Harlan and Harold

July 3rd, 2018 by Max Allan Collins

So Harlan Ellison is gone. Not dead, because his work will survive. He may not maintain the presence in the popular culture he once had, because he was chiefly a short story writer. Still, he might overcome that, because after all Edgar Allan Poe and Ray Bradbury were both chiefly short story writers, and they endure. Hard to imagine “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” disappearing.

In the aftermath of Harlan’s passing, amid expressions of friendship and loss, came those who figured that while the body hadn’t cooled yet, it would be a good time to say that he was overrated and a “gasbag,” as one dweller in the dingy, dreary corners of Facebook put it. These nonentities who must disparage those who have actually contributed will be with us always –- perhaps more shrilly now, in the age of Trump and Social Media.

In my formative years – adolescence and teens – I read mostly crime/mystery writers. I followed only a handful of science-fiction authors, despite a love of comics, films and TV shows in that genre; among those authors were Bradbury and Ellison. I was particularly attracted by Ellison’s introductory material to his short story collections – I found it fascinating and exciting for the writer to come out from in back of his tales. To be a presence.

There’s no question that he influenced me in that regard. I talk about my work in that same way, if not with as much personality or gift for language; but I do it here, and have introduced many of the reprints of my work and the collections of shorter material.

I also enjoyed his fiction itself, very much, and was aware of his byline on TV scripts on such shows as Burke’s Law, The Outer Limits and Star Trek. Seeing his name on the screenwriter credit of a TV episode always made me sit up. And in my college years I loved his writing about TV, which covered his own experiences in the medium as well as unbridled reviews of various series (collected in The Glass Teat).

I met him in 1973 at a comics convention in Dallas, which happened to be the first such convention I ever attended. Knowing he was the guest of honor, I spotted Ellison in the dealer’s room on the first evening of the show and introduced myself, and told him my first two books had just been published (Bait Money and Blood Money). He congratulated me and asked me to accompany him as he took a stroll around the dealer’s room. He was friendly to me, even warm. Of course, I’d made it clear I was a fan and had brought a book along for him to sign.

Anyway, I accompanied him on his circuit around the room. About half a dozen times, dealers at the show took pot shots at him – picked verbal fights with him (I don’t remember the specific subjects), but were beyond rude. It was like walking down a street in the Old West with Billy the Kid and seeing various punks try to goad him into a shoot-out.

Harlan was soft-spoken, just nodded, said very little to them when he said anything at all. I was confused, knowing Harlan’s reputation for confrontation and not suffering fools. I told Barb about it in our hotel room, not sure whether I was impressed or disappointed.

Throughout the weekend I would stop and chat with Harlan, but we didn’t share a meal or head to a bar or anything – we were just friendly ships that had passed in the night. At the banquet on the final night of the con, with all the dealers and the other guests and many attendees present, Harlan was the scheduled speaker.

I said to Barb, as we sat and dined on rubber chicken, looking around at those who’d verbally assaulted the guest of honor earlier, “How I wish Harlan would take these sons of bitches on.”

And that’s what he did.

Harlan had noted the names of every face that insulted him on that tour of the dealer’s room, and in his keynote speech he reported their rude conduct and called them out individually. Told them it was a hell of a way to treat their guest of honor. And he shot each one of them down, leaving each writhing in a pool of embarrassment.

And I loved it. And I loved him for it, fan of revenge that I am.

A few years later, at a San Diego con, Harlan was going into a ballroom for a panel, accompanied by reps of the con. I paused, gave him a smile and a little wave, not thinking he’d even remember me. Then he called out, “Al! I can’t talk to you right now! We’ll get together later!”

We didn’t. I don’t believe we ever met face to face again, but over the years the damnedest thing happened: out of the blue he would call me. He treated me as if I were one of his closest friends, and as the years and these lovely sporadic calls kept coming, I began to feel that way myself. He made it clear he liked my work and that was extremely gratifying – little in a writer’s life is better than being admired by one of your favorite writers, particularly one who was a formative influence.

We did not agree on Mickey Spillane. He had a low opinion of Mickey typical coming from a progressive writer of his era. But he knew I loved Mickey and his work and he respected that.

One afternoon in my office at home I got a call from Harlan. Mickey’s The Killing Man, his first Mike Hammer in some time, had just come out.

“Al! Did you write this?”

“No. I’ve never ghosted Mickey. That’s his work.”

“Great! Now I don’t have to read it.”

He hung up.

Later he revealed to me that he had a standing order at his regular bookshop to set aside any novel of mine that came out. Only once did he criticize me.

