Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Stony Man #83: Doom Prophecy

Stony Man #83: Doom Prophecy, by Douglas Wojtowicz
June, 2006 Gold Eagle Books

Able Team and Phoenix Force were canceled as individual series in the early 1990s, but lived on collectively as the Stony Man series, in which both teams would together take on the latest global or domestic threat. As of this writing there are a whopping 119 volumes of this series in print. Could you imagine reading all of them?? You'd probably put a bullet in your brain afterwards -- though, these being Gold Eagle books, by that time you'd be able to identify the bullet as say a 5.56x45mm NATO round with a 62 grain Steel Penetrator lead core full metal jacket.

Yes, friends, we are back in the world of Gold Eagle and its overwhelming love of gun-porn. Vast sections of this publisher's novels have often read like copy from a gun catalog. Gold Eagle is the last man standing in the world of men's adventure publishing, which is a shame, for in many ways their offerings are the worst of the genre. Whereas in my opinion these action series should offer escapism, Gold Eagle instead tries to make everything "realistic," with the end result being that their books are dour, bland, and boring affairs, filled with cipher-like "heroes" who, when they aren't killing people, just sit around and clean their guns.

The biggest surprise is that sometimes a Gold Eagle book offers a bit of promise, something different than the standard "terrorist of the month" gimmick. Doom Prophecy is a case in point. There are rave reviews for this novel over on; the author, Douglas Wojtowicz, is a fan favorite. And to be sure he does seem to have fun with his novels, pulping them up with oddball villains and crazy threats. He's also relatively new to the Gold Eagle stable, but to date has already turned out 30-some books in various Gold Eagle series. He also has an obvious fondess for the characters and their world, so it's a good sign that there's at least one Gold Eagle writer who is willing to do something different than the norm. But to be sure, the reader must still be prepared for the Gold Eagle trademark of endless action sequences and weapons fetishizing.

The villains here are pretty great, the best part of the novel; they're much in the line of the sort of villains you would encounter in the pulpier 1970s examples of the genre. For one, there's a Vietnamese lady who, as a young girl, watched as her mother was murdered by a US soldier in 'Nam. Years later, attempting to gain vengeance, the girl was raped by the same man, now a high-ranking government official. And now, in the present, she is a self-styled "cyber prophetess" who has named herself Ka55andra, after the mythical oracle-spouting character Cassandra. She heads up a globe-spanning terrorist cell called AJAX, and is now finally bringing her plans of vengeance to fruition, while also sowing hell in general.

Even better are the various henchmen who work for AJAX. First and foremost there's Algul, a dude who not only wears a mask made of human skulls, but also a cape of human skin -- each patch of flesh adorned with a military tattoo, Algul having stitched it together from the hides of US soldiers he has killed. Oh, and he enjoys drinking blood. He also commands a legion of mud-encrusted zombies in all but name, shambling creatures who tear up out of the ground and attack en masse any who stand in their way, eating their flesh. Crazy stuff for sure. There's also a trio of assassins: one a dwarf, the other a tall and thin guy who compares himself to a boa constrictor, and finally a big biker dude whom Wojtowicz actually names "David Lee Haggar." And on top of that there's even a small army of ninjas, lead by a self-proclaimed "American Ninja" named Wilson Sere, who goes around with his gorgeous blonde Argentenian lover Terremota, an explosives expert.

I mean, all of these characters seem to have walked out of, say, Black Samurai #6: The Warlock. But for some strange reason, Wojtowicz does little to exploit the potential of the villains. All told, he only spends a handful of scenes with them, instead focusing the entirety of the tale on the bland and boring members of Phoenix Force and Able Team. I know this is a strange criticism, to blame an author for giving the focus to the stars of the book, but still. When your villains are this interesting -- and when there are so many of them -- I think it would be a bit more entertaining for the reader to actually read about them. Because as it is, the Phoenix Force and Able Team guys just put you right to sleep.

It's been about twenty-five years since I've read a Phoenix Force novel, so it was humorous to see that the same stock epithets are still employed -- Encizo is the "powerful Cuban," Calvin James is the "tall ex-Navy SEAL," Manning is the "big Canadian." Like we're reading the Iliad or something! Changes have occurred since my last encounter with the Force, though; Katz, the elderly Israeli leader of the team (who as I recall was a missing a hand, and, Army of Darkness style, would put various weapons in the empty socket), has apparently bought the farm and the team is now lead by McCarter, a former SAS soldier. A new character has been introduced in Katz's wake: TJ Hawkins, a vague nonentity who appears to be from Texas and is some sort of special forces type.

