The Sergeant in the Hedgerows

In remembrance of the 70th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, I’ve been celebrating the work of my favorite war fictioneer, Len Levinson. I just came across something he wrote that I really should have included in my intro to my interview of him. So I’m going to quote it here:

“…In order to turn average American young men into soldiers, or to be blunt, trained killers, a certain amount of brutality is involved.  And this brutality inevitably coarsens the spirit.  When writing these novels, I wanted to be as realistic as possible.  My goal was not to please the English Departments of American Universities, or to glorify combat, but to tell realistic stories about the tragedy and comedy of war, with all its blood, guts, cruelty, irony, and occasional heroism.” – Len Levinson

That, folks, is exactly what his war novels do. Mission accomplished, Private Levinson.

This book is the third in the series, and the one it took me literally decades to find (and complete my Sergeant collection–paperbacks written under the pseudonym “Gordon Davis” and set in the ETO). As the title suggests, this covers the period immediately after the beach landings and before Patton’s breakout, when the invaders were fighting through the hedgerows.

Master Sergeant C.J. Mahoney and sidekick Corporal Cranepool have just transferred from the Rangers to a line company, and Big Army BS overtakes them rather quickly. Their Company Commander is a jerk and Topkick is a LIFER scum (been there, done that). The soldiers under Mahoney are typical grabasstic draftees. And “friendly fire” incidents become almost habitual, perpetuated by typical military bureaucracy and the incompetence it breeds.

One thing Len liked to do in this series is steer Mahoney into notable highlights of the war in Europe. Sometimes he went beyond that and had Mahoney himself become instrumental in the course of events. As mentioned previously, I thought the way he had Mahoney destroy the German fuel reserves during the Battle of the Bulge (#8 Bloody Bastogne) was brilliant. And yet there’s other times when I don’t as readily buy it.

Once was in the book preceding this one (#2 Hell Harbor) when the brass are content with sending the Rangers on a suicidal frontal assault on the German fortress. While taking a bath, Mahoney comes up with what should have been the obvious strategy from the start.

There’s a similar contrived moment in this book. Here’s a little historical note to orient you: the hedgerows in northern France were so tall and thick that they’d been an obstacle to armies going back to Roman times. How high and how thick? Well, even the Sherman Tanks deployed by the Allies had a very difficult time busting through them. This delayed the Allied Forces from breaking out of the landing zone…in other words, it was holding up the advance in a way that the Germans by themselves couldn’t, and ultimately prolonging the war. Then an American tanker, using a little Yankee ingenuity, welded together a crude brush-cutting blade and afixed it to the front of a tank. Not long after that, Patton’s 3rd Army broke out and had the Krauts on the run.

I’ve followed Mahoney through the blood splattered pages of nine novels, so I know him pretty well. He’s a fantastic field soldier, an accomplished pick-up artist, and probably the worlds greatest bayonet fighter.  One thing he is not is a handyman. Mahoney is not mechanically inclined, so having him be the one to design the brush-cutter for our tanks was an eye-roller for me.

That being said, Bloody Bush has loads of what makes The Sergeant such fun books to read–blood, guts, action, history, larger than life characters–and will not disappoint fans of war porn, men’s fiction or action-adventure. The best news is that now it’s an E-book, and easily found (for a price that is well worth the investment).

More Blood & Guts With Len Levinson

Last time I posted the first half of a Q & A with an unsung master of men’s fiction. Below is the rest of it, but first, just a brief 411 on the two war series we’re discussing:

The Sergeant was Master Sgt. C.J. Mahoney—a grizzled, brutal alpha male infantry soldier slaughtering Germans all over the ETO (in between many prose-porn encounters with nurses and French women–Mahoney was a master of “game”). His usual sidekick was Corporal Cranepool—a seemingly innocent country boy who went kill-crazy in combat. Battle scenes were brutal and almost always involved some bloody bayonet duels. The perspective often zoomed out to the field generals, to orient the reader as to the strategy behind why these battles took place. This was something I appreciated more as I grew older and re-read the books.

The Ratbastards was about a reconnaissance platoon in the Pacific Theater (PTO), led by another incredibly tough non-com, John Butsko. These guys were a rough, raw cross-section of America (Butsko sometimes called them “the worst bunch of f**kups I’ve ever seen!”) who expected no quarter from the Japanese and usually gave none. Their ranks included a cowboy, a stunt man, a former bank robber, a Los Angeles gang member, a full-blooded Apache, a rich blueblood, a hobo, a religious fanatic and a New York hustling wise guy. There was occasional sex when one of the guys got lucky with a nurse or native girl, but mostly there was a lot of dirty, bloody jungle combat…also with a lot of bayonet action.

 HANK: There’s another scene I already asked you about on an Amazon forum, but I’m repeating it here so my blog followers can see your answer: In Liberation of Paris, during a lull in the fighting, Mahoney goes inside a shop and does business with a Frenchman. He hears the sound of a typewriter behind a closed door and asks the proprietor about it, and is told pretty much to mind his own business. Mahoney lets the matter drop and goes off to kill more Germans, and the reader never finds out who is in that room. Mahoney actually met war correspondent Ernest Hemingway in an earlier scene, so I always wondered if that was the mystery typist. It was like some sort of in-joke that I was never let in on. So what gives?

LEN: The guy banging on the typewriter in THE LIBERATION OF PARIS was Jean-Paul Sartre himself, who had a conversation with Mahoney, but the editor at Bantam cut him out.  I don’t know why.  Perhaps they were worried about a lawsuit, or maybe they thought my readers might not know who Sartre was, although he was very famous in the day.

HANK: Bizarre. He cuts it out, but leaves in the reference to the typewriting noise. Well, I’m far from the first guy to be baffled by the choices made in traditional publishing.

In the same book, one of the German officers repeatedly gets phone calls from higher, and is asked, “Is Paris burning?” It happens so many times I remember that phrase jumping out at me. Years later in a public library I saw a soundtrack album for a movie (a musical, I think) called Is Paris Burning? I literally did a double-take. So I have to ask: did that movie influence you to include that dialog so intentionally?

LEN: According to my research, Hitler himself was constantly asking “Is Paris Burning?” – and the question was relayed to the German commanding officer in Paris, who didn’t want to destroy Paris.  A best-selling historical book was written about these events called IS PARIS BURNING?

HANK: Well that certainly makes sense, then. It’s an interesting historic tidbit you included in your story, and someone else built an entire story around the dilemma facing that German C.O.

(BTW, before Allied troops enter Paris, there is a see-saw tank battle between the French and Germans, in which the French commander uses German aggressiveness and his own country’s reputation to good effect. Sun Tzu would have been proud, but Mahoney, Cranepool and the other Americans detached for this “cushy” duty get caught right in the middle of the battling armor.)

After I began learning about grand strategy behind WWII, I appreciated all the scenes you included at staff-level and higher, rendering the macrocosm for the reader before zooming in on the tactical-level microcosms your main characters exist in. Especially pleasing is that you do this from the German and Japanese sides as well as the American. Seems like you did a lot more research on the European Theater…or maybe there was just less detail to go into in the island-hopping campaign?

LEN: A lot more info was available on the European Theater of Operations.

HANK: Speaking of research, Patton visits the Hammerheads in Slaughter City (and gives a memorable speech). Over at Post Modern Pulps, Jack Badelaire opined that you probably watched the movie Patton several times before writing it. I never made the connection myself, but then I haven’t read The Sergeant #6 in many years. And with the “is Paris burning?” deal, I’m now wondering if there’s some truth to that. Spill!

