A while back I promised (or perhaps threatened) to do a post about the “action” paperbacks that appeared in the early 70’s and flourished during the lunkhead 80’s, when America was drunk on Reagan and Rambo and “action hero” was almost a profession you could look for in the yellow pages. I read a lot of these things back then, because I went to a crap private school that was basically a scam: it was overpriced, had mostly substandard teachers, occasionally used us for free labor, tried to indoctrinate us in Baptist-Madrassa style, and wasted two hours every day on “study halls,” also known as "day care for teens." I never did my homework in study hall. Instead I’d flirt (incredibly clumsily, in embarrassing retrospect) as much as I could get away with with a girl I had a crush on (even though we were totally unsuitable for each other and it was pointless. She was cute at the time, but I bet now she looks like she’s carved out of turkey bacon. You could just tell she’d be one of those… mmm, sour grapes). And read.
And read and read. Actually, given the quality of most of the teachers, study hall probably was the most educational part of the day for me. I read a lot of my dad’s old Max Brand and Louis L’amour Westerns (which are actually really well-written) and Edge books. Edge books were “The Most Violent Westerns In Print,” and I got turned onto them by buying a couple at a neighborhood yard sale and eventually collected all of ‘em (the ones that sold in America, anyway - turns out they were a British creation). They were spaghetti-westernish and, indeed, violent. Edge was always sticking knives in people’s mouths and slicing their cheeks open and such.
Anyway, that bad influence sparked me into seeking more violent literature in the form of these “men’s adventure” paperbacks I’m going to discuss here. These series were the bastard sons of pulp magazine heroes like The Shadow, The Spider, Doc Savage, The Green Lama, the Phantom Detective, the Black Hood, G8 and his Battle Aces, Secret Agent X, Operator 5, and others. I won’t go into those too much, but you can still find reprints of them at places like Vintage Library, and I’ve read a good many of those, too. The Spider especially kicks ass, and even though they were written in the 30’s they’re crazy-violent, with body counts sometimes reaching the tens of thousands as terrorist masterminds put cholera in New York’s water supply, topple buildings, turn people into deformed homicidal maniacs, etc. How could you pass up hyperbolic titles like The Devil’s Death Dwarfs, Death Reign of the Vampire King, Machine Guns Over The White House, or King of the Fleshless Legion?
Anyway, back to the 70’s and 80’s paperbacks. I bought lots of these at used book stores for pennies, and - being a total trash-fiend who buys so much library-sale crap that rooms in my house are now literally impassible - I still snag ‘em if they’re cheap enough. I even still read them once in a while. They’re often printed on cheap paper (though better quality than the pulps), sometimes have cigarette ads in the middle (because apparently there’s nothing like reading about a bereaved psychopath killing Mafiosi to make you crave the smoooooth taste of a micronite-filtered Kent), and the cover art is sometimes priceless. It’s fun to think about artists making their livings doing endless paintings of angry people firing guns. This will probably be a multi-part project because there are so damn many of these series, and I’m not even going to try to be organized about it; I want to hit the popular ones as well as the obscure junk nobody remembers. At some point I may do a “reviews-of-action-series-that-don’t-exist” post because these things are so easy to satirize, but all of the following do exist, even if they sound over-the-top. You probably shouldn’t read them, though, because they’d distract you from something more worthwhile, like a study of Leviticus.
