My father gave me my first Don Pendleton novel before I was a teenager.
It wasn’t one of the Mack Bolan books for which Pendleton is best known. It was The Guns of Terra 10, one of Pendleton’s early noodlings in science fiction before The Executioner series took off and made him a wealthy pulp auteur.
I didn’t know anything about that, though. All I knew was my father was smiling conspiratorially, like he was sharing a secret, as he handed me a cheap, dusty-blue paperback. Slightly worn at the corners and creased down the spine, the old-fashioned painted cover promised interplanetary escapism: a corps of fighters in skin-tight spacesuits strode into action, carrying ray guns, led by a square-jawed hero and his improbably bosomy sidekick, while a strange blimp-slash-flying-saucer craft hovered high in the starry background and blasted its own weapons in all directions.
“Check this out,” my father said with a knowing grin. “This is where George Lucas got the idea for the Death Star.”
Nothing more needed to be said. I was smack in the middle of the generation of kids who were fundamentally rewired by Star Wars in the 1970s, and I was now ravenous for insights into its origins and for adjacent adventures. I took that book straight to my room and devoured it in a matter of hours.
I remember thinking, even back then, that my father’s assertion was questionable. Yeah, there was a big, heavily-armed space station, but it wasn’t a planet-killer. And besides, the story didn’t really feel like Star Wars. Instead, it was a lumpy mash-up of Heinlein and Hubbard, with some Aldous Huxley thrown in; it seesawed between densely jargon-y action theatrics and long and speechy arguments about civics and social philosophy, with frequent digressions to explore weird ideas about sexual politics, which were both uncomfortable and deeply fascinating to my eleven-year-old self. I’m not proud to say this, but I read it several times over the next few years, even as I followed the Pendleton name into his other SF books and then the Mack Bolan series.
I realize, of course, that this was all literary junk food, but I also now recognize that I was participating in a common rite of passage. Boys look to their fathers for lessons about manhood, and fathers oblige, handing down their manly secrets, however dubious and ill-founded. My father believed he Knew Some Things (even when he, uh, didn’t), and because he felt that information conferred power, he confidently, proudly passed his wisdom to his son. The Guns of Terra 10 was not the only Man Story he gave me, but it was the first one, and it’s the one I remember. For him, and for those like him, the Man Story was a lens for understanding himself; and, further, it offered a convenient package for conveying that understanding, not least because it allowed him to communicate without the awkwardness of actually, y’know, talking.
Here, son. It’s time. You’re ready. I think you might like this.
Fathers have shared masculine stories with their sons since the dawn of storytelling, of course. But the manly-man narrative as we now know it underwent a sort of sweaty epiphany with the “men’s adventure” magazines of the 1950s. They started as cheap “true stories from soldiers” rags during the Second World War, and then over the next decade expanded to cover all sorts of blood-and-guts yarn-spinning. With names like Man’s Life, His World, and True Action, the luridly painted covers of these periodicals invariably featured a brutal life-and-death struggle on the cover, showing some combination of snarling animals, torn clothing, guns and knives, villainous Nazis or Commies, and at least one half-naked woman; and they filled their pages with an assortment of vaguely truthful first-hand accounts, outright fiction spuriously labeled as fact, a sprinkling of pin-ups and other cheesecake, and advice and half-baked commentary aimed at the unformed, insecure, and/or frustrated male.
These magazines were very popular, but they were, officially at least, on the fringe of acceptable culture. The mainstream masculine adventure was, by comparison, quite a bit more genteel, and its heroes, even its vigilantes, were garlanded with various markers of respectability. James Bond had nearly unlimited freedom to operate, but he was still an agent of the British government, ultimately answerable to the Crown. The Lone Ranger was a former Texas lawman who still wore his badge as a symbol of his honorable intent. Zorro was an aristocrat, educated and well-mannered. Batman worked outside the law, but during this period he vocally upheld American values (and hawked fruit pies in the center-section advertisements). Even Mickey Spillane’s notorious hard man Mike Hammer, whose violent exploits were condemned by respectable critics, was a licensed private detective who assiduously pursued justice and respected the police. None of them would ever need to hack at a tiger with a machete to save his lingerie-clad girlfriend from voodoo rapists, as seemed to happen every week in the men’s mags.
Don Pendleton’s Executioner series changed all this.
Pendleton is an interesting fellow, with a background including military service and an engineering stint at NASA. At the beginning of his writing career, he wasn’t particularly loyal to any one genre; he was just looking for whatever would sell, and dabbled in everything from mysteries and crime fiction to borderline smut for several years. Along the way, under a couple of pseudonyms, he also tried his hand at science fiction. In addition to The Guns of Terra 10 and a handful of others, he wrote the truly odd The Godmakers, in which a Heinleinesque hero teaches his friends how to use sex to trigger astral projection, and they all team up to fight God. (Seriously. I can’t recommend it, because it’s basically terrible, but it has to be read to be believed.)
