January 02, 2013

Rick Brant, Science, and the Post-Colonial Experience

As every schoolchild knows, the 1960s television series, Jonny Quest owed a significant, albeit uncredited debt to the Rick Brant books, a series of 23 juvenile adventure novels published between 1947 and 1968, beginning with The Rocket's Shadow and concluding with Danger Below!  


The Magic Talisman, a peculiar coda, was written later in a different style, and appeared only in a limited edition in 1990 (still, they don't come cheap - actually none of them come cheap).

Like Jonny Quest and a few other juvenile series of the era (Tom Swift Jr. and Tom Corbett come to mind) the Rick Brant series had some appealing scientific elements to it.  Rick is a teenager whose father runs the Spindrift Foundation, a scientific research organization based on Spindrift Island, a fictional site off the coast of New Jersey.  Unlike Tom Swift, however, the science is plausible - no triphibian atomicars here.  The grown-ups mostly do the science stuff, with Rick tagging along for adventure and the occasional punch-up.

It's always the old guys that fight dirty

His best friend is Scotty, who is a former Marine (a younger version of Jonny Quest's Race Bannon).  Scotty's military background is helpful, because Rick Brant sees more gunplay in a chapter than those pussy Hardy Boys did in their whole careers:
[T]he woods around them were suddenly alive with gunfire!  His pony reared and would have bolted if he had not gripped the reins tight and jerked him to a stop.  He caught a glimpse of orange flashes in the gloom, and from ahead he heard a sudden scream from one of the mules. 
Scotty's voice rose in a yell.  "Turn around!  Turn!  Get back out of the woods to the hilltop!" 
Rick saw his friend's strategy at once.  On the hilltop, they could fight off almost a battalion.  He pulled his quivering pony around on the narrow trail and yelled at Sing. 
The guide's voice came in answer.  "Coming!  We're coming!"
A slug whined past Rick's ear and slapped into a tree trunk.  He tried desperately to get the rifle out of his saddle sheath while controlling his fear-crazed pony.  Then he heard the roar of Sing's shotgun... 
If the popularity of the series at my house is any indication, this stuff is like catnip for boys.  The bad guys are usually lousy shots, a necessity in this type of fiction.  But not always - the supporting cast, at least, can take casualties:
"You're wounded!"  He jumped to scientist's side. 
"A scratch," Zircon said.  "But it saved our lives.  Tell you about it later.  Open up Scotty." 
Scotty threw the door open and the English night clerk, three Chinese policemen, and a half dozen coolies piled in.
"What's going on here?" the clerk demanded.  "What happened?" 
"Nothing serious," Zircon said calmly.  "There was evidently a bandit in our room.  We opened the door and he fired with his submachinegun.  Then, when he saw he hadn't killed us, he fled." 
If you're counting, that's 12 people in the room, with only whites speaking.  Written after the Pacific War and Korea, but (for the most part) before Vietnam, the books are ambivalent about the white man's place in strange lands.

Especially the Netherlands

Exotic locales and characters may abound, but they are ultimately interchangeable.  Rick is usually just passing through, and doesn't spend much time learning the local customs.

Not all foreigners are mooks or super-villains, however - our hero does have friends in faraway places.  Like Tintin, who travels to Tibet to help Chang Chon Chen, Rick is drawn into danger when he receives a letter from his Indian friend Chahda, who "was in the hiding place he had chosen deep in the Indian quarter of Singapore...in his ciphered message was the key to an adventure that would plunge his American friends into both darkness and danger..."

On the whole Rick Brant is a competent, well-intentioned youth with a strong tendency toward near-death experiences in faraway places.  Unlike many Americans of his generation, he survives.  Perhaps only people of my vintage see in Rick Brant someone strangely familiar - maybe a friendly classmate whose older brother, cousin, or namesake was lost in Vietnam.

But a child encounters none of these ghosts - the books are not innocent, but they are not mean-spirited or fatalistic either.  And unlike Jonny Quest, if you want to get to know Rick Brant, you have to pick up a book and read about him.  What harm could there be in that?

You can get 11 of the Rick Brant books on your Kindle for a very reasonable $1.99 here.


Blogger The Other Front said...

#1 son says the old guy did not get Rick because "he saw him coming in a mirror and ducked and the old guy hit his friend in the gut instead, and the guy doubled over."

Don't mess with Rick!

January 2, 2013 at 9:05 PM  

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