Saturday, November 17, 2007

1970's Flashback: Justice, Inc. (& The Avenger)

Justice, Inc. was published by DC Comics in (May–June 1975) and lasted until issue #4. This series adapted the eponymous novel and then the all-too-brief series continued with original stories which featured the Avenger (and his group of assistants) battling against criminal threats which took place during the same pulp era that the original Avenger novels were released. Joe Kubert drew the cover for the premiere issue. Dennis O'Neill and Al McWillams turned in a superlative first issue, which every fan of the character should seek out, but Jack Kirby provided the artwork for issues #2–4.
Warner Paperback Library had begun reprinting the original pulp magazine stories in 1972, and near the end of the series newer novels featuring the characters were issued. The Avenger is actually Richard Henry Benson, a globe trotting adventurer who decided to settle down and raise a family. In his first adventure, Benson's plans for a peaceful life are shattered when his wife and young daughter are killed by a criminal conspiracy. The shock of this loss has a bizarre effect on Benson. His hair and the skin of his face turn white, and the flesh of his face became malleable, like clay. Towards the end of the original series, the author was directed to eliminate Benson's facial affliction in the hopes of keeping the dwindling audience for the magazine.

Benson vows to avenge himself on the villains, and to fight for all those who have suffered at the hands of criminals. His strange facial condition is actually an advantage for he can sculpt his face into a likeness of any person. With skin and hair dyes, and colored contact lenses, Benson becomes the world's greatest master of disguise, within limits.
Like Doc Savage, Benson relies on a variety of special gadgets to help him overcome criminals. These include knockout gas bombs, miniature radios, and his special pistol "Mike" and throwing knife "Ike". Benson's trick was to shoot someone so that his bullet just touched their heads and knocked them out.

During the course of the series, Benson also gathers a number of assistants to help him in his adventures. These are all people who have suffered loss because of criminals, and who have various specialized skills: Fergus MacMurdie (known as "Mac") is a stereotypical Scotsman who is also a gifted pharmacist and chemist. His family was killed by racketeers, leaving Mac embittered and vengeful.
Algernon Heathcote Smith (known as "Smitty") is a gigantic man of incredible strength. Smitty looks slow and stupid but he is actually a genius with electronics. He was framed for a crime he did not commit.
Nellie Gray is a beautiful, delicate-looking young woman who is actually an expert at jujitsu and other martial arts. Her archaeologist father was killed by criminals for a treasure he had found.
Josh and Rosabel Newton are an African American couple whose employers were killed by criminals. They often go undercover as domestic servants, making use of the stereotypes of the time to hide their investigative abilities. The Avenger series is notable its presentation of minorities. Many of the pulp magazines of the time are well known for racist stereotypes but Josh and Rosabel are always presented as brave, intelligent people of good character.
Cole Wilson joins the group near the end of the series. He is much less distinctive than Benson's other assistants and has a light hearted manner that contrasts the Avenger's serious tone.

Trivia: Paul Ernst wrote most of the original Avenger stories under the Street and Smith pseudonym "Kenneth Robeson" which was also used by the publisher for their Doc Savage stories that were primarily written by author Lester Dent. Ron Goulart wrote the 12 new Avenger novels that were published by Warner Paperback Library.


M. Neno said...

Check out The Jack Kirby Collector #45 (2006) for an interview with Denny O'Neil about the Justice, Inc. issues he wrote for DC!

Chuck Wells said...

I love the Twomorrows publications and generally pick up the Michael Eury edited Back Issue over the Kirby mag, so thanks for the tip.

I'll check it out.