Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Bouquets for Bama: The Reality of McCoy

Part of a posthumous salute to artist James Bama.

Here’s a record few people can hope to rival: Australian author Leonard Frank Meares (1921-1993) published 746 novels during his career. What’s more, notes the blog Pulp International, “he didn’t even see his first on the shelf until he was thirty-four—young for publishing one’s first novel, but not for publishing the first of 746. Or better yet—look at it this way: that’s an average of just more than nineteen novels every year until he died at age seventy-two.”

Obviously, Meares wasn’t one to wasting time behind his typewriter. “Len never needed more than 24 hours to devise a new plot,” explains David Whitehead (aka Ben Bridges), author and co-founder (with Mike Stotter) of Britain’s Piccadilly Publishing, which has re-reissued some of that prolific Aussie’s works over the years. He goes on to quote Meares as remarking, “Irving Berlin once said that there are so many notes on a keyboard from which to create a new melody, and it’s the same with writing on a treadmill basis.” It wasn’t unheard of for Meares to pen 30 books in 12 months!

Most of those were westerns, released under pseudonyms such as Marshall Grover, Johnny Nelson, Shad Denver, and Ward Brennan. In 1956, his 10th novel, Drift, came out Down Under, starring “his fiddle-footed knights-errant, Larry Valentine and Stretch Emerson, the characters for which he would eventually become so beloved,” as Whitehead recalls. Then, eight years on, Meares welcomed to print The Night McLennan Died, “the first of more than 70 oaters to feature cavalryman-turned-manhunter Big Jim Rand.”

“The [Rand] series started in 1964,” explains Michael Stradford, a book-art blogger and the director of Creative Content for Warner Home Entertainment, “and told the story of former cavalry sergeant Big Jim Rand, who abandoned the military to go on a mission of revenge to find the gambler who shot and killed his brother.” Stradford adds that about halfway through the series—which was credited to Marshall Glover—“Big Jim found his brother’s killer and settled that account before heading off to new adventures.”

(Left) Leonard F. Meares

Recognizing that it had hit a gold mine with the prolific Meares, his Australian publisher at the time, the Horwitz Group, sold America’s Bantam Books the rights to more than 30 of his short novels. As the story goes, though, legal reasons compelled Bantam to change both author and character names. Thus, “Marshall Grover” became “Marshall McCoy,” “Larry and Stretch” was modified to “Larry and Streak,” and “Big Jim Rand” was rechristened “Nevada Jim Gage.”

Bantam commenced issuing the Nevada Jim adventures in 1968, with cover art by James Bama. “Bama brought [model Steve] Holland in to pose as Nevada Jim, although he changed the likeness quite a bit in some illustrations and made Jim look more like Holland in others,” says Stradford, who studied the Nevada Jim series in preparation for writing his 2021 book, Steve Holland: The World’s Greatest Illustration Art Model (Primedia). “He also packed a lot of muscle on Jim in the paintings. Using similar color schemes that could often be found on his Doc Savage covers, Bama essentially offered ‘Doc out west’ but still managed to make the illustrations fresh and exciting. So much so, that several of the paintings were repurposed for a variety of other western novels, including a few by Louis L’Amour.”

According to veteran Texas author James Reasoner, 1968’s Big Lobo was the first Nevada Jim novel to reach U.S. bookshops, though it was “actually the thirtieth book in the original Big Jim series.” Reasoner says of Meares’ work: “[N]obody could pack more plot twists and back-story into 35,000 words than Len Meares. Almost nothing is what it seems, because Meares was a master at taking standard western situations and turning them upside-down. He didn’t do this in all his books, of course. … Many of them, though, have intriguing characters who turn out to be not at all what you expect when you start reading the novels, and that’s true of Big Lobo.”

Bantam issued softcover editions of at least 16 Nevada Jim yarns, fronted by Bama artwork. Surprisingly, they’re still fairly easy to find for sale, either in second-hand bookstores or online. I can’t say I own any, but I have several cover images in my computer files—which I am sharing here. The Killers Came at Noon, Limbo Pass, and No Gun Is Neutral are all said to have been released in 1968, with Bounty on Wes Durand and Killer Bait dated to the following year.

In case you’re curious, Meares passed away in New South Wales, Australia, on February 4, 1993, after being hospitalized with viral pneumonia. He was 72 years old, but could rightly be said to have produced enough books for a man twice his age.

1 comment:

Graham said...

It's always nice to discover another Horwitz author, that Australian pulp publisher definitely seems to have punched above it's weight and enlivened the American market, Leonard F. Mears (aka Marshall Glover), J. E. MacDonnell, Ivan Southall, etc...