Monday, March 28, 2022

QUICK SHOTS: Dracula #2: The Hand of Dracula by Robert Lory

The Pinnacle Dracula series is a true time capsule. One of the earlier reviews on the blog (look how much stuff I crammed in those early ones) for #1 Dracula Returns tells the tale of how it came to be and some of the pop culture of the 70's that made it ripe for the bloodsuckers return. It took me quite a while to get back to the series, which I blame on the smooth writing of the "Vigilante" book I just read by Lory and last book I did, The Protector #1 for whetting my appetite for supernatural shenanigans. 

There was a resurgence of the Universal Monsters in the 90's when I was a kid. There's always a resurgence of those dudes every generation or so, can't keep the dead buried. I had coloring books, a dancing Frankenstein Halloween decoration and watched them on TCM on October 31st. They weren't scary to me, but they were unnerving, like looking back through time, releasing it wasn't what you thought it was and that the dark held secrets. But most importantly they thrilled me. In the late 90's Burger King of all places put little action figures in with their kid's meal. Boy, howdy. My own little Wolfman to maul Star Wars guys? A Frankenstein to lift up G.I. Joes and toss 'em around? A Creature from the Black Lagoon to lurk in my swimming pool? I was a monster kid.

In middle school I read them in the wonderful library hardback editions of paperbacks. Dracula, Frankenstein, "The Jewel of the Seven Stars," The Phantom of the Opera, even Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." I'm glad I read them, but they weren't exactly what I wanted. I wanted more thrilling stuff. Harder stuff. Afterall R.L. Stine didn't have any Frankenstein's stomping around Fear Street. It's almost quaint the years before the internet took its stranglehold on everyone and information could leap down your throat. I simply didn't ever find what I was looking for back then. Maybe a couple of Ghost Rider comics, back that was a stretch. 

If I was a kid in the 70's and found Robert Lory's Dracula series, I would probably keeled over right there. Not to mention that I could have been reading Marvel's "Tomb of Dracula" at the same time. This is what I wanted, stirring adventure, technicolor Hammer Horror, monsters, ghouls, criminologists, and a smooth utterly ruthless Dracula. The first book "Dracula Returns" was a total blast of funky action and horror. Lory put enough of his own spin on Dracula to make him stand out from the fistfuls of interpterion's of the character and his supporting cast was stock characters, sure, but fun stock characters. This is pulp, after all. 

"The Hand of Dracula" was released the same year as the first one, probably pretty close together to build an audience. This one shows a lot of Lory's crime fiction writing in it as there's a central mystery about the death of the Criminologist Dr. Harmon's niece that involves spooky funeral homes and C-Grade Manson families. Our cast is there, Drac, Dr. Harmon, Harmon's assistant the Men's Adventure-type hero Cam and then the shapeshifting Ktara who is bound to the Count. There are murders, human sacrificing, night-time Drac attacks, bets with vampires, super-stronger hunchbacks, the mafia and frat pranks that all boils into a nice big finale.

I'm a little cooler on book #2 then #1. There's a little too much wheel-spinnin' and convolution. The Manson-family angle is too drawn out and the crime/mystery part is a little bloated too and there's far too little Dracula. But Lory is a pro who is better than just "good," there's a nice sprinkling of wry humor and gruesome action. I think the book is probably just maybe fifteen-twenty pages too long. The series (as far as the covers tell me) gets a little wilder as goes on with Vikings, lost worlds, and zombies which is probably a good call, people who pick up this series are looking for a monster mash. I got my first book in Lory's Horrorscope series, and I'll have to dive into that one before too long because it's got movie sets and robot minitours. I mean, yeah. 

Monday, March 21, 2022

QUICK SHOTS: The Protector #1: The Brotherhood of Evil by Irwin Zacharia

My obsession with the little paperback publisher (and possible Mob-front) Carousel continues. There's just something so sleazy/charming about their books. The cartoony covers, the "first books" vibe of authors learning their craft and the scarcity of books themselves is all incredibly appealing to the weirdo me. Irwin Zacharia is my favorite of their stable (sorry Chet Cunningham and Mike Newton) simply because of the enthusiasm that pours off the page. I know nothing about Zacharia (if you know anything PLEASE COMMENT!) other then he wrote some slim paperbacks for Carousel and one about baseball for Major. But he certainly had a wild style all his own and plenty of kooky ideas that really set his books apart from their brethren. This is pure pulp, people, straight up and winking. 

