Thursday, June 10, 2010

TNT #1: The Madness Begins...

TNT #1, by Doug Masters
January, 1985 Charter Books
(French publication, 1978)

I'll start the blog with an example of the most glorious trash of all -- the first volume of the whacked-out TNT series, published from 1985 to 1986 by Charter Books. Comprising 7 volumes, the series was everything at once: quality men's adventure fiction with the requisite sex and violence one would expect, while at the same time a surreal, twisted, over the top parody of the genre itself.

To backtrack a bit: I was aware of the series when it was still in print. As a preteen I devoured so-called "men's adventure fiction;" I subscribed to Gold Eagle's 5-books-every-other-month package, anticipating the latest adventures of Mack Bolan, Able Team, and especially Phoenix Force (more about them and their author in a later post).

At my local library in the podunk little town in which I "grew up," there was a catch-all rack of thrillers/mysterys/adventure fiction; as I recall, many of the TNT books were there. I remember taking one of them home -- they never had #1 in stock, so I started with one of the later books.

I can't remember how much of it I read, or even which volume it was, but I know I didn't like it. Who knows why. Maybe I'd been fooled by the cover. Just take a look at that crass marketing, with the faux-Schwarzenegger glaring out at us -- the same portrait was employed for each volume, series hero TNT holding a different weapon in each. At any rate Charter Books knew what they were doing. What better way to grab action-hungry readers than putting an imitation Arnold on your cover?

But the thing is, those covers are misleading. Because TNT was unlike any of the men's adventure books I loved -- there was no globe-trotting commando action a la Phoenix Force, no loving descriptions of weapons and battlefield gore a la Mack Bolan. Instead, it was just plain weird. So I returned the paperback to my library and went back into the safe world of Gold Eagle books, where I could daily read about various USA-backed commandos blowing off the faces of this month's latest threat.

Obviously, TNT was over my head. Somehow though it remained in my thoughts and only now, twenty-five goddamn years after it was published, I've gone back to see what I missed.

Turns out I missed a lot.

Imagine if say right after their phenomenal Illuminatus! trilogy Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea combined their talents once again, this time to spoof the action genre. A series, with each volume an attempt to push themselves further, taking their hero into the outer depths of genre fiction. Superpowers, twisted and shadowy government operatives, bizarre death-mazes, kinky sex, zombies and reborn Stalins...all of that and more. Actually there's no need to imagine such a scenario, because this is what Doug Masters has given us with TNT.

But then, there is no Doug Masters. In the tradition of men's adventure fiction, the name is merely a psuedonym. Only with TNT there's a bit more to the story. Because, if you study the copyright page, you'll discover in small print: "Translated by Victoria Reiter."

After much digging on my old pal the Web, the truth was revealed: TNT was originally published in France between the years 1978 to 1980. (What's more, it ran for 9 volumes...meaning we non-French readers missed out on two more books of TNT insanity!*) Sporting surreal covers -- none of which made our hero look like some faux-Schwarzenegger -- the books were published under the name Michael Borgia. But it further turned out that "Borgia" itself was a psuedonym -- of thriller/suspense author Pierre Rey and comics author Loup Durand.

So then, here we have a series published in the US under a puesdonym which is a translation of a French series published under its own psuedonym.

And I haven't even gotten to Volume 1 yet.

The first volumes of most men's adventure series usually skip over the hero's origin; we meet them in media res, already set upon their violent, sex-filled course in life. TNT #1 however shows us how our hero became the unusual man he is. Tony Nicholas Twin is his name (other characters poke fun at this, too), and throughout the novel we gather only brief glimmers of his life before the series -- he apparently has some sort of military training, as he can handle weaponry and hand-to-hand combat; he's come across money somehow; he takes on dangerous photography jobs to make even more cash; he has a mentally-retarded daughter named October who is a preteen with the mind of a grade-schooler. Finally, he's Irish.

On his latest dangerous job -- secretly photographing an Army bomb testing on a remote island -- Twin is caught in the explosion. Only, he lives. Over the following months the government monitors him. In a development that would make Stan Lee proud, it turns out that rather than dying instantly, Twin has instead acquired various new abilities: his sense of touch has excelled; just feeling something he instantly knows all there is to know about it. His sense of smell has become inhummanly sharp. His eyes too have changed; he can now see in the dark -- and his eyes are now covered with a translucent film much like a cat's. (Which explains those haunting eyes which stare out at us from the cover.) And finally, he is sexually insatiable, able to keep an erection for endless amounts of time.

I should mention -- the sequence in which the bomb detonates on the remote island is related through the POV of a land crab. (Featuring the staggering line: "It was 10AM, but the land crab didn't give a damn.") Certainly TNT isn't your average men's adventure series, but beyond that, this to me is yet another similarity with Illuminatus!, as that series opened with a sequence related through the POV of a squirrel.

