June, 2023 Subtropic Productions
This latest installment of Men’s Adventure Quarterly focuses on Hitmen, and is a rare volume that doesn’t have a story from World War II, which is the era most associated with men’s adventure mag yarns. Editors Robert Dies and Bill Cunningham once again turn in a high-quality publication filled with full-color art, including a risque photo section. I love how they include this nude (or at least mostly nude) photography each issue, which really captures the “hide ‘em from your wife” spirit of vintage men’s mags.
Another interesting thing about this MAQ is that it has some stories from the ‘70s. This makes sense, as after the WWII yarns tapered off the men’s mag editors of the day started focusing on more topical things, and after the success of The Godfather (courtesy former men’s mag writer Mario Puzo) one of those topical things was crime. Somehow Bob Deis has found long stories from this later men’s mag era; the majority of the ‘70s men’s mags I have all feature short stories, even the ones billed as “true book bonuses” being pretty short. But the last story collected here, from 1975, is the longest.
This issue also features a host of guest editors…I mean a bunch of them! They all provide overviews of crime-centric books and movies of the era, and all are informative and well-written. I never have much to say about the opening pages of each Men’s Adventure Quarterly because it’s kind of hard to review an introduction! But they all offer nice insights into the field. A problem though is that some of the time these intros – and I don’t just mean the ones in this issue specifically – are a little too broad-based in their outlook, as if written for an Entertainment Weekly audience. I would imagine most readers of Men’s Adventure Quarterly are quite familiar with vintage pulp fiction and movies, and don’t need much in the way of background material on the subject.
This is why Bob Deis’s intros for each story are always one of the highlights – he tells you all there is to know about the (usually uncredited) writers and artists. He also goes above and beyond by looking up how “true” some of the yarns here really are. This lends the books a bit of a snarky vibe, as it’s usually clear that the vast majority of these men’s adventure stories are wholly the product of the writer’s imagination. Actually I’d say more so of the editor’s imagination – I’m betting in most cases the editors would come up with an idea, get the artwork underway, and hire some writer to do a story that followed the setup, with scenes catered to the art. But hell I wasn’t there and don’t really know, so it’s just my guess.
The issue follows the chronological format as the previous issues, thus the stories begin with the earliest piece in the anthology, “Setup For The Kid,” by Bill H. Hunter and from the Februrary 1957 Stag. This short piece reads like an excerpt from a Parker novel, featuring two hit men from a crime outfit as they go about a job. Interestingly, it’s mostly told via dialog, and thus has a different vibe than the standard men’s adventure mag yarn; it would be more at home in Manhunt. This one’s all about the prep for the hit, which goes down rather anticlimactically. Indeed the story itself is rather old hat, but it’s told with a nice crime-pulp vibe. I also liked how the titular “Kid” had a special scope for his rifle.
The next one’s on more of a factual tip: “I Was Al Capone’s Hatchet Man,” by Dave Mazroff and from the March 1958 Man’s Odyssey. Bob delivers one of his typically-insightful intros here, detailing how Mazroff, unlike most men’s mag writers, wasn’t just making up this tale whole-hog. Mazroff, who did work for Capone, here tells a tale about Capone that’s interestingly formated like the typical men’s mag yarn. Many years ago I visited that old state pen in Philadelphia, and one of the cells there had been inhabitated by Capone; they’d decorated it like he supposedly had it in his time, complete with a radio and all these other deluxe trimmings, so even in prison he was a high-roller.
Next up is “Killer With One Thousand Faces,” by Donald J. Brock and from the February 1963 Man’s True Danger. I also enjoyed Bob’s intro for this one, as he tells of his failed quest to prove that this story – touted as “true” per men’s mag conventions – really was true. As Bob notes, even the author credit is fake; supposedly this story is told to us by a cop who worked the case, but he doesn’t even insert himself in the tale until the end. The story itself is told in third person. It concerns an actor named Johnny Driscoll who has a penchant for disguise, and puts his acting skills to work in the life of crime. This one was pretty fun, with Driscoll impersonating mobsters – and even, as one test of his acting skills, sleeping in one night with eleven girls, all of them the girls of various stooges, and Driscoll able to fool each gal into thinking he’s their stooge! I also got a chuckle out of how we’re told, almost casually in the final few paragraphs, that this story takes place in 1929!
