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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Where There Were No Innocents by Thomas Drinkard

This novel offers an officer's perspective on SOG during US involvement in Vietnam. I understand this is a prequel to another book, but this was my introduction to the author and character.

Mack Brinson is the type of officer every good soldier wishes was in charge. Though his duties in MACV-SOG seem rather nebulous, he voluntarily tags along with SOG teams that go behind the fence, and earns enough respect to be invited to the one-zero table more than once after a mission.

No Innocents provides a fascinating glimpse into the pseudo-secret SOG command structure, administration, and even some operations. It overlaps nicely with Jack Murphy's PROMIS Vietnam, which was written from the perspective of a one-zero, or SOG team leader.

After his tour begins, Brinson is targeted almost immediately by VC assassins, and has numerous close calls. The reason for his targeting really struck me as plausible, too. In fact, though I'm at least a generation too young to have ever been to Vietnam, most of this book smacked of authenticacy, thanks to the author's experience in-country. Especially the geography and character interaction...with one exception.

That exception is Brinson's whirlwind relationship with the beautiful Song. I know love-at-first-sight does happen, so it's not that that bothers me, really. But these two decide to get married after one date. I know that happens, too, especially during wartime. I just think, story-wise, it could have been milked for a lot more suspense/conflict. Some suspense did get added to the mix by way of Song's father--an influential man in South Vietnam's intelligence organization, though.

In any event, the guts of this novel is SOG's part in the war up to and including the Tet Offensive, and it was presented so well as to outweigh my issues with the romantic subplot.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Survivor #2: The Nightmare Begins by Jerry Ahern

I admit this at the expense of dating myself badly, but I grew up during the end of the Cold War. From the age of seven or so, when a sibling informed me that the world could be annihilated at the push of a button, I lived with the threat of nuclear holocaust looming in the back of my mind. In fact, the very first time I heard the beeping of a phone left off the hook too long (I think I was 12 or 13), my very first thought was, "Oh, no. This is it!" Not having seen the previous generation's "Duck and Cover" films, I just assumed there was no possibility of surviving such a conflict.

A few years later, I saw The Road Warrior. That film influenced me in a few different ways. I'll mention two of those ways: 1) It caused me to consider the possibility that a nuclear exchange did not necessarily guarantee the obliteration of all human life on the planet. 2) Despite my fear of a nuclear war that could set the skies on fire at any moment, I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed it so much that I've had an affinity for the post-apocalypse genre ever since. Back in the day, I couldn't wait for the next Doomsday Warrior or Last Ranger to be published. Yet somehow, I missed Jerry Ahern's Survivalist series.*

I've recently corrected that oversight. I now have one Survivalist under my belt* and am hungry for more.

The series' title character is John Rourke, a former CIA operative who was on a civilian flight at the hour the missiles struck. His sidekick in this book was Paul Rubenstein, a former white collar geek type with a good heart, and a mental toughness allowing him to cope and adapt well to the new world, under Rourke's hands-on tutelage. Rubenstein was on the same flight, which crashed out West. The story picks up as the pair are making their way through Texas for the eastern seaboard, where Rourke hopes to find his wife and kids still alive somehow, and Rubenstein plans to turn south into Florida to look for his parents. They're traveling on motorcycles (Rourke in style--his is a Harly).

This series has most of what you would hope to find in a post-apocalyptic yarn: A smart, skilled, resourceful hero who is up to the extraordinary task of surviving in such a world; a wide-open Wild-West type landscape of dangerous wilderness and ghost towns; and a rogue's gallery of brigands and Soviets to ensure Rourke's quest is no radioactive milk run. And yet Ahern avoided some of the, conventions I've come to expect in the genre. There were no human mutants, for instance. Our heroes did encounter a group of infected teenagers, but the author made it clear they were living on borrowed time--not transforming into vampires or Marvel supervillains. And though there was some sexual tension here and there, there was no prose-porn.

What about gun porn? From what I've read, Ahern has a reputation for this. Maybe I still don't understand where the threshold is defined between describing a weapon/its use and descending into "gun porn," but in my opinion the author's treatment of firearms in this book was the former, and not the latter. Rubenstein's primary weapon (a WWII German submachinegun, MP40) is so interesting that I now am tempted to seek out the first issue just to find out how it was acquired. Rourke's signature side armament are twin Detonics Combat Masters, and his use of them at one point (though nothing flamboyant enough for a John Woo movie) actually had me break reading silence and sound off with a hearty "ooh-rah!" For long range, he carries a CAR-15, arguably the father of the M-4 carbine in such wide use today in US troop deployments.