LEN: I saw PATTON two or three times, but was mostly influenced by Patton’s book:  WAR AS I KNEW IT and PATTON by Ladislas Farago as well as THE PATTON PAPERS edited by Martin Blumenson, and other histories of WWII and studies of Patton.  He was a great flawed hero and too bad he died in a freak accident.  He mighty’ve become President of the United States.  Naturally there are conspiracy theories about his death.

HANK: I once read a Patton biography by his grandson. He was definitely flawed but it’s also inspiring how he commanded the 3rd Army. One thing I like about the movie is that it implies he was one of the few Allied generals in the same league as the Mannsteins, Guderians, Rommels, Von Rundstedts, etc. (Perhaps an exaggeration, but he and MacArthur were the best we had IMO.) And if he hadn’t died in that ironic jeep accident, the conduct of the war in Korea probably would have frustrated him to death.

When I read Doom Platoon, I also read your story about meeting John Lennon, and it got me to thinking (dangerous, I know). As an armchair historian and anthropologist, I’m fascinated with the radical change in our country between the end of WWII and the escalation of our involvement in Vietnam (roughly 1946-1966, let’s say). I don’t mean technology, thought certainly that played a part. I mean culturaly and ideologically there seemed to be a sort of paradigm shift in the mainstream—especially the younger demographics. Plenty of people can pontificate why it happened, including me, but you actually lived through it. I’d like to get your reflections on it. Did you notice it happening? What did you think of it at the time?

LEN: I could write a 100,000 word book about this subject because you’re right, America has changed drastically and for the worse, in my opinion.  I lived through it and have many opinions which probably will be very unpopular.  I think it all began with the JFK assassination, when journalists and political hustlers cast doubts on the official explanation.  The cultural shift also was influenced by Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation, which promoted rebellion against the status quo.  Another factor was Marxist-style ideas promoted incessantly by the media-academia complex, ideas which took deep root in America.  And then the Vietnam War came along, which was disliked by the media-academia complex.  They denounced every mistake by American soldiers and Marines while turning a blind eye to atrocities by the Viet Cong.  The American media-academia complex evidently opposes wars against left wing governments like Cuba and left wing terrorism in general.  For some reason, these high-minded reporters and professors also view jihadism in this context.  They’re very sympathetic to the grievances of suicide bombers, who want to kill us all.

Although America supposedly has a free press, it really is dominated by Marxist-oriented journalists and academics who establish the narrative believed by many people.

We are being brainwashed daily to believe that America is the cause of all the trouble in the world.  Many if not most Americans, including our President, believe this.

HANK: Wow. I’m surprised by how much we agree on. Thank-you for your candor. (I myself challenge the official explanation of the JFK assassination, but I also reject the most popular conspiracy theories regarding it.)

LEN: I should add that I think our military is being destroyed by political correctness.  Men and women shouldn’t serve together because it’s got to undermine combat effectiveness and cause all sorts of problems, which in fact is happening.  I also believe in don’t ask and don’t tell.  All soldiers understand the importance of morale, but political correctness is undermining morale.  I also think that our rules of engagement are ridiculous.  Recently I read THE OUTPOST by Jake Tapper, about an outpost in Afghanistan that was militarily indefensible, but set up to satisfy theories about how to win over the indigenous people.  But 400 of the indigenous people attacked the 50 Americans in the outpost, killed ten and wounded 18 until the rest could be evacuated.  This is the new Army that treats soldiers as social workers and targets for Islamist fanatics, instead of giving them the possibility of victory.

HANK: Wow again. Even more that we agree on. I could write an entire book about women in the military, for instance, but few people (on either side of the political spectrum) want to know the truth–they are comfortable with the amazon superninja myths reinforced daily in pop culture. And historical perspective on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell: it was a tool for the Clinton Administration to get around the law, and a transition to what we have now, where homosexuals have a priveleged status in the military (while there is a simultaneous, institutional rise in anti-Christian hostility).

I noticed you had a Private Levinson working at HHQ in some of the Ratbastard books. Of course I never noticed that back when I thought the author was John Mackie. So spill, Len: is this an author cameo?

LEN: Yes, I thought I’d do an Alfred Hitchcock routine, because he often appeared briefly in his movies.

HANK: And now Stan Lee is doing it in all the Marvel superhero movies—usually to nice comedic effect.

Just so you know, I haven’t yet mentioned it, or reviewed it, but my favorite out of both series (each with so many killer books) is Bloody Bastogne.

(Toward the beginning, an aggressive American commander sends his formation against the enemy at an ironic time, when the Germans are launching the Second Battle of the Ardennes. A rare simultaneous attack by opposing forces. Of course the Wermacht has amassed more oomph for the campaign on their side, and the weather neutralizes American air superiority, so the Germans make tremendous initial gains. Mahoney finds himself with the 101st Airborne surrounded by the Germans during the Bulge.)

You dramatize the famous “nuts” response by the Americans to the German demand for surrender. I never really believed that’s exactly what was said, and yet you presented the official story. My best guess is that the reply was actually, “Balls!” But then I doubt I know as much about WWII era slang as you do. Do you believe that ‘NUTS” was literally the message?

LEN: “Nuts” is the official version, but as I recall, some historians suspect that something else was said which perhaps was not appropriate for women and children to hear.

HANK: Same book, I believe: you also dramatized the incident in which the Nazis executed a group of American POWs (and Mahoney escapes). Mildly curious why you included this. Was it just to have Mahoney present for another famous incident in the war?

LEN: Yes, that was exactly the reason.

HANK: Still the same book (more of a comment than question): I just love the way you had Mahoney destroy the German fuel reserves. I thought it was brilliant.

LEN: Thanks for the compliment.  To tell you the truth, I don’t remember the scene.  Many years have passed since I wrote it.

HANK: In that case, forget I said anything. Now I can steal it some day and you’ll never be the wiser.

BTW, this interview is more about your books than about the business, but I’m curious what you had to go through to get your backlist released so you could sell them as e-books. Is it OK to enlighten us on that?

LEN: My literary agent Barbara Lowenstein handled the initial ebook deals.  I assume she contacted e-publishers and pitched all her clients including me.  I think that Piccadilly contacted me about THE SERGEANT and BUTLER and I referred them to Barbara.  Then I entered into an agreement with Piccadilly to publish six of my non-series novels, which all are selling very poorly, I’m sorry to say.

HANK: Do you have any idea when the remainder of The Sergeant series will be converted to ebook?

LEN: Piccadilly has contracted to release all of THE SERGEANT.  They’re releasing them one at a time according to their own schedule.  My impression is that THE SERGEANT isn’t selling well, so Picaddilly isn’t too anxious to continue publishing them regularly.

HANK: I’m very disappointed to hear your books are struggling.

In my father’s generation it was normal for red-blooded American males to read fiction. It wasn’t unheard of when I came along, but more rare than I guess I was aware of at the time. Then the big publishers kicked the mid-list authors to the curb in the late ’80s/early ’90s and what male readers remained were seduced away from the written word by video games and 400 cable channels.

I’ve actually given this a lot of thought because I assigned myself the Quixotic task of reviving men’s adventure, both by promoting good work in the genre (like yours) and writing some of my own. I still don’t want to swallow this pill, but it’s really looking like there’s no money to be made in old-school men’s fiction. There are few red-blooded American males left in our culture, it seems to me, and very few of them have an interest in reading. Some authors are making a go of it with niche sub-genres, but only those with the time and talent to build a platform of followers on the Internet.

