Steele #2: Cold Steele, by J.D. Masters November, 1989 Charter Books Two weeks after the first volume and Lt. Donovan Steele is still in shutdown mode, being repaired and partially rebuilt after suffering so much destruction in the previous book. And while he’s given new cybnetic accessories with which to kill people, Simon Hawke (aka “J.D. Masters”) is once again more focused on plumbing
Tracker #4: Black Phantom, by Ron Stillman
June, 1991 Charter Books
The Tracker series continues to be the most painful read a men’s adventure fan can endure, once again delivering a boring story in which its asshole protagonist blithely overcomes all obstacles, defeats all enemies, and romances all women with the casual ease of a demigod. Plus the writing sucks. It’s almost as if this series was contrived by some anti-men’s adventure league and then fostered upon the reading public to sow disinterest and spite – seriously, that crap this terrible was getting published was almost a sign that anything could get published in the men’s adventure genre.
Like the previous volume, Black Phantom is basically just about Natty “Asshole” Tracker setting his sights on some non-PC villain and then spending the entire narrative fucking with him. In this case it’s Frederick Ebert, a neo-Nazi redneck who has created his own empire in the south and has entire armies of Nazi-like racists at his disposal. Despite these gun-toting goons and the murders they sow, the US government is trying to build a regular case against him instead of just taking him out, so Tracker, after assisting the Feds a bit, decides to take matters into his own hands and kill the bastard. It just takes him the entire novel to do so.
Previous volumes have also had such barebone plots and then padded them up with extraneous detail, but this one goes way overboard – I knew I was in for a shitstorm when in the very first action sequence Ron Stillman (aka Don Bendell) spent several pages providing useless backstories for a group of bikers as they raped a woman alongside the road, and then all of the bikers were blown away by Tracker within the next few pages. It goes like that throughout Black Phantom -- every character introduced into the tale is given pages of backstory filler, sometimes even including how their goddamn parents met!
Oh, and as for the title…the first page excerpt implied that “the Black Phantom” would be this new character, possibly evil, a black-armored scion of sci-fi death, but damn it all the “Phantom” is none other than asshole Tracker himself! Ebert, as we learn via incredibly elongated backstory, sends out teams of goons to kill Mexicans as they attempt to sneak across the US border, and Tracker starts showing up in the nick of time to save them, blowing away goons in his “Robocop”-style armor. Soon he becomes infamous as “the Phantom.”
But that’s just one of Tracker’s disguises here. He is also fond of showing up like an Indian “brave” in warpaint and on a horse, running commando raids on Ebert’s stooges. This is all just so stupid and monotonous, let alone unbelieveable, but Tracker as we’ll recall is a god among men and can do whatever he wants. This especially makes him seem like a dick, as it’s clear he could settle Ebert’s account straight away, but instead he takes his time about it.
Bendell fills pages with abandon, serving up useless backstory and dumbass sequences that have no bearing on anything. Most egregious is an extended sequence where we learn that one of Ebert’s goons is a professional wrestler (complete once again with elaborately detailed backstory on the guy), and Tracker trains to become a wrestler so he can take the guy on…all of it bullshit because it all ends the same as all the other extended sequences where Tracker takes on one of Ebert’s top guys, with Tracker dropping off the wrestler’s corpse as he flies over Ebert’s mansion in a C-10 – a recurring “joke” Bendell graces us with.
In fact there’s all kinds of “comedy” here, or at least the attempt at it. There is nothing more painful than a person who is not funny but thinks he is, and I fear Bendell must be of the type because he graces us with all sorts of “jokes” courtesy Tracker, and each and every one of them falls flat. It seems to me the author was going for a summer blockbuster sort of feel, with one-liners and whatnot, but boy it’s not funny.
And as we’ll recall Tracker isn’t just perfect in warfare, he also can get any woman he wants. He’s still got Dee, who has been with him since #2: Green Lightning, but we learn here that Dee’s really a secret agent and her chance meeting with Tracker in that second volume was actually part of a staged mission. To this I say “bullshit,” and it appears Bendell has merely introduced this concept so he can keep Dee around, and thus goes about majorly transforming her character in the pages of Black Phantom. He does though at least attempt to explain away Dee’s actions in previous volumes, all of which now ring false given the revelation that she is in fact a kick-ass commando herself.
Tracker also scores with Ebony Blanca, a CIA agent who conveniently moves in with Tracker as part of the mission against Ebert; she’s instantly horny as soon as she sees Tracker. And hell, Dee’s such a trouper she just leaves the two of them alone so they can get to know each other better! Of course we learn all about Ebony and etc, etc, all of which implies that she’s going to become Tracker’s “new” girlfriend, but then it just turns out to be another instance of page-filling as Ebony’s removed from the narrative posthaste.
