Thursday, April 25, 2013

Men's Mag Roundup: Dean Ballenger

Several years before he unleashed the lurid masterwork that was Gannon, Dean Ballenger like many other pulp writers wrote for men’s adventure magazines. A while back I picked up a few of them, just to see if Ballenger’s work in them was similar to the unhinged brutality of the Gannon trilogy. It turns out they weren’t – but then, not much could be – but they were still pretty fun. On a WWII kick again thanks to Len Levinson's The Goering Treasure, I decided to give the mags another re-read…as well as some of the other men’s mags I’ve picked up, which I’ll also be eventually reviewing.

This January 1961 Action For Men is the earliest of the three I have that contain a Ballenger story. Titled “Strange Platoon: Five GIs and the Amazon Women of Papua,” the story takes place in the Pacific Theater of the war, as do the other two Ballenger stories reviewed below. And unfortunately this one’s not as good as the two reviewed below. It’s also the shortest. Ballenger writes this one in psuedo-factual style, as if he’s writing about a true WWII incident and not a straight up piece of fiction.

As for the story, a platoon heads into Papa New Guinea and asks a tribe of headhunters to fight the invading Japanese (referred to of course as “Japs” throughout!). The Americans are just advisors and the natives pull off Viet Cong-style guerrilla tactics on the Japanese, killing them unseen from the bushes, poisoning their water, etc. Ballenger relates a few scenes from the Japanese perspective, with a bit of comedy that they are so incompetent they can’t fight back and have no idea how they are being killed.

A war of attrition develops with the Japanese terrified, being picked off at night. The Americans are relegated to the sidelines, even having to ask the headhunter leader for permission to help out in the final attack! These men’s mag stories were always sure to include sex, at least to an extent, but there isn’t much here, other than the mentioning that the headhunters will rush off into the bushes with their women before going into battle, so as to propagate their seed in case they die in the fight. It’s a short story, mostly forgettable, and completely lacks the crazed style of Gannon.

This January 1964 Action For Men is more like it. Ballenger’s “Nude Harem of the US Navy’s Fleet-Wrecking Island Commandos” is a fun piece of WWII pulp. This one is written more like a short story, even though it still tries to pass itself off as a “true story” per men’s mag tradition. In this one a team of Navy frogmen head into Japanese-invaded Sulu Island and hook up with some Suluese women as part of their cover as native fishermen. The Japanese armada is stationed around this island and the mission is to destroy it or at least do some major damage.

The frogmen spend a few weeks sunning to get their skin dark, as well as loving the women, who are appropriately horny. (As soon as she meets the hero, Halpin, the Suluese girl Satabi asks “Where do we make love?”) Of course nothing is described, just a lead up and then fade to black. Posing as fish sellers, Halpin and team are allowed to pilot their little boat through the Japanese armada to sell their catch to the captains.

The entire story itself is a buildup with zero action; after gaining the trust of the Japanese after several weeks of selling fish, the frogmen stay in the armada one night, plant bombs, and escape. The armada explodes but they don’t know it, staying with the Suluese gals and believing they failed, only for a submarine to show up and the pilot to tell them the island has been cleared for weeks. No guts or gore, but the tone you expect of Ballenger is there, particularly Halpin’s lament at the end that he’d stopped sleeping with Satabi – we learn that the frogman commander was so upset over “failing” his mission that Satabi got sick of his grumbling and refused to have sex with him anymore.

There’s also a WWII story by Anson Hunter with the unwieldy title “House of Italian Call-Girls: Salerno Invasion Outpost;” it’s about an American spy who stays in an Italian brothel where he gets intel. This one is mostly told in report-style backstory, and the brothel setting is not played up. We learn that some of the whores hate the Nazis who have billeted in the village around the brothel, but there’s no sex and indeed the hero is friends with the eldery madam who runs the place, with many scenes given over to the two of them in conversation. There’s just one action scene, where a whore hits a Nazi in the back of the head with a revolver and then beats him to death with it. But it all builds up to the intelligence hero radioing in a bombing on the village, with the madam and the hookers escaping in time.

This September 1965 Action For Men is the gem of the bunch. The Ballenger story here is almost a prototype for Gannon, with a plucky hero and his “gut-busting TNT kickers!” Titled “Sgt. Mike Heiser’s Weird Exploding Jap Raiders,” this one’s longer than the other two and is a great and fun short story, one that gives a good indication what it might’ve been like if Ballenger had published a WWII novel at the time. It’s packed with more action and gory violence than the previous two stories combined, and some Gannon-isms even show up, courtesy protagonist Mike Heiser’s dialog.

Heiser is a member of the fictional Unconventional Warfare Specialists Corps, and his mission is to destroy the Japanese fuel base on New Georgia island. Bombers are unable to locate it, so a commando force needs to go in and do the dirty work. Since it’s a silent mission, Heiser and squad go in armed with bows and arrows only, fighting “Indian style.” They have explosive tipped arrow heads to destroy the fuel. Ballenger works up the tension with the team working through the dense foliage and wondering how the hell they’ll get out alive after blowing away the fuel.

After destroying the fuel they escape but the Japanese close in; Heiser realizes they can use the exploding arrows on the Japanese soldiers, something that’s never occurred to anyone! He gives the order and pretty soon explosive-tipped arrows are flying all over the place – lots of exploding guts and faces here. They grab up some dropped Japanese Nambu machine guns and take out more soldiers, escaping to safety, and we learn in a postcript that their heroic attack caused the eventual defeat of the Japanese armada here.  A few years ago I found an online scan of the splashpage; here it is:

There’s another WWII story, “The Ambush that Rescued the US 5th Army” by Leon Lazarus, one that is very similar to the “Salerno” story in the issue above…but really I can’t remember a damn thing about it, other than it is relayed as a psuedo factual article.

Ballenger by the way did publish a WWII novel, at least eventually – 1980’s The Sea Guerrillas. I tried reading it a few years ago but just couldn’t get into it. It lacked all the spark of Gannon and even of these old men’s mag yarns. One of these days though I’ll try to give it another try.


Marty McKee said...

I vote for more men's magazine reviews. I have a big stack of these, and they are probably the smelliest objects I have in my house.

James Reasoner said...

You need to pick up a copy of the great anthology WEASELS RIPPED MY FLESH. The guys who did it have more collections in the works.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks guys for the comments.

Marty, I'm very glad you said that, as I have several more men's mag roundup reviews on the way -- ones with stories about girls with guns, Nazi she-devils, Mario Puzo, etc. And I agree, they DO have a bad smell!

And James I am aware of that book, but thanks for mentioning it. I've exchanged several emails with Bob Deis, who is both friendly and knowledgeable; I'm really looking forward to the book he's currently putting together of Walter Kaylin stories.

AndyDecker said...

I love those covers and the interior illustrations - art like that is fast becoming a lost, well, art.

But the handful stories I tried I found nearly unreadable. This stuff hasn't aged well.

Joe Kenney said...

Andy, thanks for the comment. I know what you mean -- many (the majority?) of these stories don't live up to the covers or even the story titles. My upcoming "Nazi She-Devil" post will attest to this.

However if you are lucky you CAN find the occasional story that does actually live up to its title and the artwork...I have a few other reviews coming up for some that fall into this category, like for example the Mario Puzo stories I've read (written under his "Mario Cleri" psuedonym).