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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.More...

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.

I really enjoyed this pilot, as it happens.

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.

In the long ago time, before the DVD player. Or the VCR. Or even the Betamax.

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.

Actually, this is not that bad a book.

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.

My hand to God, these books came out once a week or so.

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.)

Wow, he looks almost like Mack Bolan!
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.)

You never get over your first...

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.

The first Marvel novel. Ever.

Those were AWE. SOME.

One of my favorites.

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

This is probably my very favorite Bat-novel.

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.)

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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 loved these books. Still looking for a couple of them.

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.

William Rotsler did some great stuff here. Not a BAD book, but the amazing thing to me was that it existed at all.
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.

Goulart also introduced me to Flash Gordon, Goulart again.

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 —

Goulart also did the new Avenger in the 70's.

–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 was EVERYWHERE in the 70's. The guy was a FACTORY.

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.

This book really changed my life. Well, kind of.

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.

Take a look at the roster here.

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…

This trilogy was left unfinished. Pity.

…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.)

This just came back into print in a lovely hardcover edition.

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

ALL the books in this series were great.

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.

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But I tracked them all down as quick as I could. This was my first.
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.


MODOK!!!! Challengers!!!!


I still have dreams about finding a brand-new Doc Savage paperback on the spinner rack. If only . . .

Wow. I never realized there were EIGHT volumes of Weird Heroes. I got the 30th anniversary reprint of the first volume in 2004 & enjoyed it greatly, but I don’t think they continued the reprints beyond that.

And I’ve never even HEARD of the story “The Savage Shadow” — sounds intriguing. What’s the premise?

While I don’t have any memories of searching for pulp novels, I just wanted to comment on your article.

I loved it. I do remember the “old days”, when you actually had to physically search for stuff. And you are right, there was something special about it. I got back into comics as a young adult, BEFORE the Internet came along, so I had some of the same experiences hunting down back issues of comics I HAD to have.

Things are easier and, for the most part, better. But there is something to be said for the old ways.

Thanks for writing this.

And I’ve never even HEARD of the story “The Savage Shadow” — sounds intriguing. What’s the premise?

Maxwell Grant writes the story of how Kenneth Robeson meets the real guys that inspire him to write the Doc Savage novels. There was supposed to be a companion piece, where Robeson writes about Grant, but Farmer never got around to it.

I was absolutely addicted to those Doc Savage and Avenger paperbacks, when I was a kid. I have a picture of me, at age 6 or 7, with a copy of that Avengers Battle the Earth Wrecker book, in a motel room in Gatlinburg. Get your mind out of the gutter, kids- I was on vacation with my parents! ;-)

I was just thinking the other day how the paperback book racks in drugstores and whatnot are a far cry from what they used to be back in the day, and here you write a whole post on it. Great article!

I first discovered Weird Heroes a few years after they were published, in a second hand bookstore, and spent years putting together a complete set. Then, in my mid-twenties, I managed to lose the whole set in a cross country move (along with all of my ERB paperbacks, most of my PJF novels, and a few other goodies). Then I spent another bunch of years trying to piece the collection back together again. When I finaly got online a few years later, I had only two Weird Heroes still missing… which was, of course, when I discovered this thing called “ebay”.

God bless the internet…

“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.”

And this is why I don’t feel any great need to watch Sci-Fi’s The Dresden Files movie, even though I love the books. The movie I made when I read them will probably surpass anything I could see on the screen.

Not that I don’t appreciate a good adaptation (I love you, Peter Jackson!). It’s just that I’ve found my brain does pulp better than anybody.

“An eBay snipe just isn’t the same.”

Depends if you had somewhere to cycle to in the first place. In England, where I live – in a major city, no less – the only way to buy comics was in some rundown newsagents not far from my house. The selection extended to:

random collections of DC comics in bundles of 5, no guarantee as to what you’d get in the bundle, no refunds on duplicates.

You can imagine how tricky this made trying to get even 3 issues of something in a row, much less a full story. One of the main reasons I probably ended up drifting away from comics was because there was nowhere to get the damn things. Believe me, given the choice I’d have taken EBay trawling over having to sit round wishing for some comic I could never hope to buy anyway.