The action scenes are also subpar, with Tracker so inhuman that he could probably take on a few Terminators at once without chipping a fingernail. And of course he’s even better than ever thanks to his continued cybernetic enhancements. But still, when the bullets begin to fly there’s no tension or excitement, mainly due to Tracker’s godlike abilities, but also because the scenes themselves are just so flat and lifeless. Joseph Rosenberger's action scenes are even more exciting.
Good gravy but this series sucks. I looked up Bendell and it appears he has lived quite a life, serving in the special forces, teaching martial arts, writing poetry, etc. So for all I know he could be a great guy, and he at least deserves some respect for serving his country. But still, I think I’m going to save myself some pain and just skip ahead to the last two volumes, which were written by some unknown person. They have to be better…I mean, even that Twilight shit has to be better than this!!
Springblade #1, by Greg Walker
October, 1989 Charter Books
This was the start of a 9-volume series detailing the black ops missions of Bo Thornton, a Vietnam badass who now heads a small team of “techno-commandos” who are hired out to the US government to do the dirty work. Series creator and author Greg Walker is a real person (ie, it’s not a house name); he himself has a special forces background, and has also published a few books on knife combat.
Springblade #1 is a strong start to the series, with a good focus on its main character. However as is customary for latter-day men’s adventure series, this first volume is much too concerned with scene-setting; in the ‘70s the first volume of a series would start right in, maybe doling out the origin in backstory (if at all). But by the time the genre was dying in the early ‘90s the focus was more on playing everything out. Hence, it takes a long time to get to the blood and gore in this book; in fact, there’s no major action until the final thirty pages.
Another indication of the publication date is that much of Springblade #1 veers a little too close to military fiction, at least for my taste. Another thing I preferred about ‘70s men’s adventure was that, for the most part, the protagonists were lone wolves. Teams were all the rage in series fiction in the ‘80s, and as the decade progressed the teams became more and more similar to your average Delta squad or SEAL team.
Anyway, our hero Bo Thornton is in his early 40s, unmarried, and now makes his living running a dive shop in California with Frank Hartung, an old war buddy. Thornton, like his creator, has a preference for bladed weapons and misses the rush of combat; after ‘Nam he did some special ops work for various agencies, and now an old DEA contact, a former SEAL named Bailey, calls Thornton while he’s on vacation in Oregon to see if he’d be interested in flying down to DC to consider taking on a special project.
A drug kingpin named Tony Dancer, no doubt modeled on Pablo Escobar but more fashionable, is plotting a new cocaine empire with which to take over the entire coke pipeline into the US. For reasons of bizarre coincidence, Dancer’s headquarters for this operation will be in Oregon! He plans to mask the place as a resort, and the intel the Feds have acquired shows that Dancer will host a party among his lieutenants on Christmas Eve, officially unveiling the place for business.
The DEA, through Bailey, asks Thornton to put together a special ops team to both destroy the coke lab and kill all of the occupants. This last order comes direct from the president of the US, who wants Tony Dancer dead. Thornton, sick of the social mire the modern world has fallen into, accepts the mission with relish. He makes his resort cabin in Oregon his new base of operations and calls in Hartung to act again as Seargent Major.
Thornton puts together his team from his old experience as well as a list of candidates the DEA provides. From his ‘Nam days he gets Jason Silver, a LRRP, and through the DEA he gets David Lee, a Delta commando and the only member of the team (dubbed “Springblade”) that’s currently on active duty. These three men, with Hartung acting as a sort of mother hen, will infiltrate Dancer’s complex on Christmas Eve and kill everyone inside.
Walker has a bit in common with Dan Schmidt in that he has too many characters and too many subplots in too short a book. While Silver and Lee barely get much narrative time (and indeed come off as ciphers), Walker does focus on incidental characters. In particular, Monk and his wooly gang of biker outlaws, who have been screwed over by Dancer’s unifying of the coke trade and now want revenge. They too plan an attack on Dancer’s place on Christmas eve, but it all just sort of fizzles out, and the biker subplot could be removed with no effect to the narrative.
Another thing is that Springblade #1 doesn’t have any action until the very last pages. Walker keeps it moving with a taut narrative style and good characterization, but he does insert the most goofy “I need to put an action scene here” moment I’ve yet encountered in one of these series novels. Early in the novel Thornton meets Linda, the attractive receptionist at his resort, and he takes her on a date. After dropping her off Thornton picks up a hitchhiker, just for the hell of it.