“Al, stop using, ‘He shook his head no.’ Shaking your head is no.”

“Not all shakes of the head mean no, Harlan.”

“Fine. Then characterize those head shakes that way. Otherwise, it’s no!”

“Okay,” I said. “You sold me.”

“And can you watch your word repetition closer, please? You’re a better writer than that.”

Most good fiction writers try to avoid repeating words in the same paragraph or even on the same page (excluding articles like “a” and “the,” of course, and character names). Barb catches most of mine on her edits.

So I said to Harlan, “I admit I do that more often than I should. I try to catch them. But Harlan, a lot of words fly out of here in a year, and sometimes I slip. I’m trying to make a living.”

“Okay,” he said. “I can accept that.”

He was always gracious to me, friendly and funny, and very frank. His anecdotes about Hollywood, frequently ending with him trying to strangle an executive, were priceless. But a year or so ago, he confided that his failing health was something he wasn’t sure he could live with. He said sometimes he contemplated the choice Hemingway had made.

“Don’t do that,” I said, as if he were using too much salt on his food. “Hemingway taking his life colored his work forever. You don’t want that following you around after you’re gone.”

He allowed this was probably good advice.

I was troubled by his admission, but touched that he’d share something like that with me. Yet wasn’t that what had attracted me so as a teenager? This writer who came out from behind his fiction to confront you with his humanity?

And yours?

* * *

Lately I’ve read a number of books about improv comedy and Second City. If you follow these updates regularly at all, you know that I am a huge SCTV fan. When there was an SCTV reunion in 2009, as part of a 50th anniversary Second City celebration, Barb and I spent big bucks to attend the show, which included Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short and Dave Thomas on stage together. Ramis performed with them, and also directed the performance. He had been a cast member the first season and head writer the second.

I embarrassed myself thoroughly bugging and fawning over any SCTV cast members I happened to encounter, and that was most of them. Why Barb remained married to me after such unconscionable fan boy behavior, I have no idea. But I was a teenage girl in 1964 talking to the Beatles – that bad. Maybe worse.

I’d met Ramis a few years before at a film festival in Chicago. That time I behaved myself, pretty much, getting introduced to him by a mutual friend. He was very gracious, quiet but nice, and he smiled when I mentioned how far I went back with him – to Swami Bananananda and kid show host Ol’ Muley (“These are the worst drawings yet, boys and girls”). We also talked about Stuart Saves the World, his Stuart Smalley movie with Al Franken; I told him how much I liked the film and that I wished it were out on DVD (later it was).

At Second City, though, I first flagged Ramis down the night of the reunion show and tried to remind him that we’d met (I don’t think he remembered) but he was friendly and expressed concern that they hadn’t had enough rehearsal time. He gave me an autograph, as well (I was on the hunt).

Throughout the weekend, I saw him a number of times, basically saying “The reunion was great” and hello, but it must have seemed to him that I was everywhere, maybe even stalking him (I wasn’t – it was sheer coincidence). Finally I caught him alone for a moment and apologized for bugging him (even as I bugged him again) and rather desperately said, “I just wanted to let you know how much I love Groundhog Day. It’s one of my favorite movies and it’s my son’s favorite movie, period. It’s a great, great film, it’s like…It’s a Wonderful Life.”

“It is,” he said with an enigmatic smile. “It is a wonderful life.”

I of course meant that his film Groundhog Day is on a level of importance with Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. But I am still not sure if he was agreeing with me, or saying his film was a variation on that film, or maybe just that…it’s a wonderful life. As in, it’s wonderful being alive.

I’m still thinking about that ambiguous reply, particularly now that I know a year later he would contract autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis, and be gone in 2014.

The books I’ve read recently about this remarkable actor, writer and filmmaker include Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story by Chris Nashawaty, and Ghostbuster’s Daughter: Life with My Dad, Harold Ramis by Violet Ramis Stiel. The former is fascinating and covers the birth of The National Lampoon, Saturday Night Live and (to a lesser extent) SCTV, with the Caddyshack material starting about midway. It gives a good picture of Ramis at that important time of his life.

His daughter’s book I admit having some problems with, but I would still recommend it to fans of her dad. The book is her memoir, and only really interested me when it was dealing with Harold Ramis himself, although it did that frankly and with insight.

* * *

Here’s a really nice review of the first issue of the Mike Hammer serialized graphic novel from Hard Case Crime Comics (and Titan).

Here’s another good one.

And another.

Finally, here’s a review of Quarry’s Vote.

M.A.C.

