Monday, June 13, 2011

SuperBolan #100: Devil's Bargain

SuperBolan #100: Devil's Bargain, by Dan Schmidt
January, 2005 Gold Eagle Books

This is a more recent example of the men's adventure novel; it's good to know the genre is still alive but it's obviously on life-support. Dan Schmidt may be a familiar name to some; since the mid-'80s he's ghostwritten 40-some Gold Eagle titles, and in the late '80s he wrote the Killsquad series under the psuedonymn "Frank Garrett." At the same time he also wrote the Eagle Force series under his own name.

Schmidt is usually taken to task for his "needless gore" and ultraviolence, especially amongst the die-hard Gold Eagle fans, but they just as often complain about the man's jumbled and padded narratives, with needlessly-overblown casts of characters. Reading Devil's Bargain, I can somewhat see what they mean, particularly on the latter criticism. In a way, this "SuperBolan" encapsulates why I stopped reading Gold Eagle books over two decades ago. It's almost monotonous in a way, and bores more than it entertains.

The biggest shame is that the villains of the piece have such potential: Alpha Deep Six, a deep-cover Black Ops squad so deep-cover that they've been missing for the past decade and presumed dead. These guys have the makings of awesome villains, US commandos who have gone rogue and now actually fund terrorists themselves. Each of the Six has been "reborn" with a mythical name: There's Crammon, the leader; Acheron, the second-in-command; Thor, a big guy who fights with double axes; and so on. Problem is, Schmidt does little to differentiate between them. I spent the whole novel confusing Crammon and Acheron.

In the middle of all this is Mack Bolan, the Executioner himself. I'm not sure if the guy is now like a comic book character, ageless; in reality he'd be in his sixties at least, which is hard to buy in the action genre -- but then, Sylvester Stallone proved it could be done (and damn well) in his 2008 Rambo. My guess is that these novels must occur in some time-stasis zone, as Bolan still acts like a man in his, just like the Bolan of the Pendleton originals or the Executioners I read back in the 1980s. To make it all the stranger, Crammon himself is a 'Nam vet, ordering around some men he considers his sons. I don't know. I guess I'm thinking about it too much, which is beside the point.

Devil's Bargain opens like an episode of 24, with a wave of terrorism slamming through the US. Bolan has been given highest clearance to stop the threat, which involves lots of bombings on commuter trains and buses. Schmidt pulls that old Gold Eagle page-filling trick I'd forgotten: opening the occasional chapter with pages and pages of the point of view of a terrorist who soon meets his end at the hands of Bolan. But then, Schmidt does that throughout; you only spend perhaps a page or two in a character's perspective before he hopscotches to the next one, leaving for a confusing and frustrating mess. The issue is not the multiple-character perspectives. It's that all of the characters sound the damn same.

While the US-attacks are going on, all of them the work of a certain Islamic group, the Alpha Deep Six guys kidnap Barbara Price, apparently a recurring character in the Bolan universe -- a lady who works for the top-secret "Stony Man" collective and occasionally sleeps with Bolan. She's kidnapped because Crammon and his men have heard of this ultra-secret commando facility which might impede their plans, and so kidnap Price as collateral. Or something. In fact this kidnapping angle only exists so that Bolan can become embroiled in the plot...and also so he has a personal reason to see the mission through. Because otherwise Price's kidnapping has nothing to do with anything, and after she's abducted she pretty much drops out of the narrative.

Once Bolan gets in the picture he begins to track down Alpha Deep Six. We gradually learn that the bastards have funded this day-long attack on the US as a sort of cover for themselves, so they could pull off a bank job. The bank they are robbing is the fictional "Bank of Islam," probably one of the more novel ideas in the book: an endless cache of dollars and gold hidden in an ancient crypt beneath Ankara, Turkey. The place is so secret that most US agencies consider it a myth, but Alpha Deep Six have learned that it truly exists. The place is heavily guarded and Alpha has recruited a team of Iraqi soldiers as well as disaffected US soldiers to raid the place.

After a few hundred pages of character-hopping the raid finally begins. It is a stirring scene, only again ruined by Schmidt's insistence upon hopping from one character to another every other page. It should be mentioned that Bolan is busy dusting his shelves while all this occurs; really, the Executioner is more of a guest star in Devil's Bargain. Though he wastes a few terrorists (as expected), he's instead always a few steps behind Alpha, trying to figure out what they're up to.

Meanwhile we have an endless but entertaining action scene as Crammon and his men wade into the booby-trapped bowls of the Bank of Islam. In a bit of dark humor they use their Iraqi soldiers as trap-bait, tossing them ahead into dark tunnels and letting them take the brunt of whatever trap has been set. It's all like Indiana Jones. Once through the traps of course they encounter armed resistance, and here Schmidt delivers heaps of ultraviolent fight scenes, but really it isn't as gory as I expected -- it's got nothing on Army of Devils, that's for sure. Along the way Alpha Deep Six suffers incredible casualties, and finally Bolan catches up with them while the battle is coming to an end. The climax of Devil's Bargain seems rushed and, well, anticlimatic, which is strange given the expanded page length of these SuperBolans.

But all the tried-and-true gimmicks you remember from Gold Eagle are still at play: endless detail about various guns and the ammo they use, right-wing philosophizing, and a protagonist more superhuman than possible. Don Pendleton was sure to give his creation a dose of hummanity, something which has obviously been lost over the past decades. I'm sure other Gold Eagle ghostwriters have attempted to keep the spirit alive, but separating the wheat from the chaff is a job for someone with a stronger will than mine -- I'll be much happier staying in the lurid and exploitative world of the Imitation Executioners, like The Sharpshooter or The Marksman.


Jack Badelaire said...

Joe, great review. I've read a couple of the modern Bolans, and all I can summon up is a collective sigh.

Bolan's story is now just extremely generic - he and the rest of the Stony Men are essentially just an anti-terrorist unit of "seasoned warriors"; their Vietnam background and other character stories are now hopelessly dated, making them generic and boring. That people still buy Executioners is nice - they are probably the only thing keeping Gold Eagle afloat; but the character is pointless now.

And you're right about the "Super-Bolans". These sorts of stories are quick and brutal; expanding the page counts all too often gives the writer just enough page count to hang himself with, especially if he's used to a shorter page count and suddenly gets stuck having to fill more pages. was so much more fun back in the early 80's...

AndyDecker said...

Great review.
I can´t stand this POV hopping; it´s a sign of the lazy or inept writer.

The keeping of the vietnam origin is kind of strange. But I like it. It is better to acknowledge it and shrug it off as having his origin retconned every few years. See how it is done in most comics; Tony Stark now became Iron Man in Afghanistan; the first time round it was Korea, then Vietnam, then the gulf war. This is so idiotic.

I buy one of them now and then out of nostalgia, and I rather read about the vietnam bit and have a chuckle than having to read about the new and improved Bolan fresh out of Iraq or whatever.

The padding doesn´t help the format either. Most plots don´t have enough meat to sustain 350 pages. Interestingly they have cut the books down page-wise. Maybe they will get better. Todays action-adventure novels are a relic, but it is nice to have them still around.