Thursday, January 9, 2020

A Tale of Two Adventures

Recently I've been going back and reading men's adventure from past decades. I discovered some gems, including the amazing Big Red's Daughter by the unfortunately forgotten John McPartland, but most of this material is out of print or difficult to find. Not to mention that after the 1980s, the genre just sort of stops. It is as if the entire adventure genre simply got up and walked out the door in the '90s.

But I don't think this situation occurred out of nowhere. Men's adventure, from my limited experience, changed with the times, and by the '90s "men" had been rendered obsolete and "adventures" were far less exciting.. Think about how the manly protagonist was replaced with sad sack nerdy weaklings or children in fiction at the time and began to focus on mundane things. It wasn't just a Japan or anime thing: it happened here, too. And I think I can see why.

To understand how we got here we should probably go back to the past, first.

As said before, Big Red's Daughter was a fantastic read. It stars a normal man, a vet who just got out of the service, as he is pulled into a world of debauchery and, eventually, crime. There is a car crash and two fist fights in the first two chapters, and much of it is spent by the main character trying to woo a girl who doesn't think he's tough enough. But through events both outside his control and from his own decisions, he ends up winning her by the end. Good is elevated and evil is put in its place.

It's a brilliant little novel, and I highly recommended it in my review here. Clearly coming from pulp inspiration, Mr. McPartland knew what he was doing. The book was also a major success for the time.

That's the way men's adventure used to be. At least, that's what it was in the 1950s. What it became was slightly different.

As the decades went on they started to get less and less heroic until they forgot what heroism was by the end of the 20th century.

This is a pattern that can be seen with film at the time.

The 1970s was a miserable time, by all accounts. Coming after the turbulent '60s, the '70s are regularly known as the nadir of western culture. Think of all the hopeless movies from Chinatown to Death Wish. The world is a horrible place, you can't do anything about it, everyone is out for themselves, and all you can do is hope you won't die a gruesome death. This attitude is what shaped much of what we think of as the modern vigilante antihero, for instance. He has to go against the grain because the grain is either hopelessly inept, or complicit, and he can never win against it without suffering tremendous loss. This is the protagonist that took over the men's adventure world.

At some point people forgot the vigilantes don't have to be antiheroes. Zorro and The Shadow are popular examples of both, but this was the period heroism was being vigorously scrubbed from art and entertainment. You weren't allowed escapism. The degradation of heroism for men happened because hopelessness was seen as cool. It all flowed from there.

To bring it back, I recently read a men's adventure book from this era that put this into perspective.

That book was called The Bloody Monday Conspiracy by Ralph Hayes, released in 1974. In this pulp length book, a man named Taggart, member of the organization Cominsec, is tasked with stopping a terrorist group from assassinating China's Chairman. Naturally, this means Taggart has to use his skills to navigate around this deadly group as he infiltrates it and destroys it from within. Yes, it's a spy pulp.

The first thing to mention is that this is a sharp book. No time is wasted, the action is crisp, fast, and clear, and the story moves at a brisk pace. The character is no nonsense, and will do anything to complete his task. As far as men's adventure, you can't go wrong with this book. It's a firecracker.

But there is one thing that stuck in my mind while reading it, and that is despair.

Taggart has no love for anything in him, he likes to kill bad guys and that's it. He murders anyone at the drop of a hat, including innocent cops who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He has no hope for anything except a cold one at the end of the current job. Everyone above his is incompetent, and innocent people are killed all the time. He could just as easily be a villain, and this is thought of as a selling point. Taggart only appears to be good because of a coin flip.

A character has his brain permanently altered, another kills himself after hearing his family is murdered, and many people are unceremoniously butchered out of nowhere. It's an action story, but some of the way the action is used is very typical of its Dirty Harry era. Violence just explodes out of nowhere and no one is spared.

But that family I mentioned? They are shown being slaughtered in the very first chapter by the villains: an innocent little girl and her mother. The issue with this is that it isn't actually relevant to the plot. The main character never sees this happen, and the characters killed have no bearing on what happens later. It simply setting up for someone to kill themselves later . . . who by that point is so relevant to the story that they might as well just decide to go hand-gliding instead and have the exact same impact on the story. This shock value is used to emphasize an atmosphere of hopelessness.

The point is that this sort of backdrop of misery is very of its time, so I don't blame Mr. Hayes for writing it this way. In fact, he wrote a very good action book that was perfect for the men's adventure genre of the 1970s. He knows how to write an action tale. But the mood is a very far cry from the untainted Big Red's Daughter men's adventure of the 1950s.

This is, again, not meant to put down the book. The Bloody Monday Conspiracy is a good, quick read for anyone who wants to dive into an action story. But its tone is one that is hard to mistake for its era, and what would come next.

As a different example, let us jump one decade forward to the 1980s. This time we will discuss The Outrider by Richard Harding from 1984.

The 1980s was a great time for B-movies, comedy, and action. Because of the rise of newer studios, creators, and production companies, focused on entertaining the audience with what they want, it felt as if you could find anything in that era. Nothing was off limits. In many ways, this was also the last stand for men's adventure, too.

The Outrider has a typical set up for post-apocalyptic fiction of the time. Nukes. Everything was destroyed. Now we live in Mad Max. There's nothing out of place from that set up here. The Cold War inspired many such pieces of fiction throughout the time period.

Our main character, Bonner, learns that a bad dude has kidnapped the woman that he loves. Therefore he must travel the wasteland with a band of crazies to get her back. But there's a bounty on his head so everyone wants a piece. Is he a bad enough dude to rescue his old flame and put the villain in his place?

