First, a little back story.
Captain Action was an action figure created in 1966 and was marketed with a wardrobe of costumes allowing him to become Batman, Captain America, the Phantom and a variety of other popular characters (despite the now mind-boggling licensing issues). By 1967, he was paired with a side-kick, Action Boy, and an arch-nemesis, Dr. Evil – both of whom also had a variety of costume change possibilities, along with secret bases and special vehicles and weapons. By 1968, however, Ideal Toys discontinued the line, but the fans of Captain Action had the last laugh.
The character achieved a cult-level of popularity and as the toys stopped being produced, DC Comics licensed and produced five issues of a Captain Action comic, illustrated first by Wally Wood, then by Gil Kane, with scripts by Kane and Jim Shooter. He was given a history and the ability to duplicate the powers of mythological figures thanks to a collection of magical coins (in order to skirt said licensing issues).
In 1998, thirty years after his last appearance, retro toy company Playing Mantis brought Captain Action back to toy shelves with a new line of costumes, but again, within a couple of years production ended.
2005 brought new life to the Captain Action brand, as Captain Action Enterprises began producing a wide range of new collectable merchandise, and in 2008, Moonstone Books published a new comic book series following the adventures of Captain Action, with a new, truer to the concept of the toy line, back story.
Captain Action was now former Marine, Miles Drake, the alien-fighting, super-spy front man for the A.C.T.I.O.N. Directorate. He is a master of disguise thanks to natural abilities and the help of a material called "plastiderm" which allows him to assume the identity of pretty much anyone. The stories of Miles Drake (and Sean Barrett – Action Boy) took place in the 1960s while modern adventures followed Drake's son, Cole.
Captain Action: Riddle of the Glowing Men is the first Captain Action prose novel ever and is written by (full disclosure) friend of Comics Bulletin, Jim Beard. Jim currently writes a regular column for the Toledo Free Press Star and contributes weekly content to Marvel.com. In addition to these writing duties, over the past couple of years he has begun publishing pulp fiction with his original character Sgt. Janus, Spirit-Breaker, and contributing to pulp anthologies like Presidential Pulp, in addition to writing Riddle of the Glowing Men and editing a collection of essays on the 1960s Batman TV series, Gotham City 14 Miles.
The main reason I've spent this much time introducing Jim and Captain Action is because I had no idea who Captain Action was before volunteering to review this novel. I'd also never read anything by Jim other than reviews and columns he'd written for Comics Bulletin over the years. So after familiarizing myself with Jim's work and getting a little insight into the history of the character, I dove into Riddle of the Glowing Men, still a little unsure as to what I'd find there.
I can happily inform you that what I found was quite entertaining.
Set in 1966, Riddle of the Glowing Men is a whole-hearted embracing of pulp stylings and an earnest, unapologetic take on the characters and their history. There's not an ironic bone in the body of this book.
I have to admit to being a little put off by that at first.
This is a book about a two-fisted 1960s action hero fighting Commies, falling for a seductive Russian Agent, and encountering a secret underground civilization mutated by the radiation of the Tunguska Event of 1908. Many authors would have a hard time not veering into parody or at least winking at the reader with clever pop culture references and failing to take characters called Captain Action and Dr. Evil seriously.
But Beard does take these characters seriously. And I'll be damned if it doesn't work out just fine.
Earnestness is probably the most appropriate word to describe the writing of this novel. Beard knows the history of Captain Action inside and out, but doesn't just take that into consideration, he is also enthusiastic about the all-ages appeal of the character and provides a novel that can be read and enjoyed by long-time fans or youngsters just discovering the world of Captain Action.
Not too much time is spent establishing the time period, but it really doesn't hamper the storytelling. By choosing to tell a story set in the wilds of the Soviet Union, there isn't really a need to dwell on the 1960s America where we begin. From the opening moments of this book, we are entirely in the world of Captain Action and that's all we need to know. From Captain Action's secret headquarters, Action Mountain, to the underground world of the Glowing Men, this is about as pulp as pulp gets.
But without the darker, more violent or sexual forays into pulp excess. Oh, there's plenty of violence, but Captain Action does his best to live up to higher ideals, refusing to kill even his arch-enemy if it can be avoided. And while there's a hint of sex here, it's fairly innocuous and tastefully presented. Captain Action is all about the high road: Love, Honor, Patriotism, Duty. When more disturbingly violent elements are introduced to the story, they are in service of demonizing our villains – and they are abhorrent in their villainy.
It's in these original characters where we see a little of the personal flourish that I would expect to find in Beard's original, unlicensed, work. Or maybe that's just wishful thinking, as I do love me some horrendous villainy and amoral characters. In Riddle of the Glowing Men, when the violence is brutal and, well, evil, it is quickly halted and avenged by Captain Action in one way or another.
Ultimately, it's Beard's earnestness that will be the deal-maker or breaker for your individual reading pleasure. This is a book that tries to do one thing and one thing only: provide you with a cracking good adventure for young and old alike. And it does that splendidly.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot, Streaming Pile O' Wha?, and Classic Film/New Blu, all here at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now for Kindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.