Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Serial Vigilantes of Paperback Fiction by Bradley Mengel (McFarland, 2009)

Ever since reading the cover blurb of The Destroyer #23: Child's Play ("Who would think of booby-trapping a frisbee?"), I've been fascinated by what I call Men's Action/Adventure paperback series of the '70s (MAA70 for short): The Executioner, The Destroyer, The Death Merchant, The Butcher, and their many violent imitators. Not that I actually read the damn things; most are dull, if not downright unreadable. It's the peculiar package: the neatly number titles, the bizarrely-named protagonists, the blazing violent covers, and the mind boggling body counts. I just love having them lined up neatly on my shelves.

I have been waiting for a book like Serial Vigilantes for 30 years. MAA70 are the male analog of romance novels. Critics ignore them. Respectable bookstores don't carry them. Information of any sort about them is almost impossible to come by.

As a bibliography alone, Serial Vigilantes fills a gaping void. It has the scoop on more than 130 series from Able Team to Z-Comm. Each entry describes the series hero and premise, gives a complete list of titles through 2008, and unmasks many of the writers lurking behind pen names like "Stuart Jason" and "Nick Carter." It's decently written, nicely organized, neatly presented, and seems pretty comprehensive. It's earned a spot on my reference book shelf. To think, all those years I thought Michael Avallone wrote the early Butchers...I'm sorry, Mike

But I can and must kvetch about details. First, the term "serial vigilantes." I hate it. Although it accurately describes guys like the early Executioner, the Lone Wolf, and a whole passel of Death Wish-like gun-toting goofballs, just as many of the subgenre's so-called "vigilantes," including mainstays like Nick Carter and my beloved Destroyer are agents clandestinely working for the government. What self-respecting vigilante takes orders, much less pulls down a civil service paycheck? Me, I'm sticking with MAA70, with "action" being a code word for one of the sub-genre's most prominent features: excessive gratuitous violence.

Mengel's history of the sub-genre is also pretty sketchy. I will spare you my lengthy rant about the pre-history of the sub-genre. Just let me say that I see a lot more Tarzan, James Bond, and Mickey Spillane and a lot less Doc Savage than Mengel does. He also makes no comment about how or why the sub-genre seemed to take a strong martial turn around 1980, with mercenary vs. terrorist supplanting man vs. Mafia as the conflict of choice. Since I frankly don't care about these later series, it's no big deal. But I do wonder.

My biggest gripe, however, is personal. For many years I have been on a quest for the worst MAA70 series. Is it The Hitman? Gannon? The Lone Wolf? Alas, Serial Vigilantes is utterly uncritical. It treats these abuses of the reader's endurance with every bit as much respect as the excellent Destroyer, the Ur-Executioner, and the always-good Revenger. I suppose neutrality is good in a reference book. But I did have my hopes.

At least I know I only have 100 more series to check out!


Mike Sullivan said...

Is the Baroness series covered in that book? I'm curious to see who really wrote those books.

John Marr said...

Yep, The Baroness is there. It was a product of Lyle Kenyon Engel's Book Creations, Inc. LKE did the concept and hired hacks to do the work, so who know who actually wrote 'em. Add three unpublised titles to the 8 published.

Mike Sullivan said...

Thanks Johnny.

Brad Mengel said...

Brad Mengel says,

Hi John,

Thanks for the review of my book. You raise a number of interesting points,I considered a number of names for the genre as I discussed in the introduction but through discussions with McFarland we decided on serial vigilantes. I liked the name as it pointed out the serial nature of the characters' adventures and the extra-legal nature of their activities. But each to their own.

There is a fine line between the spy and the serial vigilante, I decided that characters whose agencies are completely unofficial and act outside the bounds of the constitution fall on the vigilante side of the fence.

I do acknowledge that Bond, Tarzan and Hammer were very influential but it was more the format of the Doc Savage reprints as a numbered series that I was highlighting. However I did pull out the numbered Ballantine editions of Tarzan and found that they began in 1963.

As you say I was uncritical of the series but that was the nature of the work. My vote for worst series? That's a hard one but The Butcher is my least favourite series.

John Marr said...


Thanks for the comment and producing an essential reference book. If you care to, I'd like to discuss your book with you in a little more detail. I can be reached at

And yeah, the Butcher was vile!