In his decades-long career, Max Allan Collins has written everything from screenplays and novels to short stories. But all that time, he’s been a prolific comics writer, including peening Dick Tracy in the ’90s and 2000s as well as co-creating the series Road to Perdition. His work has generally emphasized two key elements: compelling crime stories and a basis in history. That certainly exemplifies his latest comics project, Fancy Anders Goes to War.
Created alongside famed artist/illustrator Fay Dalton (of James Bond fame), this is the latest illustrated novel from the digital publisher NeoText. The book follows Fancy Anders, who takes up the mantle of her “Hollywood private detective daddy” during WWII, where she goes “undercover at an aircraft plant to solve the murder of Rosie the Riveter.” Collins’ prose combines a powerful whodunnit married with a great study of the time (complete with an assassination’s attempt around President Roosevelt), and Dalton’s illustrations effortlessly capture the look and feel of the time.
Ahead of today’s release (October 5), we caught up with Collins to discuss the story’s creation, his interest in crime and history, working with Dalton, and much, much more.
AIPT: What’s your elevator pitch for this project? Do you have a target audience in mind?
Max Allan Collins: In World War Two-era Los Angeles, Fancy Anders, the daughter of a successful private investigator and a snobby socialite, goes undercover at an aircraft factory in World War Two to find a murderer. An adventurous tomboy with movie-star beauty, Fancy is smart and confident but not street savvy, and can well use the help of the diverse group of women on her riveting team.
I probably should have an audience in mind, but I never think about any audience but myself – is it a story I would enjoy? If I enjoy it, there must be other people out there who would, too. I can see in Fancy Anders Goes to War an appealing, somewhat flawed female protagonist who might appeal to women in general and younger ones in particular, but also a setting and mystery story that older readers, men included, would find of interest.
AIPT: You’ve written heaps of books and comics galore. But how does this kind of book fit into all that? Does this specific kind of format mean anything different for you in terms of story, tone, vibe, etc.?
MAC: That’s a wonderful question, but I’m not sure I have a wonderful answer. My career is a mix of selling to whatever market is available to me at that moment, just as a practical matter, and pursuing a variety of types of stories and subject matter to keep me interested and fresh.
The novella format was one suggested to me by NeoText and it proved perfect for Fancy. Limiting myself to 30,000 words — normally I do at the very least 50,000 and often 70,000 or more — kept the storytelling lean and the pace quick. That’s welcoming to readers and a challenge to the writer…at least, this writer.
The use of illustrations was something discussed from the start – the notion of bridging my prose novel work with graphic novels, a midway point that might attract readers of both. When Fay Dalton delivered her stunning cover for Fancy Anders Goes to War, the idea of having her provide a full-page illo for each of the ten chapters was embraced immediately by all concerned. We did discuss spot illos, too, or placing the illustrations somewhere within the chapter. But I liked the retro idea of starting each chapter with an illustration, to set the tone and get the reader in the mood.
AIPT: What was it like working with artist/illustrator Fay Dalton? What does her work bring to the table in the grand scheme of this book?
MAC: Fay is wonderful. So easy to work with. I gave her suggestions for possible illos and she embraced a number of them but also provided alternates, which were always spot on. The closest thing we had to a problem was when she delivered “roughs” (that were finished art) in black-and-white, and I was so taken with their noir-ish look that I initially didn’t want her to go on with full-color versions. We compromised by using a few of the illos in black-and-white with a splash of color – red, and you can probably guess why – with the rest in full-color.
Fay Dalton is in a long tradition of women who could pose for their own pin-up style art – Zoe Moezert in the forties, more recently Trina Robbins and Olivia De Berardinis. Fay has a terrific feel for Old School art and invokes it without seeming campy or unduly ironic.
She’s doing the cover of my next work for NeoText, too – The Many Lives of Jimmy Leighton, co-written by SCTV’s Dave Thomas, a contemporary mix of science fiction and crime mystery. It’ll be out very soon.
AIPT: What are some books, comics, films, etc. that inspired this story/book?
MAC: There were a lot of female detective types in ‘40s movies, like Torchy Blane, and in the comics, like Brenda Starr. I co-created Ms. Tree with Terry Beatty, of course.
AIPT: I love the protagonist, Fancy Anders, as she’s so energetic and insightful. Are there any direct influences here? And why did you opt for this kind of heroine as the focal point?
MAC: The Australian TV series, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, initially got me thinking with its strong female protagonist. Miss Fisher is of a different era, a flapper, and is an older, more accomplished woman than Fancy, who essentially is not that long out of college – Barnard, of course.
As I’ve said all along, Fancy arrived fully formed. But my subconscious was apparently working overtime, because she’s perfect for this. Her intelligence and strength is offset by her rarefied upbringing – the latter gives her access to all kinds of things, money no problem, friends in high places, etc., and as a kind of junior sportswoman she’s done a lot of adventurous stuff, flying, racing, shooting…but still, she doesn’t know the streets. So she needs her working-class friends who she meets at the aircraft plant.
AIPT: You’ve written about crime and mystery throughout your career. What is it about these kinds of stories that are so compelling? And how do you keep the whodunnit so fresh?
MAC: I hope I can keep the whodunnit aspect fresh. That’s a challenge, but then it always has been. I was attracted to crime and mystery from early childhood and, while I’ve dabbled in other genres, it’s remained my focus. I think it’s as simple as the need for conflict in any good story, and when a story has a crime in it – particularly a murder – you’re inherently blessed with conflict.
But as for the subject matter, I get the usual criticism writers of noir mystery have received going back to when they called this kind of thing “hardboiled” – why, I’m asked, do you insist on writing about sex and violence? Well, sex is life and violence is death, and those are the two big topics, right?
AIPT: Do you feel like this story is not only entertaining but maybe rings true even today? Especially when we’re thinking about things like the modern “evolution” of patriotism or the parallels between the ‘40s war effort and the lackluster response to COVID?
MAC: Fancy Anders was conceived just prior to the outbreak of COVID. The three novellas were written during the lockdown, so there was a definite resonance – the we’re-all-in-it-together of the WW 2 effort versus the politicized nature of the COVID response, which has only gotten worse.
But even in putting Fancy together I was keenly influenced by the fractured nature of our politics, the partisan divide. And how people came together in the homefront war effort made a sharp contrast with what was going on around me/us. I have no illusions that Fancy Anders Goes to War will change anything, but I hope it resonates with readers. The way the war effort reached across class and ethnic and religious distinctions is inspiring, or anyway it should be.
AIPT: The book seems to ride the line brilliantly between historical accuracy and also a more imaginative interpretation of people and events. Why is that balance important, and how much work goes into having this blend?
MAC: That’s an interesting observation. I run into this all the time, and I cringe when other writers or filmmakers impose current sensibilities when depicting another era, or even worse are judgmental about it. With women and diversity moving into the wartime workforce, the beginnings of what would be changed attitudes and even social movements can be discerned, but I hope where the Fancy Anders stories are concerned I’m not hitting readers over the head with it.
I believe a writer doing fiction with an historical setting needs to be accurate and yet view it through a telescope of today.
AIPT: Why does anyone need to read Fancy Anders Goes To War?
MAC: Nobody “needs” to read any specific work of fiction, but our lives are lessened by the absence of good storytelling, and I’m pretty sure Fancy Anders Goes to War is a good example of storytelling. I am not preaching. I’m just an entertainer. But I always hope my entertainment has a point of view and a way of seeing things that a reader will find worth considering.
With this novella, one of the pluses is an opportunity to see how different some yesterday was but also where today is similar.
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