I'm going to level with you, the book was great. The action, characterization, and setting was very on point. Mr. Harding keeps you engaged on every level from the first page where our protagonist is nearly killed in his sleep by a deadly messenger up to when he returns home from his journey, tired and haggard. It's men's adventure as only the '80s could do it: in your face and brash. The action is never dull.

The 1980s, however, had a few problems of their own.

The main one was that it went past the dry nihilism of the '70s in two different directions much of the time. The first is a fever dream of hedonism and flashing lights, and the second is fighting against the dark but not being allowed to come out unscathed. The Outrider's weakest aspects are those in the second example.

This was the evolution of the antihero: from a guy who gets the main job done but doesn't care about anyone, and everything around the mission is a failure, to a guy who is angry and does horrible things but doesn't know why or ever make any attempt to address it. He is degrading, but just lets it happen.

You might be thinking that this is the 1980s action hero, but its not. Marion Cobretti never hurt innocents and he saved people. Colonel James Braddock went back to Vietnam and rescued the lost POWs. Bonner isn't them. This is that other action hero in the '80s who, like The Exterminator, fails at everything aside from defeating the villain. The world is a horrible place, and you have no chance against it. This attitude is what led to the '90s just giving up. What is the point of fighting if you lose everything regardless?

Unfortunately, I'm going to have to spoil the book to describe what I mean, so be sure to skip the next paragraph if you don't wish to know how The Outrider ends. I will just say that it is a fantastic action book that does a lot right, and is worth reading for fans of the genre. The series should have been a bigger hit. That said, this is what it missed, in my opinion.

Spoiler: He doesn't save the girl. Bonner watches her beaten to near death then has to kill her himself to put her out of her misery. On top of that, he doesn't kill the villain. He cuts off his hands, but the psycho gets away. So all that is accomplished is that a lot of people die, then he goes home to be with the same woman he was sleeping with at the beginning of the book. It come full circle back to near zero.

Of course this is a series, which means ongoing adventures with this set up. That doesn't excuse how it ends up taking the wind out of the sails of this book's plot. Especially since the series was canceled with book 5 which means he probably never achieved his goal in book one. That just had to sting for readers back in the day.

You do get a lot of kills, but some are questionable. There is one in the dark where someone is not even attacking him and begs for his life but Bonner kills him anyway. That's just a bunch of edge that doesn't add anything to the story, especially since the main character admits he had no self control and did it anyway. We already saw how he deals with aggressors, but that scene was pointless.

I could say it wasn't heroic, but then I would be met with the charge that the character isn't meant to be heroic. Why not? The story doesn't gain anything from the character not trying to better himself or succeed while doing so. The need for an anti-hero, like in most fiction, is an excuse to not have the character grow.

He just kills people. Why? I dunno. Anyway, on to the next place in the journey.

It's still a fantastic action piece with a lot of good points to it, but this one aspect is so distinctly 1980s that it made me think of how things had changed so fast in the genre over the decades. How did we get to this point?

By the '90s there really wasn't much left in men's adventure that wasn't a carryover from the late '80s, but adventure fiction as a whole was dying then. In the 1990s, the main hero was a scuzzy looking scumbag with no moral code who made quips and lived only for himself. Watch or read any action story from that period, and that's what you'll find. The hero went from an anti-hero to a glorified villain.

We're a long way from Big Red's Daughter.

That aside, both are good reads and I do recommend them for genre fans, but I couldn't help but be hit with the tropes from their time periods that held them back from being even better. But, at the end of the day, I would still read them ten times over reading a single modern Oldpub book once. I'm sure anyone with taste would.

Where men's adventure is going in the future, I can't say. There are some magazines getting into the game, such as StoryHack and writers such as myself and many on the blog sidebar to your right that are creating new stories of wonder and adventure. You can't go wrong with any of them.

Speaking of StoryHack: Issue #5 came out just as I was writing this post! You can find it here. Every issue is jam-packed with excitement, and this one is no different.

I have a story in this one called Black Dog Bend. I hope to talk about this in a future Story Sheets post, but for now I can give you the blurb for the story in the magazine itself:
"A musician stumbles into a time warp and finds himself part of a revenge plot. Now he must battle a killer dog, hired hitman, and a witch to escape."
Believe it or not, it wasn't that weird in my head when I wrote it. But, it is weird fiction, so I guess that's just par for the course. Nonetheless, StoryHack is a magazine of Action & Adventure, so you will get both here and then some. If there are two things I never skimp on it is those two things.

Once again, you can find it here. I've read every issue, and they all offer the same: high octane action and adventure.

In other words, the future is looking brighter. Action and Adventure are here to stay. They have shaken themselves out of many of the doldrums of previous decades. We are in the '20s, after all. Things are bound to change, and finally for the better.

I've even got a book coming out on January 23rd! Someone is Aiming for You features 7 stories all connected together in one world of powers against magic. All are full on action, and all will leave you wanting even more adventure! I've been working on these stories since 2017, and just put the bow on them last year.

Coming January 23rd!

And that's only for starters for 2020! There's even more to come.

Adventure is here to stay, and we're going to make sure it always does. This is a revolution that is just getting started.


  1. It's surprising that Big Red's Daughter was never filmed. If I were an upstart young director looking to make my mark on the action genre, the first thing I'd do is option that book.

    1. John McPartland wrote screenplays, too. It would have been a great idea to transport that to film, but I suppose it might have been too violent for the time.

      Nowadays? It would be a breath of fresh air.

  2. You'd probably enjoy Robert Biddinotto's vigilante thrillers, Hunter, Bad Deeds, and Winner Takes All. Bidinotto avoids the anti-hero trap and makes his hero a genuinely good and heroic man who does very bad things to the evildoers who richly deserve it.