And now, randomly…
1. The Executioner - Don Pendleton, Pinnacle Books. Okay, this one’s not so random, because along with the Nick Carter Killmaster books, they kicked off the whole party. They were here first, and they’ve outlasted all their competitors; you can still find Executioner books (and their spin-offs, Mack Bolan and Stony Man) in your grocery store. First in and last man standing, baby! Mack Bolan, a.k.a. The Executioner, Sergeant Mercy, and “that Bastard Bolan,“ was a highly-decorated Vietnam veteran whose family was murdered by the Mafia, sparking him to use his military skills to declare a one-man war against them. After reaching 38 books in the series, Don Pendleton turned it over to a corporate author team and Bolan wrapped up his Mafia vendetta and went to work for the government, where he rescues us all from international terrorism to this very day (even though he’s probably pushing 70). The Executioner spawned a zillion other “one man war against the Mafia” series (most lacking any class whatsoever), which were so blatant that they even borrowed the title shtick of using a city’s name in the title (such as Vegas Vendetta, Colorado Kill-Zone, Miami Massacre, etc.). Marvel Comics’ The Punisher is also a direct steal of Bolan, and is another way the long arm of the Executioner is still influential today. Ya just can't kill 'im.
2. The Butcher - Stuart Jason, Pinnacle Books. This was one of my favorites until I noticed the pattern, and the fact that some books would have entire chapters lifted from previous books with a few names changed! This was an Executioner variant, with the novel twist that the badass antihero was a former Mafia goon himself. He’d gotten sick of all the crime and quit the mob. But nobody quits the Mafia, you say? Of course not, which mean that our hero not only had to carry out international spy missions for the government, but also had to fend off Mafia torpedoes who were after the $100,000 dead-only price the mob put on his head (which was upped to $250,000 as the series moved on and inflation devalued the dollar). They usually showed up in the first chapter, got dispensed with, and then it was off to Angola or whereever. The Butcher was an expert shot with his Walther P-38 (equipped with a silencer “it was illegal for Jesus Christ himself to own”) and also used a switchblade and brass knuckles a lot. He usually had time to engage in some badass dialogue with the inept (and usually perverted) hitmen he “chilled,” and sometimes did outlandish feats like firing down the barrel of another guy’s gun or killing an ox with one brass-knuckled punch. The bad guys were always comically gruesome fiends, covered with pus-filled warts and such, and so sexually depraved they'd rape a rock heap if they thought there was a snake in it. Even though Butcher always came out on top, every book ended with him having “the bitter ashy taste of defeat on his tongue.” Oddly, some of these books had a picture of a real guy on the cover instead of artwork. Wonder what that guy's doing now. Probably sitting in some nursing home telling people "I used to be The Butcher!"
3. .357 Vigilante - Ian Ludlow, Pinnacle Books. The movie Death Wish inspired almost as many of these series as The Executioner, and this short-lived series (a trilogy) was a standout. Written by a cash-needing college student Lee Goldberg, who went on to write for a bunch of TV series, these stories of “Mr. Jury” taking on neo-Nazis, child-pornographers, and criminal punks weren’t bad and sometimes winked at you, making you think they might be parodies of the genre, just a little bit.
4. Mondo - Anthony DeStefano, Manor Books. Extremely tough and hardboiled action about a maladjusted, misanthropic badass who’s a thief by profession but ends up killing people more often than not. As he battles ninjas and drug kingpins, our fiercely-alienated antihero takes a lot of abuse himself (even getting hooked on heroin while in captivity and having to go cold-turkey by chaining himself to a tree). Realistically grim and cold-blooded. It's highly obscure and I’ve only got one (Cocaine Kill) but may seek out others, because it was kinda impressive.
5. The Rat Bastards - John Mackie, Jove Books. Oh, how I loved the fucking Rat Bastards. It was impossible to tell one book from the other, but they were so violent, vulgar, and over the top that you couldn’t help but be a fan, if only for the reason that you got to take a book to school that had "Bastards" right there in the title. If they'd had a series called The Gun-Toting Motherfuckers I'd've been the happiest kid in the world. I always imagined the “Bastard Squad” show mentioned in The Young Ones show would be like this series. It’s basically a Dirty Dozen ripoff set in the Pacific theater of WWII, following a squad of criminal types who killed Japanese while they weren’t beating each other up, trying to find something to fuck, a place to take a dump, something to steal, or something to get drunk off of. They were cowards, lowlifes, goldbricks, thieves, and would frequently get badly wounded or killed( so you’d always get new replacement scumbags coming into the cast), but they sure perpetrated a lot of mindless violence. The books were so action-packed that there wasn’t really anything but action, which made them completely interchangeable. Only one book - where the boys got some R&R time and got in violent trouble amongst the civilian population in the form of whorehouse fights and such - was in any way different from the others, and the series continued to the end of the war. Trashy, reprehensible fun.