The Protector series is a wild one. I.M. Reddy is the Protector (although so far in the books he's never called/or calls himself The Protector) is a big gutted, Sumo wrestling, low-rent private eye whose cases always run into the supernatural. Throughout the book it was hard for me not to imagine John Candy in the 80's as Reddy raining blows down on cult members, making it with chicks and enjoying some nice meals. "The Brotherhood of Evil" deals with a Voodoo scheme to buy up businesses and take over Haiti to build a totalitarian version of Las Vegas that is patrolled by a Zombie Army. THAT OLD STORY, HUH? Along the way there's plenty of voodoo dolls, drugged cult orgies, punks with knives, wisecracks, hotel hijinks, and pizza. Reddy is a lot of fun as a narrator, reminding me a little of "Kolchak: The Night Stalker" and Roger L. Simon's Moses Wine in a blender. He takes all the supernatural stuff in stride and just treats it as another day in the office but acknowledges the oddness of it all. It's also pretty refreshing to have an overweight hero who is totally fine with is body and uses his bulk to his advantage. Plus, he still gets the ladies! 

The first Zacharia I read "Reddy or Not" has a rundown on the three series he wrote for Carousel (I'm looking for The Landshark books, the final Protector and the first Vendetta. If you have 'em for sale let me know!) and he put out a lot of material in a short period of time and then just vanished. That is unless he started writing under a different name, he was already writing as Sarita Irwin, so who knows. With today's market for supernatural detectives, it would be great to see these get reprinted, even if it was a Wildside Press kindle Megapack. The books have a wonderful shaggy-dog 70s version of a "Weird Tales" series. Again, let me know if you got books or information, I'd love both.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Quick Shots: Richard Dragon Kung-Fu Master #1 Dragon's Fists by Jim (Dennis O'Neil & James R. Berry) Dennis

Here's an odd little one. "Kung-Fu Master Richard Dragon: Dragon's Fists" was published by Award Books in 1974. My copy is a Tandem British edition, so it was published across the pond as well. It was written by two guys who aren't named Jim Dennis but are actually noted comic book writer Dennis O'Neil and comic-strip creator James R. Berry. It's one of those "infamous" Men's Adventure paperbacks since it didn't launch a series of books but rather comics based on the character. It's been well covered by the Cadillac of paperback reviewing over at Paperback Warrior. I'm more like the Yugo. To give you non-car people context to that remark, me and three other guys once picked up the Yugoslavian car and moved it three spaces over. As for quality, it was a light weight. 

I had been wanting to read this one because of the odd backstory, my love of O'Neil's comic writings and I mean it's a 70's Bruce Lee cash-in. Those three things are hard to beat. After the book came out Dragon made the switch to comics. I assume because it was quicker and easier to write comic scripts then other novels for O'Neil and Berry. Also, Marvel had a couple of martial arts (Shang-Chi and Iron Fist) characters and DC probably needed to drum up some competition. O'Neil was already working there so why not just do the book he wrote? Still, it's an odd origin for a comic book character. Though I guess Shang-Chi's original dad was Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu, so I guess shit was just weird in the 70s.

"Dragon's Fist" is sadly really hard to come by and that makes this following statement harder to write its nearly hands-down the best martial arts book from the 70's that I've read. Only some entries in the "Black Samurai" series are in competition with it. It's a damned shame that this is out of print and probably never will be, I'm sure the various entanglements legalities of DC Comics/Warner Bros will prevent that. I got lucky paying only $15 to get it shipped from England to me, so keep your eyes peeled and you might snag a reasonably priced copy. As much as I liked it, I would pay the crazy prices that I see for it. 