It becomes a vicious circle and self-fulfilling prophecy: the gatekeepers of the New York Publishing Cartel (NYPC) decree that men don’t read, so they only publish “women’s issues” fiction. If a dude finds himself in a library or book store, all he sees is romance and chick-lit (and YA and gay/lesbian and vampires), decides that reading is for girls, and leaves to go buy a video game. Statisticians from the NYPC survey the visitors to libraries and book stores, find there are no men there, and their prejudice is reinforced and justified.

With the publishing revolution, some choices have finally been introduced by indie authors and small publishers.

But it’s now harder than ever to get noticed by a reader, since anybody with a word processor can be published (and is). There are mountains of literary garbage to wade through, and the video game-induced attention deficit among the male of the species doesn’t help. There are a lot of obstacles, despite the positive aspects of the technological game-changers.

LEN: I think there’s money to be made in action/adventure fiction, but not as much as in other genres such as women’s romances.  American publishing seems unable to adapt to the modern technological world, and is plagued by political correctness just like every other area of American life.

HANK: You said a mouthful there. I know it’s even worse in Hollywood and the news media, but for a non-PC author it’s one of the biggest problems and obstacles right now. I understand there’s a big upheaval in the science fiction trenches over political correctness—among the authors themselves.

Do you have any projects in the works now? (If so, please spill.)

LEN: Yes, I’m working on three novels:

1. A hard-boiled noir-type novel set in NYC in the mid-1990s.

2.   A mystery/romance set in NYC in 1861, first year of the Civil War.

3.  A romantic/tragicomedy set in NYC and Miami in 1984 and 1985, based on my first marriage and played for laughs.

I’m also working on a memoir of my three years as a caseworker with the NYC Administration for Children’s Services (1997-2000), an experience which disillusioned me concerning government efforts to help “the poor”, and which far exceeded any suspicions I had about government waste and inefficiency, as exemplified by the current VA scandals.

Each of these four books is in final editing stages.

HANK: There are more questions I’d love to ask, Len, but you’ve been patient with me already and I appreciate it very much. We live in exciting times, and one reason is because it’s becoming easier to find your action-packed tales of WWII.

I’m close to finishing the last couple books in the Ratbastards series also. After that, I look forward to starting on Len’s westerns, and I’ve already read a couple of his spy novels. Sooner or later I intend to review them all right here.

Interview With a Master of War Fiction: Len Levinson

It’s an honor to be able to post an e-mail interview I conducted with a legend in men’s adventure fiction, author Len Levinson.

First, a little background.

My love of reading really blossomed because of comic books, and I was superhero-crazy up until my early adolescence. I read some detective novels, historical fiction and sci-fi, but still liked comics best.

One summer I had to take a long car trip with grownups. Bored out of my mind, on one of the refueling stops I went inside the 7/11 and looked over the book rack. Something on the back cover blurb of one book caught me, and I bummed the money to buy it. The book was The Sergeant #4: The Liberation of Paris. It not only gave me something to do on the trip, it introduced me to men’s adventure fiction and the subject of World War Two. That book, and some other things happening at roughly the same period in my life, conspired to alter my course. I became a fan of men’s adventure, especially war fiction, and also became obsessed with WWII.

I picked up more books in the series whenever I found them, and gleaned used copies from second-hand book stores once they were out of print. I was one book shy of the entire series for a long time, but just within the last few years picked up The Sergeant #3: Bloody Bush, becoming the first one on my block to have every paperback in the series. I was still a fan once in the Army, and got a buddy hooked on the series, too.

The author name on the cover of those books was Gordon Davis. Due to my subsequent fascination with the Second World War I also discovered other men’s fiction set in that historical period, including a series by “John Mackie” called The Ratbastards. Barely even noticing author names in those years, I took the attributions at face value, though I sure did notice a similarity in the styles.

The Sergeant was Master Sgt. C.J. Mahoney—a grizzled, brutal alpha male infantry soldier slaughtering Germans all over the ETO (in between many prose-porn encounters with nurses and French women–Mahoney was a master of “game”). His usual sidekick was Corporal Cranepool—a seemingly innocent country boy who went kill-crazy in combat. Battle scenes were brutal and almost always involved some bloody bayonet duels. The perspective often zoomed out to the field generals, to orient the reader as to the strategy behind why these battles took place. This was something I appreciated more as I grew older and re-read the books.

The Ratbastards was about a reconnaissance platoon in the Pacific Theater (PTO), led by another incredibly tough non-com, John Butsko. These guys were a tough, raw cross-section of America (Butsko sometimes called them “the worst bunch of f—kups I’ve ever seen!”) who expected no quarter from the Japanese and usually gave none. Their ranks included a cowboy, a stunt man, a former bank robber, a Los Angeles gang member, a full-blooded Apache, a rich blueblood, a hobo, a religious fanatic and a New York hustling wise guy. There was occasional sex when one of the guys got lucky with a nurse or native girl, but mostly there was a lot of dirty, bloody jungle combat…also with a lot of bayonet action.

(I have most of the paperbacks in this series, though it was longer.)

My suspicions grew over the years that these two series were written by the same author. And eventually that proved to be the case. Furthermore, thanks to the Internet, I actually came into contact with this master of men’s fiction.

Len’s been very gracious in granting this Q&A to a fan of his work.

HANK: Having read your essay previously, I understand you wrote The Sergeant first, then The Ratbastards. And I’ve recently read your novella about the suicide platoon during the Battle of the Bulge. So being fairly well-versed in the war fiction of Len Levinson, my theory is that the NCO in Doom Platoon was your first attempt to fictionalize one of the non-coms you knew while in the Army. By the time you created Mahoney, I think you had a much more developed portrait of the character you wanted to star in your wartime adventures. I’m not going to say Butsko was yet another step up; nor do I think they are the same guy with different names fighting in different theaters. The more I read from both series, the more I see them as two different guys. Obviously there are similarities, but I can tell them apart easily, even if you were to cast them both in one story and refer to them by alias. If the two met, I’m not sure if they would kill each other or share a few rounds of drinks at the bar.

Tell me about these guys—were Mahoney and Butsko based on any specific men in particular, or were they amalgams of various war veterans you crossed paths with?

LEN: It’s difficult to say with certainty where characters come from, because writing fiction is a mystery or a “spooky art” according to Norman Mailer.  As far as I know, Mazursky in DOOM PLATOON, Mahoney in THE SERGEANT and Butsko in THE RAT BASTARDS were all similar and based on sergeants I met in the Army, but perhaps mostly based on an old friend named Mike Nichols, who was born and raised in NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen, served as a soldier in Europe during World War II, served five years in a federal penitentiary for drug smuggling, and was a very tough guy.  He exerted an enormous influence on me, for better or worse, because he definitely was no angel, but he died in 1993 and I still miss him very much.  He was a peculiar mixture of brutality and gentleness which somehow seeped into the characters of the above-mentioned three sergeants.  He also was one of the best conversationalists and storytellers I’ve ever met, and also introduced me to my first wife.

HANK: Now this is like finding buried treasure! First let me say that I really noticed this mixture of brutality and gentleness in Sgt. Butsko. He’s a bad mamma-jamma nobody in their right mind wants to cross. Yet I remember in Too Mean to Die I was prepared to read about a horrendous barroom brawl when he and a marine laid claim to the same stool, but he displays rare restraint and makes friends instead (later on he does take another marine apart, but only after being pushed too far). Then in Down and Dirty he is prepared to castrate Bannon for fooling around with a native girl, but suddenly shows almost paternal affection for him instead. Rather than striking me as out-of-character, it made Butsko all the more real to me…and perhaps more sympathetic than Mahoney.

