Monday, March 8, 2021

Psi-Man #1

Psi-Man #1, by David Peters
October, 1990  Charter-Diamond Books

Back in the very early 1990s I was a teenaged comic book geek – this was in the days where you had to keep such things secret, otherwise you would be ridiculed as a complete freak and girls would laugh at you. I liked the popular stuff, like the ubiquitous Uncanny X-Men and the various Batman titles and etc, but I also collected The Incredible Hulk, mostly due to the writing of Peter David. While my comic-collecting friends were really just into the art, even back then I was more into the writing, and I recall David’s work really appealed to me. 

I had no idea at the time that David was also publishing a “men’s adventure” series under the not-even-trying pseudonym “David Peters;” I probably would’ve been very interested in it, given my love of men’s adventure during my middle school years. (I recall the line of progression was comics to men’s adventure to sci-fi and then back to comics…then, of course, on to sex, drugs, and rock and roll.) Psi-Man, which amounted to four volumes, was another of those last gasps of the men’s adventure genre…not as sleazy or grimy as the the series of the ‘70s, nor as guns-and-commandos oriented as the series of the ‘80s. Still following the series template, though, with a heroic protagonist encountering some new threat each installment…but also catering to the reading tastes of a new era, with a slightly politically correct vibe. While Psi-Man is neutered, at least compared to something like The Sharpshooter, it’s thankfully not on the level of another early ‘90s “new men’s adventure series” (courtesy the same publisher): the abyssmal Tracker

That said, the titular Psi-Man, a dude named Chuck Simon (the name as not-even-trying as David’s pseudonym), goes out of his way not to kill anyone, and also spends the majority of this first novel fending off the advances of two eager young women. So yep, we’re in the early ‘90s, and everything is kinder and gentler than what came before in this genre. There’s also a sci-fi overlay in that the series takes place in the future, ie 2021(!), but quite presiciently as it turns out David doesn’t present a world with space travel or any other “sci-fi” trappings. In fact, the 2021 of Psi-Man is pretty much identical to our current one…people still drive cars, watch TV, and the like. Actually if anything it’s less sci-fi than our real era, in that there’s no internet, or mobile phones, or etc. 

Otherwise the author has hit the nail on the head in quite interesting ways. In David’s 2021, the U.S. government has become an oppressive, menacing presence that’s known for disappearing any dissenting voices (no comment!), and both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights have been “suspended” so that free speech and the like no longer exist (definitely no comment on this one – I mean, I don’t wanna get deplatformed!). There’s vague backstory about “Extremists” having caused this situation – and as if that weren’t prescient enough, it turns out that these so-called “Extremists” have been villified for political power-grab purposes, as while there’s a minority of radicals among them, in reality the majority of them are just ordinary people who are concerned about the environment. However the government is so aligned against the movement that Constitutional freedoms have been suspended so as to wipe out this contrived threat…ironically, a threat which has been created for narrative purposes by the government, so as to carry out all of those power grabs (no comment!). 

In addition, there’s a shadowy Federal agency which doesn’t so much protect the populace as it does mercilessly enforce the government’s mandates. This is the Complex, the agents of which are hunting Chuck when we meet him at novel’s beginning. He’s pretty much as depicted on the cover, just an average dude with sandy blond hair, but as it turns out he has telekinetic powers that are off the charts. He’s also got a massive German Shepard that travels with him: Rommel, with whom Chuck enjoys communicating with via ESP. There’s a humorous, snappy rapport between the two that brings to mind that of Remo and Chiun in The Destroyer, with the same setup even occurring here: Chuck, the Remo-esque straight man and Rommel the Chiun-esque smart-ass. 

As it turns out, the Chuck-Rommel rapport is pretty much the only thing that elevates Psi-Man #1. Another thing that separates these latter “men’s adventure” series from their earlier brethren: the first volumes spend much too long on the origin story and the series setup. And that’s pretty much what this first volume is. We open in late 2021 with Chuck hiding out in Kansas with a traveling circus, he and Rommel clearly on the run from someone. Then “they” show up at the fair one night, and Chuck knows he’s finally been tracked down. At this point we flash back to 2020 and begin the long-simmer, somewhat slow-moving narrative which will encompass the majority of the tale. This certainly isn’t an action-packed novel by any means, and for the most part comes off like a standalone thriller instead of the setup for a continnuing men’s adventure series. 