The guys from Able Team, as always, are a bit more colorful. Carl Lyons, the leader, is still prone to violent outbursts, and I know this is Lyons's "thing," but I wonder when this happened? In the Executioner novels I've read by creator Don Pendleton, Lyons is presented as a level-headed guy. But then, he also has a wife and kid in those early Pendleton books, and given that they're never mentioned in the Gold Eagle books, I'm guessing something must've happened to them, something that created the anger-prone Lyons of the Gold Eagle world. Anyway, throughout Doom Prophecy Wojtowicz keeps alive the Able Team tradition of witty banter amid the team members, showing their longstanding camaraderie, doing a great job of keeping the spirit of the characters alive.

Ka55andra initiates her mission and havoc breaks out across the globe. Able Team tracks down the aforementioned David Lee Haggar in the US and gets in some fights with bikers. Phoenix Force splits up, one half of the team going to Africa to take on Algul's zombie forces, the other half going to Hong Kong to take on Wilson Sere, Terremota, and the ninjas. And from there it's action, action, action.

That is, other than the scenes which take place in Stony Man headquarters, detailing the very 24-esque activities of the Stony Man "cyber team." It's like we're back in CTU and watching Chloe and the gang trace various threats while reporting on them to Jack Bauer in the field; my assumption is that Gold Eagle has added all of this tech warfare nonsense as a gambit to draw in the military fiction crowd. I mean, just look at that stupid damn cover Doom Prophecy is graced with. It might as well just be emblazoned with "Tom Clancy Presents."

But anyway, I do not exaggerate about the action onslaught. Every place Able Team or Phoenix Force goes, they are attacked. Over and over again. There's even a scene where Encizo and James catch a flight from Hong Kong to Tokyo, and even on the damn flight they are attacked by a team of ninjas! Wojtowicz can write a good action scene, and throughout he displays his knowledge of firearms and bladed weaponry. But after a while you want a little breather. And again, given that this is a Gold Eagle novel, the endless action scenes lack the nutzoid spark of a Joseph Rosenberger -- they are all relayed in a sort of real-world format, which I find strange in this post-9/11 world.

And now let's look at the gun-porn, a longstanding hallmark of Gold Eagle. Every time a person pulls out a gun, we get like four sentences describing it, no matter what's going on in the narrative. The characters themselves even discuss the various weapons, info-dumping blocks of detail about their rifles or knives or whatever. Hell, there are even scenes where, during combat, the heroes will taunt their opponents about their poor choices in weaponry -- in particular I'm thinking of a scene where a member of Able Team derides an opponent for using a gun "without a slide-action," or something to that effect.

Again, I realize it's stupid of me to complain about gun-porn in an action novel; it would be like buying a Harlequin Romance and complaining about all of the flowery dialog. But what has always most annoyed me about gun-porn is that it ruins any sort of tension or suspense. Just check out this scene, which occurs as a special forces soldier is attacked and overrun by Algul's zombies -- a tension-filled scene, mind you, which is suddenly ruined as Wojtowicz tells us all about the soldier's nifty gun:

Wild eyes rimmed with red focused on him and his team, and he brought up his Barrett M-486. The Barrett was an M-4 rifle that had been chambered for the new Special Forces 6.8 mm special purpose cartridge as an improvement over the smaller 5.56 mm NATO round. Grabbing the rail-mounted forward grip to stabilize it, he flipped the rifle to full-auto and fired through the gap between the door and frame of the downed aircraft, spitting a stream of SPC rounds.

Start taking notes, 'cause there's gonna be a quiz later:

Encizo backed his pair of Glocks with a 7.65 mm Walther PPK. While he was a fan of Heckler and Koch weapons, the excellent 9 mm USP wasn't as ubiquitous as the Glock, and finding spare magazines around the world would be more difficult. As well, the brand new P-2000 compact didn't share the Glock-26's record or reliability, nor the capability to use the larger USP's magazines.

And here's a third example, because everything comes in threes:

He picked up an M-3 submachine gun. In .45 ACP, the weapon was a standard with the US Army for a period of thirty-five years before being gradually phased out. However, being cheap and easy to build, it showed up in arsenals around the world.