But I’d like to know more about Mike Nichols. Was he raised Catholic like Mahoney? (I can certainly see Mahoney smuggling drugs, if forced out of the Army and other circumstances conspired.) I’m also wondering if the stories he told included any amorous exploits during wartime in Europe, and if that influenced your depiction of Mahoney’s prolific “alpha game.”

LEN: As near as I can recall, Mike was raised in Hell’s Kitchen by a single mother.  I don’t remember if she was divorced, or her husband deserted, or she was an unwed mother.  She was very left wing and so was Mike, who also was a militant atheist.  I often argued religion with him, because as mentioned earlier, I’m a mild-mannered religious fanatic, although perhaps not always so mild-mannered.  In the context of NYC, atheism was very common and I the oddball.
Mike was very attractive to women and had many love affairs before marrying Maggie Gethman, who became the first woman managing editor of FIELD AND STREAM magazine.  Mike looked sort of like that old time movie star Victor Mature combined with John Garfield.

Mike had been very influenced by Nietzche, and thought that conventional morality was bullshit.  He definitely had the criminal mentality mixed with generosity and occasional saintliness.  I should add that he deserted from his unit in WWII, became a black marketeer, was locked in a stockade and busted out.  I don’t know what kind of discharge he got.  After mustering out he went to Columbia University for a few years, hung out with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and that crowd, and one of his many girlfriends was the real-life character on whom the fictional character Mardou was based in Kerouac’s THE SUBTERRANEANS.

Once Mike said to me:  “You’re the craziest person I never met in my life, but you seem  normal.”  I took this as a great compliment because he’d travelled extensively and had met many crazy people.  In fact, he was quite crazy himself.
Mazursky, Mahoney and Butsko all had elements of Mike, but weren’t totally based on him.  I created characters out of bits and pieces of various real people and invented a lot also.  Writing definitely is a spooky art because it’s difficult to pin down the source of everything.  Some of me is in those sergeants also, and probably in every other character I created.

HANK: Just a comment here about all your main characters I’ve encountered: I think it’s their fatalism that appeals so much to me. That’s what helped me relate to Brockman in Operation Perfida right away…but possibly why others may not like or understand him. When I think about it, probably all my own protagonists are fatalistic too. Just a hunch that maybe this was one of your friend’s attributes that you translated to the page?

LEN: Yes, Mike could be considered quite fatalistic and cynical.  But so can I.  Mike and I would insist we’re realistic, trying to live without illusions.  I should point out that Mike didn’t seem depressed or unhappy at all.  He was a true party animal, and he and his wife Maggie were constantly inviting me to parties at his apartment, or to parties in other people’s apartments.  Once he invited me to a party that lasted three days, but I was only there for around 10 hours.

HANK: There are differences in Bannon (a cowboy from Texas) and Cranepool (a farm boy from Iowa); chiefly, Bannon is not nearly as innocent to begin with…but there’s a whole lot of similarities, too. Did these two hatch from the same egg?

LEN: I don’t see Bannon and Cranepool as similar at all.  Cranepool was Mahoney’s sidekick but Bannon was no sidekick and had real leadership potential.

HANK: That is a good point. Bannon was certainly more mature, and was a capable leader. Cranepool was a natural follower who idolized Mahoney.
The Sergeant was usually a one man show, though occasionally Corporal Cranepool shared Mahoney’s spotlight. The Ratbastards (as the name suggests) was more like an ensemble. There was Homer Gladly, Sam Longtree, Frankie LaBarbara, the Reverend Billy Jones, Craig Delane, Shaw, Gomez… though Butsko and Bannon were certainly your “go-to” guys. What made you decide to change your approach to writing about the war between these two series in regards to number of continuing characters?

LEN: You’re right:  THE SERGEANT was mostly a one-man show while THE RAT BASTARDS was an ensemble effort.  After completing THE SERGEANT, I didn’t want to take the same approach with THE RAT BASTARDS, because that would be boring.  So I decided to develop more characters and have some fun with their interaction.  But Butsko was the main man.  But the way, I named him after an old college friend of mine named Butsko from Duquesne, Pennsylvania.

HANK: I can assure you that The Sergeant was FAR from boring. Every so often I go back and read them again, because each one was such a fun ride. But the interaction between the Ratbastards was certainly fun, as well. It’s authentic and hilarious at the same time.

LEN: No, I didn’t mean to say that I thought THE SERGEANT was boring.  I thought it might be boring for me to write another series centered around one sergeant.  So I threw in more characters and came up with THE RAT BASTARDS, which was enormously enjoyable to write.

HANK: Back to The Sergeant for a moment. Mahoney starts out on an OSS-type mission, detached from the Rangers in Death Train. In Hell Harbor he rejoins the Rangers, but for the bulk of the series he is a plain ol’ straight leg dogface. Did you always intend to have this “demotion” take place? If so, why? If not, what made you steer him in that direction?

LEN: I wrote THE SERGEANT for Walter Zacharius, president of Zebra Books, who’d been a Sergeant in WWII and participated in the liberation of Paris.  After I handed in the first SERGEANT, which was DEATH TRAIN, he asked me to come to his office, where he explained that most soldiers never went on missions behind enemy lines, and he wanted the series to be about ordinary front line soldiers.  So I followed orders and wrote about ordinary front line soldiers beginning with the second novel, HELL HARBOR.

HANK: As an old soldier myself now, I’m curious why you always have your GI characters fasten their grenades to their lapels. Was there no place on a GI’s web gear to keep grenades back in the WWII/Korea days?

LEN: When I was in the Army, web gear consisted of the same cartridge belts as WWII soldiers.  These web belts didn’t have special fittings for grenades, as I recall.  Fastening grenades to clothing or dropping them in pockets was probably the common practice.  I was in the Army 1954-1957 and never in combat.

HANK: I took the author names at face value when I was a kid, but even then I noticed that John Mackie and Gordon Davis sure described combat in very similar styles. I had never read anything like it. Maybe it’s nothing more than my own twisted psyche, but I consider you a genius at describing horrific carnage in a way that makes it sound rather fun. You’ve mentioned before your preoccupation with surviving a bayonet charge by the Red Chinese if you were sent to Korea—is that what got you started imagining such Technicolor bloodbaths?

LEN: Thanks for the compliment.  Perhaps I’m a warped genius but definitely not a full-blown genius.  Joe Kenney on the GLORIOUS TRASH blog called me a “trash genius”.  Since childhood, I’ve always had a very vivid imagination, perhaps because I often was alone reading comic books.  When I was in the Army, I regularly imagined bloody scenarios, and wondered how I’d respond to real combat.  Everything I am as a writer, and everything I’ve written, came from my peculiar imagination influenced by the real world.  I never could’ve been a sci-fi writer, although I’ve read and enjoyed sci-fi.

HANK: What comics did you read? (Batman and Spiderman were my favorites, but I liked a lot more than just those. And after reading my first Gordon Davis novel, I began buying Sgt. Rock.)

LEN: I was born in 1935 and started reading comic books when I was six years old in the first grade.  That was 1941, back in the so-called Golden Age of Comics.  My favorites were Batman, Captain Marvel, Superman, Green Lantern, the Flash, Submariner, The Heap, and a comic called, I think,  CRIME DOES NOT PAY, about lurid true crime stories concerning bloody murders and such.  I also loved a comic book series called PICTURE STORIES FROM THE BIBLE, which was the Old Testament, King James Version, as a series of comic books.

HANK: I’m finding that our childhoods were not terribly different, though we were separated by generations and geography.

