by Gary Phillips
This past Sunday I went with my friend playwright Dan Duling (who along with this site’s EiC Nathan Walpow has a story in the Orange County Noir anthology yours truly edited and contributed to as well) to the 32nd annual Vintage Paperback Collectors’ show at the Mission Inn in beautiful downtown Mission Hills. We didn’t just drive out there to idly browse, though did do some of that. In particular we went in search of several novels by writer and editor Arnold Hano.
Today Arnold, a World War II and Peace Corps vet, is a spry octogenarian who with his wife Bonnie lives in Newport Beach, where they moved in the ’50s. At one point in his varied career Arnold, who I met and have hung out with via Dan, was an editor of noirist Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside Me; The Getaway—this story like Killer has been filmed twice, but neither version is as cold-blooded as Thompson’s book); After Dark, My Sweet, etc.) at paperback house Lion Books. He’s told us stories of Thompson among other adventures and Dan and I intend to get Arnold on tape recounting these tales. But Mr. Hano also scribed his own stories, including a western version of Thompson’s Savage Night called Flint under the pen name Gil Dodge.
In search of that book (Dan has a copy but I don’t), along with some of Arnold’s others like Queen Street, about a girl gang (written as Matthew Gant), and a spare copy of So I’m a Heel, his crime novel set in a late ’50s, thinly disguised Newport Beach, I was also on the lookout for 1970s era vigilante novels. Led off in 1969’s War Against the Mafia, Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan, The Executioner blasted open the floodgates of various muy macho vigilante paperback series characters. A lot of these characters, like Bolan, embodied right wing sensibilities, a reaction to the hippies and flag burners who would decry the soldiers who’d sacrificed for this country in Vietnam.
Bolan is a sniper in Vietnam on his second tour of duty when he learns members of his family, including his mom and dad, get wiped out due to a run-in with some local mafiosi. Seems Sam Bolan, the pops, had to blast a couple of the Mustache Pete’s after his younger daughter was turned out as a prostitute by these nasties. This business determines for Bolan the fight for justice isn’t abroad, but he must bring the war home. Soon the body count is adding up in novels such as Miami Massacre, Chicago Wipe-Out, and Vegas Vendetta.
Due to the success of The Executioner, in 1974 writer Gerry Conway created in Marvel Comics The Punisher, also a Vietnam vet, who goes apeshit when his wife and two young kids are murdered by the Mafia in Central Park one sunny afternoon. Even though there’s been something like 700, yes 700, paperback outings of Mack Bolan written by various writers after the passing of Pendleton, arguably The Punisher is better known, in part given the three movies (and let me tell you, you haven’t seen ’80s filmmaking till you’ve seen the first version with Dolph Lundgren as Frank Castle, the Punisher, riding around surprisingly clean NYC access tunnels on his motorcycle) he’s been realized in, as well as referred to in other media of pop culture like rap, as the words from “Tequila Sunrise” by Cypress Hill attest:
“As God is my witness, we got ditches/For all you motherfuckin’ fake bitches/It all boils down to the business/Nothing personal, when niggaz acting like they helping you/I fuckin’ blast you like Frank Castle, motherfuckah!”
Noteworthy too is that Frank Castle, nee Francis David Castiglione, is an Italian-American from Queens waging his brutal one man war on the bad Italian-Americans of the Mafia.
In Serial Vigilantes of Paperback Fiction: An Encyclopedia from Able Team to Z-Comm, Bradley Mengel provides the rundown on 130-some-odd of these characters who came about back then and on into the ’80s. Technically not all of these characters were vigilantes per se, as some were spies, private eyes or assassins who worked for secret agencies. For instance, there was Remo Williams, The Destroyer, along with his mentor Chiun, the master of Sinanju, who work for CURE, a government operation set in motion by President Kennedy to deal with dire matters unfettered by that pesky Constitution. These two were created by Warren Murphy (who also wrote about the salt and pepper team of loose cannon cops, Razoni and Jackson, the basis of the characters in the Lethal Weapon movies) and Richard Sapir.
There was also the likes of Joe Gall, aka the Nullifier, Bronson, riffing on Charles Bronson in the Death Wish series (from the book Death Wish by Brian Garfield about a whale-loving liberal who takes up the gun when his wife and daughter are raped and murdered by scum), The Butcher, The Death Merchant, the venerable Nick Carter, originally created in penny dreadfuls in the 19th century as a kind of American Sherlock Holmes, bastardized as the Killmaster, The Penetrator (not a porno parody as was the Lady From L.U.S.T.) and The Baroness series—Baroness Penelope St. John-Orsini, an American who married into royalty, she’s a former model turned superspy leading a team of specialists.
I was happy then at the paperback show to find such a vigilante-type character I hadn’t heard of before called Dakota, by Gilbert A. Ralston. This was a series about, yep, another Vietnam vet, but he was American Indian and a private eye handing out the smackdown to what I presume were evil whites in the New West. It seems then a bit of civil rights crept into the circles of men’s adventure books, though I’m sure Dakota wasn’t a card-carrying member of A.I.M., the militant American Indian Movement organization. He probably had to infiltrate that kind of organization in one of the novels. Ralston wrote the pilot of the ’60s retro, slightly steampunk spy show The Wild, Wild West, so maybe that’s why Dakota looks a little like Robert Conrad, who starred as James West, on the cover of Dakota Warpath, the first in the series.
As far as I know, there was never a pure as it were ’70s black vigilante character, though certainly John Shaft and the Dark Angel series, about a rich, beautiful, groovy sister named Angela Harpe, a death dealing detective—“The highest-priced private eye in Manhattan, she owned the most lethal weapons a black chick ever packed, including her luscious, highly-trained body”—covered some of that ground. But as those vigilante paperback heroes in their way were a response to the longhairs and the bra burners, my proposal is for a protagonist in today’s world.
He’s a mixed-race Afghan War vet, has done three grueling tours, was all gung ho and apple pie. But back to the world, he, let’s call him Canon, stumbles on a plot begun over there involving a politically connected multi-pronged company that supplied goods and weapons to our troops—at inflated prices. Our guy inadvertently uncovers a kickback scheme this company is hip deep in, his baby sis gets killed when the black hoods come gunning from him—and it’s on. Soon Canon’s waging a one man war on the global capitalist entity and its many tentacles, battling nefarious teabaggers and evil twin brother financiers of the right and so on. He’s transformed from dittohead right-winger to a lefty with an attitude and an assault rifle.
Suck on that, Mack Bolan!