Yep, turns out the hitchhiker’s a murderer, and he attempts to waste Thornton. Little does he know that Thornton carries around a ballistic knife in his car. There follows a brief sequence where Thornton easily dispatches his would-be killer, pulls the body out of his car and stashes it off of the night road, covers his tracks, drives home…and cracks open a beer! The incident is never mentioned again, let alone reflected upon by a beer-sipping Thornton.
Otherwise Walker delivers good action scenes, with lots of detail on the particular weapons the Springblade team takes with them. (The “techno-commando” stuff mostly comes down to their nightvision goggles and comlink equipment.) The finale is entertaining, with the team infiltrating the drug compound in the dead of night, silently taking out guards. Walker packs on the violence here, though not to extreme levels. He seems to save his gorier descriptions for the knife battles, like when Thornton is jumped by a SEAL who happens to be employed by Dancer, and the two go at it with their blades.
Walker shares another similarity with Dan Schmidt in that his finales are pretty anticlimatic, which just as in Schmidt’s work is a bit surprising given how good the build-up is. He spends a lot of time showcasing Thornton’s battle with the aforementioned SEAL, a character who is basically a nonentity so far as the plot goes, but brushes off Dancer’s fate in an off-screen fashion. Unlike Schmidt though, there’s more characterization here, with Thornton given to a lot of introspection and self-doubt, plus his camaraderie with Hartung leads to a lot of military-style banter.
I also need to mention that Springblade #1 is unabashedly pre-PC. Every black, hispanic, or other minority is a drug dealer, gangster, or murderer; there’s a goofy scene where Thornton and Bailey, driving through DC, point their fingers gun-style at a black dude they pass on the street…and Walker is sure to inform us that the black dude is indeed a gun-carrying drug dealer! (Though obviously Thornton and Bailey couldn’t know that…)
A brief inspection of future volumes of Springblade proves that this will only increase…I opened up to a wacky scene in the next installment where Thornton takes on a group of gay transvestite muggers – who intend to rape him – hacking them up in super-gory detail! I tell you, the bizarre joys of the men’s adventure genre will never be matched in any other literature…
Steele #1, by J.D. Masters
July, 1989 Charter Books
Very much inspired by Robocop, the Steele series is a late-era example of the men’s adventure genre, bringing in elements of sci-fi and post-nuke pulps. It ran for quite a while, racking up eight volumes. The first six books carried the “J.D. Masters” byline, which apparently was a psuedonym of author Simon Hawke; the final two volumes were credited to “S.L. Hunter,” but supposedly these too were by Hawke. I’m not sure on this, and can find no other name connected to either psuedonym.
The series takes place midway through the 21st century; the world has been ravaged by a series of cataclysms. First and foremost terrorists unleashed a biological virus a generation ago which did more damage than even the terrorists expected, knocking out half of the world population. Years later and the virus now manifests itself in “screamers,” ie people affected by the virus who lose all sense of control and go into fits of rage, destroying everything in sight.
Also there was a limited nuclear engagement due to the biological warfare, but the series is not a post-nuke pulp, despite the nuking and the mutants. The country has already gotten back on its feet, with people going on about their normal lives; the nuclear and biological warfare background exists mostly so that Hawke can present a sort of ravaged future, one where inner-city warfare wages in the blasted ruins of cities.
Our hero is Donovan Steele, a 43 year-old Lieutenant in the New York City Strike Force, a sort of Delta Force SWAT team. Steele’s been patrolling the blasted streets of Midtown for two decades, watching as Manhattan and Long Island and other New York areas have been taken over by warring gangs and mobsters. DC was destroyed in the nuclear engagement, so now NYC is the seat of what still exists of the US government, despite which many of the surrounding areas are cordoned-off Escape From New York-style hellholes.
Steele’s a tough bastard, just as you’d expect. His backstory has a ring of dark comedy to it, as Hawke relates that, when Steele was 16, his mother became infected with the virus and became a screamer, coming home to eat her children; it all ends with everyone in Steele’s family dead, capped off with a bit where his dad, also infected, blows out his own brains, and I’ve gotta say, despite the grim tone it all really came off as sort of funny due to the outrageous factor. Anyway, Steele became a cop soon after and is now basically the star of the Strike Force.
A unique quality about Steele, at least so far as men’s adventure protagonists go, is that he’s married and has two teenaged sons. However Steele’s wife Janice is only mentioned in backstory, and Hawke paints a nasty picture of her…she sort of loves Steele but also hates him, mostly because of his job, and is carrying on “a few” affairs behind his back. Hawke has his reasons for doing this (most likely so he can get rid of her once Steele has his Robocop-esque experience midway through), but still Janice amounts to a pretty despicable character.