The Reverend Billy Jones is a character who I didn’t like much at first. Seems to me that when you first began the Ratbastards series he was the typical religious-right stereotype (anti-Semitic bigot, etc.). But later on you allowed him to become more sympathetic, I thought. In Suicide River, Victor Yablonka (of the Recon Platoon) grudgingly accepts a Gideon Bible from Billy Jones, in a scene I found surprisingly touching. Yablonka puts it in his breast pocket and that Bible winds up stopping a bullet, saving his life. Then, when I finally completed my Sergeant collection with Bloody Bush, I read about the same thing happening to Mahoney. So you plagiarized yourself. First off, did you ever sue yourself over copyright infringement (and if so, who won)? Secondly, what was it about this idea you liked so much to use twice?

LEN: I wasn’t plagiarizing myself.  I was only reflecting reality.  During World Word II, true stories were told about Bibles stopping bullets, so I tossed a few of these incidents into my books, because evidently they actually happened, and as a mild-mannered religious fanatic, I kind of liked the idea.

HANK: Now that is fascinating. BTW, if you care to, I ‘d like to know just a little more about your religious fanatacism. For some reason I thought you were Jewish, but then outside the Hasidic it’s hard to think of any examples of Judaism that could be considered fanatic. Certainly this topic doesn’t have to be made public if you prefer not.

LEN: Both my parents were Jewish, born in the U.S.A.  My mother died when I was four.  My father never arranged for any Jewish education or Bar-Mitzvah, which made me very unusual among Jews.  I grew up in a Catholic and Protestant working-class neighborhood in New Bedford, Massachusetts.  Some Sundays I went to Catholic church with my Catholic friends.  Other Sundays I went to an Episcopalian church with my Episcopalian friends.  I never went to any synagogue.  My father had contempt for religion although he claimed to believe in a “supreme being”.  I was very influenced by the comic book series mentioned above, PICTURE STORIES FROM THE BIBLE.  Around 16 I fell under the influence of so-called “progressive” thinking and became an atheist.  Then I had a religious experience during an acid trip when I was around 28, which turned me into a mild-mannered religious fanatic.  I became interested in Eastern religions, converted to Roman Catholic in 1979, dropped out in 2006, and now practice my own religion which I call Transcendental Realism, an amalgamation of everything that seems true in all the religions I studied and practiced.

HANK: We are roughly halfway through the Q & A. I’m going to pinch it for now and come back with Part 2 next time, in which Len answers questions I have about specific scenes in these books, we discuss General George S. Patton, men’s fiction/action adventure, author cameos and some other cool stuff.

The Sergeant During the Invasion

Today is the 70th anniversary of a day that altered the course of the Second World War…and therefore history. With a brief lull in bad weather, supreme commander of the Allied Forces General Dwight D. Eisenhower took a calculated gamble and launched the greatest amphibious invasion the world has ever seen, to wrestle western Europe back from Nazi Germany.

The night before the invasion, Airborne forces were dropped into Hitler’s “Fortress Europe” to seize crucial bridges that Allied tanks would need for river crossings to break out of the beach head. Conversely, German tanks could have used those same bridges to swarm in and smash the invaders before they ever got organized (lucky for us, Hitler’s meddling kept the Panzer Divisions from being released to do just that).

One of the key cities the invaders had to take and hold was Cherbourg.

Len Levinson’s second novel in The Sergeant series is about the battle for Cherbourg.

It’s D-Day plus three (in the book) and, though conventional Wermacht wisdom had the allies invading across the narrowest point in the English Channel (into Pas de Calais) and in good weather, those crafty Yanks and Limeys have instead landed at Normandy during a brief lull in horrible weather. The German commander in Cherbourg has rigged a gawd-awful amount of explosives in the sewers. Enough to destroy the entire harbor and deny its use to the allies. Without that key harbor, reinforcing and resupplying the invasion force will become very difficult. And, if Hitler decides to release his panzer divisions, the invasion force will probably be crushed against the Channel. Between perdition and the deep blue sea, if you will.

Lucky for the allies, a young German officer who thinks with the wrong head has gotten friendly with a local French girl who knows how to play with both heads quite effectively. The French girl also happens to have a patriotic streak, and is a valuable intelligence asset for the good guys. Through her, the Allies learn of the German plan to destroy the harbor.

Enter chain-smoking, hard-drinking, skirt-chasing, butt-kicking Sergeant Mahoney…

…fresh back to the 23rd Rangers from his cloak & dagger mission with the Maquis. Along with Corporal Cranepool, Captain Boynton, and a handfull of other rangers, he is voluntold to fight his way inside Cherbourg and figure out some way to prevent the demolition.

It’s hard to believe Boynton and his superiors are so dim-witted that storming the German fortress would be the best plan they could come up with. But eventually they wise up and, unfortunately for the rangers behind German lines, the mission devolves literally into the crappiest operation Mahoney can imagine. So crappy that he vows to quit the Rangers and transfer to a line unit if he survives.

There is all the bloody mayhem you should expect from a title in this series, plus the subplot of the German officer and French spy (which provides some good laughs), a groanable episode in which Cranepool mistakes a VD inspection tent for a USO donut tent, and a somewhat longer episode in which Mahoney first impersonates a doctor, then plays doctor with a lonely nurse.

By the end of the book Levinson has nicely set up Mahoney’s transformation back to a line doggie…

…which means reams of gratuitous bayonet combat in subsequent books!

 

I found it a little much that Mahoney himself devised the plan to infiltrate the German fortress, but really that’s the only plot point  I remember that bothered me in the book.

This one is also available as an e-book and for those who enjoy fast-paced war fiction, you can’t go wrong with Hell Harbor.

The Sergeant Behind the Lines

One of these days I need to learn to look at the calendar.  The D-Day anniversary almost snuck up on me. I usually try to post some relevant content during this season, and this year I’ve got a real treat lined up. I am now email pals with Len Levinson, and he has agreed to let me interview him. In the mean time, let me share a little about the series that introduced me to this author, and had quite an impact on me in a few different ways. I’m gonna go chronological for a few titles, I think. Here’s the first.
The title character is Master Sergeant Clarence J. Mahoney, a bruising, brawling hardcorps hardcase who is one of those characters you love to read about (guiltily, perhaps), but who you probably wouldn’t care to associate with in reality. Speaking of reality, this guy is not the kind of soldier who would go far in the post-war peacetime Army, despite his spit & polish proclivities hinted at in this book, and his mercurial egocentric nature. He’s a whoring, hard-drinking savage not good for much of anything besides killing and fornicating. No Neanderthal Switch to turn off until the next war.

Mahoney and his sidekick Corporal Cranepool are introduced to us working with the maquis of the Resistance in German-occupied France shortly before D-Day in 1944. They’ve been dropped into Fortress Europe with other volunteers from the 23rd Rangers because they speak fluent French. (Mahoney also speaks fluent German–evidently this caveman from New York City is a savant when it comes to languages–hence his code name/nickname “the Parrot.”) To preempt redeployment of Wermacht divisions when the invasion takes place, Mahoney and Cranepool are ordered to destroy a crucial railroad bridge.

The Air Force has bombed this bridge to little effect. Ike wants it ruined, and ruined good, post-haste. Mahoney asks for 10 crates of TNT. The French give him two. When he sees the bridge, it’s obvious he can only do minimal damage to it with the ordnance at hand. He decides that the mission could be better accomplished damaging the railroad somewhere else, and a local member of the Resistance cell Mahoney and Cranepool are attached to just happens to be a former railroader.

Gestapo Major Kurt Richter is on the ball, however, and hot on their heels, rallying SS troops from around the region to hunt them down. When the two forces meet, the action is bloody and fast-paced.