Untouchable in Blu

June 26th, 2018 by Max Allan Collins

This weekend I watched the “check disc” for the forthcoming Blu-ray of Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life. I was very pleased. We had gone to some trouble and expense to shoot in HD (at the time something rather new, particularly for low-budget productions), and having the feature appear as intended, looking rather beautiful, is gratifying. It’s made bittersweet by seeing the amazing performance of Michael Cornelison, who passed away in 2011. The loss of this key collaborator on my film and TV work remains painful.

Mike and my great friend and collaborator Phil Dingeldein are featured on the commentary, which listening to is also bittersweet…and I wish I hadn’t dominated it so. But I tend to do that in such situations.

The Blu-ray has everything on it that the DVD did, and “An Inconvenient Matter” – the short film that was the last collaboration between Collins, Cornelison and Dingeldein – is also in High-Def for the first time. It’s an overtly film noir piece written by Chuck Hughes, my fellow Iowan and the screenwriter of Ed and His Dead Mother, a cult fave. This is the only time to date I’ve directed a script I didn’t write, and it was fun and interesting. There’s a Collins/Cornelison/Dingeldein commentary on that, as well.

Obviously, the advance buzz about the “magnum opus” (as the publisher describes it), Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness and the Battle for Chicago by A. Brad Schwartz and me, inspired this release. The book is out in August, but the Blu-ray will bring up the rear in October.

You can pre-order the disc at Amazon (and I wish you would).

Phil and I are exploring a new film project around the second Mike Hammer play, The Little Death, that is scheduled for January 17 – 27, though if it sells out like the previous one did, an extra week may be added on. This will again star the wonderful Gary Sandy, and I am negotiating with legendary producer Zev Buffman to direct it myself. All concerned are hopeful that I will be able to direct a film version, somewhat in the style of the Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life feature.

More as that develops.

Speaking of Mike Hammer, the first issue of the serialized graphic novel, The Night I Died (developed from some of the same unpublished Spillane material that inspired The Little Death play) will be in comic book shops this week. A number of sites feature an advance look at the comic book, and this link will take you to one.

* * *

Crusin’s summer/early fall season (we mostly lay off in the later fall and winter) continued on Sunday with an appearance at the Muscatine Art Center’s annual Ice Cream Social. It was a fun, informal event, and the crowd liked us just fine, though I would be surprised if the ice cream and pie didn’t get even better reviews.

Our next appearance is in Muscatine at the Missipi Brew in their beer garden on the Fourth of July, which is on July 4 this year, interestingly. This can be a grueling event for us, particularly if we draw a hot day/evening. It’s also one of the longer shows we do, at least three hours. Lately we’ve been limiting ourselves to one- and two-hour gigs.

This does get more physically taxing, the loading in, setting up, tearing down and loading out in particular. How much longer I will be able to indulge myself in my rock ‘n’ roll fixation remains unclear.

* * *

Here is a very nice Quarry in the Black review. The cover of that one – I believe the great Glen Orbik’s last, completed by the very talented Laurel Blechman – is popping up all over the Net. It’s much admired, and I’m pleased to have acquired the original for my office (in my home with its sophisticated security system).

Here’s a little write-up about my long-ago Digest Dolls card set.

Finally, here is a really nice review of Scarface and the Untouchable in Publisher’s Weekly.

M.A.C.

Hey Kids – There’s a Prize in the Serial Box!

June 19th, 2018 by Max Allan Collins

I try to stay away from politics here, but the latest wrinkle in the immigration story calls for an exception. I think the Onion covered it best.

But I would ask my Christian friends on the Right to consider that when Jesus said, “Suffer little children to come unto me,” He didn’t mean He wanted little children to suffer.

* * *

This may be as good a time as any for me to talk about Facebook, which is the only social media platform I use. I’m so out of touch I don’t even know if “platform” is the right word.

For a long time, I read the daily feed or whatever-the-hell you call it, and would get very upset about the political nonsense I saw posted – a surprising amount of it dark and nasty and often racist. Plus stupid. Did I mention stupid?

Because I am a reactive wise-ass at heart (and everywhere else), I would weigh in, often sarcastically, and bad things would transpire. I lost several good friends.

A while back I started only rarely checking in on the daily feed, and instead checked posts from a bunch of groups (not sure what Facebook calls them) that give me stuff about things I’m interested in, like paperback collecting, illustration and comic art, cult movies, pin-ups and so on. I have dropped one of these (about oddball LP covers) because the members of the group often made stupid, cruel, “funny” comments – imagine MST3K with morons.

But mostly these groups are fun.