Richard Dragon (his real name, some people get all the luck) is a master of a special kind of martial art that combines the best of all the ways. After a criminal way of life, he finds himself being taught by O-Sensei and given a new, better lease on life. He's got a few friends, a dojo in New York and as soon as the book opens, he's got a lot of trouble. See O-Sensei's brother is murdered, and his niece is kidnapped by an evil dude named The Swiss. The ball is rolling for kung-fu fights galore, sex, death, deadly martial arts weapons, funny-named organizations like GOOD, and fire truck chases. Dragon is a stoic kind of guy but the amble (sometimes too much) flashbacks of his life round him out nicely for a Men's Adventure hero. With the origin out of the way I imagine that if there was a book #2 it would have been a corker. 

Despite the multiple flashbacks O'Neil and Berry show their comic book roots by making the book barrel to the end and it's a glorious cinematic ending, which doesn't always happen in M.A. fiction. Humorously Dragon stays at a hotel where a Sci-Fi convention is going on and there's some soft jabs at the "Buck Rogers-people" in attendance, an audience they both probably knew well. Also, the treatment of the female characters is pretty bad which is always a bit of a let-down for me, but it goes with the territory. The book really shines when it comes to action and Kung-fu mysticism. It feels like a lost 70's kung-fu movie. I could just almost see George Lazenby in his Hong Kong years starring in the adaptation. Sigh. 

Thursday, March 10, 2022

QUICK SHOTS: Big Brain #2: The Beelzebub Business by Gary Brandner

I didn't think it would take me too long to get back to the Big Brain books after I read the first one a while back. It was far too groovy of a series to sit on the shelf for long. Gary Brandner is famous for writing "The Howling" and other horror titles but clearly had an affinity for mystery/thriller fiction as well. The Big Brain series gets a little flack for not being what the covers advertise. There is a sci-fi/fantasy element to the novels, but really, they work more a spy/mystery first and foremost with the fantasy being used a set-decoration. They do
ooze 70's though which is part of the appeal to me. They sort of feel like novelizations to a lost TV show of the era, something put into production to compete with "The Six Million Dollar Man" or "The Incredible Hulk." Where the thrills/action weren't exactly a mile a minute, but the ideas were big and well, groovy. 

With Colin Garret's origin out of the way "The Beelzebub Business" kicks off immediately as he's called by the super-secret Agency Zero to use his mental-super-powers to figure out what is causing so much trouble in Washington in the form of brain-washing and satanic shenanigans. The devil-worshipping/cult plot is one of my favorites when it comes to Men's Adventure and luckily for me it was all over the place in the 70's. Seems like every series character tackled a cult at some point in their action hero careers. Basically, Big Brain is a big 'ol nerd, a walking super-computer (70's style) who's brain power is so strong he can worm his way into other folks brains. Sorta like ESP. His powers are better defined (and rarely used) in this book of the series. He doesn't want to fight or get into dangerous situation but (obviously) finds himself in fights and dangerous situations. After being whisked away to D.C. he meets perky, pretty wanna-be spies in bitchin' Barracudas, tangles with long-haired hippies in dirty hippie vans, shows us novel ways of using squirt guns, fights mind-controlled killers, sleeps with a witch and blackmails his way to the solution of the problem. It struck me that Brandner might have been trying to update Sherlock Holmes for the era of "Chariots of the Gods" and "The Bionic Woman." Big Brain is supposed to be a capable cold-calculating investigator-type, he is more prone to failure then Holmes so maybe I'm wrong but the vibe of "consulting detective" and the faux-supernatural element sets my Sherlock-sense tingling. 

Look, it's a lot of fun if you're in the right mind set. If you go in looking for a "Death Merchant" or some straight-up science-fiction, you'll be disappointed. If you want your spy novel tinged with some fantasy and packed with two scoops of 70's mysticism, you'll be happy. The 2nd one is a lot of more streamlined then the first, since the back story is out of the way and since the origin of Big Brain isn't all the exciting, I'd recommend skipping that one and reading this one first then retracing your steps. I'm excited and sad that there's another entry left, "Energy Zero" but it's the last Big Brain escapade out there. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