I read numbers four-through-nine in the series many years before, and re-read a few several times, but was a little spoiled by the gratuitous frontline infantry combat to read about Mahoney and Cranepool behind the lines pulling off demolition missions while posing as French peasants. It was interesting, when I finally did delve into Death Train, to observe the author’s style shortly after conceiving the character. I don’t mean to say the character evolved much over the series, but how other characters thought of him seemed to (they tend to recognize him for what he is in this first book).

(BTW: Len doesn’t know why the cover artist gave a master sergeant the chevron of an SFC [sergeant first class]. But we are frequently told Mahoney has been busted up and down the ranks a few times.)

 

Later in the series brief mentions are made of Mahoney’s past in New York, but this first instalment brings it into sharper focus. Mahoney was basically a hoodlum who joined the Army in 1934 because he couldn’t make a living elsewhere during the Depression. I personally think such a man would have prospered in the short-term just fine rolling drunks, mugging people in Central Park, or as hired muscle for an Irish gang. Lucky for us pulp addicts, though, three squares a day in uniform must have had more appeal than (eventually) three squares a day in the slammer. He later volunteered for the Rangers because it offered more pay. He stuck with that up to this point because the professionalism of soldiers in an elite unit appealed to him more than the mediocrity of the line doggies.

It’s even more obvious here than in subsequent books what a whoremonger our “hero” is, yet the sexual interludes are not nearly as graphic as they later become. Mahoney’s habit of stealing watches off of KIAs originates here, too, BTW.

This is an engaging commando novel, but is probably my least favorite in the series.

 

Mostly because the character is better suited to conventional combat (of the pulpy persuasion) than this clandestine stuff. There is no need to read the series in sequence. Other than recurring encounters with Richter, the progression of the war, and the deaths of some supporting characters, there is no continuity to keep track of. Each book stands alone just fine.

The Sergeant series is a guilty pleasure, and the cold brutality of the protagonist is perfectly acceptable to most readers because he has been unleashed against the Germans during Hitler’s reign. Len Levinson had a lot of fun writing this series, I suspect. And we can have a lot of fun reading it.

The Greater Good

There’s a lot of stuff happening to America, to the freedoms of those who live here, and the opportunity quotient of those who will continue to live here. None of it is really a laughing matter, yet the perpetrators are just begging to be mocked.

I resisted for as long as I could, but finally just had to weigh in.

GreaterGood2
Faster than a jerking knee… More powerful than a rape accusation… Able to leap to counterfactual conclusions in a single cognitive bound… Look–on the silver screen (and the TV screen, the computer screen…and now your Kindle screen too)… It’s an action movie come to life! It’s a vision of utopia! It’s Womyn!

 

But goose-stepping Obammunists aren’t the only ones facing the business end of my rapier wit. The creative (and not-so-creative) forces behind much of the mainstream superhero and action/adventure  bupkus gets a literary barb or two in my just-released e-book, The Greater Good.

Anybody who knows anything about Hank Brown knows I love me some action/adventure…and superhero stories, too. That doesn’t mean I can’t smack down the hackneyed plot contrivances and ridiculous cliche`s so en vogue these days, though. In fact, my affinity for the genres qualify me to kick them around a bit.

After many missed opportunities and an overall bad experience with KDP Select (the year it debuted), I withdrew all my published books from the program.

I enrolled this book in KDP select (and, having learned the facts rather late, will nonetheless no longer choose DRM for anything I publish, either) because I intend to participate in discounts, promotions and so forth with this kindle-only satirical superhero spoof.  As a matter of fact, the first discount is right now and you can get it absolutely free for a limited time.

I must warn you, though, that you have to be bilingual to truly understand this book. That’s right–you must be fluent in Sarcasm.

A Throwback to High Adventure

All you citizens of the Manosphere who gave up on literature 15 years ago and either spend your down time watching movies or playing video games…you might not have noticed that books are being written for you again.

The resurgence of old-school action-adventure began in earnest about 2010, and I’ve been up to my neck in it. I’m not talking about the stuff that trickles through the TradPub (traditional publishing) gatekeepers from big name authors who still have enough clout to produce something other than chick-lit, urban fantasy or gay/lesbian. This revolution has been taking place among the Indies (independently published authors), and some of it is even better than the action paperbacks of yesteryear (before the TradPub industry drowned in estrogen).

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I am fortunate to have rubbed cyber-elbows with (I think) the majority of authors producing good work in the big daddy genre of action-adventure. Nate Granzow is one of those authors and his latest novel is a humdinger.

Before I get into the nuts and bolts, I should distance Nate’s prose somewhat from my masculist rhetoric. The protagonist in Hekura (one of them, anyway–arguably the main one) is female; and though she is not a pixie ninja (thank-you, Mr. Granzow), I certainly would classify her as a strong character.

Deep in the rainforest of South America, an indigenous tribe (the Yanomani) has encountered a race of monsters they call the Hekura–the evil spirits of dead white men, they assume. But you know how much those superstitious jungle tribes exaggerate. It’s probably just some overblown legend about harmless albino apes that they use to scare children into obedience or something.

Wrong! They are real, grotesque, and plum scary.

It just so happens that a humongous pharmaceutical conglomerate is sponsoring an expedition into the very area where these monsters are rumored to dwell, in search of a medicinal plant with miraculous healing characteristics.

So far we’ve already got some promising ingredients for an adventure yarn–the exotic locale you can only reach by plane, then on foot, a dangerous, mythical antagonist (or whole herd of them, actually), an expedition to find the Holy Grail of medicine…oh, and there’s mercenaries and Third World drug lords, too.

But even with all these elements in the mix, thousands of published authors out there right now would still fumble the ball. Nate Granzow romps all the way to the End Zone unscathed, with aplomb.

As an author, he obviously knows that the way to make a tale like this bigger than the sum of its parts is through memorable characters. I could write a lengthy essay about the dimensionality of his cast, but suffice it to say that it is outstanding. I normally don’t yammer on about how great moral ambiguity is, like it’s the pinnacle of narrative or something. But it is nice to run into sympathetic characters who are not pure as the driven snow. And the hard-drinking, chain-smoking British pilot who shares the spotlight for a while with our heroine has had some…shall we say major moral lapses while trying to earn cigarette money. And the soldier of fortune would normally serve as just another heavy to hiss and boo at while waiting for him to get greased with extreme prejudice…well, circumstances turn things around and you wind up compromising right along with his would-be victims.

One final kudo, and this is probably a minor one for most, but there were fewer typos in this novel than I find in most TradPubbed mass market paperbacks. That contributes to a pleasant reading experience with minimal distractions.

Hekura is well-crafted adventure of a caliber that is timeless, and gets a strong recommendation from me.

The Amazing Spider Mash-Up

I’m going to break convention in this review and give you the good news first. This Spiderman flick has a few things going for it that make it worth a watch despite the bad news.

First and foremost, this one movie accomplishes something that Sam Raimi couldn’t pull off with an entire trilogy: it got the Spiderman character right. When this actor puts the costume on, he closely resembles the Spiderman of the comic books I remember: an incurable smartass; nerves of steel; bubbling over with cocksurity even when doom seems imminent; and a selfless hero in the truest sense of the word.

As Peter Parker, the character was somewhat less canonical…but I don’t mind that so much. (BTW, the Toby McGuire Peter was closer to the high school nerd of the earliest comics.) Frankly, Parker’s personal life in the comics was often so angst-ridden, disastrous and…real…as to be depressing. This Peter Parker is some kind of preppie-hip, though he certainly has his problems. Aunt May is different, too, and I guess that’s fine.

Another point in this movie’s favor is the film makers kept their mask removal fetish in check, for the most part. Spiderman only unmasked himself in public once or twice.

