In Don Pendleton's “Death Squad” (1969), the second of the long running vigilante series 'The Executioner', we are introduced to Mack Bolan's Vietnam colleagues - Bill Hoffower, Tom Loudelk, Angelo Fontenelli, Juan Andromede, Gadgets Schwartz, Pol Blancanales, Jim Harrington and George Zitka. While it's a short-lived cameo, this death squad assists Bolan with a Mafia hit that goes south. While the entire team is nearly wiped out, it was an interesting concept that would eventually lead to more team-based action in its affiliates like Able Team, Stony Man and Phoenix Force.
Pendleton would pen 37 of the first 38 Executioner novels before handing Gold Eagle the rights to produce the books using a myriad of authors. The stipulation that the author's name be printed on the copyright page is important, allowing fans like myself an easy peek at the book's creator without having to roll the sleeves up for a paper trail (I'm talking to you Killmaster). After 60 volumes of 'The Executioner' (titled 'Mack Bolan' at this point), Gold Eagle decided that they could increase the profits from $2.25 per book to $3.95 by increasing the size to 350+ pages under the 'Super Bolan' series. These were simultaneously released at the same time Executioners were flooding the market, providing plenty of paperback Bolans to meet reader demands.
Writer Stephen Mertz was a Pendleton prodigy and by the early 1980s was knee-deep in the Bolan universe. His resume and experience with Bolan provoked a “retcon” idea of re-imagining earlier events in Bolan's life. Thus, “Super Bolan #4 – Dirty War” is written as a time capsule piece depicting events that would happen to the character during his second tour in Vietnam. The idea of a sprite young Bolan in the hands of a veteran author like Mertz is altogether intriguing. The stars aligned to even have veteran artist Gil Cohen design the cover, the ultimate Bolan fan's dream.
The book begins in the present day as Bolan is thinking back to his Death Squad's unfortunate deaths. He's on a Mafia hit of his own and thinking back to his time in Vietnam as sergeant and the various missions that his men performed. In a unique chapter one, 30-yr old Bolan is at Pittsfield Municipal Airport in Massachusetts with his family. We know this would be the last time he would see his parents/sister and Mertz writes this into the narrative. Bolan has premonitions that he won't see his family again. Kudos to the author for also allowing some backstory on Mack's father Sam and his early fights with the mob enforcers. At one point, before Mack's departure, Sam is attacked and Mack comes to his aid. It's this aspect that I don't think was conveyed by Pendleton – that Mack knew what was happening back home prior to the first few letters arriving on his second tour. In this re-imagining, he knew all along.
The action heats up in Vietnam as we see Bolan and his death squad liberating a young woman and child from a NVA stronghold near the Cambodian border. It's intense cat-and-mouse tactics that mirror Bolan's solo fights much later in life. But here we have Bolan as squad leader, effectively orchestrating the Hell that is unleashed on the NVA base. In a neat fan experience, Mertz provides a cameo of pilot Jack Grimaldi. Familiar readers will know that Grimaldi and Mack originally meet in Executioner #10, later to become longtime allies within the Stony Man group. Retconning that exchange, Mertz has Grimaldi rescue the Death Squad from the NVA fight and pilot the group to safety. While Grimaldi and Bolan never officially meet here, both are respectful to each other leading Grimaldi to think to himself, “I wonder if our paths will ever meet again”. This is fun stuff.
“Dirty War” eventually tangles with plenty of firefights and escapes, building in a hot lead assault on Bolan's camp, a hunt and destroy mission and the eventual escape from enemy patrols in Cambodia. At 376-pages, it never gets too exhausting with dialogue or slow motion. This is 80s Bolan – 1,2,3,Kill at its finest. Mertz is clearly having a lot of fun with the concept and adds tremendous depth to the characters that made up that original Death Squad. Without giving away the spoilers, we know that Gadgets and Pol would survive that Mafia battle and go on to form Able Team (launched in 1982 by Gold Eagle).
Fans of the Bolan universe, this is simply mandatory reading. It's fun, indulgent and clever. It's clearly designed for the series' fans but should be considered an important part of the Bolan origin story. If you are new to the series, I would start here and then work into Executioners 1 and 2. But regardless of order, just read it.
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