QUICK SHOTS: The Destroyer #38: Bay City Blast by Warren Murphy

It had been far too long since I had hung out with Chiun and Remo. Back in my late teens/early twenties the pair was one of my gateway drugs into the world of Men's Adventure being that I was a fan of Warren Murphy's "Trace" books and then there's all the James Bond connection with the 1985 "Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins" movie (which I love) that doubled my interest. It took me a couple paperbacks to get a handle on what "The Destroyer" is. Sure, it was funny, it was violent, it was wacky and yet still very dangerous. Once I got that it was all of those things and smack dab in the realm of pulp fiction, I devoured a bunch of them. Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir truly created something wonderfully and unique in The Destroyer, something that rarely comes along or rarely stays around. Being unique and/or off-beat is practically a death sentence in pop culture. But the glorious House of Sinanju lives on even to this day.

"Bay City Blast" is one of the more infamous entries in the series. I know I read it back in the day but couldn't resist trying it again now that I'm much more in tune to what Murphy was satirizing. Now I got a few years of plowing through these musty, dusty paperbacks potboilers. For those outta the 'know' #38: "Bay City Blast" pokes some fun at the other Pinnacle paperback heroes i.e. The Executioner, The Butcher and The Death Merchant. When I first read it, I hadn't sampled any of those three series, but nowadays I have several entries of each under my belt and can fully appreciate the joke. Even the title is a riff on "The Executioner" sub-titles. 

The template of a "Destroyer" is well established by this point and Murphy is using it to his full advantage. Basically, there's a once thriving bay city that has a sudden, seemingly Mafia-connected benefactor buying up stuff, helping folks and muscling his way into the mayor's seat to create a Crime-City USA. Remo and Chiun are set (as a personal favor to their boss "Emperor" Smith) to go check in on it but aren't turned loose to wreak havoc and knock out the baddies. Around the same time a rich weapons designer decides he has had enough of the criminal element of Bay City and starts putting together his special team of vigilantes out of random people's he's met. There's Mark (Mack Bolan) Tolan, pyscho 'Nam vet fueled by the thirst for murder, of like anyone. Al (The Butcher) Baker, a scheming low-level mobster wannabe and devoted fan of "The Godfather." And finally, Nicolas (The Death Merchant) Lizzard a bad actor with a penchant for disguises which are mostly unconvincing cross-dressing.  They take to calling themselves The Eraser and the Rubout Crew and sending people the ends of pencils as warnings. Murphy really rips into Pinnacle's other heroes. It made me wonder how the authors/publisher felt about this one being published. Remo and Chiun are called back to Bay City after a fun scene of shark fishing to act as bodyguards and to track down The Eraser. There's great banter, a Ruby Gonzolas cameo, tank fights, punching sharks, fun with ping-pong balls and spot on parody of the super-series take on the Men's Adventure genre.

In the companion book, "Inside Sinanju," there's a top ten of Murphy and Sapir's favorite "Destroyer" novels, this on doesn't quite make the list but it gets an honorable mention. It's pretty high up on my list of personal favorites. If you have a sense of humor about your action/adventure this is a sure bet. And I'll echo the sentiments of all those who came before more, avoid the first two entries in the series as your entry point. They ain't like the rest. If you want some sort of origin story there's a novella called "The Day that Remo Died," that does the origin better than #1: "Created, the Destroyer." Or the novelization of the movie "Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins" does a pretty good job setting up the world. "The Destroyer" books are kinda polarizing, you love 'em or you hate 'em. They are pure pulp, having more in common with the adventures of Doc Savage or Tarzan or The Spider then The Executioner. I think it's the series biggest strength and why it's still plugging along after all these years. I guess it's all about expectations, don't expect non-stop action. Expect well-told bursts of action, a lot of bickering, day-time soap operas, big dollops of satire and strap yourself in for a good time. 

Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy's Top Ten:
1. #3: Chinese Puzzle
2. #7: Union Bust
3. #14: Judgement Day
4. #20: Assassin's Pay-off
5. #18: Funny Money
6. #26: In Enemy Hands
7. #30: Mugger Blood
8. #32: Killer Chromosomes 
9. #41: Firing Line
10. #48 Profit Motive

Honorable Mentions: #19: Holy Terror, #22: Brain Drian, #44: Balance of Power, #10: Terror Squad, #6: Death Therapy, #17: Last War Dance, #23: Child's Play, and #38: Bay City Blast.