“The Specialist” is by Greg Joseph, from the April 1963 Fury. This one’s about Vince Weber, a “death insurance salesman,” who goes to great lengths to concoct cover stories for his true job: syndicate assassin. We see him on a few hits, and are also reminded of the jiggly charms of the “top syndicate hooker” who poses as his wife in the suburbs. But crime never pays in these men’s mag yarns, thus it’s another tale with a “shock” finale.
“Bugsy Siegel’s Ever-Lovin’ Top Gun” is by Anthony Scadato and from the August 1963 Stag, and like the Capone story is another based mostly on fact. It’s even more like a typical men’s mag story, complete with an opening in which Capone, in a hostpital, pulls a hit and then returns to his hospital room – to find the busty blonde nurse waiting there for him in his bed! This one has a very nice vibe, like a men’s adventure mag variation on Truman Capote in how it’s nonfiction (mostly) told like fiction.
We get another of those fake “as told to” stories next: “I Hit The Hit Men,” by Jerry “Red” Kelly, as told to Win P. Morgan, from the November 1974 Male. This is an issue I have wanted for a long time, mostly because it contains that “frog man” story by Walter Kaylin I was obsessed with reading for years, until Bob fortunately included it in MAQ #5. This story clearly seems to be a take on that Joey book that came out at the time, the autobiography of the Mafia hitman which I still haven’t read. Like Joey, this one’s by a top Mafia killer who tells us about his job in practical, business-like terms. There’s some tongue-in-cheekery at play: “Red” tells us how a lot of the hitman stuff we see in movies is “crap,” as no real hitman would go for the fancy kills seen in such movies…and as the tale progresses, Red pulls off a bunch of fancy kills, like scuba-diving beneath a boat and planting explosives on it. This one has a great crime-pulp vibe, with memorable lines like, “His eyes were wide open as the bullet plowed into his brain.”
“The Hit Man Who Turned Out To Be A Woman,” by Craig Campbell and from the March 1975 For Men Only, is notable because it’s another of those men’s adventure mag stories where the illustrations have nothing whatsoever to do with the story. The cool artwork shows a hotstuff female assassin putting on makeup and disguising herself for hits…but the story itself relegates the female assassin to supporting-character status, focused more on the determined Fed who chases her. Indeed there’s almost a horror vibe to this one, as the hitwoman is presented as a mysterious presence, one who shows up and whacks some Mafia stooge, then disappears…and then cops assemble and try to put the pieces together. But more importantly, now that we’re in the ‘70s things are a bit more risque: for her first kill the hitwoman wears a see-through blouse, and we’re told how the soon-to-be-victim is “staring down at the boobs.” Actually the writing for this one is very different from the men’s mag norm, with such oddball phrases as, “Gargulio’s chinless face…reminded Ross of the underside of a toilet bowl.” Bob doesn’t have much to say about author “Craig Campbell” in the intro, so I’m wondering if it’s a pseudonym. Indeed, the weird phrases and unusual story structure had me flashing back to the similarly-oddball work of contemporary crime fiction author Charles Miron. Oh, and I have to note for posterity: Ross, the hotshot Fed on the case, does not have sex with the sexy hitwoman! You’d figure that would be a given in a men’s mag yarn, but it doesn’t happen.
Finally we have a suprisingly-long men’s mag story from the ‘70s with “The Day Castro Beat The CIA’s Mafia,” by Wayne C. Ulsh and from the October 1974 For Men Only. Another great intro, complete with James Reasoner stating that Ulsh was one of his favorite men’s adventure mag writers of the day. This story is more long-simmer, with a CIA agent named John Cogan trying to orchestrate Castro’s assassinatino in early ‘60s Cuba, Cogan retaining the services of a Mafia hitman named Marzano. It too features a memorably downer ending, with Cogan going to extreme ends to ensure silence…a secret job that’s now openly being discussed in a men’s adventure magazine several years after the fact. I do enjoy how some of these writers seemed to have so much fun with the “true” conceit.
Otherwise there are a handful of pieces on various topics, most notably the very much in shape Betty Brosmer, and also a feature on the men’s adventure mags published by her husband, Joe Weider. I got into weight-lifting in the early ‘90s so have been aware of Weider for a long time; seeing his name always makes me chuckle, as the first car I ever bought was a 1984 Volkswagen Rabbit (this was in ’97, so the car was not new), and it didn’t have power steering, so it was quite an arm workout to drive it. My buddy Ken would always call it “The Joe Weider Car.”
Anyway, Men’s Adventure Quarterly #8 is yet another highly-recommended installment of this excellent series, which will hopefully continue to run for years and years!