Monday, August 16, 2004

Men's Action Novel Series of the Seventies Part 1

In helping my sister move last spring I found a large number of those paperbacks from those old series of men's action-adventure novels in the Seventies. In case you don't know what I am talking about, I mean series such as The Executioner, The Destroyer, The Death Merchant, and so on. These series filled paperback racks in the Seventies. They were obviously a big business. In fact, to this day I can't think of the decade of the Seventies without thinking of these novels.

Of course, in most ways they were nothing new. The mystery genre has always boasted a large number of recurring characters: Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Miss Marple, Father Brown, and so on. And then there were the pulp magazines that flourished in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Often these magazines would be devoted to the adventures of a single hero, the biggest perhaps being The Shadow, Doc Savage, and The Spider. In fact, Bantam may well have led to the boom in action-adventure, paperback series in the Seventies when they started reprinting the old Doc Savage novels in the early Sixties.

Of course, immediately before the action-adventure series of the Seventies, there were the superspies of the Fifties and Sixties. James Bond was the first, appearing in Casino Royale in the UK in 1954. He was followed by Sam Durrell, the CIA agent created by Edward S. Aarons in 1955. Given that Bond had only appeared the year before and was not an immediate hit here in the States, it is doubtful that Aarons was inspired by Ian Fleming. More than likely, Cold War politics spurred the creation of two superspies on both sides of the Atlantic. A third was Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm. Like Durrell, it is unlikely that Helm was inspired by Bond. For one thing, he first appeared in 1960, a time when Bond was still largely unknown in the United States. For another, Helm was a wholly different character from Bond. Strictly speaking, Matt Helm is not a spy, but a government assassin. And the novels are written in the dark, cynical style of hard boiled detective fiction rather than that of Ian Fleming. In the wake of Bond, Durrell, and Helm, more spies followed: John LeCarre's George Smiley in 1961, Len Deighton's nameless operative in The Iprcress File in 1962 (he was given a name--Harry Palmer--in the movies based on Deighton's books), Nick Carter's Killmaster series in 1964, and still others.

The rush publishers made for action-adventure series in the Seventies began in 1969 when Pinnacle Books published the first novel in the The Executioner series. War Against the Mafia, by Don Pendelton, introduced the world to Mack Bolan, The Executioner, a man who declared a one man war on the Mafia. What set The Executioner series apart from the detectives and superspies that preceded it were two things. The first was graphic violence on a massive a scale. When Bolan executed a member of the Mafia, it was usually described in detail. The second was that The Executioner series was published on a somewhat regular schedule, not unlike the pulp magazines of old. Generally, four novels would come out a year. The Executioner series proved to be a huge success, so much so that its impact can still be felt today. It is perhaps arguable whether Don Pendleton created a new genre with The Executioner or simply took the adventure genre to new extremes. Regardless, Pinnacle Books termed The Executioner books "action-adventure," a phrase now used in television, movies, and other media as well. Indeed, Pendleton is credited with coining the phrase "Live large," which has since become part of the English language, perhaps another mark of the series' success.

Perhaps the ultimate proof of The Executioner series' success is the sheer number of other action-adventure series which followed in its wake, many of them outright imitations of The Executioner. By the mid-Seventies, series with titles like The Destroyer, The Death Merchant, and The Butcher filled paperback racks. Indeed, there were perhaps so many of these series that they apparently started running out of names. In October 1973 a new series with the ridiculous name of The Penetrator made its debut with the novel The Target is H! Even with its absolutely silly name, over fifty novels were published in The Penetrator series. Apparently the action-adventure series were so popular in the Seventies that the young, male audience who read them were willing to buy anything.

Well, I have probably written enough on the topic tonight. I'll pick it up again tomorrow, when I will discuss some of the specific action-adventure series of the Seventies (and, no, The Penetrator will not be one of them).

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