Thursday, March 3, 2022

QUICK SHOTS: Jonny Quest - The Unfilmed Screenplay by Fred Dekker

I'm one of those movie-nerds who love the "almost was." The abandoned, works-in-progress, rumored, un-finished flicks that could have been. If multi-universe theory is correct, somewhere they might actually exist. But on our plane of existence some only survive as leaked scripts on the internet. Some are fully lost to time.

Back in the 90's Jonny Quest had a minor comeback with a new animated series. I was the right age and right on board. I had the toys, comic books, the Pizza Hut promotional giveaways and more. The new animated series was kinda weird to me even back then. But proving that I've been the same guy I am now as I was back when I was 10 what I really liked was the original series that I got on VHS for Christmas that year. I've always been two or three steps in the past. It helps that the 1964 series is one of the most perfect, pulpy, fun animated shows ever made with flawless design and over-the-top adventures. I'm a life-long fan of the character, design and world. 

Fred Dekker made two of my favorite monster movies, "Night of the Creeps" and "Monster Squad." He's one of those filmmakers who should have a much bigger career. Stupid "Robocop 3." When I found out a few years ago that Dekker had written a screenplay for a "Jonny Quest" movie in the 90's for Richard Donner I immediately winced at the loss to the world that this movie didn't actually exist. It's gold! The director of "Superman" and "The Goonies," teaming up with Dekker to make a big, adventurous Quest movie set in 1964, c'mon! I would have bought two. Sadly, Hollywood is about as fair as a barroom knife fight. 

Well, I stumbled onto the script and poured over it. As a guy who writes screenplays, (not like, professionally so don't get impressed) they can be a little dry to read since you're really just reading the backbone of what a movie COULD be, not what it would/should be and they're not for everyone's reading enjoyment. That being said Dekker delivers a lively script, not only in terms of the action of the movie but in the actual writing. A few little jokes here and there to keep a reader interested goes a long way in screenwriting.  

"Jonny Quest" is an origin tale for our core group of heroes (and villains) it starts off with a bang with spy-fi shenanigans with Race Bannon and Jezabel Jade before Race gets his post guarding the Quests. After that the ball is in play for the rest of the script, barley slowing down for anything. It really would have made a helluva picture. Robot spies, monsters, crazy vehicles, spies, mercenaries, Nazi's, jet packs, death traps, lost cities, a big MacGuffin, sunken U-boats, jungle treks, daring escapes and most importantly HIGH ADVENTURE!  

One of the best aspects of the script is Dekker's handling of Jonny himself, he comes across very real, still a kid but also an adult and flawed. It's not surprising considering how well Dekker captured being a kid in "Monster Squad." Jonny's not a squeaky-clean sitcom kids but one who swear, like girls, danger and has Ultraman action figures. There's some nice character stuff with Dr. Quest and Jonny as they both try and figure out how to be together after the death of Jonny's mom which help make the rather stuffy Dr. Quest have some growth. Plus, Jonny and Race's buddy dynamic is well (and quickly) fleshed out. Obviously, they have to go to India at some point and pick up Hadji who steals a lot of the scenes he's in. Oh, and yeah Bandit is a rascal. Not to mention the slippery Jade and the perfectly evil Dr. Zin plus Nazi's to round things out. The script pulls some of the best bits from the original series, smooshes them together and amps up the wiseacre-ness. 

This is post "Raiders of the Lost Ark" pure 90's-style movie writing. It barrels along from action-set-piece to action-set-piece, but this was before CGI overwhelmed the industry. You can't just have a computer-generated swarm of nasty baddies appear at in the end in a beam of light piercing the sky and call it good. Richard Donner would have been perfect for this picture. It's got a bit of the earnestness of "Superman," some edge like "Lethal Weapon," wrapped up in "Goonies" blanket. All at once it would have been a perfect 90's update and yet still very true to the 60's incarnation of the series. If it was made today, I doubt it would have the soul and care behind it that this script did. Which is clear on the final page where it was dedicated to Doug Wildey, the genius who started it all. 

Damn. What could have been.