Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Summer of ACTION! -- The Chameleon is Mad as Hell!

Like You, He's Mad As Hell And Not Gonna Take It Anymore!

The Chameleon
VOLUME/TITLE: #1/The Wrath of Garde
AUTHOR: Jerry LaPlante
YEAR: 1979
OPENING LINES: The rock passage was closing in. Off to the left, it tapered into a thin vanishing crack. My fingertips reached no more than a foot from my prone body before they wedged into solid mountain.
CLOSING LINES: "Balls." I bent over, holding mine in agony.

When I was a kid I'd usually accompany my Mom when she would go grocery shopping or make a trip to the Moorestown Mall (at that time the bastard stepchild of area malls). Since it was the late 1970s/early 1980s and nobody seemed really aware of things like child abduction and milk carton "missing" pics she'd usually drop me off in the book and magazine section while she went off to double- and triple-coupon the store into the red.

When we went to K-Mart or Pathmark I frequently found myself thumbing through the tie-ins for horror flicks like THE OMEN or AUDREY ROSE – stuff I wasn't allowed to see but could piece together in my mind thanks to "16 pages of black and white photos!". For any of you kids reading out there, trust me, the movie you make in your mind is probably gonna be waaaayyy better than whatever the filmmakers dish out.

But my favorite place was the little independent bookstore that sat at the end of a sad little branch of the Moorestown Mall. It might have been called Moorestown Books, though I can't be sure. What I do remember was that they had row upon row upon row of the men's adventure novels of the day... from hair-raising spy sagas featuring Nick Carter, Mack Bolan and Remo Williams to "sexy" adult westerns featuring Longarm. (I also seem to remember that there was a Roy Rogers across from it.)

These books were like forbidden fruit. For some reason my folks would never let me buy them, even though I'd burned through pretty much every James Bond book two or three times. I suppose the frequently lurid covers didn't help (not to mention double entendre-packed names like "Longarm"!) and, unlike the 007 novels, didn't come with my brother-in-law's stamp of approval.

And so, I'd stand there flipping through the latest from Killmaster, Executioner or Destroyer, always on the alert for my Mom. She'd already installed household bans on KISS and PLANET OF THE APES and I didn't want to queer the deal on my bookstore dalliances.

These days, venturing out to a used book sale is like being that 12-year-old kid again – except this time I get to buy whatever the hell I want! Like CHAMELEON #1: The Wrath of Garde (Buy at Amazon), which I grabbed immediately upon spotting it on a table littered with more popular examples of mass market literature.

Were James Bond to head up Q division the resulting hero might be something like Vance Garde, a "mild-mannered, scientific engineering genius" who uses his brains and the resources of his firm to, well, not so much fight crime as exact revenge against those who he feels have wronged him and/or his family.

Garde leaps into action when his young stepsister Sharon dies of a drug overdose thanks to a low-rent dealer nicknamed "The Oregano Kid". Spurred on to "don't get mad... get even", Garde creates a division known as VIBES (Vindication against Injustice, Bureaucracy and Ensconced Stupidity) and enlists the help of the beautiful Ballou Annis to ferret out the upper rungs of the drug pushing ladder that killed Sharon. Along the way he uncovers clues to the identity of his father's murderer, experiences multiple bouts of blue balls with Ms. Annis, and dispenses with more than one villain in colorful fashion that would make James Bond blush.

Little more than "Bond Lite" with more graphic sex and rougher violence, The Wrath of Garde is a breezy read thanks to Zebra's typically easy on the eyes font size and the check-your-brain-at-the-door plotline. You'll figure out most of the twists and turns long before the "brilliant" Garde but you won't hate yourself for going along for the ride.

The cover copy and art might actually be more entertaining than the book itself. The artist's rendition of Garde (resplendent in white jacket and burgundy turtleneck!) appears to clearly be based on a young Tony Curtis, though my wife suggested that there might be a little MANNIX-era Mike "Touch" Connors in there as well. As for the sheet-covered Ms. Annis? Sure looks like Elizabeth Taylor to me.

More challenging than figuring out the reference art is deciphering the cornucopia of pop culture references used to sell the reader on the book, not to mention the most perplexing of all questions: Why the hell is this series called The Chameleon?!

Both The Incredible Hulk (?!) and James Bond get name checked on the back cover copy while there's even a reference to NETWORK's Howard Beale ("Like You, He's Mad As Hell And Not Gonna Take It Anymore!") that appears atop all three books in the series. The colorful "Chameleon" logo is prominently displayed all over the covers despite the fact that – as Marty McKee keenly points out at his blog Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot – "[he] isn't a master of disguise or a cat burglar or anything like that".

Alas, the adventures of Vance Garde and Annis Ballou never really caught on and the series ended after two more books – In Garde We Trust (Buy at Amazon) and Garde Save The World (Buy at Amazon).


Manny DeJesus said...

It really makes you wonder what the author's mindset was when he came up with the idea for The Chameleon. Since I have so many post-pulp books on my wish list already, I can place this series at the bottom.

Dan said...

Yeah, I don't think you're missing a whole lot. I grabbed it strictly on the strength of the oddball cover copy, which it never really lives up to. Like a roughie version of 007.