We know from the cover that Steele is going to become some sort of robot cop, but it takes over a hundred pages for this to occur. First Steele is assigned to work with Project Download, a government initiative run by a shady guy named Higgins that’s looking to “download” the combat insticts from Steele’s brain via software and store it into the brains of draftees and whatnot. Here Steele meets Dr. Susan Carmody, who comes on cool but is eventually throwing herself at him (not that Steele takes advantage of the situation).
After a gangland ambush leaves him mostly dead, Steele awakens several months later to find that he’s now a cyborg. His arms and legs have been replaced by android steele, as has been his skull and, most importantly, his brain is also now a computer, one that holds all of his downloaded memories. This serves to take up a huge portion of the narrative, as Steele constantly asks himself and others if having a robot brain means he is no longer human. Hawke makes it clear that he is, though, and also Steele still looks human, synthetic skin covering his robotic ligaments. In fact he looks identical to how he did before his accident, much to the confusion of his comrades, all of whom are now unsettled in his presence.
Steele’s relationship with Susan Carmody deepens, with her constant assurance that Steele is still very much human. As she often reminds him, he can procreate (his naughty parts survived his “death” unscathed), but for some bizarre reason, despite building it up so much, Hawke skips over the eventual sex scene between Steele and Susan. I only say it’s weird because another big concern of Steele’s is if he can still have sex, and when the moment arises Hawke just flashforwards to after the fact. Purple prose aside, it would’ve been a good opportunity for Hawke to again show us that Steele is human despite his cyborg makeover.
Just like Robocop, Steele is eventually sent back on the streets to patrol and kick criminal ass. Unlike Robocop though Steele still retains all of his faculties and makes his own decisions; again, Steele is pretty much identical to the person he was at the novel’s start, only now moreso…he can take all sorts of damage, can mete out horrendous punishment, and can run faster, jump higher, etc, etc. In other words the series wants to have its cake and eat it too; Steele is inhuman while still being human.
A mafioso named Borodini has united the various gangs (most of them split along ethnic lines) under his rubric, and Steele wants to crush the bastard, mostly because Borodini was behind the ambush that turned Steele into a cyborg. The ambush however was launched against a black gangster named Ice; Steele just got caught in the crossfire. Now Steele attempts to find Ice again, so that the two can work together against Borodini. Here we have several battle sequences, Steele testing out his new body against a small army of gangmembers.
But where Steele #1 fails is in the action department. Hawke delivers the few action scenes in an almost outline format, such as, “Running down the stairs, Steele fired, killing them all.” Dammit, I want exploding guts and blasted-out brains! But the gore and violence factor is minimal here (as is the sex factor), despite the number of gangmembers Steele kills. In other words, the book would easily rank a PG-13. It’s odd because Hawke will often go into gun-porn detail on the weapons Steele carries, but when it comes to showing what those weapons will do to a human body, he doesn’t elaborate.
By novel’s end Steele has been “discovered” by the local media, who exploit his feats on the news, thus putting Steele (and those he cares about) on the radar of the crime lords. After suffering more damage in another outline-style action scene, Steele is about to undergo another round of “updating” when the novel comes to a close, with nothing resolved, Borodini still alive, and the implication that Ice is about to become Steele’s partner on the streets.
This is one of the better-written men’s adventure novels I’ve read, but this first installment is more focused on world building and scene setting, and very focused on characters and their emotional arcs. I mean, there’s even a long subplot all about Steele’s friendship with Father Liam, a local priest who goes drinking with Steele and listens to Steele’s soul-baring confessions over endless rounds of beer. You could easily be fooled into thinking this is just a “regular” novel and not the first volume of a series. I’ve managed to get the entire series at a very nice price, and looking through future volumes it appears that the storylines get more pulpy and action focused, but then that might just be the customary back cover hyperbole.
So while it doesn’t offer much from the standard men’s adventure department, Steele #1 is still a very good read, compelling and gripping in its own way, offering more characterization than any other series I’ve yet read. It just needs more exploding guts and blasted-out brains!
Tracker #3: Blood Money, by Ron Stillman
March, 1991 Charter Books
At this point, my reading of the Tracker series borders on the sadomasochistic. Without question the dumbest damn bunch of books I've ever read, this series proves that with the advent of the Politically Correct era in the early 1990s, the men's adventure genre was doomed. But even though Blood Money is in its own way just as stupid as its predecessors, there are actually parts of it where it isn't too bad. It's still just hamstrung by its too-perfect protagonist, its coloring book mentality, and its overbearing PC-minded vibe.
