Friday, December 11, 2009

Forgotten Kids' Books: Have Gun Will Travel, Maverick, Zorro

When I was 13 I discovered the paperback series of Doc Savage, Tarzan and James Bond, and my reading habits changed forever.

Before that, I read a lot of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, along with other classics of literature like Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. And I remember devouring all the books the school library had by Lester Del Ray (sci-fi) and William Campbell Gault (sports).

But the only books I still have from those days are the Whitman Authorized TV Editions, like those featured here. There are lots of others . . . Bat Masterson, The Rifleman, The Rebel, Wagon Train, The Restless Gun, Cheyenne, but I chose these three because they were among my favorite shows. And of course, they all had first-rate theme songs.

In nice shape, these are truly beautiful books. (Be sure to right click on each image to open in a new tab and see these wrap-around covers in all their glory.) They were printed on real pulp paper, with pulp-like illustrations, and cardboard covers coated with some kind of celluloid. As a result, they were easily damaged, and most copies around today have dinged corners, broken hinges and gaping wounds where the celluloid is peeling. In bad shape, they are truly hideous.

Anyway, I loved these books back then. But how do they stand up today? Let’s see.

HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL by Barlow Meyers (1959)

“Barlow Meyers” sounded like a pen name created specifically for writing westerns. So I looked him up, and was shocked to learn that most of his books were aimed at girls. Stuff like Annette and the Mystery of Moonstone Bay, and Janet Lennon at Camp Calamity.

This book is OK. Meyers makes use of all of Paladin’s trademarks - the business card, the chess knight holster, the taste for fancy ladies. The problem is that Meyers' prose is merely adequate. Nothing shines, and Richard Boone’s grim wit surfaces only about four times in 282 pages.

The story is a long, less than thrilling chase. An outlaw has snatched a four-year-old girl and taken off. Paladin follows. And follows. And follows. Bottom line: watch the show on DVD instead.

MAVERICK by Charles I. Coombs (1959)

I did some digging on Charles I. Coombs, and was surprised to learn he wrote very little fiction. Most of his books (and there are a lot of them) are kids’ non-fiction on various subjects.

That surprised me because this is pretty good fiction. The story is familiar: When a prosperous rancher dies, his cattle are rustled and his heirs can’t pay the mortgage. Enter Bret Maverick, an old friend of the family, to save the ranch. To complicate things, he’s implicated in a stage robbery, and must battle both the robbers and a behind-the-scenes villain to clear himself.

The only problem is - Coombs didn’t know much about Maverick. The Bret of this book is sometimes lighthearted, but has nowhere near the wise guy personality he should. Not once does he tell anyone, “My old Pappy used to say…”  There’s no mention of him being a gambler. And despite the image on the cover, he wears Levi’s for the entire book. The only tie-in with the Maverick I know is that he has a brother Bart back in Texas.

My guess is that Coombs was shown the first episode of the series - the only one I can think of where Maverick wore Levi’s (at least for awhile). This would have been just enough to give him a hint of James Garner’s character and speech patterns, but not enough to know what he was doing.

If Coombs had been a real western novelist, I’d suspect he’d written this novel about some other cowboy and simply changed him to Maverick.

Walt Disney's ZORRO by Steve Frazee (1958)

Now here’s a guy who did write a lot of westerns, and it shows. But he didn’t have a lot of freedom with this one. This book is a novelization of the first thirteen episodes of the Disney series. The show, you may recall, began like a cliffhanger serial, with a sequence in which a friend of Don Diego’s father has been arrested for treason by the evil Commandante. Don Diego returns from school in Spain just in time to don the Zorro duds and save the day.

The story is nicely told, but I’m curious how much control Disney had over the book. If I could lay my hands on my VHS tapes of these episodes, I’d check to see if Frazee used Disney dialogue or wrote his own.

The Disney series was based, of course, on the pulp novel The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley. With the release of the silent film version starring Douglas Fairbanks, the book became forever known as The Mark of Zorro, which I recommend highly. The tragedy is that McCulley’s several other Zorro novels and bushel of short stories are dang near impossible to find. Those that have been reprinted are rare and expensive, and many have never been reprinted at all.

Check out Patti's Forgotten Kids' Books links here.


Laurie Powers said...

Great reviews. Sad to say I never watched any of these when I was a kid, even Maverick. I'm very familiar with the Whitman series books though.

Richard Prosch said...

Those covers are beautiful. My son and I are reading Rin Tin Tin and the Ghost Wagon Train this month. It's the second "Rinty" we've read, --this one based on the TV show. We've got Whitman's Annie Oakley in the queue.

Drake said...

I remember these books, i had the Combat! and Munsters books.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I watched all of these TV shows but never even knew the books existed. I especially loved Maverick and all three of the men.

Evan Lewis said...

Laurie: No Maverick?? A shame. It was sort of an anti-western. The Mavericks were out for themselves and ended up heroes in spite of themselves.

Rich: Yep, I have Annie and those Rintys too. And the theme songs.

Drake: Combat was one of my favorite non-westerns.

Patti: Your good taste is showing. Wish they'd hurry up and issue the complete Maverick on DVD. HGWT and Zorro are already available.

Richard Robinson said...

So... was there one of these for The Cisco Kid? Come to think of it, was TCK even on television? I was thinking I saw it.

Richard Robinson said...

...and his sidekick, Poncho. Right?

Evan Lewis said...

Cisco and Pancho rode the TV west for years, but I'm sure they never made it into a Whitman novel. A Little Golden Book? Maybe.

Todd Mason said...

I mentioned a random Whitman book I remembered, and was thinking of Frazee's contributions to their line, in a response on my entry today even before reading yours, Evan. Nostalgic minds...

Todd Mason said...

Todd and Zorro meaning fox, my nom de blog-nonsense is Zorro Albanil.

Evan Lewis said...

I came across another Frazee while I was digging these out: Cheyenne and the Lost Gold of Lion Park.

Terrie Farley Moran said...

Thanks for a grand stroll down memory lane. I was addicted to have Gun Will Travel and Maverick, but like Patti, I never knew the books existed.


Tom K Mason said...

Great, fun post. I believe the artwork in the Maverick book was by the soon-to-be legendary Alex Toth who in addition to his comic book work also did character designs for the Jonny Quest and Space Ghost cartoons (among others).

Evan Lewis said...

Yep, Terrie, HGWT and Maverick were in the cream of the western crop.

You're right, Tom. Toth did do the Maverick illos. They were OK, but not as good as his Zorro work (on the comic, not the Whitman book - which was illustrated by someone else), and he never quite captured James Garner.

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