Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Men's Action Novel Series of the Seventies Part 2

Even though it was the first of the series of men's action-adventure novels of the Seventies, I can't say I was ever a big fan of The Executioner. "The Executioner" of the title was Mack Bolan. Bolan was serving in Vietnam when his family was wiped out by the Mafia. Bolan was given an emergency leave to return to United States, whereupon he began his one man war against the Mob. Bolan would travel from city to city, always leaving piles of Mafioso corpses in his wake. An ex-Green Beret, combat specialist, and expert sniper, Bolan was well equipped to fight the Mafia.

A former aerospace engineer, Don Pendleton, created Mack Bolan, largely in reaction to the treatment soldiers returning from Vietnam received once home. Published in 1969, the first book, War Against the Mafia, met with huge success. The following novels chronicling The Executioner's war on the Mob were equally successful. Imitators sprung up immediately in an attempt to capitalise on The Executioner series' success. It is arguable that The Executioner series presaged many of the movies with revenge themes of the Seventies, such as Death Wish, Gordon's War, and Walking Tall. Even a comic book character was inspired by The Executioner. Marvel Comics' Punisher was also a Vietnam vet whose family was killed by the Mob and who declared a one man war against them in return.

From 1969 to 1980, Pendleton wrote 38 Executioner novels. By this time Pendleton was not in good health and wanted to give up the grind of writing the series. This coincided with Pendleton's long time, Andrew Ettinger, leaving Pinnacle Books for Harlequin Enterprises. The romance publisher wanted to start its own action-adventure line (eventually named "Gold Eagle"). As a result, Ettinger approached Pendleton and his agency, the Scott Meredith Agency, on Harlequin's behalf. In the end Harlequin obtained the rights to use Pendleton's characters and continue The Executioner series. Published under the Gold Eagle imprint, Harlequin gave Bolan a whole new set of opponents: terrorists, drug traffickers, anarchists, and other international threats. They also featured the name "Mack Bolan" prominently on the new series of novels and downplayed the title, The Executioner. Harlequin would also spin off new series from The Executioner. The Able Team series featured three of Bolan's friends who fought domestic terrorism. The Phoenix Force series focused on a group who fought international terrorism. In some respects, just as the first series of Executioner novels presaged the revenge films of the Seventies, this new series of Exceuctioner novels presaged such paramilitary films as the "Rambo" movies, Missing in Action, and its sequels. I have to admit, I was even less of a fan of the Harlequin Executioner series and its spin offs than I was the original. Regardless, Executioner books are still published to this day.

As I said above, The Executioner series inspired a number of imitators. Among the most successful of these was The Butcher. The Butcher was Bucher (no first name was ever given), the former head of the East Coast Syndicate. When he quit, the Syndicate put a price on his head of $250,000. He was then hired by a secret government operation known as White Hat to help fight the Syndicate's activities. Like The Executioner series, The Butcher series included copious amounts of violence. Unlike The Executioner, however, the plots in The Butcher were of a more Bondian scale. Bucher thwarted a plot by the Syndicate to explode bombs across the United States, rescued a scientist who had developed a gas which causes madness, and stopped a Mob take over of the movie industry.

Well, I suppose that is enough for now of the action-adventure novel series of the Seventies. With any luck, I'll conclude my discussion tomorrow with a look at The Death Merchant and The Destroyer.

Good night all!

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).

Friday, August 13, 2004

Action Figures and Merchandising

I am still thinking about action figures. One thing I have been pondering is whether G. I. Joe can be considered the first action figure. It is true that the marketing people at Hasbro invented the term "action figure" for G. I. Joe, but it seems to me that action figures may have existed even before there was a word for them. Off the top of my head, I can think of two toys that could be considered "action figures" prior to G. I. Joe. The first was a Popeye "doll" made in 1932. The "doll" was jointed and made of wood. There was also a Superman "doll" made in 1939 by Ideal. It was made of wood, with cloth cape. And the joints at the elbows and knees were articulated. In both cases, I would assume that boys, rather than girls, were expected to play with these "dolls." They also displayed a degree of articulation seen in the "action figures" of the Sixties and Seventies. I would then say that these were indeed action figures that were simply created before there was a term for them. It is quite possible G. I Joe was not the first action figure, but simply the first one to be termed such.

