Monday, May 5, 2008

Desert warfare, commando raids and books for children

Western Publishing came into existance in 1910 and had a long and fun history before it was bought out, picked apart and absorbed into the bigger publishing houses over the course of the 1980s & 1990s. Western produced comic books (mostly based on characters licensed from movies, cartoons and television) that were distributed first by Dell Comics and later by Gold Key Comics. Western's subsidiary Whitman Publishing produced the wonderful Little Big Books.

When I was a kid, I owned the Fantastic Four Little Big Book (with great art by Jack Kirby throughout) and one featuring Major Matt Mason, an astronaut action figure that was popular at the time. But it was another pair of Whitman books, hard covers based on television shows airing at the time, that really caught my fancy.

Both books were based on World War II-themed shows. Both managed to totally enthrall my 8-year-old mind. I read them over and over until they just fell apart.

One was based on The Rat Patrol, a silly but exciting TV show about commandos battling the Nazis in North Africa. Sgt. Sam Troy and his three men rode around in a pair of jeeps, each with a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on the back. When those jeeps came jumping over sand dunes in the opening credits, it looked awesome.

The book, written by I.G. Edmunds, is titled The Iron Monster Raid. It starts with the Rat Patrol returning from a tough mission. They've only one jeep left and almost no ammo for their few remaining weapons. They stumble into the middle of a tank battle and lose their last jeep. They also get a glimpse of the German's newest weapon--the massive Tiger tank.

Soon after, the Patrol is assigned to escort a couple of officers behind German lines, intending to link up with a secret agent and get some microfilm showing the weak spots on the Tiger tank.

When I acquired this book as an adult, I was curious to how well it would hold up. Looking at re-runs of the TV show as a grown-up, I found it was still visually fun, but marred by poor plot construction and historically inaccurate equipment. (Details that I would have been less aware of as a child.)

The book, though, was still a lot of fun. I'm sure nostalgia was a factor in this, but it turns out that the overall plot was solid, with a fair degree of historical accuracy in its portrayal of weapons and geography.

Of particular note is a couple of the action sequences. One takes place near the beginning, when the Rat Patrol is trying to get home on foot after losing their last jeep. They stumble across a German command post and get temporarily seperated from one another. This leads to a very tense sequence in which they sneak into the command post to steal a vehicle.

Later in the novel, they have sneaked about a German train to get to the occupied city of Tunis. Events force them to try to take over the train while its stopped in a narrow canyon. At the same time, the train is attacked by American fighter planes, forcing our heroes to dodge friendly machine gun bullets while they shoot it out with the Germans. It was an exciting, well-described set piece.

The other Whitman novel was based on a short-lived TV show called Garrison's Gorillas. I don't think I ever saw an episode of this. Using the same concept as the movie The Dirty Dozen, it featured an OSS officer named Garrison who uses a group of reformed criminals on behind-the-lines missions, employing their unique skills to fight the Nazis.

The Whitman version of the show, titled The Fear Formula and written by Jack Pearl, had a science fiction element to it: the Germans have gotten hold of a formula that can be placed in drinking water supplies. Once you drink the tainted water, you become helpless with fear and panic.

Once again, when I returned to this book as an adult, I discovered yet another well-constructed plot. The Gorillas are assigned to rescue the Czech scientist who created the Fear Formula from a German prison camp. There are a couple of fun plot twists and the action sequences are exciting.

Whitman did quite a few of the TV books during the 1960s. Occasionally, I run across one in a used book store and snap it up. So far, I've read The Land of the Giants, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Man from UNCLE, and Combat. Surprisingly, Combat, easily the highest quality TV show of all of these, was the dullest of the Whitman books. The others, though, were all pretty good. None qualify as great literature, but nearly all managed to spin an entertaining yarn.

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