The "Men's Adventure" novel is a strange thing. At the height of its popularity, in the late 60s and 70s, it was being written by dozens of peculiar and reclusive authors. But the influence of this weird genre is still felt today. Here's the strange history of Mack Bolan and his many imitators.
This whole "Men's Adventure" genre is hard to pin down — it fluctuated wildly between stories of vigilante crusaders battling their local drug dealer, to high-concept spy-fi capers, featuring dimension bombs threatening unexpected Midwestern towns, or a Merman under the employ of the CIA (as in Attar the Merman, by Joe Haldeman, under a pseudonym.) Often in the same series, or even book, if you're lucky.
Violent, pornographic and containing more unwieldy gun fetishism than any passage of arcane nautical terminology in Moby Dick, the genre remains in deathly decline, though still discoverable in more perverse corners of your local Barnes & Noble. Regarded by most as an embarrassing thing your grandpa read (with really neat painted cover art, though!) the absurd elements of the genre still have a huge influence in video games, comic books or the current Bizarro fiction movement.
And who can we thank for its once-formidable popularity, and the dying days in which we tread? The meat-headed James Bond who started it all — whose story expands to an astonishing 1,000 novels published from 1969 to present day—"Mack Bolan, The Executioner".
Who was Mack Bolan?
Don Pendleton created Mack Bolan, an expert sniper who earned the nickname "Executioner" for his peerless mastery of the art of blowing enemy heads apart, who returns home from Vietnam to discover his father had slaughtered his own family, protecting them from what he believed would be even an even worse fate at the hands of the mobsters he was indebted to.
Bolan is both infuriated and inspired by the incident and after several months of preparation begins a one-man vigilante crusade against crime. That crusade expands over time — transcending its humble origins and mutating into a ceaseless publishing juggernaut, a quartet of spinoff series known as SuperBolan, Able Team, Phoenix Force and "Stony Man" (an Able Team/Phoenix Force team-up!) as well a self-titled series that continues publishing new monthly volumes to this day.
Don Pendleton wrote thirty-eight books for the series, before its publisher, Pinnacle Books, decided to extend the series indefinitely with a revolving door of incoming writers.
It was around the time of this new editorial overhaul that the series gained a "soft reboot", restaging Bolan from a mad vigilante to a government-sanctioned agent, and the books began to receive more oddball, torn-from-the-headlines style plotlines and adventures. Looking back, these books are an interesting resource for time-stamping particular right wing concerns of the era.
A 1986 installment of Able Team saw Bolan thwart a Soviet plot to kidnap contestants of the Iron Man Triathlon in Hawaii. A 1988 volume of Mack Bolan had him investigate the thrash metal band, Apocalypse, seemingly responsible for a string of Satanic murders left in their tour bus's wake, while a 2012 edition saw him investigate Florida's then-popular, skin-flaking "Krokodil" drug panic.
Fascinatingly, the final volume of Able Team, "Skinwalker", went out like an ultragore version of Scooby-Doo, seeing Bolan and his team of mercenaries hunt a mysterious "yeti" responsible for attacking the band's tech expert, "Gadgets Schwarz".
SO MANY IMITATORS
Mack Bolan kicked off literally hundreds of imitators and homages, including The Destroyer: Remo Williams, and Marvel's own The Punisher in 1974. But the most successful of these series (in terms of sheer number and longevity) was Nick Carter: Killmaster, which enjoyed two-hundred and sixty one uninterrupted volumes published between, 1964 and 1990.
Though as even more fly-by-night variants hit the shelves, some were valiantly able to combat their off-brand origins with an astonishing influx of creativity, madness and limitless depravity.
1971 saw the release of The Death Merchant, the first book in Joseph Rosenberger's seventy-one volume series of the same title, starring the enigmatic Richard Camellion. Camellion, the world's highest-paid assassin, believes he serves an entity referred to as "The Cosmic Lord of Death", and works to restore the balance of good and evil — justifying the countless lives he takes on missions. In one volume, he casually estimates he's killed literally thousands of people, while eating a box of raisins (which is, conservatively, the body count of just one of the bloodier volumes, like #13, "The Mato Grosso Horror").
A hallmark of the series includes Camellion's dauntless ruminations on "In Search Of… "/von Daniken-style esoterica – often at inappropriate times, such as while he's being shot at. Topics ranging from Atlantis, auras, aliens, the Bermuda Triangle, witchcraft and the occult, to P.D. Ouspensky are expounded upon, as well as vividly thorough descriptions of the science behind hand grenades.
This may appear to the uninitiated as a clever way to pad the word count (it was) — but the slurry of language takes on a unique, delirious voice of its own, which earned Death Merchant a small but vocal fan following. (A typical volume will end with a mail away publisher's survey to be cut out from the last page, proving time and again these books were actively work-shopped, and these details were quite popular with the readers).