I have a prejudice against the entire M16/AR15 family of weapons. The 82nd Airborne Division was usually one of the first units to get new toys (the Kevlar helmet, the M249 SAW, etc.), and I did get to plink with some M16A2s when they were still brand new. Their accuracy was pretty good, I'll admit, and they were far more dependable than the A1s I had used in OSUT. Yet I was apalled by their tendency to malfunction in spite of diligent cleaning. Especially in sandy environments. Yet the AR15 and its derivatives are still the most popular assault/battle rifle with the Pentagon and in men's fiction. There's a chance I may be able to present an interview with Jerry Ahern here on the 2-Fisted Blog soon, and this is one of the details I'm hoping he'll share his thoughts on. There are some other choices he made I'm curious about, too, so I'm hoping this interview deal pans out.

OK-moving on.

The bad guys in Nightmare Begins were also a breath of fresh air. No "B" movie Nazis here--even the KGB honcho. And his wife/agent Natalia is surprisingly complex. (Rourke recognizes her, BTW, from one of his spook missions in Central America.) In addition to the knowledgeable depictions of weaponcraft, I appreciated thoughtful details like the difficulty of finding gasoline after a nuclear war. A very popular author in the genre fails to address this issue honestly. Another author in the genre, many of whose books I personally like, had his protagonist once use Federal Reserve notes to pay for something in the post-nuke economy...and they were accepted! Rourke and Rubenstein find it necessary to forage (though they make an effort to deal fairly and honestly with others). This is a far more sober speculation, IMO.

Nightmare Begins has left me with the impression that at this point in the continuity, the series is just hitting its stride. I certainly plan to read the other Survivalist book I picked up, and will be on the lookout for others. Based on this reading, I recommend The Survivalist as an intelligent, well-written TEOTWAWKI series with plenty of action to keep us turning pages.

*From what I've read about the series, I remember reading a book many years ago that may have been a much later installment in this series. But I can't swear yes or no.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Captain America and Art Deco-Punk

I had intended to do something special for August, since this is the 1st anniversary of the 2-Fisted Blog. I still might, depending on whether somebody gets back to me soon.

Meanwhile, I'd like to comment on the high point of Hollywood's summer.

Ever since learning Joe Johnstone was the director, I felt confident that the character was in safe hands. And he was. Other critics are kvetching about the "safe" screenplay, but aside from the obligatory irritation of one of my personal pet peeves, I think Johnstone did a fantastic job. Rather than a typical review, I'm gonna focus on a challenge or 2 Johnstone met with aplomb.

In the Golden Age of comics (coincident with the halcyon days of pulp fiction and cliffhanger serials), when Captain America was first created, people couldn't have guessed half of the technology we take for granted today. And yet, creative types imagined some technology that has yet to be achieved in reality.

Like practical rocket packs and a super-soldier serum.

(Individual jet packs were developed during the Vietnam War, and demonstrated at one of the first Superbowls, but consumed too much fuel for more than one short flight and were abandoned as impractical for transport of troops by the US Army. They were never more than an expensive and dangerous novelty.)

So one of the challenges Johnstone faced was presenting still-futuristic (?) gadgets during an historic setting. Not that this hasn't been done before. One of my favorite reruns to watch, growing up, was The Wild, Wild West, which did just this. And there is an entire genre called "steampunk" which features this anachronistic premise as a primary ingredient. In The Rocketeer and Captain America, Johnstone pulls off the anachronisms so masterfully, I think it deserves it's own phrase. I'll call it "art deco-punk."

Howard Hughs' rocket pack looks like it could actually work. And yet it also looks like something designed and built in the 1930s. Same for the helmet Cliff Secord wears. Of course the Rocketeer props were based on the drawings from the comic source material, but kudos to the film makers for not attempting to "fix" something unbroken.

In First Avenger, the same imaginative skills are in evidence in the Red Skull's fortress and aircraft, as well as the secret lab where Steve Rogers is transformed into Captain America. But the art deco-punk was carried out well in the costume, also. The original Captain America costume from the comics (with the triangular shield) is cleverly incorporated into the flick as what Rogers wears for USO and War Bond appearances. But when he hits his stride as "the bona fide article," Cap wears an outfit a little less outlandish. Johnstone and his crew rose to the challenge of finding a "realistic" excuse to have an operative in the ETO fighting the Nazis in a red, white and blue costume.

In comic books, readers have apparently never had a problem with flamboyant costumes in robust hues. But in real life, people are offended by bright colors. So with the exception of the Superman and Spiderman films, and one particular campy TV series from the 1960s, every successful comic book adaptation for the screen has either replaced the superhero's costume or modified it with bland, muted colors. Johnstone's costumer did mute the Star-Spangled Avenger's colors, but it's also noteworthy that they conceived his headgear more as a helmet than a mask, but didn't take the cheap, ridiculous route the makers of the '70s TV pilot did (in photo below):

In the medium close-ups of Cap in his costume, you can see material and stitching consistent with that issued to American troops during WWII.

Did the screenwriter also modify the origin story from the comic book canon? Yes, but not in the disrespectful, ham-fisted manner of so many other adaptations. Bucky and other stock characters were worked into this cinematic tale, re-conceived to be more believable, and even my own purist/stickler-for-accuracy self was pleased with how it was handled.