Another thing I was thinking is that long before Star Wars, licensing went hand in hand with action figures. One story has it that G. I. Joe was created as a possible tie in with Gene Roddenberry's show The Lieutenant. Television also apparently played a role in the creation of Marx's Johnny West line. Marx had intended to create a series of action figures based on various characters from TV Westerns. They had planned to create action figures with the likenesses of Fess Parker (Daniel Boone), James Arness (Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke) and so on. Unfortunately, the licensing proved too expensive for Marx to afford. They then went ahead with a Daniel Boone action figure (as a historical figure he was in public domain). And while their deals to procure the rights to produce action figures based on various TV Westerns fell through, Marx went ahead with the successful Johnny West line.

Given the fact that G. I. Joe may have originated as a tie in to a TV show and Johnny West originated out of the failure to procure such a tie in, it was an eventuality that someone would produce action figures based on a TV show or movie. In the wake of G. I. Joe's success. I have no idea what the first such company to produce an action figure as a tie in to a movie or TV show was. I do know one of the earliest was Gilbert, which produced a James Bond action figure in 1964. A year later they produced one of Oddjob, the heavy from the movie Goldfinger. In all they produced ten figures, including Miss Moneypenny, M, Dr. No, Emilio Largo (from Thunderball), Auric Goldfinger, Oddjob, Domino (the girl from Thunderball), and three different versions of 007. They also released several playsets.

Of course, James Bond was not the only spy on the block in the mid-Sixties. A veritable spy craze had overtaken both the United States and the United Kingdom, so that the airwaves of both countires were filled with them. In America, the most successful such series was perhaps The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. The makers of the James Bond line of action figures, Gilbert, also produced action figures based on the heroes from The Man From U.N.C.L.E, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin in 1965. Another licensing tie-in for the Gilbert company was the Honey West action figure. Although Honey West was not a spy, she was a detective who used many of the same gadgets.

In 1966 The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. was spun off from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. This added one more spy to the airwaves and one more action figure to store shelves. Marx manufactured an April Dancer figure in 1966.

Marx also issued action figures based on the popular show Rat Patrol. Rat Patrol followed the adventures of a jeep patrol as they fought their way across North Africa during World War II. Marx made two figures based on the series, Sgt. Sam Troy and Sgt. Jack Moffitt.

Even though spies had overwhelmed the airwaves, Westerns continued to be popular on televison. In fact, the number one show for many seasons was Bonanza. In 1966, then, American Character released action figures based on the characters of the successful show: Ben (Lorne Greene), Hoss (Dan Blocker), and Little Joe (Michael Landon). Reportedly, there was to have been an action figure based on Adam (Pernell Roberts), the eldest son of Ben Cartwright. Roberts left the show just as the figures were going into production. American Character simply added a moustache to his action figure to create a generic "Outlaw."

Of course, Ideal's entry into the action figure field, Captain Action, totally relied on licensed characters. He could be dressed as Aquaman, Batman, Buck Rogers, Captain America, Flash Gordon, The Green Hornet, The Lone Ranger, The Phantom, Sgt. Fury, Spider-Man, Steve Canyon, or Tonto. When it came to licensing, Captain Action must have been a logistical nightmare...

In the days before Star Wars, it was Mego that was the king of character tie-ins. In the wake of the failure of Action Jackson, they created the World's Greatest Superheroes line in 1972. The initial action figures included Batman, Superman, Captain America and Spiderman. The line soon grew to include many more heroes. Mego followed the success of the World's Greatest Superheroes with more tie ins.

In 1974 Mego started a successful line based on Star Trek. There were action figures based on the bridge crew (Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, and so on) and various aliens from the show (a Klingon, a Romulan, and so on). That same year Mego started a line of Planet of the Apes action figures. They issued figures based on astronauts Burke and Verdon (from the short lived TV series), as well Cornelius, Dr. Zaius, Galen, General Urko, Zira, and others.

Mego relied heavily on licensing for most of their products, with action figures based on Starsky and Hutch, The Wizard of Oz, the rock group KISS, Happy Days, and others. Unfortunately, licensing would play a role in Mego's downfall. They procured the rights to movies and series that proved to be flops, such as the movie The Black Hole and the TV series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Mego filed for bankruptcy in 1982.

Mego's failure hardly stopped other companies from pursuing the licensing of characters. In the time that Mego spiralled downward, Kenner had introduced the Star Wars with resounding success. With the success of Kenner's Star Wars line, companies sought even more licences for movies and TV series. And with those licences came even more action figures...