Friday browsing the drugstore spinner-rack

I've remarked on this before, but it is a constant amazement to me how easy everything is for fans today.

I realize that I tend to be the designated Geezer around these parts, and I don't mean to go on and on about all this. But I look around this apartment that's stuffed to bursting with DVDs and trade-paperback collections and Essentials and all of these things that, with a couple of mouse clicks at Amazon, I can have delivered to me without leaving my chair, and honest to God, I feel like I'm living in a Heinlein future.

The DVD's alone... I mean, I mentioned to our friend Lorinda that I'd really wanted to see the unsold, unaired pilot for Global Frequency with Michelle Forbes.

So she asked her husband if he could take care of it and he downloaded it and burned it to a DVD for me and a few weeks later Rin handed it to me when she visited us. The end.

You have no idea how miraculous that seems to me. Especially if you are under thirty. I think my generation is the last one to have grown up without any such thing as home video.

The thing is, we did evolve a sort of makeshift videocassette to tide us over until someone got around to inventing the VCR. It was, in fact, what Isaac Asimov once declared to be the Ultimate Videocassette, downloading images directly into the brain: a high-tech device called a book.

When I saw my first licensed tie-in novel on the Village Drug spinner rack, it was love at first sight. I loved reading anyway, and here was a story from a favorite TV show that functioned completely on demand. As Asimov was to point out years later, it was a film that stopped and started whenever I wanted it to, that had instant review and fast forward, that projected a more visceral image than anything anyone could put on film because they were MY images, self-created in my mind's eye simultaneously with reading the words on the page.

I loved all books -- still do -- but these tacky licensed novels hold a special place in my heart. For many years they served the same function for me that your boxed-set TV-on-DVD collection probably does for you, if you have one. I don't confuse them with High Art by any means, but there's something compelling there. There was a whole strange and alluring sub-genre of adventure books that you could only find in drugstores and supermarkets.

I was reminded of this when I was writing about Richard Dragon and the Destroyer last week, because the drugstore spinner-rack book selection was a weird and wonderful thing. It wasn't like a REAL bookstore's selection. It was different. Cooler. Like comics, but without pictures.

There were lots of series books, with wonderfully lurid painted covers: SF, mysteries, and licensed TV adventure books. (A great many of these series, I would discover later, were reprintings and re-packagings of old pulp stories... check out this example of Richard Wentworth getting a Mack Bolan makeover.)

Doc Savage and Perry Rhodan and John Norman's Gor ruled the stands then, and of those Doc was the only one I really liked. I could almost always count on finding a new Doc Savage book to read, there were zillions of them (or at least it seemed that way.)

I still enjoy the Doc books and I'm delighted to see them coming back into print... the new pulp facsimile editions are lovely and I recommend them unreservedly. But for me, it's not REALLY a Doc book unless it's a Bantam edition with one of those James Bama covers. Even the Boris Vallejo Bantam Docs seem a little off to me. That's how weird I am.

The great delight, though, was when my obsessions would collide and I'd get a licensed cheesy paperback... featuring a SUPERHERO. Or at least somebody from comics.

Those were AWE. SOME.

Clearly, other people think so too -- licensed superhero books have been a booming business ever since the late 70's.

In fact, there's a new Batman series that just launched, making it the -- let's see, it depends where you start counting, but you could call it the sixth or seventh separate series of licensed DC Batman novels, probably. There was a series jumping off the Adam West show, a series jumping off the Keaton films (that's where you'd find the Simon Hawke one shown above), a series jumping off the animated Dini-Timm series, a couple of original one-offs, a couple of young-adult books... hell, I can't keep count. I leave it as an exercise for the scholar. This is a reminiscence, not an index. (But if you would like an index, I can recommend this one.)

The difference is that these new books are respectable. They sometimes even appear in hardcover editions, you can find them at "real" bookstores, and some of them, like The Death and Life of Superman or Batman: Knightfall, are bestsellers.

But the ones I'm talking about here emphatically were not. They were regarded as disposable trash, about the same level of merit as the comics and pulps they sprang from -- which is to say, none. They even had numbers on them most of the time, and hardly anyone who worked on them would use his (or her, but mostly it was men writing these things) real name.

I remember what a HUGE deal it was for me when suddenly there began to appear original super-hero novels featuring characters from comics: the Challengers of the Unknown, Flash Gordon, the Phantom, and best of all, Marvel did a superhero series that ran eleven volumes in all and I loved every one of them.