6. The Marksman - Frank Scarpetta, Belmont Tower. Bottom-of-the-barrel Executioner rip-off, turned out cheap, fast, and sleazy. These are great mostly because of the violent titles (one’s just called Kill! - ya can’t get more straightforward than that) and cheap, gory cover art. Phillip Magellan is a guy killing off all the Mafia goons he can find because they killed his wife and kid. Even though the writing’s pretty crap (with such weird author tactics as using exclamation points outside of dialogue), you gotta love titles like Icepick In The Spine, Kill Them All, Mafia Wipe-Out, etc., and declarations on the back like “Tortured Death!,” “Garbage Disposal,” “Open Season On Rats!” and hyperbole about “squashing Mafia lice.” The kind of book you often find used, still smelling of cigarette smoke and spilled Pabst.
7. The Sharpshooter - Bruno Rossi, Leisure Books. I strongly suspect that the author was also writing the Marksman books, because I’ve seen him slip and call the hero, Johnny Rock, “Magellan” once or twice. I imagine he was turning these things out so fast that he oversaturated one publisher and branched out to another and forgot which guy he was writing, since they’re exactly the same. Again, cover copy and paintings are the charm in these blatant Executioner rip-offs. Neither the Marksman or the Sharpshooter books ever decided what their hero was supposed to look like, so his appearance changes from cover to cover, making these sloppier than most. One of ‘em looks like they just painted Clint Eastwood, complete with Dirty Harry .44 Magnum.
And speaking of…
8. Dirty Harry - Dane Hartman, Warner. Yep, they made a series based on the Dirty Harry movies, even featuring paintings of Clint Eastwood on the covers. These are really good and stay in the spirit of the movies, and if - like me - you can’t get enough of the movies, these are a welcome addition to the canon, and would have made good movies. Ironically, Clint’s “Man With No Name” Spaghetti Westerns also spawned a series of Western novels, expanding on their mythology.
9. The Chopper Cop - Paul Ross, Popular Library. This very obscure series’ biggest claim to fame is probably that Raging Slab used one title - Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert - for one of their CD’s. From the back copy: “Terry Bunker is a cop other cops don’t like. He’s too hip, too honest, too much his own man. He plays the game his way or not at all, but he gets the job done.” Basically, this is a “hip” cop who rides a motorcycle and hangs out with hippies, weeding out the crime in their midst. These are pretty rare, I’ve only run across one.
10. Bronson: Street Vigilante - Philip Rawls, Manor Books. How blatant is this? It’s such a Death Wish ripoff, the hero’s named after the movie’s star. Gotta admire the panache of that, at least they're not fuckin' with ya. “He was a knee-jerk liberal until they murdered his family. Then he became even more savage than the street scum he stalked.” I remember these being pretty over-the-top sick as far as the violence went. It got pretty depraved. Not a healthy read.
11. Operation Hang Ten - Patrick Morgan, Macfadden Books. Odd and very obscure series (I’ve only seen the two I bought, but apparently there were at least ten of ‘em) with a spy surfer keeping Communists and killers out of the surf scene. Odd titles like Cute & Deadly Surf Twins, Freaked-Out Strangler, Topless Dancer Hangup, Too Many Murders, and Beach Queen Blowout leads me to believe these are probably tongue-in-cheek, but I haven’t read one yet.