His first Mack Bolan novel, The War Against the Mafia, was just one of many angles he was trying at the time. Drawing on his own history as a combat veteran in World War Two and Korea, he conceived Bolan as a legendary sniper who is given leave from his assignment in Vietnam to deal with a family tragedy. On discovering the Mafia was responsible, he abandons his military obligations, going AWOL to pursue single-minded vengeance against organized crime for the rest of his days.
For Pendleton, it was just another book, combining what he felt were marketable elements borrowed from around the media landscape: a hyper-macho protagonist, exaggerated violence, a healthy dose of sex,1 and a veneer of topicality. But on receipt of the manuscript, his editor immediately recognized that while the ingredients were derivative, they were assembled in a fresh new way, creating something that had never been seen before. Drop what you’re doing and get started on a sequel, the editor told Pendleton, even before the first book went to press. This is gonna be big.
Pendleton obliged, and the editor was right. The Executioner was an instant smash, and Pendleton devoted himself to cranking out Mack Bolan adventures exclusively. After three dozen books in twenty years (!), he wanted to turn his attention to other writing projects, so he licensed the character and concept to the experienced serialists at Harlequin. They recruited a rotating stable of ghostwriters and created a new imprint, with Pendleton’s name prominently featured, and fired up their publication treadmill. As of today, Mack Bolan and/or his spin-off teammates have featured in more than six hundred individual novels, with new books still appearing on an approximately monthly basis even now.
What accounts for this success? In a world with no shortage of tough-guy heroes, what made Mack Bolan unique? What was Pendleton doing differently, and what makes this series such a clear milestone in its influence on what followed?
As noted above, the ideal masculine hero of mainstream media prior to Bolan generally operated under or was at least tacitly blessed by the auspices of some sort of authority, usually a government or law-enforcement agency. Bolan, by contrast, is a complete rogue, pursuing his vision of justice with total independence, not just outside the law but explicitly at odds with the police. Importantly, he’s not a self-interested villain, pursuing glory or criminal enrichment or some other personal goal; he’s a dark avenging angel, working violently and illegally but, he believes, selflessly to protect the innocent.2
Indeed, these stories are underpinned by a stark, uncompromised moral absolutism. For comparison, consider that when James Bond is pursuing his investigation into a criminal mastermind, he will sometimes rub elbows with some reprobate who would be the heavy of a lower-stakes story, but who for Bond is briefly useful and is thereafter beneath his pay grade and given no further attention, free to return to his sleazy habits. Mike Hammer, too, may be a detective chasing justice, but Spillane’s stories are awash in shades of grey, portraying a murky world where thuggish heroes are difficult to distinguish from civilized villains.
By contrast, in a Mack Bolan story, there is no such nuance, no such blurring. One is either an innocent, deserving of protection, or one is a villain, preying on the innocent, who must therefore be killed. Or one is a protector, who defends the innocent by killing the villains. That’s it: there are no other categories. It’s a world whose ethical boundaries are drawn with hard, clear edges — where black hats and white hats can be discerned at a glance. In media supposedly aimed at adults, Pendleton portrays a crude version of morality effectively unprecedented in its childishness.
To be fair, Pendleton is on the record as disavowing the fantasy-avatar aspects of a Bolan story, and arguing that its violent portrayal of cleansing retribution is a reflection, a subtly drawn affirmation, of positive principles. On a promotional site still maintained by Pendleton’s wife, he is quoted as saying, “Bolan’s killing, and the motives and methods involved, is actually a consecration of the life principle. … I hope that [the reader’s] own sense of personal dignity and respect for life is enhanced through that identification with Bolan.” Later, he goes on: “I do not believe that my books constitute a call to violence. Quite the reverse. The whole thing is an allegory, and anybody who would want to trade places with Mack Bolan is missing the entire point of the Executioner rationale. This guy is living in hell.” But when you also read Pendleton say that the Mafia was an “enemy beyond redemption… ready-made… [that] embodied all the evils of mankind,” and that he worked throughout the series to “keep faith… that what [Bolan] is doing is right” — and, more importantly, when you actually read the books — you realize that this is all a bullshit self-justifying rationalization.
In any case, on top of that, the early Executioner books have an even more interesting wrinkle, in which they make time for explicit commentary on society and a man’s place in it. Unusually for a tough-guy protagonist, Bolan keeps a regular journal, excerpts from which frequently appear in the text. These are not introspective illuminations where Bolan explores his interior psychology; as far as we can tell, he doesn’t really have an interior psychology, besides anger, vengeance, and operational planning. He does, however, have Lots of Thoughts: about the world, its rules, the way things work. His journal entries are equal parts observational musing and pronouncement, and it’s unclear whether Pendleton intends them to be reflective of Bolan’s perspective, or exploits the opportunity to offer what he regards as his own wisdom. They’re very strange, but for the male reader who’s receptive to simple declarations of masculine imperative, they’re also tantalizing in their blunt clarity.
