Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Where The Bloodletting Began

WAR AGAINST THE MAFIA is, I suppose, the granddaddy of contemporary action/adventure literature. In this classic Pinnacle Books paperback, a former aerospace engineer, Don Pendleton, created the character of Mack Bolan, a Vietnam War hero whose combat record earned him the nickname "The Executioner." Originally published in 1969, WAR AGAINST THE MAFIA went on to spawn hundreds of sequels, not just under the Executioner umbrella title, but also several spinoffs such as the Able Team and Phoenix Force books. I believe it's the only men's adventure series of the era still being published today, which says a helluva lot about the violent anti-hero Pendleton created nearly forty years ago.

Bolan's origin takes place just before the events of WAR AGAINST THE MAFIA, and is related in the prologue. Bolan receives an emergency leave to return from Vietnam to his hometown of Pittsfield, Massachusetts for the funerals of his father, mother and teenage sister. Bolan's old-fashioned father, stressed to his emotional limit after his desperate debt to loan sharks has driven 17-year-old Cindy Bolan to prostitution to pay it off, snaps at home one evening, shooting Cindy, his wife, and their 14-year-old youngest son Johnny. Only Johnny survives to tell big brother Mack about the Mafia's influence on Pittsfield and the dope, prostitution, corruption, and greed that has infected the town since Bolan left for 'Nam.

Understanding that the Mafia is a more serious enemy to the American way of life than the Viet Cong ever could be, Bolan becomes a one-man army, infiltrating the local mob scene and using his expertise in all sorts of weaponry and hand-to-hand combat to destroy the scum that destroyed his family. The Executioner slices like a fucking hammer, a blunt instrument that pounds away at all levels from the lowly gun-toting hood to the white-haired Italian patriarch at the top. Using bullets, bombs and the well honed technique that made him one of America's greatest war heroes, Bolan needs only a few days to tear down the Pittsfield mob from the top, staying just a step ahead of the local cops the entire time.

WAR AGAINST THE MAFIA has become one of the most important adventure novels in American history. Less than five years after its original publication, Pinnacle had released it ten more times with at least eight million copies in existence. More importantly, the Executioner books spawned dozens of copycats, some of which were also published by Pinnacle. Long-running series such as the Butcher, the Death Merchant and the Penetrator, as well as books starring the Sharpshooter, the Marksman, the Lone Wolf, and others, would never have existed without the tremendous sales appeal of the Executioner.

Surprisingly, there has never been an Executioner movie, though several have been rumored. In the 1970s, Burt Reynolds reportedly was interested in playing Bolan (he would have been a good choice), and in the '80s, Sylvester Stallone may have had the rights. Today, it appears as though Sony has the film rights to the Executioner. The irony is that, undoubtedly, an Executioner movie would be accused of plagiarism by fans of the Marvel Comics hero The Punisher, who has been the subject of two films (and another on the way). Whether Marvel has ever admitted this, I don't know, but it's fairly clear that writer Gerry Conway, the Punisher's co-creator, was highly influenced by Pendleton's character, right down to the Punisher's origin, his War Wagon and his war journal, all of which came from Executioner novels.

1 comment:

C. S. P. Schofield said...

There is at least one other "men's adventure" series from that era still running; The Destroyer. The series didn't spawn any spinoffs, the way the Executioner series did, but it is still going.

Done in a more tongue in cheek style, and occasionally descending to the level of farce. I would be interested in reading your take on it.