12. Keller/ Ryker - Jack Cannon/Edson T. Hammill/ Nelson DeMille. Manor, Leisure, Pocket. This Dirty-Harry-inspired asshole-cop series has a storied history, being put out under various pseudonyms and by various publishers, with even the main character’s name being changed as a dodge for copyright litigation or something. Anyway, the main character is a racist, sexist, rule-bending (but effective) dick of a police sergeant who has to take on the slashers, cannibals, drug dealers, snipers, psychotics, etc. that plague his city. This one really works hard to make the hero completely unlikable, which is fun.
13. The Outrider - Richard Harding. Pinnacle. One of the early Road Warrior ripoffs. The hero, a guy named Bonner, drove around a post-apocalyptic wasteland, having rather boneheaded battles against gangs of scumbags, most of them led by a guy named Leather. Leather had knives for hands because Bonner had cut his real ones off. Ammo is pretty scarce in the post-nuke world, so Bonner mostly used knives. The oddest thing about this series is the weird choice for cover paintings: Bonner looks like Andrew Dice Clay with Downs Syndrome! Look, I’m not kidding.
Rather than looking tough, he looks like he could be distracted in the midst of a fight by a kitten or a shiny red apple. They changed cover artists after the third book, but by then he was pretty well-established in my mind as being goofy-lookin’.
14. M.I.A. Hunter - Jack Buchanan, Jove - Rambosploitation with veteran Mark Stone (seems like every action hero has a last name dealing with either rocks or birds of prey; they were born to be tough!) going back to Vietnam and elsewhere to liberate P.O.W.’s. Thin plots that exist only to propel cartoonish action make this read like a transcript of a video game, with lots of cheesy gushing about how heroic Mark and his friends are. The narrative sometimes stops to say things like “Damn right!” and the action scenes tend to be of the “he shot this guy and then spun and shot another guy and then a guy came up on the right and he shot him too,” etc. Pretty average.
15. Fox - Adam Hardy, Pinnacle. This is an oddball for an action series, since it’s a period piece, and the writing is actually verging on classy and highbrow. It’s a naval adventure about a complete bastard trying to rise in the ranks of the British Navy in the old sailing ship days. This anti-hero, George Abercrombie Fox, is a real prick and even a psychopath, with some kind of brain-damage condition that causes temporary blindness if his blood pressure gets jacked too high. He mistreats his men, press-gangs citizens, and mostly looks out for himself, but he’s effective, and the action scenes are realistic and strong. These were much better than most series books, and the author is so knowledgeable about the topic that you may need to study up on your period nautical terminology just to keep up.
16. K’ing Kung Fu - Marshall Macao. These came from an obscure publisher and are hard to find used, but I just noticed on Amazon that they’re back in print, apparently from some print-on-demand place. Wise move on the part of the author, I think. I haven’t read any of ‘em yet, but they’re martial arts adventures following a fighter known as “the Son of the Flying Tiger.”
17. Black Samurai - Marc Olden. Signet. These actually inspired a movie version, with Jim Kelly. Haven’t read one yet, but they deal with an African-American G.I. who gets trained in martial arts while in Japan, and uses his skills to combat various evildoers. The Blaxploitation thing spilled over to a lot of obscure books (most notably the Holloway House back catalog) but this was as mainstream as it got. They’re reportedly pretty good, and I’ll have to get around to actually reading some of ‘em one of these days.
18. Narc - Robert Hawkes, Signet. I’ve read a couple of these badass-D.E.A. agent John Bolt vs. drug dealers books and have been pretty impressed with the level of writing. He usually faces off against some particular cartel led by a colorful badguy, and the action is less brainless than most.
19. Mafia: Operation ________ - Don Romano, Pyramid. These were apparently all concerned with inner-Mafia conflicts, like the Sopranos or something, with no real heros around. I haven’t read any yet, and only have Operation Hit Man, but one called Operation Porno sounds promising.
20. Soldato! - Al Conroy, Magnum Books. More Executioner variation, kinda in the Butcher school, as the hero, Johnny Morini, is a Mafia goon who turned traitor and is hunted by the mob, and basically declares war on them out of self-preservation. The action in the one I read was more realistic than most books in the genre, and kept things at a this-could-actually-happen level.