It’s these conscious digressions into philosophical rumination, graceless as they may be, combined with the oversimplification of the world into unambiguous good guys and bad guys, that, to my mind, really set Pendleton’s Mack Bolan books apart, and make them the ur-texts pointing directly at modern Dad Media.
See, the true hallmark of Dad Media, I believe, can be found in its intention toward its audience — that it exists, that it is consciously engineered, to be reassuring. That may seem like a strange thing to say about stories leaning so heavily on crime, violence, and general mayhem, but it’s the worldview underneath that’s being served and reinforced. Basically, if the movie or show or book wants to make its audience think, to leave them asking questions — if it wants to challenge them in any way — then, by definition, in my view, it can’t be Dad Media.
It’s not about supporting or elaborating on a particular political ideology, either, with rigid loyalty to either party. It’s true that Dad Media is marked by an unmistakable conservatism, but it’s not one that has any opinions about, or even understands, things like international monetary policy or urban transportation planning. Instead, it’s a much simpler kind of conservatism, one that likes driving fast, drinking beer, looking at pretty women, and fantasizing about shooting bad guys.
Hence, because it’s intimidating and confusing for many men to wrestle with complicated reality, it’s genuinely comforting to be told that those perceived complexities are just soft-headed intellectual nonsense, and that their own simpler perspective is correct. These guys would love to haul off and punch that jerk at work, or in traffic, but they’re not allowed, and that’s frustrating; and therefore it’s soothing to watch somebody throw his nemesis down the stairs, or just shoot him, without any consequence beyond, perhaps, a stern lecture from the lieutenant. And they think it would be great if they could just get down to business without all these womenfolk constantly nagging them about this and the other, so it’s terrifically satisfying when a story shows exactly that happening.
Pictured: Getting down to business.
And it’s not enough to see your manly-man heroes doing manly-man things. They need to do those manly-man things for manly-man reasons. Those reasons are always straightforward, uncomplicated, and pure. Loyalty to friends and family, and to country. A general sense of law and order. Action over talk. At no point is any of this burdened by doubt, either; a man does what needs to be done, does what he wants to do, because a man always knows what to do, without need for introspection. A man doesn’t chase tail because he’s a prisoner of biology and culturally programmed expectations: he chases tail because he’s a man. A man doesn’t drink heavily because his family’s history of alcoholism and emotional dysfunction makes self-medication preferable to self-examination: he drinks heavily because he’s a man. A man doesn’t use violence because the social straitjacket of narrowly defined masculinity limits his scope of expressible feelings to a few shadings of anger: he uses violence because he’s a man.
The Mack Bolan books, I believe, were the first piece of mainstream media to distill all of this into its most base and effectively primal form. They’re the first stories to target the reader’s inner caveman, giving him an encouraging (but still manly) pat on the back, telling him, yeah, man, this is for you, because you get it, man.
The men’s mags offered the same sort of violent escapism tinged with titillation, but there was no deeper agenda behind them; they existed purely for the sake of their prurient thrills. James Bond was a naked power fantasy, but there was always a bit of distance to it, with its exotic settings and mask of social and political sophistication. Then The Executioner series rolled up all the most commercial and psychologically addictive elements of these and other influences, threw intellectual pretension out the window, and launched itself directly at the American male’s lizard brain.
There was nothing quite like him before, but in his wake followed direct clones like Frank “The Punisher” Castle, Remo “The Destroyer” Williams, and the Death Wish and Executioner movies, along with mutations like Dirty Harry. And the model it established continues to inspire storytellers to the present; echoes of Mack Bolan’s identity as a roaming vigilante can be felt in everything from Jack Reacher to Doc Ford. It is a little strange, given its popularity and influential omnipresence, that despite numerous abortive attempts The Executioner has never been adapted for the screen, but it may be kind of a Princess of Mars type situation, where the source has been pillaged so deeply for so long by its descendants that the original would wind up feeling paradoxically derivative. It’s also, perhaps, noteworthy that after having been subject to such relentless imitation for so many years, the latter-day Bolan books have gone rather far afield of their origins; in recent entries, we find Bolan’s team chasing down everything from African ivory poachers to, no joke, The Yeti.
Still, despite the attenuation that came from endless copycats and the drift of the original character, we still have the oily, undiluted majesty of Pendleton’s initial run of thirty-odd books, standing as a monument to creative stubbornness, perverse inspiration, and cultural perspicacity combined with lightning-strike luck.
And, even now, I am still sometimes sad that I no longer have that original dog-eared copy of The Guns of Terra 10. I know it’s awful, but it’s not its debatable literary value I miss; I want to re-experience the feeling of holding it in my hands, and of receiving it from my father, this tall figure leaning slightly down to me, speaking quietly, his eyes gleaming with mischief.
It’s a bad book, and it was given to me for arguably bad reasons, but it’s still a good memory. Such is the paradox in the Way of Men, of Dad Media, and of Don Pendleton.