What's funny is that the back-cover copy does little to provide the plot of the actual novel. It would have you think that Blood Money is about Natty Tracker taking on a billionaire supervillain who is involved in all sorts of nefarious schemes, even using inner-city kids as his personal army. (We do of course learn that these kids are being taken advantage of and, due to the savage, squalid nature of their lives, don't realize that it's wrong when they kill people for drug money and etc. I mean, they're not to be blamed at all, society is!) And though the novel starts off in that direction, what it really turns out to be is the tale of how Tracker is stranded on a tropical isle, nearly dies, is finally rescued, and, after taking a year to recuperate, wages a one-man war of vengeance upon the billionaire.
The gimmick with this series is Tracker's blindness, but this is now a moot point. In Six Million Dollar Man style Tracker now has regular-looking eyes which allow him to zoom in on things and also record them. This creates an annoying fail-safe sort of deal where Natty, with a bit of pressure to a spot behind his ear, can instantly patch in to the monitor of his government contact Wally Rampart. So then, no matter what sort of trouble Tracker gets himself into, with a touch behind his ear he can alert Rampart, who will prompty send Apache helicopters or whatever to save him. And hell, Tracker's such a superstar that even the President is a fan, sometimes watching the events on Rampart's monitor.
There are a lot of action setpieces at the start of Blood Money, as Tracker sets in on billionaire villain James Earl Smith. Along for this portion of the novel is Dee, the knockout gal Tracker picked up in the previous volume; she's still in love with Tracker, but oddly drops out of the book toward the end. (Even odder is a bit late in the tale, unrelated to anything, where we learn that Dee's father has died, and so Tracker consoles her -- I say this is odd because it just comes out of nowhere and then is passed over.)
Everything proceeds as in past books; namely, Tracker taking on tons of adversaries and always emerging victorious, no matter the odds. Then things change midway through as the novel appropriates the vibe of survivalist fiction. Soon after setting his sights on James Earl Smith, Tracker is caught and taken to a remote isle, where after a huge battle he of course overcomes his would-be killers, but as a result is stranded. However his eye gear is ruined and he is blind. So now he is alone, unsure where in the world he is, surrounded by ocean and sharks, and unable to see. Any other character would understandably be scared, but Tracker instead starts forcing himself to eat raw shark meat and paddles around blindly.
It's to Stillman's credit that he doesn't have Tracker miraculously save himself. Indeed he takes a lot of damage here, even getting the lower part of his leg eaten by a shark. (Of course, the lost limb is later replaced by another fancy cybertech piece of equipment.) Eventually though he is saved by Rampart's men, who are finally able to pinpoint Tracker's location -- turns out he is somewhere in the Philipines.
Here Blood Money becomes the tale of Tracker's recovery. After six months (!) in a coma, he returns to his roots and hangs out with his "Native American" grandfather who blusters all of the expected wiseman stuff. After lots of horseriding and meditating, Tracker then finally declares vengeance upon Smith -- initiated in a lame and goofy scene where Tracker, on a horse and painted in traditional Indian warpaint, crashes a public event James Earl Smith is hosting and screams a war cry at the man, then somehow is able to evade the police and security men who chase after him.
It's odd though because for the rest of the novel Tracker does not operate in the interests of the people Smith is screwing over. He's out solely for his own vengeance. And, rather than quickly killing Smith, he instead just fucks with him. Stupid stuff like sneaking into Smith's penthouse in the middle of the night and scrawling warnings all over the place, including on Smith's own body. It's all just very stupid and juvenile, and again makes you wish that someone would just shoot Tracker dead.
Finally though Tracker launches a climatic assault on Smith -- even though he could've killed the guy five times over by this time -- and the novel ends on the lamest note possible, with Smith getting the drop on Tracker and trying to shoot him, but missing with each damn shot, even though Tracker is standing right in front of him. All of this so Stillman can deliver an ending where Tracker, true to his pledge, can kill Smith with a traditional weapon of his forefathers, ie a Bowie knife.
Overall the novel is written in the same rough style as the previous volumes, jumping back and forth between various characters and situations with little rhyme or reason. Dialog falls flat over and over. And the characters lack even the barest of human qualities -- there's even a scene where Dee discovers that Tracker's eyes can broadcast everything he's doing back to Wally Rampart's monitor, and she discovers this right after she and Tracker have had sex, and even though she throws a tantrum, she basically just brushes it off.
But Tracker himself is the biggest problem. One of the biggest stumbling blocks of men's adventure fiction is the too-perfect heroes, guys who excel no matter the situation or the odds. Tracker is the epitome of the type, so omniscient and omnipotent that he only succeeds in making the reader root for the bad guys.