Monday, December 18, 2017

The Last Ranger #5: The War Weapons

The Last Ranger #5: The War Weapons, by Craig Sargent
October, 1987  Popular Library

The fifth volume of The Last Ranger is basically part two of the previous volume; it opens immediately after the apocalyptic events of The Rabid Brigadier, with Martin “The Last Ranger” Stone determined to stop insane General Patton III before Patton can carry out his threat of nuking Colorado – just so he can kill Stone. 

But to tell the truth, I wasn’t really crazy about the previous book, and General Patton’s a bit too cliched a villain for my tastes, so I found myself enjoying The War Weapons the least of all the Last Ranger novels yet. Mostly because this one follows the “Stone joins the military” premise of the previous book, with Stone this time commanding a squad of raw recruits on the mad dash to find Patton’s nuclear silo. And it’s pretty clear that Jan “Craig Sargent” Stacy was having a hard time filling up a whole book this time, as to tell the truth not much happens; much of the narrative is Stone sitting in a tank, trying to navigate it through post-nuke Colorado.

This was the last volume of the series I bought when it was fresh on the bookstore shelves; in fact a memory I’ve carried around for 30 years now is the day I happened to go into my local WaldenBooks store, where I bought all my new men’s adventure paperbacks, and there was a kid my age (13 or so) standing there. I didn’t know him; he said he was from a few towns over or somesuch, and rarely came to this mall. We got in a conversation about The Last Ranger, and it was the only time I’d ever talked to someone else about the genre I loved so much. We were geeking out about the series, and in particular I recall how we both were laughing excitedly about the part in The Madman’s Mansion where Stone threw the depraved dwarf Poet out of a window – we both hoped the damn freak was dead for real. 

Then the part I always remember is we were wondering when “the new one” might be coming out…and the kid happened to look down at the shelf and was he like, “Look – the new one is out!” And lo and behold there was The Last Ranger #5: The War Weapons sitting on the shelf. But only one copy was left! The kid excitedly grabbed it up, and then, in a display of kindness that still makes me tear up despite the grizzled bastard life has made of me, the kid handed me the book, saying he’d find his own copy at the mall that was closer to where he lived. So of course I bought it; I wonder whatever happened to that kid, but I do recall that from then on when I went to that store I always wondered if I’d run into him again, though I never did.

But anyway this was, fittingly, the last one I ever bought, and reading it again all these years later I experinced occasional bouts of déjà vu, so I defintely read it back then. (Unsurprisingly, the parts I remembered were the ones with gory violence and hardcore sex!) I guess though this was around the time my interest in the men’s adventure genre was beginning to wane. Or maybe I just didn’t like it as much as the previous four volumes back then, either. About the most positive thing I can say about this one is that it really does read like the second half of The Rabid Brigadier, but then pretty much every volume has picked up directly after the one before; it’s mentioned in the text of this one that Martin Stone’s only been roaming around post-nuke America for a month.

As we’ll recall, in the last book Stone joined General Patton’s New American Army, quickly ascended through the ranks until Patton looked upon him as his future replacement, and then abruptly realized that Patton was really a sadist, one who was looking to destroy America and rebuild it in his own image. Stone managed to destroy, at much page count, Patton’s nuclear warhead, only to find out on the last page that Patton actually had more nukes at his disposal. So The War Weapons opens with Stone standing in the ashes of the nuclear silo, fighting off a few surviving NAA troops. As ever Stacy delights in the gore, indluging in a dark comedy vibe that at times reaching David Alexander heights: “The slug tore into the sniper’s head and whipped his brain tissue into instant mouse, servable at all the best parties.”

Stone stumbles across the group of men he went through basic training with, in the previous volume. Humorously, Stacy can’t seem to figure out how many of them there are, though gradually he settles on ten. But only a few of them are named; the two most memorable are the similarly-named Bo and Bull. The former is the one person Stone feels he can trust in the group, the latter is the one he trusts the least – Bull, a big sonofabitch, tangled with Stone in the previous book, and got his ass kicked by the Last Ranger. Stone is able to talk the guys out of killing him as a “traitor” and quickly convinces them of Patton’s insanity, and that he must be stopped before he sets off one of his nukes.

Here The War Weapons settles in for the long haul; the squad appropriates a trio of Bradley III tanks, taking them from a group of bikers in another gory battle. But the book almost assumes the vibe of the C.A.D.S. series, with too much time-wasting and technical detail as Stone quickly trains the men on various aspects of the tanks, and then they set off across the blasted ruins of Colorado, encountering various setbacks, usually ones of nature. Flashing back to his work on the early volumes of Doomsday Warrior, Stacy even has the group encounter freak nuke-spawn weather, with the tanks at one point buried under several feet of sand. Again evidencing the gooy nature of the series, Stone’s loyal pitbull Excaliber digs them out.

Around here is a part that had me on that déjà vu trip; Stone leaves his men for a bit and secretly heads back to the Bunker his father built here in the mountains of Colorado, where Stone spent the past five years of his life before leaving it in the first volume. For some reason I always recall these Bunker scenes; it must’ve resonated with me as a kid that Stone had a “safe space” (in the lame modern parlance) in the post-nuke world. That Stone has never considered finding himself a woman (not to mention his ever-missing sister April, who hasn’t been seen since the third volume) and just living safely and easily in the idllyic home, leaving the blasted US to its fate, is reason I guess why he’s “the Last Ranger” (a title, by the way, which is actually used to describe Stone in this one).