Many of the later Death Merchant books are riddled with footnotes to back up each bizarre aside and claim Camellion makes. Rosenberger prided himself on "doing his homework" before writing a new installment, such as listing all thirty species of potentially deadly snake in Brazil, or the name of the ballistician who developed his .357 AMP Magnum's shoulder holster — the oft-mentioned, oft-praised "Lee E. Jurras". Reportedly, his study was cluttered with back issues of National Geographic and maps of major U.S. cities.
Masked for Action
What really causes the Death Merchant to stand out are the action sequences, which are as highly-detailed as they are gallingly bloody: Rosenberger makes sure we know the ages, names and final thoughts of each thug he dispatches in his raids — as well as the color of that particular character's brain-matter, before and after it is launched from their bullet-torn heads.
Here's an excerpt from #34, "Operation Mind-Murder":
"The LMG roared, but the stream of 7.62mm slugs passed a foot or more to Camellion's right. The Russian couldn't fire again. One of the .357 magnum bullets exploded in his neck, blew apart his throat, and sent his Adam's apple flying like a bloody golf ball."
Or from #37, "The Bermuda Triangle Action":
"In a low crouch, the Death Merchant fired the AMP and the Ingram. A swarm of 9mm Ingram projectiles erased Jose Matar's face and popped open his skull like a lemon hit by a blast from a double-barrelled shotgun."
Just as some directors will have an identifying trademark in their films (John Glenn, director of the five 80's-era Bond movies, has a pigeon fly through a hole in the wall – look for it!), Rosenberger will assuredly compare blood spray to a suppurating foodstuff.
Often in these assaults, Camellion will disguise his face for reasons never properly expounded upon. In "The Cosmic Reality Kill", he wears a latex alien mask to fight cultists in Fort Worth, Texas. And in "Blueprint Invisibility", Camellion stages a midnight raid on a mafia-run escort service in Olympia, Washington (with ties to the Red Chinese, who've stolen incriminating documents concerning the Philadelphia Experiment) while wearing a werewolf mask. In the same scene, his partner, William Fieldhouse – this book's answer to Felix Leiter, and named after the author of the Hard C.O.R.P.S. line of books— wears a mask of Frankenstein's Monster.
Though most of Richard Camellion's personal details and backstory are deliberately withheld from the reader (for 71 books!), one fascinating character trait we're given is he's a renowned master of disguise, often using make-up to go undercover as an old man (his go-to) or Catholic nun, or in one volume, swallowing a pill to darken his skin and then donning an afro.
The series reached a sort of lunatic terminus with # 30, "The Shambalah Strike", the final entry of the series' vaunted "ancient aliens" trilogy (preceded by #21, "The Pole Star Secret" and beginning with #20, "Hell in Hindu Land"). We learn here that the sum and substance of mankind's beliefs, achievements and existence on Earth were merely the fallout of an interplanetary war between two alien races, the Inelqu, and the Flimmm (three m's).
Rosenberger went on to write an academic tie-in to the Death Merchant, called Assassination: Theory and Practice –- a book "authored by" and credited to series protagonist Richard Camellion. It's currently a highly sought-after collector's item.
Likewise, The Penetrator series, written by tag-teaming authors Mark Roberts and Chet Cunningham, (alternating between volumes under the pen name "Lionel Derrick") benefited from an equally bug-eyed worldview.
A former athlete and Vietnam veteran, nicknamed "The Penetrator" for his ability to "penetrate" enemy territory, series protagonist Mark Hardin now operates from a secluded desert fortress with his "mad scientist" pals Willard Haskins and David Red Chief, staging a stunning, fifty-three volume war against the mafia.
Hardin is of Cheyenne heritage, and will often leave arrowheads behind at the locations of the criminals he annihilates. He also has a penchant for naming weapons, such as his beloved dart gun, "Ava", (introduced in volume six of the series, "Tokyo Purple").
Hardin – as achieved in several of the early volumes, before a sudden and jarring, editorial makeover to make the character appear more lighthearted — has a special fondness for dissolving the end-of-novel criminal masterminds with white phosphorous.
Though seeming at times like an overblown parody of The Executioner series –- (for instance, in book eight, "Northwest Contract", Hardin goes undercover as "Mack Colan", a gay interior designer) – The Penetrator franchise is often too dizzyingly grim and bizarre to be read as anything but a bold new dimension of well-worn territory.
In book twenty-three, "Divine Death", Hardin takes on 70's cult mania, going up against a Sun Moon/Bhagwan Rajneesh stand-in called, The Church of the Final Coming. Their Fijian leader, Vanua Levu, is using the cult as a front for a Communist Russia-backed plot to assassinate U.S. noteworthies with poisonous mollusks of the genus Conus while on his cross-country "Final Coming" tour.
