Could Pulp Novels Be Hollywood’s Next Comic Books?

With the studios running out of comic books to adapt, some are turning to paperback series in hopes of finding the new franchise.

Back in the ‘80s, I thought of them as “Manly Harlequins.” They were the new pulp novels: short, fast-paced two-fisted adventure stories with lurid covers. While the pulps of the ’30s were more like a magazine format, these paperbacks ran as series, with new titles coming out every month like clockwork, just like Harlequin romances. There were even subscription forms in the back of each mass market paperback if you wanted the new titles sent directly to your home. Unlike Harlequins, titles like The Executioner and The Destroyer were snatched up by a decidedly young male readership in search of ultraviolent escapist action with plenty of explosions and boobs.

First appearing in 1968, author Don Pendleton’s creation, Mack Bolan (aka The Executioner), was an iron-jawed and heavily-armed one-man army waging a, yes, one-man war against the Mafia. My god but did he blow the shit out of a lot of guys named Carmine. Between ‘68 and 1980, Pendleton published about a dozen Executioner novels. They were essentially comic books without the pictures. The stories never varied much, there wasn’t much by way of subtle character development, and they were never raved about in the Times Book Review, but they found a solid core audience.

Then, after a legal fracas with his publisher, Pendleton lost control of the series, which really was sold off to the Harlequin people. Their crew of faceless hacks not only began churning out new Executioner books each month, they also began churning out several spinoff series (Mack Bolan, Able Team, Phoenix Force, etc.) The character was still tough as all get-out and packing the latest in high-powered weaponry, but in keeping with the times, Mack turned his attention away from the mob and set about trying to protect America from the insidious commie threat. The stories remained pretty much the same, except now he was blowing the shit out of guys named Dmitri and Ivan.

It was after that transition into a cookie-cutter Reagan era franchise that The Executioner tapped into a new audience of gung-ho 13-year-olds and sales really took off…

Ad – content continues below

More fun was The Destroyer series, created by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir, around the same time Mack Bolan made his first appearance. Remo Williams (aka The Destroyer) was a Newark cop falsely accused of murder and sent to the chair. But his death was faked, see, and he was smuggled away by CURE, an ultra-secret government intelligence agency that planned to mold him into the nation’s greatest assassin. He’s trained in Sinanju, the deadliest of all the martial arts, and sent out to exterminate an endless array of mad scientists, monsters, supervillains, reanimated evil cartoonists (really!), even the occasional mobster and crooked arms dealer.

The books had much more of a fantasy quality to them than the assorted Executioner series. In many ways, The Destroyer worked as a counterpoint to Sax Rohmer’s international criminal mastermind Dr. Fu Manchu, who first appeared half a century earlier. Both men despise firearms, preferring to dispatch their targets in more inventive, ridiculous ways. Both, over the course of their respective long-running series, developed complex mythologies. And both series were so damned kooky at times the authors couldn’t help but let some self-conscious humor slip over the transom. No such charges could be leveled against Pendleton.

Through the inescapable dominance of cartoonish action films in the ‘80s and again today with the inescapable dominance of superhero movies (as well as the popularity of the Bourne and recent Bond films), I always wondered why no filmmaker had ever picked up on the ready-made Destroyer or Executioner franchises. They seemed a sure thing, right? Part superhero picture, part secret agent movie with plenty of over-the-top action sequences laid out right there on the page. But for some reason the studios weren’t interested.

Now though, with available comic book titles dwindling fast, and maybe only out of desperation, there’s a move to bring both The Executioner and The Destroyer to the big screen. Over at Warner Brothers, Todd Phillips is reportedly getting ready to direct Bradley Cooper as Mack Bolan, and Shane Black is developing a Destroyer adaptation for Columbia. Add to that the Doc Savage movie (also from Shane Black, and possibly with Chris Hemsworth) and mutterings of a new Conan film, and you have a veritable pulp renaissance coming out of Hollywood in the near future. 

So why did it take them so long to catch on? Well maybe for once they actually paid attention to history. This isn’t the first time the studios have tried to turn cheap paperbacks into big-budget franchises. Of course there had been that stab at a Destroyer picture back in ‘85, with Fred Ward starring in Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, but it was underappreciated and overlooked by critics and audiences alike and quickly became one of those video store staples no one ever rented. Despite its box office bombiness, there was even an effort to turn it into a TV series, but it never got beyond the pilot, and the adventure ended almost before it began.

A Doc Savage film starring Ron Ely was released in 1975, but it played more like a superhero satire than a fantasy adventure. It came, it went, it was quickly forgotten, and few have thought about it since. It was recently given a digital and made-to-order home release by the Warner Archive Collection.

Ad – content continues below

Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian made it through two big-budget features with Arnold Schwarzenegger before audiences started getting bored. Despite ongoing whispers of a third, Conan seems to have done much better as a comic book than a movie.

In 2012 Disney took an early stab at the pulps with their CGI-heavy adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series, with Pixar’s Andrew Stanton directing. The series, originally written in the ‘30s, was really something. According to Burroughs, they had a fourth primary color on Mars. Man, that kept me going for weeks, as did all those green princesses with six arms. Anyway,by leaving the “of Mars” part off the title and releasing something called simply John Carter, they didn’t attract much of anyone into the theater save for those twelve of us left who remember and love those novels…and maybe a few guys actually named John Carter.

No, history hasn’t been kind to movie adaptations of the pulps, old and new alike. In fact there have been only two highly successful film franchises to emerge from the world of cheap and tawdry paperbacks. Burroughs’ John Carter may not have done much at the box office, but his other creation, Tarzan, has to date inspired over 60 features and TV series, with more to come. And then there’s good ol’ Fu Manchu again (he always has a way of sneaking into things, the inscrutable devil). He appeared onscreen for the first time in 1932 and has appeared in over 200 films since, played by everyone from Boris Karloff to Christopher Lee to Peter Sellers. Fu Manchu has also, like Tarzan, inspired comic books, radio shows, and television series.

The problem with bringing the likes of Mack Bolan to the big screen, thinking you’re going to have another Batman on your hands, the reason any such silly delusion is doomed, is that NOBODY KNOWS WHO MACK BOLAN IS ANYMORE. Even with those two rare successes, nowadays most people know Tarzan and Fu Manchu from the movies, not the books. God bless them for trying, though, I’d love to see more Remo Williams films myself, but as popular as those books were in the ‘80s and ‘90s among a very obsessive cult audience, the numbers are microscopic compared with comic book sales. It’s doom, doom, doom.

Hey! Unless someone wanted to try and revive Fu Manchu! Oh, wait a minute.

Ad – content continues below