“(You don’t think William Shatner REALLY wrote those TekWar novels, I hope.)”

Bolt the doors! The Trekkie-jihad hath been released!

I had no idea there had been a CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN novel. Wow! Gonna have to track that one down. Is that supposed to be Swamp Thing on the cover? I remember he was guest-starring in the comic around that time.

Mark, Ive been told it was Alan Dean Foster.

I only ever found the first volume of Weird Heroes back in the day, and never saw those cool Captain America and Challengers of the Unknown novels.

Loovved the pulp novels and read as many Doc Savage, etc. as I could.

Good times, good times.

Pulp fans should definitely check out Paul Malmont’s recent novel “The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril.” It’s a story about the real-life writers Lester Dent (“Kenneth Robeson” – Doc Savage) and Walter Gibson (“Maxwell Grant” – The Shadow), and also features appearances by Chester Himes, H.P. Lovecraft, E.E. “Doc” Smith, and even L. Ron. Hubbard. Malmont combines pulp ideas (Zombies! Chinese mysticism! Two-fisted action! Poison gas! Miraculous escapes!) with a modern sensibility, and I loved it. Amazon lists a paperback version for March if you’re interested.

…Amazon lists a paperback version for March if you’re interested.

Are you kidding? I’m amazed I didn’t hear of this book sooner but, oh man, I am SO THERE.

Why wait? Go to Amazon right NOW (like I just did) and you can find several dealers offering nice remaindered hardcovers, which is what I ended up getting. Probably cheaper than the paperback.

…what? I used to enjoy hunting books down on the racks, sure, but I’m not, y’know, stupid.


I’m so excited you’re checking it out. Confession time: while it was highly recommended to me, I ended up picking up my copy at Half Price Books.

Oooh! I REMEMBER that Avengers book. I know I read it like ten times as a young’n. But now I completely forget everything about the plot and the characters.


January 22, 2007 at 3:41 am

“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.”

In my early teens I used to live for my families yearly trip up to Coolangatta (a beach town in a different state), because there was a 2nd hand book shop that had an inasne amount of comics (more than my local stores back issue bins) and they were all the same price $2.50AUS (the same as a new comic on the shelf).
They had old Marvel, DC, Image, Valiant etc.
I spent hours upon hours looking over it all and budgeting my spending money to see what would be the best buys, checking Wizard (all I had) to see which issue were rare or costly (as if anyone actually priced by their guides) and should be brought then.
And then I’d sit in my room reading and re-reading them, occasionally getting told off by my parents for not going out to the beach enough.
It was good times.

You didn’t list what I consider to be the greatest tie-in novels ever–something that was branded to be a tie-in to a movie but in fact was a tie-in to the original comic book. And it’s awesomely awesome.

I’m talking about Superman: Last Son of Krypton and Superman: Miracle Monday by Elliot S. Maggin, which came out with Superman The Movie and Superman II respectively (and had the movie’s branding on it and photos of Christopher Reeve on the cover), but were stories set in current DC continuity, complete with Clark Kent working for WGBS and Luthor having been Superboy’s friend.

I still periodically re-read them (or re-read parts of them) and they still kick ass. Great prose, a brilliant use of the Man of Steel in the print medium and, frankly, I think (along with the first Superman movie) the best use of the character in the late ’70s / early ’80s– gillion times better than what was actually being done with the character in the comics. And in the case of Miracle Monday, it’s half-a-gillion times better than the movie it’s supposed to be tied into.

I occasionally read comic book tie-in novels (including ones written by Maggin) in the hope that they’ll be as brilliant as Last Son of Krypton or Miracle Monday, and they never are.

I had mentioned the Maggin Superman books in a previous column, Graeme; but you are right, they are the best of the best.

Anyone who didn’t catch the link I put up in the column last time can find out more about those books here.

Great to see Ron Goulart getting some appreciation.

If I may shamelessly self promote, my website has a (somewhat out of date) list of Mr. Goulart’s books.

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