Friday, August 20, 2004

Men's Action Novel Series of the Seventies Part 3

If the plots of The Butcher were more grandiose than those of The Executioner, the plots of The Death Merchant were even more so. The Death Merchant series followed the adventures of Richard Camellion, literally a gun for hire for those government agencies (think CIA, FBI, NSA, and so on) willing to pay his hundred grand price tag. Camellion was perhaps well worth the money, as he seemed nearly indestructible and literally capable of killing anyone or anything. Not only were the plots of The Death Merchant novels often Bondian in scope, at times it seemed as if they owed a good deal to the old pulp magazines, movie serials, and spy series such as The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. In Invasion of the Clones, Camellion must battle clones of himself in an effort to stop a mad scientist. In Apocalypse U.S.A.! Camellion and a team of CIA agents and freelancers must stop terrorists from spraying nerve gas over the East Coast of the United States. In The Zemlya Expedition Camellion must retrieve information on a city under the sea planned by the Russians.

While the plots of The Death Merchant series were more imaginative and original than those of some other series, it was hardly great literature by any means. The Death Merchant series was extremely politically incorrect. Racism, sexism, and nearly every other kind of "ism" could be found between the pages of any single The Death Merchant novel. The violence was graphic in the extreme and the action scenes often detailed. The Death Merchant was a series that could only have been published in the Seventies, as at any earlier time it would have been considered obscene and at a later time too politcally incorrect.

To many in the Seventies, the action adventure novel series must have seemed like utter trash, only a few steps removed from pornography. Nothing could be further than the truth in the case of some series, most notably The Destroyer. The Destroyer is the greatest action-adventure series of the Seventies because it departed from the usual sex and violence formula. For one thing, The Destroyer owes more to pulp heroes like Doc Savage and superspies like James Bond and Napoleon Solo. The plots were often fantastic and the villains were often bizarre. For another, the appeal of The Destroyer series was not simply the action and adventure, but the satire and humour that often filled the novels.

The Destroyer was the creation of Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy. The first novel, Created, The Destroyer, was actually written in 1963 at the height of the Bond craze. It would be 1971 before Created, The Destroyer was published. The series centred on Remo Williams, a New Jersey police officer who is framed for murder. Fortunately, for Remo, the people who framed him had arranged for him to survive his trip to the electric chair. It seems he was framed by a super secret government agency called CURE, an agency known only to a few people (the President of the United States and its director Harold W. Smith among them), who want Remo to work for them. Remo doesn't particularly like the idea at first, but he truly has no choice. He is sent to a martial arts instructor called Chiun for training. In later novels it was told how Chiun was a master of Sinanju, "the sun source of all martial arts." Named for the village from which Chiun comes, Sinanju practitioners are veritable supermen--they can walk up walls, punch through metal, and do nearly anything.

The first two novels in The Destroyer series were fairly straight forward adventure novels. In fact, Chiun did not even appear in the second novel. With the third novel, Chinese Puzzle, the series took its familiar shape. Sapir and Murphy brought Chiun back so that he could train Remo in the art of Sinanju. From then on, the books would largely focus on the relationship between Chiun and Remo. Although a physical powerhouse, Remo can be rather dense. Chiun is the actual brains of the team. Unfortunately, Chiun is openly racist (he dislikes everyone except Koreans) and can be overbearing. In fact, much of the humour in the series emerged from the relationship between the two. It was also with Chinese Puzzle that Sapir and Murphy introduced the humour and satire that set it apart from any other action-adventure series.

As stated above, The Destroyer relied on fantastic plots and even more fantastic villains. In Union Bust (the 7th novel of the series), not only must Remo and Chiun bust up a "super union" which controls all traffic by air, train, and truck, but Remo faces Nuihc, a renegade Sinanju master who also happens to be Chiun's nephew! In Funny Money (the 18th book in the series) Remo and Chiun must stop a beautiful scientist, who has perfected a foolproof method of counterfeiting, and the shapeshifting android Mr. Gordons. In Next of Kin (the 46th novel in the series), Remo and Chiun battle Jeremiah Purcell, the Dutchman, who can create illusions and cause things to burst into flames with a single thought! In Profit Motive (the 48th novel of the series) Remo and Chiun face Friend, a sentient computer chip who can send his consciousness from computer terminal to computer terminal.

Not only is The Destroyer perhaps the best of the action-adventure novel series, it is also arguably the most successful. The copy on the covers of Destroyer novels in the Seventies touted it as "America's Best Selling Action Series." Remo and Chiun even accomplished something Mack Bolan never did--they made it to the big screen. Remo Williams: the Adventure Begins debuted in 1985, featuring Fred Ward as Remo and Joel Grey as Chiun. Despite Remo and Chiun's paperback success, the movie was not a hit. There was also an unsold TV pilot called Remo Williams with Jeffrey Meek as Remo and Roddy McDowall as Chiun. It aired only once, on August 15, 1988. ABC needed something to fill time before the Republican Convention! While Remo and Chiun have failed to find success on either the big or small screen, they continue to be successful on the paperback racks. Destroyer novels continue to be published to this day. Many of the early novels are even now available as books for Palm Pilots or ebooks for computers.

Acton-adventure novel series continue to be published even 35 years after the first appearance of The Executioner. I don't know the sales figures, but it does seem to me that their hey day was definitely the Seventies. Today it seems to me that paperback racks are filled with far fewer of them. Considering the quality of some of the series, that may well be for the best. But, then again, not every paperback need be Shakespeare either.

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).