The majority of the tale takes place in Ohio, Chuck living in a small town and serving as the coach at a local high school. He’s around 27 (meaning he’s a Millennial!) and comes off as overly naïve and unaware of the world around him. Hey, he is a Millennial! Seriously though, we’re told at one point that Chuck’s heard that “British Prime Minister McCartney” was once in some band called the Beatles, but Chuck’s never bothered looking into it. Otherwise there’s vague backstory that Chuck’s girlfriend or wife or something left him two years ago; a pretty fellow teacher has made her intentions clear, but Chuck as mentioned keeps fending her off. Supposedly because he thinks his ex will return or something. Really though it’s a slow-moving tale at this point, David delivering something far removed from men’s adventure and more along the lines of Stephen King…only without the supernatural stuff. 

Save, that is, for Chuck’s somewhat-latent mental powers. These are introduced to us casually, with Chuck rarely using them. He’s pretty much an easy-going Quaker who does karate to focus his will. Eventually we’ll learn that both the religion and the martial arts are there so Chuck can make himself “normal” and suppress these mental powers which separate him from others. However as it develops the Complex is already onto him, and shadowy agents appear in town to monitor him secretly. When Chuck finally goes out on a date with the young lady, the novel picks up. He’s managed to run afoul of some local drugdealers, one of whom he found trying to sell junk to one of his students. These guys ambush Chuck during the date – and his house blows up, while Chuck’s outside and his date is inside. 

Here finally the novel seems like it’s going to become a vintage men’s adventure: Chuck’s girlfriend has just been blown up by drug dealers, and now he’s all raring to kill ‘em all. This he does, in one of the novel’s few action scenes – ripping people apart with his mind, hurling them into the burning flames. Only…it turns out Chuck’s girl wasn’t in the house, and after a quick peck on the cheek she gets the hell out of Dodge, terrified of this mental monster she’s been wanting to date. At this point the narrative coalasces into a thread: Quinn, manipulative agent in charge of the Complex, appears and offers to recruit Chuck, to teach him how to hone his TK powers, all in exchange for “serving his country.” 

We jump forward again and it’s still all about the story and character development. Chuck’s living in the Complex HQ and trying but failing to use his TK. Meanwhile he learns that Quinn will likely expect Chuck to serve as a sort of psionic assassin; there’s another, named Beutel, who enjoys his work and who begins to resent Chuck’s presence. Even though the TK isn’t coming for him, Chuck’s display of his powers on the drug dealers was beyond what anyone else has ever done. It just sort of goes on and on, but really picks up when Rommel is re-introduced into the tale. The dog is “subject 666” at the Complex and is so big and mean he’s scared away everyone, particularly Beutel, who as it turns out is terrified of dogs. Quinn, who has set Beutel on Chuck to test him, further introduces Rommel into the mix so as to scare Beutel, given his increasingly-insubordinate attitude. 

Rommel is by far the most memorable character. With an off-colored tuft of hair on his forehead in the shape of a “Z,” he has an instant mental rapport with Chuck. Rommel tries to kill Beutel but Chuck calls him off – again it’s a kinder, gentler sort of men’s adventure, and Chuck’s forever trying to not kill someone – after which Chuck and Rommel escape the Complex. Chuck’s had enough of this shit and refuses to be an assassin. This of course causes a big standoff with Quinn, who sarcastically refers to Chuck as “Psi-Man,” as if he were a superhero in a costume. After this the narrative picks back up where we started, Chuck at the fairground in Kansas around a year later, Quinn’s men closing in on him at last. 

At this point the novel finally picks up. The Complex agents dose some of the lions in the circus act so they go nuts and attack the trainer, and Chuck has to save his friends while, you guessed it, also not hurting the lions. There’s also a nice showdown with Beutel, who ends up losing a hand in the melee but isn’t killed, of course. Dakota, a tightrope babe from the circus who also has a thing for Chuck (not that he reciprocates) almost gets the better of Beutel, too. The novel ends with Chuck and Rommel again on the road, with Dakota in tow. She too is a memorable character, and in fact if David’s style reminds me of anyone it would be Raymond Obstfeld. Snarky dialog with memorable comebacks and one-liners, a spunky female character, and a lack of the hardcore gun-violence one usually demands from this genre. 

I think I’ve only got the last volume of Psi-Man, or maybe I have the third one as well. I can’t remember. I know I don’t have all of them, at least. I found this first one marginally entertaining, and figure I’ll enjoy the other ones more, if anything because they’ll likely spend more time with Chuck and Rommel instead of on setting up the overall storyline, like this one did.

1 comment:

Trash Menace said...

There's at least two more volumes under his real name from Ace Books - "Stalker" and "Haven". Don't know if they're reprints or not. So far I've liked his comics more than his prose.