But for once there’s trouble in this little paradise; just as Stone’s tacked up the “painting of Michelangelo’s Creation” which Patton gave him in the previous book (despite the fact that the Creation is a ceiling fresco and not a painting), Stone’s attacked by a group of assassins who have secretly followed him here. NAA soldiers who claim to Stone before killing him that there’s a traitor in his group, one who dropped them a dime that Stone had just left camp. Stone manages to take out two and Excaliber kills the other two in another action scene that’s even heavier on the gore. We also get another glimpse at that proto-internet Stone’s dad created; Stone accesses it to learn what nuke silos are in the area. Here we also learn that Stone was a big fan of Aquaman as a kid, having named his pet hamster after the hero – Stone’s dad having made the hamster’s name the password to access this info.

The saddest thing about all the egregious tank stuff is that it’s ultimately pointless. Stone leads his mini-convoy to Patton’s silo, only to learn it’s a trap. Several more Bradleys come out and surround them, and Stone learns which of his men is Patton’s insider (it’s neither Bull nor Bo). There follows a bit of sadism as Stone is beaten to a veritable pulp, with one of his eyes swelling to baseball size. An ironic bit here has Stone uttering this badass (but frowned-up today) line to his tormentors: “I’ve had old women with AIDS hit at me harder than that.” Ironic because Stacy himself died of AIDS in 1989. One wonders what was going on in his mind when he wrote the line – was it just a fluke of irony or was there more it? (And I haven’t even mentioned how the song “It’s Raining Men” is referenced in the book!)

But Patton can’t just kill Stone. After having him beaten unmerciful (to quote Sol Rosenberg), Patton condemns Stone to “the death of ten million bites.” Stone, stripped and covered in syrup, is tied to an X-shaped cross and planted on a Colorado plateu, to become ant bait. He’s saved by the appearance of a gorgeous Indian babe, just as the ants are really tearing into him. This is Merya, “dauther of Fighting Bear, of the Cheyene,” a “full-breasted” American Indian beauty who goes around in a slim leather deerskin vest and not much else. She takes Stone back to her teepee and goes about healing him in the old way – ie spreading some sort of gunk on his beaten flesh and having the expected hardcore sex with him.

Once again Stacy devotes an entire chapter (16, for those taking notes) to sex – for some reason, yet another part that had me experiencing déjà vu, as I guess this part too resonated with 13 year-old me(!). And with insane lines like, “Slowly the spear of turgid flesh slid deeper and deeper into the recesses of [Merya’s] body,” how could it not? What’s most humorous here is that Stone appears to forget that this exact same thing happened to him back in the first volume – there too he was beaten near to death, only to be brought back to life thanks to the exuberant banging skills of an Indian babe. Stacy does kind of play on this, though; after a whopping orgasm or three, Merya declares Stone “a yanna, a giver a love,” which Stone muses to himself is the opposite of the “bringer of death” he was declared to be by the Ute Indians in volume #1.

Stone, despite having a few broken fingers and toes and a still-swollen eye, vows to lead the ten Indian men of Merya’s tribe on a raid upon Patton’s compound. Luckily they have a bunch of three-wheelers with autopistols jury-rigged to the handles. Merya of course goes along. But even here it’s all buildup for naught; promptly upon sneaking into Patton’s compound, Stone finds his troops lined up in a firing line. Again evidencing the goofy tone of the series, friggin’ pitbull Excaliber stands in the firing line with them. Stone of course saves the group, leading into a chaotic climactic battle which has three-wheelers and tanks going at it.

But as if again displaying the fatalist vibe of the series, Patton escapes again – and this time launches a nuke, right at Stone! Our hero just manages to high-tail it twenty miles from the compound, and, in perhaps another shout-out to Doomsday Warrior, finds shelter in a tunnel that’s built beneath a highway, which of course brings to mind the origins of that earlier series’s Century City. It’s all a bit hard to swallow as Stone, Merya, Excaliber, and a few others survive a friggin’ nuclear blast only miles away. But in the aftermath Merya assumes that Patton too is dead, having fired the warhead from another silo not far away. Stone figures she’s right, but he’s uncertain – personally I won’t figure the guy is dead until we see his bullet-ridden corpse, but I hope the series moves on to a more-interesting villain in the next installment.

And here we leave Martin Stone, wondering how much radiation he’s absorbed in this blast, yet another megababe of an Indian beauty at his side, loyal Excaliber at his heels, and his sister April still missing. But whereas this is where I left the series all those years ago, this time I’ll continue on with it – but here’s hoping it gets back to the insane, lurid vibe of The Madman’s Mansion and moves away from this New American Army stuff.

Have I mentioned yet that the covers for this series are courtesy men’s adventure magazine legend Norm Eastman?

1 comment:

Steven Johnson said...

A few of the exits from the Interstate Highway System are fallout shelters; originally every exit was supposed to have one. A nuclear blast miles away would not collapse a thick concrete structure, according to the sources I've read. But opening the door afterward might be a problem!