I mention this to explain why you may have made a friend request to me that I have not accepted. My policy for several years was to accept any friend request because that represented a current or potential reader (or customer, as Mickey would put it). So many, even most, of the names were ones I didn’t recognize.

I mean, hey – who doesn’t want more friends?

But then I started seeing the far-right nastiness, the lies, the racism, the stupidity, and I just couldn’t take it any more. Plus, it tempted me into getting into fights with those very readers I was courting!

So I retreated into the posts about books and movies and art and pretty girls.

I do still post this update every week, and respond to responses to them. But only once a week (at most) do I see what the daily feed is feeding on.

And I haven’t accepted a friend request from someone I don’t already know in a very long time.

No offense! You may not be a moronic fascist, but I just can’t take the chance….

* * *

Barb and I spent a delightful weekend in St. Louis with son Nate, our daughter-in-law Abby and grandson Sam. It was in part celebration of Father’s Day but also of Barb’s birthday (today, as I write this – June 18).

Sam is extremely funny, sometimes on purpose. He won’t be three till September, but his verbal skills already suggest he will be a better writer than Nate, Barb and me. Building a slide out of piled pillows, and considering the small mattress he would have to pile on top of them, breathing hard, he turned to Barb and said, “Now…here’s the hard part….”

Wonderful child.

My son is pretty wonderful, too, giving me for Father’s Day an expensive book about Audie Murphy’s co-stars in movies and television. Again, not a book about Audie Murphy, but a book about people he worked with. Nate did this, admitting that no one in his generation had any idea who Audie Murphy was.

My wife is also wonderful, and feel free to skip this paragraph, because it’s going to be more sentimental slop along the lines of my previous two updates. I failed to mention, when I wrote about our 50th Anniversary, that I fall in love with this woman at least once every day. It’s chiefly her smile. But I also remember how she came to spend the day with me, every day, for my entire time on all three of my hospital stays, which added up to probably nearly a month. As you may imagine, I was not always an ideal patient. But she was a great life’s partner for every second of it. She has caught up with me in numerical age (she’s three months younger) but I won’t remind anyone of the year involved. But no one would ever guess it. Here she is with her birthday roses.

* * *

I have received my copies of the Quarry’s War graphic novel and am very pleased. Though we changed artists between issue #1 and #2 (the original artist didn’t like me telling him what to draw), it’s fairly seamless. I am burying the lead here, but I will offer ten copies to any readers who will write an Amazon (and/or other) review. [Update: All copies have been given away. Thank you for your support!]

You should write me at ****, and you must include your snail-mail address. USA only. I would greatly prefer that those who request a copy are readers who don’t usually read comics or graphic novels, because I want to make it clear to non-comics-fan Quarry readers that this is a genuine and even important entry in the series.

* * *

Here’s a very nice discussion of film noir, all the better because I am quoted and Ms. Tree is cited.

Killer Covers looks at artist Ron Lesser, showcasing his Quarry in the Middle cover.

Bargain hunters! Get the Girl Hunters blu-ray with my commentary here for a new price – $14.95.

Here are ten great comic book movies that aren’t about superheroes – and guess what’s number one!!!

M.A.C.

The Original Max Allan Collins

June 12th, 2018 by Max Allan Collins

I had many lovely responses to my shameless Golden Anniversary tribute to my lovely wife, Barb. Several people inquired about where the photo of us was taken: that was on May 31 on our anniversary overnight getaway to Galena, at our favorite Italian restaurant there, Vinny Vanucchi’s.

We stayed at the Irish Cottage (which is not a cottage, of course, but a very nice hotel on the outer outskirts of Galena). We dined at our other favorites – Otto’s Place, a breakfast spot on the Galena River across from the old, restored train station, and the Log Cabin, a restaurant that’s been there since the ‘30s and is a classic steakhouse that has the look and feel of somewhere the Rat Pack would hang out. We took a trolley tour of the town (though we’d been there many times) and soaked up some history and saw lots of Painted Ladies (i.e., Victorian mansions and homes).

This was in part research, because I have agreed to do a follow-up to The Girl Most Likely, a thriller set in Galena that I delivered to Thomas & Mercer last year for publication later this year. The police chief there, Lori Huntington, has been most helpful. But we were mostly having fun – the downtown shopping, half-a-mile of it, is gift shops and antiques shops and two wonderful used bookstores. We also visited (by appointment) Main Street Fine Books, which gave up its Main Street location some time ago and is now on the lower level of a beautiful modern home. Bill Butts and his wife Yolanda welcomed us, and Bill had set aside a first edition of Audie Murphy’s To Hell and Back for me.