What’s truly amazing about this flick is that there’s not one amazon superninja in it. Maybe they just couldn’t figure out a way to stuff one into the plot. Still, I’m shocked that Gwen Stacy wasn’t revealed at any point to be some world-class master at hand-to-hand combat. In an age when pinkshirt white knight feminist tropes are obligatory, this is a major plus in the film’s favor.

There is one aspect of the film that was unfortunate because of its faithfulness to the source material, and that was the overuse of Spidey’s webs. Each web shooter–about the size of a Hot Wheels toy car, has an unlimited supply of the incredible web material (at least in the comics he occasionally ran out/had to reload), and he uses it for everything.  Maybe the film makers were just so pleased with the special effect that they had to show it off every chance they got. There’s one scene where Spiderman lands on a pipe, straddling it, and uses his spider-strength (nicely displayed earlier when he catches a police cruiser to keep it from crushing a cop) to rip it open. But rather than just grabbing it and tearing it open, he has to shoot his webs at it–from a range of about eight inches.

It’s a lot like Green Arrow’s tendency to shoot arrows (or threaten to do so) when he’s close enough to just clout the bad guys directly.

In the cinematic Spiderman universe, everybody is connected to Oscorp somehow. In this film, suddenly Peter’s father Richard is introduced as a former Oscorp employee involved in intentionally genetically engineering the radioactive spider which would bite Peter years later, turning him into a superhero.

The Osbornes are back, too. And Harry is especially creepy in this movie. I don’t know why they keep going back to the Green Goblin when they have such a largely untapped rogue’s gallery to draw from (in fact, why does there have to be a minimum of two villains per superhero movie anymore?), but here he is again. And he’s actually played fairly well.

BTW, (being careful not to spoil here) there’s a recreation of a famous/infamous (to Spiderman afficionados) confrontation between Spidey and the Goblin, involving Gwen Stacy which plays out in a way that could probably only be pulled off on film, yet which accomplishes the same results. Nicely done.

The biggest negative in this film is what they did to Electro. In a nutshell, they took the Jim Carey Edward Nigma character from one of the awful ’90s Bat-flicks, threw him into a tank full of electric eels and had him come out as Dr. Manhattan from The Watchmen. Only they call him Electro.

The Electro that Spider-fans know was a villain who could shoot lightning out of his hands. That’s plenty dangerous all by itself, and more than a handful for the NYPD, and Spiderman, to deal with. But screenwriters these days evidently don’t have the imagination or talent to tell any kind of story that doesn’t require epic destruction to keep the moviegoers awake.

So rather than a power company lineman, they made him an electrical engineer for…who else? Oscorp. He has some kind of childish fixation on people noticing him. Spiderman saves his life early in the movie and Max (Jamie Foxx) worships him afterwards in a very icky pathetic scene. But his adoration is fickle to say the least–when Spiderman doesn’t behave the way Max thinks he should, love turns to hate.

Electro… Dr. Manhattan…what’s the diff? Nothing, if you know as little about the source material as the screenwriters.

And after the eel attack, “Electro” is telekinetic (his electric bolts don’t just zap people or objects, but can lift them up and move them around), he can levitate, and materialize and dematerialize anywhere he wants. He’s even bald and blue like Dr. Manhattan. I rolled my eyes when he quipped some line about becoming a god, because the Hollywood cookie-cutter had already made him one. They might as well have named him Zeus–though I’m pretty sure the Greek deity couldn’t do all the nifty tricks Jamie Foxx does.

Sometimes it takes a while for me to accept the obvious, but I’m thoroughly convinced now that Hollywood film makers, even when restraining the urge to ram their politics down our throat, are a bunch of shameless hacks incapable of an original idea…and/or have a tremendous contempt for the intelligence of their audience. Take away their special effects and they couldn’t tell a story about anything.

Iron Man Clanks to a Cinematic Halt

Originally posted 2013

It’s a just about universally accepted rule of Hollywood that even the best movies have sequels that are full of suck. If you dodge the bullet on the second one, then the third is just about guaranteed to blow dog. And yet I kept an open mind when laying down a small fortune to treat my family to a theater viewing of the final chapter in the Iron Man trilogy.

Iron Man I and the Avengers, despite their faults, were thoroughly enjoyable and worth the small fortunes paid for those respective family nights.

Unfortunately, this flick followed the sequel rule. Don’t get me wrong—there’s plenty of explosions and other destruction; cool visuals and special effects; witty dialog, and even some character development on the part of Tony Stark. If that’s enough for most moviegoers (and it probably is), then it will go down a winner. Unfortunately, it’s also brimming over with a whole lot of stupid.

Tony Stark has created a whole lot of different Iron Man armor, including the new “Mark 42” prototype. Meanwhile, he is suffering panic attacks.

And a new slimy capitalist is on the scene, making overtures to Pepper Potts (who runs Stark International now, leaving Stark free to tinker). Turns out the slimy capitalist was a slimy visionary in 1999 whom Stark dissed, while enjoying a one-night stand with a chick who just happens to be a leading scientist making breakthroughs in the very same field being pioneered by the slimy visionary: cellular regeneration. (Wait a minute…didn’t Dr. Connors already pioneer the technology when he became the Lizard in both the comics and the Spiderman reboot movie?)

So after humiliating the seemingly innocuous weirdo (played by Guy Pierce), and forgetting about the one night stand, they’ve come back to haunt him. Kinda’ like how Jim Carey as Edward Nigma/the Riddler came back to haunt Bruce Wayne after a perceived slight in one of those awful Batman flicks.

Meanwhile, a terrorist is bombing and killing indiscriminately, punctuating his reign of terror with video clips. He is called the Mandarin (based loosely on the Marvel villain of that name) and he doesn’t just use bombs—he turns human bodies into bombs.

Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) is blasted into a coma by one of the Mandarin’s human bombs. Stark gets real mad. How mad? Try stupid mad. He threatens the Mandarin on national TV and gives out his home address, daring the terrorist to preempt his revenge. (Hey, joke’s on you, Stark: that’s not really Happy Hogan, but Daredevil/Matt Murdock’s buddy Foggy Nelson!)

Okay, there’s like this fetish with Hollywood film makers. I’m not talking about the sick sexual thrill they get from destroying fine automobiles for no reason. But this one’s pretty widespread, too. It has to do with revealing secret identities in superhero movies. Bruce Wayne was ready to tell Vicky Vale he was Batman after one flip in the sack. Now that must have been some hot sex! But he had cold feet about it, so Alfred game him a little nudge by just taking her down into the Batcave. I think at least one person per movie learned Gotham’s Dark Knight was Bruce Wayne up until R’as Al Ghul destroyed the Batcave the first time. Then in this latest Batfilm, Bane exposes Wayne’s secret underground Bat-labrinth for the entire population of Gotham City to find.

I lost count of how many times Spiderman lost or removed his mask on the big screen. Unmasking yourself in public is always a clever method for keeping your identity secret. So is confessing on camera, as Tony Stark did in the first Iron Man film.

So here he goes one better, broadcasting his home address as well. Of course said home is obliterated in a spectacular explosionfest during the chopper attack of the Mandarin’s invincible glowing human bomb henchmen. Ho-hum. I have no sympathy for an alleged genius capable of his unrepentant idiocy.

But did the supervillains of the world really need Tony Stark to tell them his home address on TV for them to figure it out? Why didn’t an attack like this take place right after the dumbass told them he was Iron Man in the first movie? Obviously his home defenses were inadequate to deal with a helicopter assault then or at any other time (not that a helicopter assault was needed to take his California cliff-dwelling, but it looks cool and is a good way to burn up millions of budget dollars renting choppers, shooting rockets, and blowing stuff to smithereens).