Overseeing the monitoring of Twin is Arnold Bennedict (another spoofy name; Masters/Borgia specializes in them), a shady individual with the power to boss around Navy admirals and other high-ranking military reps. Beyond that Bennedict is a true miscreant -- dark-hearted, cruel, evil. In any other novel he'd be the villain but here he becomes Twin's boss, the Oscar Goldman who sends him on his missions. The first half of the narrative is a belabored game of cat and mouse; Benedit suspects that Twin might be the man for the latest job which has been handed to him, so to test Twin he allows him to escape, to see how quickly and efficiently Twin can get out of the country and evade all of the cops and government agents that come after him.

Along the way we have a vicious and graphic murder carried out by Benedict's two gay (and married) assassins, an escape-via-coffin bit, and a bizarre sidestory about a Mexican woman who stages live snuff plays and who tries to get "revenge" upon Twin by having sex with him, only to find herself worn out and screaming in pleasure. At length Twin and Benedict are reunited in Twin's estate in Ireland; Benedict, after much research, has found out who Twin is. And more importantly, who October is. For the girl is Twin's one weakness; it turns out that he takes his risky, high-pay jobs only to get more cash to pay for a treatment for the girl. His main drive is to cure his daughter, and Benedict uses this; do the job which Benedict proposes, and he will help find a cure for the girl.

The mission turns out to be an old scientist named Michelangelo Piran. An Italian fascist with ties to the Nazis, he now lives in a remote section of South Africa in the depths of a headquarters so protected that Benedict's agency has no idea what's inside. All they know is that every man they've previously sent has not returned. Benedict is certain Twin will be the exception. Piran has discovered the means to make petroleum via natural means -- the result of which could mean the upset of the entire oil industry. A consortium of oil reps have hired Benedict to kill Piran. (Say...when was this book written??)

Transported to South Africa, Twin is set up with a commando squad of locals and British agents and they storm the death-trap which is Piran's home. Here is where TNT #1 becomes something wholly different from the usual men's adventure fiction. Sure, the previous section was unusual in it's own right, but here it becomes downright twisted. Try as I might, there's no way I could improve upon Marty McKee's wonderful synopsis of what happens here, as he writes over on his blog, (Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot):

Twin's job is to infiltrate the underground hideout of a scientist named Michelangelo Piran who can create petroleum from water and kill him. Unfortunately, Piran is guarded by the world's most elaborate deathtrap--seven full stages far beyond anyone's most perverse nightmares. Not only is Twin forced to traverse--completely nude--across a scorpion pit, a greenhouse filled with poisonous plants, an acid bath, a red-hot burning tunnel, a ladder made of razor blades, a bath of warm rotting flesh, and a pitch-black room filled with ninjas (!), but he is ultimately forced into the most bizarre game of checkers ever created.

Six games on an giant board filled with colored lights. On the other side are forty nude women, all either violently psychotic or mentally retarded, each in a separate cage. Whenever Twin loses a game or is forced to crown Piran (who is playing electronically from a hidden location), one cage opens, and Twin has only a few minutes to bring her to orgasm or else he dies. Twin loses every game against the genius Piran, but since he manages to successfully screw all of the women into normalcy, he is allowed to live and face his opponent.

Yes, we are certainly far from the world of Phoenix Force and Mack Bolan.

The sex scenes are not as graphic as you might expect, nor is the violence. Indeed, TNT #1 is almost puritan in its descriptions: cursing is kept to a minimum, there's not much gore, and the horrors of the maze are relayed almost clinically. I must say though that as the maze keeps going on...and on...it begins to overwhelm you. A true sign of a great work; several times while reading this sequence I myself broke out in a sweat, as Twin crawled through a progressively-narrowing series of pipes, dealt with poisonous plants, and especially as he watched one of the men slowly die in horrendous fashion.

There's a dichotomy between the two halves of the novel. Again, though the opening section is surreal in its own right, it doesn't reach the extremities of the latter half, once Twin enters the death-maze. Indeed the latter half seems excised from the rest of the book, rarely referring to earlier events. My suspicion then is that original authors Rey and Durand split duties on this series, one of them setting the plot-groundwork for each volume, the other handling the sureal death-maze sequences. And if I further had to guess how the duties were split, I'd say thriller writer Rey handled the more "normal" stuff, and comics writer Durand handled the whacked-out maze stuff, all of which could come out of the most graphic of graphic novels you could imagine.

And to think -- this was just the start of the series. It only got stranger from here.

