Monday, January 24, 2022

Once More a Hero by William Overgard

"Pieces of a Hero" is one of my favorite books I've read in the last couple of years. I imagine it'll be an often thought of book for the rest of my life. One of the ones you compare other books too and debate if the new shiny one was a good. And I also imagine that they won't be. You might want to head back in the archives to read my review of the first one to get some background. William Overgard is more famous as a cartoonist working on newspaper comics like "Kerry Drake," "Steve Canyon" but most notably "Steve Roper" when it became "Steve Roper and Mike Nomad," Nomad was a creation of Overgard himself and became popular enough to usurp the strip from the stalwart Roper. Overgard also had a run of TV movies that he wrote and played a big hand in the "ThunderCats" cartoon in the 80's that was a childhood favorite of mine. He was a helluva writer and cartoonist. So, much so he's in that elite group of artists Roy Lichtenstein "borrowed" from for "I Can See the Whole Room." And besides doing all that he found time to write a few (not enough) books. 

During my on-going research of Overgard and adventure comic strips in general, I found myself pursuing the collection of papers for Allen Saunders ("Kerry Drake" and "Mary Worth") stored at Bolling Green State University. It's something I do often, just so you know how cool, exciting and action packed my life is. Anyway, I stumbled onto a record of "Hero Haggity comic strip typed story ideas; small black and white glossies of characters [by William Overgard]" that is from the "1960s?" Allen Saunders worked closely with Overgard on the Steve Roper strip. It's not surprising that Hero Haggity was devised as an adventure strip before he was a novel character. Overgard was devoted fan of Milton Canniff and "Terry and the Pirates," and vibe/tone is similar. "Terry and the Pirates" is one of those fairly forgotten pieces of media that permeated pop-culture hard for a while and soaked itself into a lot of books, comics, TV and movies with its influence but it's all but forgotten these days. I find it gets mentioned in Men's Adventure and thrillers (especially in the 70's) a lot. I'm sure a lot of writers grew up reading it. Robert Culp always maintained that "Terry and the Pirates" is what he had in mind he wrote his (the best) episodes of the series. 

So, what do you get when you mix "Terry and the Pirates" style high-flyin' adventure, the "Sweat" mags, loads of humor, a giant soldier of fortune named Hero who's missing a leg, an eye, and a hand, incredibly well-endowed strippers, the mafia, the CIA and an African revolution? A dynamite book. One of my only problems with "Pieces of a Hero" was that Hero wasn't front and center a lot of the time. "Once More a Hero" fixes this and you spend a lot of time with the rude and crude dude who smokes cigars and shoots his Broom-handle Mauser. On the run after wasting some mob-types who said some untoward things about his lady Happy. Happy was a major character in the previous book but takes to the wings for this one which is a shame cause she's a lot of fun. So, after killing some hoods Hero gets hooked up with Zafra, a librarian who represents a group who wants to go to Africa and perform coup d'etat and have Hero lead a squad of all African American soldiers (who pose as Harlem Globetrotters knockoff) to fight the war. Complications ensue including "the black Truman Capote" being Commander in Chief, a CIA killer named The Toyman who is drafted/taken hostage for the action, a little love, tons of tough-guy shenanigans, prostitutes, knife fights, a little war, the secret police, etc. etc. Plus, 'ol Hero being his gruff self and making trouble which is what he was built for. There're little nods throughout that tell you Overgard was a comic-man. Hero never misses "Dick Tracy" and "Gasoline Alley," and calls Zafra "The Dragon Lady," at one point. Overgard wears his inspirations on his sleeve. It's not surprising that he's a very visual writer, laying it all out like a comic panel of words. It's a fatter book then a lot of Men's Adventure novels and the action is spread out with fun banter, but when the action comes its fast, hard and cinematic.

"Once More a Hero" might not be quite up the high standards of the first one. It's certainly less complicated. "Pieces of a Hero" had a complicated double or triple-or more-cross aspects with slippery characters cutting throats. This one's more straight forward, which I think has more to do with Hero being all the way up front. He's too much of a straight shooter to pull any cloak-and-dagger bullshit. It's a small dig, I still enjoyed the book immensely. Some of the racial politics a laughably outdated but I got over it, it's no worse than most 70's novels that dip into the quasi-Black Panther stories of African American revolutionaries. It's just a fair warning. This is a bawdy book out to shock and awe full of gruff mercs, spies and revolutionaries it's going to be a little rough around the edges. One thing this one has got over the first one is a fantastic cover done by Overgard himself. Much better than the first. Sadly, all of Overgard's novels (and most of his comic work) are out of print. The books can get picked up cheap enough, I have them all and now I'll have to dive into his non-Hero books which sound just as good.

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