was an oversight. Focusing on different themes than the movie version, the original "Road to Perdition" makes an exciting and intelligent companion to the film.

A former writer for the "Dick Tracy" comic strip and the author of historical crime novels, Max Collins has a talent for both comix writing and verisimilitude. Aided by Rayner's photo-based drawings, "Road," the book, combines great action with believable atmosphere. Michael O'Sullivan (changed to Sullivan for the movie), a lieutenant to real-life Midwestern crime boss John Looney (re-named Rooney in the film), provides for his wife and two sons as a killer nicknamed The Angel of Death. When O'Sullivan's oldest boy, Michael, witnesses a rub-out, old man Looney and his homicidal son Conner decide to kill the whole family. But Sr. and Jr. O'Sullivan escape, hitting the road to Perdition, Kansas where the boy's aunt and uncle live. Along the way The Angel reaps vengeance on Looney's outfit, as well as Al Capone's, who has put Conner Looney into hiding.

Like the movie, the book has its own comix origins. "Lone Wolf and Cub," the seminal late-1960s Japanese comic series about a wandering Samurai and his child has been brilliantly transplanted by Collins to the American gangster genre. Compared to his character in the film, O'Sullivan Sr. has many more scenes of ruthless killing. He comes off as a one-man army, using a multitude of weapons to rampage through dozens of men at a time. At one point he rides down the banister of Capone's hotel firing off rounds from both hands. While it would be a stretch to see Tom Hanks' somber, journeyman character pulling off such a stunt, the comix version has a more exaggerated tone appropriate to its milieu. The movie and book take from the tropes of their respective mediums. Where cinematographer Conrad L. Hall evokes the dark tones of "The Godfather," English illustrator Richard Rayner's black and white drawings come right out of the illustrated pulp novels.

Conner Looney nearly kills Michael O'Sullivan Jr. in "Road to Perdition"

But the most surprising and satisfying difference between the book and movie comes from discovering how the same story yields two different, but equally fascinating themes. Collins' heavily Catholic graphic novel deals more with the nature of sin and redemption. O'Sullivan Sr. lights a church candle for each of the men he kills, and goes to confession diligently. Tom Hanks' movie version has clearly resigned himself to damnation. Taking a more Protestant approach to salvation, he strives to keep Michael Jr. from following his father's violent path. David Self's screenplay alters the story in clever ways to bring out the theme of father-and-son relationships. For the movie Sullivan Sr. becomes the adopted son of Rooney (authoritatively played by Paul Newman) whose jealous son, Conner (Daniel Craig) orchestrates the murder of Sullivan's family. Where the book's crucial father/son scene has the father assuring the son that we can all leave this world in a state of forgiveness, the movie has the father confessing that he worries about his son being too much like him.

Collins and Rayner's original "Road to Perdition" has more to recommend it than just the source material for the movie. It turns out to be a neglected work of smart, tense, hard-boiled crime comix with more going on than just the usual violence.

"Road to Perdition," the graphic novel, can be found at any comicbook store, and also regular bookstores. Be aware that Max Collins has also done a non-graphic novelization of the movie.