As a pedantic sidenote, there's a clue buried within the text which reveals when this adventure takes place. While giving Twin his mission, Benedict states that Piran was 21 years old in 1934, and that "now" he is 67 years old. Unless my math fails me, then that means TNT #1 takes place in 1980. I wonder if Charter Books just missed this or if they left it in intentionally. It's strange, though, because 1980 would've been "the near future" for the original 1978 French publication, but five years in the past for the 1985 US publication.

* Of the final two volumes of the French original of TNT which never made it into English, one was titled Les Cobras de Lilliput. I assume this one was a play on Gulliver's Travels, with Twin shrunk to Lilliputlian size? It's a shame this volume never made it into English...or is it?

As a bonus, here's the cover of the original French publication of TNT volume 1, which in France was titled Les Sept Cercles (aka The Seven Circles):


6 comments:

Lucas said...

What an amazing book. I had it for a long time without reading it. Thanks to your posts, I finally did and boy am I happy about it. I just about pissed myself when Piran announces that Twin must rape each of the caged psychotic and retarded women as one of his tests!

Joe Kenney said...

Lucas, thanks for reading this looong first post of mine. Yes, TNT #1 is pretty insane, but pretty much all of them are. I think I enjoyed Ritual of Blood the most, but none of them can match the psychotic OTT finale of TNT #1, which just gets stranger and stranger.

Lucas said...

No problem, Joe. Your blog is right up my filthy alley. I'll be checking back often.

chris haynes said...

I came across a review of this book somewhere on the interwebs and then I read your review. That peaked my curiosity so I ordered a copy online and started reading it last night. I've only read 60 or so pages but have got 2 questions:

1. WTF?!?!?

2. Seriously, WTF?!?!?

The first 60 pages are so awesome that I'm hooked. So far, this is one seriously messed up book. Then I realized, this is a porn parody of the action/adventure genre. It's like the porn parody movies such as Dong of Steel (Man of Steel) or Star Whores (Star Wars) (I made those names up...seriously...and if they really exist that would be funny). How else can you explain that one of our hero's super powers is the ability to maintain an indefinite erection (remember to see a doctor if it last more than 4 hours!!)? And the scene where the hot Asian nurse, while "monitoring" our hero, gets all hot and sweaty and then decides to masturbate while sitting in a chair right next to his bed? And when she realizes he's awake and watching her, she is shocked but then has sex with him. That's straight out of a pron movie!!

And what is the deal with Bennedict?! He needs to get rid of the nurse because she's seen too much. Instead of just having her killed, he hires a gay married couple who rape her, beat her to death with sledge hammers, cut her up with knives attached to the end of broom handles and mix up the pieces in pre-fab walls. And then they go to the beach for a swim and burn her clothes and papers in a bonfire before heading home where one of them cooks calamari ravioli and the other contemplates not being able to have kids...but maybe they'll adopt one day. WTF?!?!? That is seriously messed up. And another thing, Bennedict is also gay and has a boy-toy he picked up in South America whose name is Papito or something but Bennedict thinks that's a gross name and calls him Jaime. Bennedict also has a serious germ phobia. The gay community definitely does not come off looking very good in this book.

Wow!! And that's just the first 60 pages!! This is definitely NOT a Mack Bolan novel. I cannot wait to read more!!

chris haynes said...

I finished reading the book and the first word that comes to mind is WOW! TNT is weird and crazy and sadistic and good. It is definitely a different kind of action/adventure book. The 7 Levels of Hell TNT has to get through to get to Piran was some of the weirdest stuff I have ever read. I thought TNT's last meeting with Bennedict was very poetic.

I think one of the strangest aspects of the book was that there were no passages of the book that told us what TNT was thinking. There were no passages from inside his head to tell us what he thought of his super powers, what he thought about the crazy lady in the Mexican desert, what he thought about his mission to kill Perin. In a "normal" book there would have been a lot of internal monologuing throughout to tell us what he was thinking. I just found it strange by it's absence.

Overall I thought it was a good book.

chris haynes said...

I finished reading the book and the first word that comes to mind is WOW! TNT is weird and crazy and sadistic and good. It is definitely a different kind of action/adventure book. The 7 Levels of Hell TNT has to get through to get to Piran was some of the weirdest stuff I have ever read. I thought TNT's last meeting with Bennedict was very poetic.

I think one of the strangest aspects of the book was that there were no passages of the book that told us what TNT was thinking. There were no passages from inside his head to tell us what he thought of his super powers, what he thought about the crazy lady in the Mexican desert, what he thought about his mission to kill Perin. In a "normal" book there would have been a lot of internal monologuing throughout to tell us what he was thinking. I just found it strange by it's absence.

Overall I thought it was a good book.