As the series progressed, The Penetrator would battle more overt sci-fi threats, such as the vampire-obsessed billionaire planning to destroy the Pacific coast with remote-controlled volcanoes (#45, Quaking Terror"), or the cartel of international terrorists who spring a crazed entomologist from a Nicaraguan insane asylum so he can make them giant ants (#49, Satan's Swarm). The Penetrator's strangest case however, arrived as early as volume fifteen, in a story called "The Quebec Connection".
In the story, the streets of Montreal are flooded with a popular new drug called "Ziff" – described in similar terms to ecstasy (yet predating it by almost a decade). Hardin investigates, only to discover Ziff irreparably mutates its users on a genetic level, causing their children to be born with dwarfism.
He soon learns that Ziff is distributed and masterminded by a trio of French-Canadian dwarves who like to dress and act like the Three Musketeers: the self-styled Athos, Porthos and Aramis believe dwarfism is beautiful, and vengefully despise their "giant" oppressors. Hardin tracks them back to Marseille and the book finishes with a four-way fencing duel atop the Eifel Tower.
Luckily, there's another brilliant series to discuss, and it's easily the most demented of them all:
TNT concerns the adventures of photojournalist "Anthony Nicholas Twin" who, while investigating a mysterious island military compound, was caught in the protective, central "eye" of a nuclear blast, saved from annihilation, but now subtly mutated. He's now equipped with a super-enhanced, cat-like eyesight capable of seeing in absolute dark; the ability to hold a single breath for a full twenty minutes; and a near-limitless (we never discover it!) sexual virility – which frequently plays an important part in the narrative.
For instance, the first volume ends in a grotesque, room-sized game of checkers between TNT and its volume's reclusive villain, Michelangelo Piran (a brilliant madman with a solution for converting water into petroleum, who has cloistered himself underground and reachable only through a truly nausea-inducing network of interlocking deathtraps) — in which the pieces are mentally disabled women, held in cages and kept starved and naked. When a player is "kinged", the cage belonging to the crowned piece is electronically opened, and TNT is forced to bring the newly released woman to orgasm in under a minute, lest all the cages be opened simultaneously — releasing these hungry women to tear him apart in their demented fury.
About those aforementioned deathtraps: TNT must crawl through several miles of an ever-narrowing steel duct that "twists" at its tightest point, causing him to contort his spine at an inhuman angle just to carry forward at a new and disorienting angle. Upon his sudden realization, the duct begins to heat itself to oppressive temperatures, just to twist the knife. And that's only the first of nine obstacles! Others include high-powered flesh-rending circular fans, bladed tightrope walking over vats of dizzying solubles, and a ninja-filled room of razor-sharp funhouse mirrors. Needless to say, each of his comrades die one-by-one in the assault, with the final victim expressing fear to TNT that women may be watching him die on hidden camera, laughing at his now-swollen and mutilated genitalia. There are many fascinating psychological insights hidden in these grand and bizarre paperbacks you could, once upon a time, purchase at the spinner rack of your local supermarket. And you could guarantee more on the way each month in perfect, synchronous clockwork.
Further volumes involve TNT, under orders from his dispatcher, "Arnold Benedict", heading to Russia in search of "The Beast", a bright pink indestructible war machine (Think Nimrod from the X-Men, but a triangular tank. With laser whips.), and stopping a villain who calls himself "Torquemada" from discovering the lost city of El Dorado – but not before surviving his snail-shaped recruitment center, the Spiral of Death, (another deadly board game, this time closer to Candyland than chess – die rolls determine whether you'll have to wade through a room of killer bees or murder the man who lands on the same square as you, etc.) Book four, "The Devil's Claws", puts TNT up against a weather machine operated by a sadistic cartel of scientists, each named after a different Peanuts character. Book five has the wife of the Albanian president (who only sleeps with men resembling Josef Stalin) and her associate, the metal-legged Dr. Amadeus, train Olympic athletes with exercises loosely modeled on the Labors of Hercules — (one involves swimming through a pool of acid while being pursued by scuba divers with napalm flamethrowers; another involves bringing more women to orgasm before they're strangled)
In book six, "Ritual of Blood", TNT investigates the disappearances of recently married millionaires, leading back to a woman named Bluebeard and a family of inbred, humanoid spiders. Book seven, the last to be published in English, details surgical-garbed thugs exsanguinating individuals possessing a rare blood type, "Bombay Blood".
Credited to "Doug Masters", the TNT series was actually written by a French author named Pierre Rey. Two more volumes exist, "The Cobras of Lilliput" (TNT shrinks!) and "The Large Black Hood". Hopefully, the two remaining entries will be translated and reissued along with the previous seven books, someday, and this completely batshit franchise will be revived.