There's stuff like this throughout the book. And again I realize, this sort of thing is not only expected but demanded by the core Gold Eagle readers. Wojtowicz proves himself a master of the craft, but it's just not a craft I'm crazy about. Actually the one thing I learned from Doom Prophecy is that I can't consider myself a "core" Gold Eagle reader. Elaborate gun and weapon detail just wears me down to the point where I start to hate life and just wish Flanders was dead. It's all just so blatant and annoying and, ultimately, pointless. I just kept wanting to shout, each time some dude would whip out a gun and we'd get endless detail about it: Who fucking cares??

But the hell of the thing is -- the core Gold Eagle readers do care. There are really people out there who want to read a few paragraphs explaining some Heckler & Koch submachine gun. And believe it or not, these people (whoever they are), will write angry letters when they see something incorrectly described about the gun. But for me this real-world focus just destroys the escapism, the lurid quotient, the fun of the genre. Rather than the fun pulp of say John Eagle Expeditor, most of these Gold Eagle books are just depressing, and ultimately forgettable.

That is, save for the ones by Wojtowicz. I have a few more of his books and they all look promising -- not to mention that they're all raved about over on As I say, he definitely knows what he's doing. He knows his core readers and he knows what they want, and he delivers. And as mentioned he has an obvious fondness for the characters. He also has a definite knack for coming up with memorable villains, as proven here with Doom Prophecy. Personally though I would've preferred more scenes from their perspective, or even more background on them. But I guess you can't blame the guy for making the stars of the book, you know, the stars of the book.

But then, I'm biased. I much prefer the original incarnations of the genre, from the '70s and '80s. And whereas I and other reviewers around the Web enjoy reading and writing about those men's adventure novels from 30 and 40 years ago, I'll bet you good money that no one will be writing about these current Gold Eagle books a few decades from now. They just aren't much fun. And I don't even blame the writers. All of the stock epithets, the gun references, the "real-world" attitude, all of that stuff I'm betting is mandated by the editors.

In a way, it's almost like Gold Eagle is committing willful suicide. Given the lack of marketing for the imprint, the minimal web presence, and the fact that the books are steadily disappearing from the shelves of bookstores and department stores (K-Mart, I've read, is just one such store that has stopped carrying Gold Eagle books), I'm guessing that parent company Worldwide Library is just letting these novels trickle out, doing little to improve or differentiate them, until the day comes when they can finally (and happily) announce that profits have dropped too much to continue publishing, and thus the adventures of "the Stony Man warriors" et al will come to a close.


Jack Badelaire said...

I may have to pick this particular volume up and give it a read just because of this review. Doug W. is a solid author - I've had a number of conversations with him, and he's one of those guys who actually started his writing career by writing and pubbing to the the web Stony Man / Mack Bolan fan fiction. Gold Eagle liked his work so much, they asked him to come aboard and start writing for them as a stable writer. Wishes can come true!

I agree 100% about the gun porn. I'm a gun guy myself; I read about guns, shoot guns when I can, dig talking guns and watching movies and TV where it is clear the creators know guns. However, there's a difference between knowing your stuff and making that clear, and just porning it out. Movie critic turned author Stephen Hunter is the sort of writer who knows a LOT about guns, and his books always feature a lot of gun talk, but he writes in such a way that it flows organically through the narrative. If the porn appears in a way that kills the tension of the scene, that's just bad writing.

Yet, gun porn has been a hallmark of GE books for years, and will probably continue. GE has finally started pubbing their books as e-books (I've read a number of Rogue Angel titles on my Kindle), and that might very well save their hides. Even if they stopped selling paperbacks or only sold them PoD, they could shift to publishing their books as e-titles and still stay afloat.

OlmanFeelyus said...

Interesting analysis (and interesting response, Jack) about the gun porn. I totally understand why errors and wrong uses of guns would be annoying to gun nerds and I would expect authors of books like these to know their stuff. But the bare exposition of gun facts just seems weird. Especially when it is something really obvious to even gun amateurs like myself, like the bit about the M-3. Like wouldn't most gun experts find that kind of info pandering and insulting?

I think this genre will continue to survive in the e-book world and may even thrive and maybe that will encourage the publishers to loosen up and take a few more risks. The kind of conservatism we see here is often the case in dying industries. They are so scared of alienating their hardcore fans because that is the core of their business. It's ironic, because it is when you are the most desperate that you should be taking the biggest risks. Don't they read their own books!

Joe Kenney said...