You know, Barb and I talked about going somewhere special – like Ireland or France or England – but instead settled on doing what we wanted to do, as opposed to what was expected of us. We went to Galena, a place we love, and chose the Irish Cottage over Ireland.

On June 2nd, still celebrating, we dined at our favorite Muscatine restaurant, DaBeet’s, where I’d arranged for chef Awad Dabit to prepare Barb’s favorite, Dover Sole. Earlier that day was a nostalic trip for both us, at the Muscatine Art Center, a wonderful museum in the historic Musser mansion. How wonderful? They display works by Renoir, Chagall, O’Keefe, Picasso, and Grant Wood, among many others.

But Barb and I were there to see the Elks Chanters exhibit. The Chanters was a male chorus that my father, Max A. Collins Sr., directed for fifty years, up to his passing in 2000. The original Max Collins was a remarkable guy. He went to Simpson College on a combined music and athletics scholarship. He was an incredible singer, who turned down offers to pursue professional opera, and a high school music teacher whose students racked up record wins at state music contests. He also put on the first high school productions of Oklahoma and Carousel – in the nation. When he left teaching after ten years for a better-paying job at HON Industries, the office furniture company, he kept his musical hand in with church choirs and, in particular, the Chanters.

How good were the Chanters? Well, in the fifties they entered the national Elks chorus competition and won, beating men’s choruses from the biggest cities in America. The next year they won again. The year after that they won yet again, although other choruses tried to block them, claiming the Muscatine outfit was clearly professional. They weren’t, but after that year, the competition was ended and the Chanters were made the permanent national champs.

Dad took his group all over the state and various parts of the country, including of course Muscatine, to schools and nursing homes; they also put on an annual Christmas concert. Every year around June they presented an elaborate show, with a concert portion divided between religious and popular works, and a Broadway-style revue with costumes, dancing, and the wives and kids of the Chanters participating. Each revue had a theme my father had been working on all year – Rodgers and Hammerstein, Legends of Popular Music, Grand Ole Opry and on and on.


Small part of Museum Art Center exhibit

His chorus had a uniquely masculine sound and he created it from everyday guys in all walks of life here in Muscatine. The Muscatine Art Center, thanks to Donna Reed (whose late husband Morrie Reed was one of Dad’s stars), has mounted an impressive display of Chanters memorabilia and has a big-screen TV showing the Chanters (and my Dad) in action. The exhibit goes through mid-August.

As a kid, I was in Chanters shows and so was son Nate. But I never joined the group. I had my musical path and Dad had his. I think he understood mine was not a rejection but a recognition that he would be seen as favoring me if he used me in any special way. I had appeared in high school productions (King Arthur in Camelot and Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady) and many around town expected me to be a Chanter. But I was busy playing rock ‘n’ roll.


M.A.C., Jr., watching M.A.C., Sr. and his group

Here’s one story about my dad, who was an incredible teacher of vocal music, as this will demonstrate.

When I was a sophomore in high school, the chorus director put me (a tenor) with a bass, an alto and a soprano, as a quartet that would try out for the All-State Chorus – this is roughly the nerd equivalent of All-State sports honors. The director, who was new in town, told us that he would not have time to work with us. That he would be working with several quartets of junior and senior students, who had a chance of winning; but this would be a good opportunity for us to see what we were up against in the future.

I reported this to Dad. He told me to assemble my quartet (Mike Lange, Joyce Courtois and Kathy Bender) and that he would work with us. No one in the history of Iowa schools, at least up to that time, had put more students into the All-State Chorus (winners were sent to Des Moines for a big concert) than my father. Well, Dad worked with us all right. And the three quartets the high school chorus director coached all flamed out.

We won.

We won the next year, too, and the next. And at our final year at Des Moines, when the All-State Chorus was assembled to rehearse for its concert, its director asked the group of several hundred, “Who among you have been here before?” Our hands and some others went up. Then: “Who among have been here for all three years? Please stand.”

We four stood.

No one else did.

Thanks, Pop.

* * *

Barb and I have finished listening to Dan John Miller’s reading of Killing Town. I know some of you (myself included) are sorry to see Stacy Keach retire from the audio series. But Dan really knocks it out of the park.

If you enjoy listening to books on audio, and you like my work and/or Mickey’s, get your hands…which is to say your ears…on this one.

* * *

The graphic novel collection of Quarry’s War is out now! I spotted it in Daydreams, an Iowa City comic book shop. Amazon lists the on-sale date as July 3rd, but apparently comic book shops get it earlier.

I’ll post more on this later.

M.A.C.

aug 19, 2003 visitors since August 19, 2003.