21. Israeli Commandos - Andrew Sugar. Manor Books. A series from the author of another series, the body-hopping clone action series The Enforcer. This one took the unusual tact of focusing on a team of Jewish harasses battling Arab terrorists in defense of Israel. It’s a rare example of Jewsploitation, competently handled from cheap ‘n’ pulpy Manor Books.
22. The Revenger - Jon Messmann, Signet. Yet another direct rip-off The Executioner, with another gun-totin’ fella (this one named Ben Martin) “teaching the Mafia to sweat with fear” and “teaching the most feared men in America the meaning of blind, gut-wrenching terror.” And, presumably, teaching us all the power of unrestrained hyperbole. Forward, mush!
23. Joe Gall books - Philip Atlee, Fawcett Gold Medal. This series never had an official name, although the antihero, Joe Gall, was known as “The Nullifier.” He was depicted on the covers in both paintings and photographs as a craggy, ugly guy with a badly pock-mocked face, and he was a contract counter-espionage agent and “take-out artist.” Apparently this guy’s a real jerk (one back cover has sequential photos of this guy smoking a cigarette in an infuriatingly assholish manner) which is usually a fun thing in these books. Haven’t read one yet.
24. Nick Carter, Killmaster - Ace Books. Not to be confused with the Backstreet Boys guy, this is possibly the most prolific action hero of ‘em all, having his roots in a detective incarnation back in 1886! The 70’s and 80’s version was an espionage agent working for an organization known as AXE, and he was armed with three weapons - a stripped-down Luger named Wilhelmina, a stilleto named Hugo, and a gas bomb he kept taped under his balls which he called Pierre. There were hundreds of these books (you’ll find some in almost every used bookstore, guaranteed) and they were written by a variety of authors (including some notables such as Michael Avallone and Martin Cruz Smith) although no author was ever listed on the cover. Some were in first person and some in third, but the quality of the writing in these usually isn’t bad. Nick beds a lot of women and usually endures torture at some point. One of them I’ve read, The Sign of the Prayer Shawl, was amazingly prescient: the plot involved former Japanese kamikazes who planned to hijack planes and crash them into America’s financial centers and government buildings. Sound familiar? And it was published in 1976!
25. The Doomsday Warrior - Ryder Stacey, Zebra Books. A survivalist named Ted Rockson heads a group of resistance fighters against the occupying forces in post-Nuke America. Mostly he battles against an evil KGB agent, Colonel Killov, and he gets captured a lot. These were pretty goofy but did move nicely and were engaging in a comic-bookish way. Every cover had a hand holding up something (a weapon, a burning flag, a Statue of Liberty, a Declaration of Independence, etc., and most titles had “America” in there somewhere. There were a lot of these, and I think the last one actually came to some kind of conclusion. You could do worse. Apparently you can even get these as audio books!
I better let off here, because this thing’s huge already. I do feel neglectful not covering such series as The Lone Wolf, The Vigilante, Traveler, The Black Berets, Stormrider, Roadblaster, Hawker, The Specialist, Enforcer, Hellrider, Mutants Amok, Mac Wingate, Gannon, Confirmed Kill, Phoenix, the horrible Ashes series, The Liquidator, Overload, The Assassin, Justin Perry: Assasin, TNT, Stryker, The Hunter, The Avenger, Kung Fu Featuring Mace, Detroit P.D., Jason Striker: Master of Martial Arts, Death Squad, The Mercenary, The Last Ranger, The Bounty Hunter, The Destroyer, The Penetrator, Man From O.R.G.Y, Cherry Delight, S.O.B.’s, The Zone, Omega Sub, Survival 2000, Black Eagles, Headhunters, the Death Merchant, and dozens more… but, maybe sometime in the future if I get around to it, who knows? Just too big a task for one post.