Big pretty fireballs everywhere, Pepper Potts almost dies, Stark barely escapes with his life, yada yada yada. Then through some contrived devices Stark winds up in Kentucky with his Mark 42 armor out of commission. But never fear: Stark breaks-and-enters a home to get out of the cold, and it just happens to house a boy genius and a suitable workshop in the basement.

Oh yeah: meanwhile, Rhodie’s moniker has been changed from War Machine to Iron Patriot and he loses his armor after stumbling into an ambush.

As we move toward the big climactic showdown, we find out that Stark’s Iron Man armor may have been destroyed in the attack on his house, but he had more armor stored away in a secret chamber underneath the secret chamber we knew about, and the suits can all act as flying robots when he’s not wearing them. That way the actor can show his purty face as he delivers wisecracks all during the epic fight scene.

I’ll leave the plot alone for now. It wasn’t monumentally stupid, relative to the genre. It was about par-for-the-formula for a superhero movie. Nothing impressive.

Be advised that I read Iron Man comic books well before any Marvel Comics character appeared on the big screen, and I have accepted, for the sake of entertainment, that a millionaire industrialist could build a flying suit of powered armor and, wearing it, fight bad guys and super-bad-guys. Unlikely, okay, but possible in theory. Some of what I’m about to point out, however, strains my suspension of disbelief beyond its tensile strength.

First off, Tony Stark built the Iron Man armor to fit his own body, and yet in this movie it comfortably fits anybody of any size and body shape. Rigid armor (such as the plate worn by the knights in the last days of chivalry) has to be custom made to the body of the person who will be wearing it, otherwise the pinching and scraping will become unbearable in no time, mobility will be severely limited and you might suffer serious injury. This might not threaten suspension of disbelief for most people, so I’ll move on.

Evidently, every piece of the new Mark 42 armor is equipped with rocket motors, invisible unlimited fuel supplies, and guidance systems which will home in on Tony Stark’s body no matter where he is, so that when he wants to become Iron Man, these items will fly through the air (sometimes from Kentucky) and clamp onto his appropriate body part. Oh, but be careful—they fly and clamp onto him really fast, sometimes smacking the hell out of anything that gets in their way.

Assuming such miracle technology were possible, once you cram each piece with the rocket motors, fuel, and electronics needed for this neat trick, where would you fit the circuitry, servos and other stuff you need to make the piece do what it’s supposed to do once it’s on Stark’s body?

Along the same lines is the use of these suits as robots. The internals of a robot would be built differently than the internals of a suit which amplifies the strength of the one wearing it (which Iron Man’s armor has always done). First of all, how would there be room for a man inside a man-sized robot? Secondly, if Stark can control these robots remotely, or put them on bad-guy-fighting-autopilot as he does in the climax, why did he ever put himself inside one to begin with?

Toward the end of this movie, Stark undergoes an operation to remove the shrapnel pressing in on his heart. There’s been no mention of a new breakthrough in medical science, so I guess he’s avoided it up to now simply because he liked the rush of existing millimeters from death. And he likes having a nuclear electromagnet in his chest. Girls dig it. It’s a…wait for it…chick magnet.

The aforementioned slimy capitalist has developed cellular regeneration technology. No, wait, that’s wrong. He’s a capitalist, after all, guilty of trying to make a profit and other evil motives. He didn’t build that—someone else made that happen. So anyway, the technology allows him to turn his henchmen into invincible superninjas. Not only do limbs and organs grow back when wounded, but these guys can do neat glowing tricks. Not only can they glow, but if they glow red enough they can become human soldering irons…or human bombs.

Stark really needs to work the bugs out of his armor, by-the-way, because evidently it can be crippled by the touch of a glowing finger. The glowing finger doesn’t knock out communications, life support, the onboard computer or the super-neato undressing/dressing back up functions. It doesn’t prevent the robotic (?) neck from turning the head. It only prevents Iron Man and War Machine from fighting back. Until, that is, the tension and suspense of the scene has reached a certain level. Then the arms, legs, repulsors and boot jets magically become operative. For a few seconds. Until the hero is rendered helpless again.

As in all the Marvel movies, the acting was good. There were plenty of jokes and humorous dialog, delivered by Robert Downey Jr. with his usual aplomb. The cinematography was equally high-caliber. The special effects were abundant and visually striking.

Style. Flash. Attitude. It’s got it. And that’s enough for a lot of people. If that’s enough for you, you’ll enjoy this movie.

Spec Ops Head to Head 2

But wait–there’s more! (Be sure to check out Part One.)

This time the original (not counting the OSS) specops warriors throw their ego into the ring to show they can trash talk too. That’s right–the SF “Green Berets.”

And in this corner…the new kids on the block…the USMC MARSOC!

Again, this will require the expert analysis of my elite piss contestants review panel. Let’s start with you, Rick.

RICK: Well Hank, not counting the limp-richard wannabes in this video, I just have to say the SF soldiers are totally un-sat. Their haircuts are UNACCEPTABLE! And the face armor? What a bunch of pogues! You gotta hand it to the Marines, though–they always look strac. High and tight, faces smooth as a baby’s fourth point, they’re just squared away.

THAD: I don’t necessarily believe this debate can be decided on the basis of grooming standards alone. That being said, both parties in this video are unshaven and disheveled.

DUANTE: Yo main, ya’ll white boys need to shave that mess, yo. Your hair be stickin’ all out of your faces at whacked angles…look like the Shaggy D.A. or somethin’. And my second point is, this is another racist video. Where the brothers at? This is like a good ol’ boy all white fraternity or somethin’.

SYLVIA: Yes, absolutely. Where are the people of color and where are the female soldiers? Where are the gay, lesbian and transgender soldiers?

RICK: As for the last three categories, I think they all transferred to the Bureau of Land Management. …Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

THAD: Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

DUANTE: Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

THAD: Now, going into this rap battle, the Special Forces have the obvious advantage of experience and reputation, and I think they sort of put MARSOC in their place.

RICK: UNACCEPTABLE! Look, I’ll knock some points off for the Marines’ gay-ass sleeve-rolling techniques, but they hit SF with two devastating shots in quick succession. First the line about force multipliers, then they burned ‘em with the zinger about the National Guard. They drew blood, big-time.

THAD: But come on, now. I thought that was effectively countered with “hey diddle diddle; straight up the middle.”

RICK: What’s wrong with a frontal assault, candy ass? What are you, queer? …Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

DUANTE: Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

THAD: Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

SYLVIA: Hey, I didn’t get a “not that there’s anything wrong with that” out of Hank Brown!

HANK: Huh? Oh, sorry. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

SYLVIA: You better watch your ass.

RICK: The point is, I’d PT that pogue into the ground.

THAD: Who’s that–the MARSOC guy?

RICK: Him too. I’d smoke both their asses in the PT pit.

DUANTE: Yo, hey now, let’s get back on point, y’all. 1) this is totally racist, and B) white folks can’t rap for shit! Damn pink toes couldn’t find the beat with a road map, main. And 3) who taught y’all white boys how to handle guns, anyway? Don’t you know you’re supposed to turn the gun sideways?

RICK: Only if you’re shooting with your protective mask on, numb nuts.

DUANTE: Y’all look like a bunch of punks.

SYLVIA: And once again, the only females represented in the video don’t wear uniforms, but bikinis.

DUANTE: That is a ho’s uniform.

THAD: That was a female? I wasn’t sure, with all the tattoos…

Red-Blooded American Men Examine Pop-Culture and the World