Guys, thanks for the insightful reviews. Jack, the funny thing about GE's devotion to gun-porn from the beginning is that, as far as I can tell, they were kind of trendsetters in that area. Reading the other men's adventure books from that time and earlier, guns are for the most part just "guns."

It seems to me that GE set out from the start to cater to a certain demographic. Which again is strange given the lack of hardcore gun detail in Pendleton's originals. About the only writer I've encountered who writes enjoyable gun-porn is David Alexander, who as mentioned in my reviews of his Phoenix books can make gun-porn seem like damn poetry.

And I do agree with both of you that e-books might be the savior of men's adventure. I have my problems with the format, the biggest being that pulp should be printed ON pulp. But then, even this Stony Man book is a pale reflection of its forebears, printed on cheap (but unpulpy) paper with a slick Tom Clancy-esque cover.

Olman, great comment by the way on the publishers not even reading their own books -- given that Worldwide Library owns GE, and the current editor of the GE line just transitioned over from sister company Harlequin, I can bet you good money that she is NOT reading their's probably more of an attrition thing, like when I managed email marketing at Blockbuster, just watching as the ship continued to sink.

francisco said...

is e-book the new paperback? see the case with Leisure books too... are the mass-market paperback format to dissapeared? all the traditional readers of the format will do the transition? the paperback is the best thing ever happened to books and reading but in Spain for example we have the absurd thought that books must be hardbacks and a kind of object for an elite

Zbu said...

I agree totally about the gun porn. It's distracting and really serves no purpose at all. The fun of these books is how utterly insane they can be, and it's interrupted by pandering to the same audience that will buy them regardless. Or would have, given that they're now on their way out. Very sad. :/

Felicity Walker said...

I’m not the Gold Eagle target demographic--I don’t know enough about guns to be able to write angry letters if they get it wrong. I know next to nothing about guns, but that’s why I’ve enjoyed the enjoy small amounts of gun explanation in the Executioner novels I’ve read.

Grant Dean said...

Least they are doing there research on what they write. The fact there is many ghost writers. There is no real continuity . Unless handed down by the Gold Eagle brass. Each author in his own way has to become use to the series. I have read the Mack Bolan books from the 80's n Stony Man from 2013. There is a big difference . If ya don't like "gun porn " go read chick lit.

Doug said...

I wandered onto this page to explore all the old stuff...

Lord... This review is at once a little embarrassing to me GIVEN all my gun porn... hell, I was working from all the stuff done by William Fieldhouse back in the Phoenix Force days, using THAT as the template. To be honest, when I was much younger, I DID enjoy the gun fetish.

I imagine if I rewrote this one today, I'd take my foot off the gas on it.

I'm so glad you liked my villains, though, and I wish I'd saved them for bigger, better things.

As for the "end of the men's adventure era" when I wrote this I was "I have ONE chance at this series." And going back to it, I'm like "I poured Hershey's chocolate sauce over a perfectly good steak."

So it's fun and exhilarating to see this review here, but at the same time I'm like "oh God, I remember that. WHY did I make that choice?"

Final note: Except for Ka55andra (who was cribbed from Barbara Gordon/Oracle), the bad guys were inspired by the Teen Titans' villains - Algul is Brother Blood, and Haggar and his crew are the HIVE kids/the Fatal Five.

Dude... I'm THRILLED to find this review!

Jack Badelaire said...

Doug - good to see you here, buddy! Are you still writing these days?

Joe Kenney said...

Doug, thanks a lot for your comment! Thanks also for a little background on the novel. I have more of your Gold Eagle novels and intend to read them, but as you can tell from the content of the blog, I'm really more into the older stuff. Also that's humorous the villains were based on Teen Titan villains!

Doug said...

I also missed a lot of the character bits of the heroes. But yeah, working with the villains was fun. It was here I really... no, it was Superbolan:Season of Slaughter where I made bad guys with MUCH more charm than the heroes. And I'm ashamed to admit I have an expy of myself in that one.

As to the gun porn, it was William Fieldhouse who gave me the taste for all of that loving, lurid description. And it stuck to me, at least for the "modern stuff."

Outlanders, I dialed it back down. However, non-Newtonian fabrics, higher dimensions/tesseracts casting shadows as time travel, and long-string proteins forming a powerful telepathic biological computer were a whole 'nudder kettle of science porn. Thankfully, no equations, because, I suck at the math of science.