I learned to recognize the authors' names that showed up again and again. In addition to Kenneth Robeson, I was a big fan of Frank Shawn and Joe Silva and guys like that. What a trip, years later, to discover they were all the same guy. Well, sometimes they were.

The workhorse of the 70's licensed comics/pulp/whatever era was the amazing Ron Goulart. Somehow, in addition to being "Frank Shawn" and "Joe Silva" and the new "Kenneth Robeson" -- no, really, I think he pounded out almost as many new Avenger stories as there were in the original run --

--and along with God knows how many other pseudonyms, he also managed to be Ron Goulart and did even more licensed books under his own name, alongside his other original fiction and non-fiction work. Honestly, he was a one-man industry.

Goulart also did wonderfully humorous SF as well as magnificent scholarly works about pulps and comics. He's still doing it: his latest is a history of Good Girl Art, and he sometimes still ghosts a few cheesy licensed things now and then (You don't think William Shatner REALLY wrote those TekWar novels, I hope.)

My favorite paperback original series of all time, as it happens, is the one where I first encountered Goulart under his own name: the extraordinary Weird Heroes, that came from Byron Preiss in the late 1970's.

It's hard to describe the impact those books had on me. It was the mother lode. The roster of authors read like I'd picked it myself. Harlan Ellison, Elliott Maggin, Marv Wolfman, Steve Englehart, Archie Goodwin, Philip Jose Farmer, and of course the mighty Ron Goulart.

And the stories were illustrated by an equally stellar group of artists. Jim Steranko, Esteban Maroto, Stephen Fabian, Ralph Reese, Alex Nino, Jeff Jones... it was an unbelievable array of talent. The idea behind the series was to create what editor Byron Preiss called "a new American pulp," and it certainly was pulpy. But really what it served as, for me, was a kind of greatest-hits collection of everything I loved in comics and mystery and SF. And there were superheroics, too, after a fashion.

The series kicked off with two anthologies of short fiction, then came novels jumping off from there. Most of them were expansions of stories from the anthologies, like Quest of the Gypsy from Goulart and Nino...

...and there was also Doc Phoenix: The Oz Encounter, by Marv Wolfman and Stephen Fabian, taking off from the short story by Ted White. (This recently got a beautiful hardcover reprinting from Hungry Tiger Press, by the way. It was THE purchase for us at the 2005 San Diego convention, and I was thrilled to actually have Mr. Wolfman sign it... the one below is the original, though, which I still own and cherish.)

There were also new characters introduced like Nightshade, from King, Meachum and Reese.

There were quite a few books more that spun out of this little eight-volume series after it concluded (Stopped? Got canceled?) and they are mostly all a great time. Darkworld Detective by Michael Reaves, Greatheart Silver by Philip Jose Farmer, the Orion books by Ben Bova (In his Weird Heroes appearances, Orion was gorgeously illustrated by P. Craig Russell) and there was even some Wold Newtonry afoot with Farmer's "The Savage Shadow" that ran in volume eight.

I actually came to this party relatively late. I first found Weird Heroes Volume 6 on a spinner rack and spent the next few months searching every Rexall and Woolworth's in the Portland metropolitan area tracking down the rest of them. I would badger clerks at the real bookstores, too, but when you're only fourteen, it's a hell of a thing to even get them to pay attention to you... and there was no internet for them to use yet, either, when it came to checking. Half of them thought I was making it up. "Weird Heroes? You're kidding, right?"

Finally, after about six months, I had all eight. That's the kind of hunt that we went through back in the olden days. You kids today, with your Amazon and your eBay....

...well, actually, I don't think I'd trade the accessibility and the respectability that come with today's superhero novels for the disposable trash-culture miasma that the genre used to have hanging over it like the smoke over a landfill. But there was something deliciously disreputable about it too, I have to admit. A whiff of outlawry.

I wouldn't trade today for it -- but I do miss it sometimes. There was something satisfying about bicycling to six different drugstores and finally finding THAT book, the one you'd read about in a Bullpen Bulletins or something, and actually having it in your hands at last. If you were around back then, you know what I'm talking about. If you weren't, well... you'll just have to take my word for it. An eBay snipe just isn't the same.

See you next week.

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