There are two other things I'll mention about this movie. In the political sense, they disprove the contention that Johnstone "played it safe" in the making of this film.

For whatever reason (verisimilitude, probably), Johnstone chose to show Captain America bearing arms--something I've never seen in the comics (most superheros have some sort of "code against guns"). Johnstone's leftist contemporaries in Hollywood will only show firearms responsibly used by cops, government agents, Communist revolutionaries or soldiers in wars they grudgingly approve of. I guess Cap falls into this latter category, but it's still a departure for a big-screen superhero.

After Watergate, the writers at Marvel found sufficient excuse to reveal their scorn for a "patriotic superhero" by turning Captain America into Nomad. That didn't go over so well. But now that the mass media has redefined patriotism to justify their lionization of politicians who commit treason, a supposed form of patriotism is considered acceptable again. It's okay to pay tribute to our flag as long as you pervert what it stands for. It's okay to pay lip service to our Constitution as long as you subvert its actual meaning and intent with globalist or Marxist plattitudes. The "safe" road for Johnstone to take would be to present Captain America as "a citizen of the world" who just happened to be born in the USA (remember when the Justice League of America became the "Justice League, America"? Or Bill Pulman's Independence Day speech, in the movie of the same name, that was really a globalist soundbite for interdependence?) And yet during Captain America and the Red Skull's climactic confrontation, it is clear from a short exchange about flags that the Skull is the globalist and Cap is rather proud of the exceptionality of his country.

Not to take anything from the other great superhero adaptations (of which Batman Begins might be the best), Joe Johnstone, along with his cast and crew, really did a bang-up job on this movie IMO. If Marvel Films can harness the swag of this one and the first Iron Man flick, then The Avengers should turn out to be something truly spectacular.

Monday, August 8, 2011

New Pulp is Spearheading the Revival

In an earlier post, I pontificated on pulp authors coming together and creating a brand for quality fiction that readers could grow to trust over time. Well, that is exactly what Mike Bullock, Tommy Hancock and others plan to do via New Pulp. And "others" includes me. I couldn't commit to a regular column of my own, but I am the columns editor now and will be contributing some of my own occasionally, starting with some interviews of movers and shakers in the Pulp Renaissance.

New Pulp is really a cool development on the one-year anniversary of the 2-Fisted Blog. Y'all may not be hearing from me much, these days, but I assure you I am working my tail off every chance I get. I've got several projects in the works right now that I'm stoked about and should prove to be something to be proud of if I execute well.

I'll be keeping you posted.


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Terminal Departure by Joe Crubaugh

When agent Cleo Matts boards an airliner to defuse a false flag operation, things don't go as planned. He didn't count on the CIA planting a pound of C-4 in the cargo bay. He didn't count on being seated next to a gorgeous runaway Hollywood superstar. He didn't count on the ancient Watchers intruding in the flight path. And he didn't count on a U.S. President gone rogue who can't bowl worth a crap.
Instead of business as usual, Matts embarks on a balls-to-the-wall adventure that takes him from 35,000 feet in the sky to the back streets of the Big Easy, from the halls of NASA to the corridors of Washington, DC, to a final bloody showdown with the Ministry of Streunberg in a raging ice storm.
This espionage action thriller is a plunging, twisting roller coaster ride that serves up a heaping helping of political satire, aliens, secret agents, scientists, beautiful women, a genetically-modified super virus, a CIA false flag operation, men in black, a jetliner that isn't going to make it to the ground in one piece, and many eccentric characters driving the plot.

Crubaugh has written a page-turning gigglefest involving competing secret and pseudo-secret government agencies, germ warfare conspiracies and alien abduction. This is one of those indie books that overcomes the stigma of poor editing, amateurish prose, etc. It's quirky and laugh-out-loud funny as Crubaugh weaves his eclectic tale, with a political outlook in synch with the entertainment industry as a whole.  Were the publishing industry not in such a crisis now, I can easily imagine this being published conventionally and placed beside the latest from Hiassen or Coben.

Cleo Matts is sometimes on the loopy side of eccentric, which makes him all the more appealing as a hero. Movie star Julia is unique for Hollywood in that she's pretty down-to-earth; but typical in that her Hollywood marriage is going down in flames when we meet her. Perhaps my favorite character was Stormi--a girl with a great attitude even when she's verbally tearing somebody a new hole. Airline pilot Dallas is the lucky guy who fate throws together with Stormi, and though complete with human weaknesses, he's still a guy you want to root for.

Terminal Departure is certainly entertaining. I would have liked just a bit more exposition about the CIA-vs.-Trapdoor conflict, and maybe how Roman knew about Cleo but not vice-versa. I felt a little off-balance, too, that the aliens play such a major role during the first act, but aside from some telepathic advice, go MIA for the rest of the novel.

Depending on your sense of humor, this book is well worth your time for the laughs alone.