THE BLOODY PULPS: Justice Inc!
“The Avenger!? We can’t have a comic called The Avenger! Marvel will sue the pants off us! That’s why we call Captain Marvel ‘Shazam’ on the cover of all his comics, you know!”
“Yes, I know that. What an odd thing to tell me.”
“It’s called an Info Dump. As you know, Bob …”
Which is why the comic was called Justice Inc. to avoid confusion and subpoenas. It was named after the first Avenger story from Avenger #1.
The Avenger does not predate the superhero – Superman appeared the year before and Batman four months before. The first issue of his pulp magazine debuted in September 1939. His stories were written by Kenneth Robison, a pseudonym for the writers of Street & Smith publishers. His first story was called “Justice Inc”.
Adventurer Richard Henry Benson boarded an airplane with his wife and daughter. After returning from “freshening up” – he found his wife and daughter missing! The trauma and horror of their disappearance caused his skin and hair to turn white and his face to “freeze”. He could thereafter mold his facial features into any disguise. He avenged the death of his family and declared war on all criminals. He did this with the help of a troupe of aides and assistants ala Doc Savage and the Shadow.
Eventually, the writers took away his ability to manipulate his face (and normalized his skin tone and hair color) to help sell him as a closer kin to Doc Savage. It still didn’t work. His magazine lasted only 24 issues, and had five or six other short stories appearing in other magazines, including The Shadow. New stories published as paperbacks have been published through the decades.
His first appearance in comic books was in Shadow Comics, but it wasn’t until 1975 when DC got the license to give him his own comic, or so I found in my research of various online databases. Any search of “The Avenger” online requires page after page of scrolling through Captain America and his kooky quartet, etc.; but I did the best I could. There were other comic characters called “The Avenger” in the 1950s with no relation to Richard Benson and company – most notably a four-issue comic from Magazine Enterprises in 1955.
But now, thirty-five years after his debut – The Avenger stars in his own comic:
Every issue has the tag: “From the creator of Doc Savage – Kenneth Robeson” on the cover.
#1. June 1975, “This Night an Avenger is Born” by Denny O’Neal (w/e), Al McWilliams (a), Allan Asherman (asst. ed.); cover by Joe Kubert.
The Avenger’s origin story from his first pulp adventure is retold: Richard Benson, his wife and daughter board a plane to Canada. Returning from “freshening up”, Benson finds his family as well as industrialist Arthur Hickock missing. After months spend recuperating from the shock, he investigates their disappearance. Benson meets his first assistant, Smitty, during the investigation. They trace the plane’s occupants to an island on Lake Ontario and wipe out the gang and their surprising leader! They decide to form Justice Incorporated to fight evil in all its forms!
Text column by Allan Asherman describes the Avenger’s operation, equipment and headquarters. The last paragraph hypes the Shadow/Avenger meeting in DC’s Shadow comic, without ever mentioning the issue of The Shadow in which it appears (#11)! Ew, lost chance at some free PR there – Stan Lee would roll heads if that happened at Marvel…
This issue includes a full-page ad for Joker, Justice Inc, Claw the Unconquered and Ghost Castle, with a tease for Beowulf Dragon Slayer and Richard Dragon Kung Fu Fighter at the bottom.
#2. August 1975, “The Skywalker”, Denny O’Neal (w/e), Jack Kirby (a), Mike Royer (I & i), Allan Asherman (asst. ed.); cover by Kirby.
A story from The Avenger pulp magazine #3 from November 1939: Scientist Robert Gant designs a sound ray that can crumble metal as well as a process to render metal invisible! Criminal Abel Darcy kills Gant and uses these tools to destroy railroads and skyscrapers throughout Chicago to extort millions. Can the Avenger, Smitty and new assistants Josh and Rosabel Newton stop Luke – er – Anakin – er – Darcy the Skywalker in time?
In a text piece, Allan Asherman describes the potential for a Justice Inc movie: Charles Bronson as The Avenger, Alex Karras or Peter Boyle as Smitty, Bill Cosby and Diana Ross as Josh and Rosabel … dodged a bullet there, didn’t they … ?
#3. October 1975, “The Monster Bug”, (same team). Colonel Sodom (eww…), a villain from the recently-cancelled The Shadow comic has a serum that turns ordinary citizens into monsters – hideously malformed beasts as only Kirby can draw! He tries to force noted chemists (including Fergus – who joins Justice Incorporated with this issue) into replicating the formula; unless the Avenger can stop him!
#4. December 1975, “Slay Ride in the Sky”, (same team, but with Paul Levitz also as writer). Airliners are exploding mid-flight! Investigating the chemical causing the explosions – tintabulum, leads Justice Incorporated to the airline mogul who is collecting the insurance proceeds – unless the mogul, his goons and a flock of explosive seagulls get to them first!
The final panel for the final issue says, “…and it is at last ended.” True, but much too soon.
The letter columns in the last two issues were favorable – although they disliked the original stories being so severely edited for the comic book version. Most recommended multi-part stories. Assistant Asherman repeated that readers deserved their “money’s worth” and “how would most reader’s feel spending their money only to see ‘To Be Continued’ on the last page”.
The Avenger has popped up occasionally at DC ever since: sometimes in a Shadow revival, teaming with Batman and Doc Savage, and sometimes in his own limited book – also titled Justice Inc. Dynamite has a Justice Inc miniseries out as we speak – teaming The Avenger with the characters who inspired him: the Shadow and Doc Savage.
I am a pulp junkie – I will read any genre – from pirates to sports. Mostly I enjoy the so-called Yellow Peril stories such as Dr. Yen Sin and the Mysterious Wu Fang – although I cringe at the ugly stereotyping , the stories are creepy paranoid fun. Secondly, though, I enjoy the crime killers – there are certainly more of them available! I collect the paperbacks when I can and even have a few original pulps. Doc Savage, the Shadow (my favorite), the Spider (a close second) and the Avenger.
The DC comic from 1975 didn’t last long, which was a shame. Of all the comics from the DC Adventure line, this one could have gone on for years.
But it was an odd inclusion in the Adventure Line. The other six books were firmly set in the sword and sorcery genre – leaning heavily on the sword side. Although sword and sorcery had their place in the pulps (Conan, Kull, etc.) –Justice Inc.’s inclusion in DC’s Adventure Line is odd. Why not include the new comic Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter as an eighth Adventure Line comic? It wasn’t (yet) set in the world of DC’s superheroes either and Justice Inc proved “the line” wasn’t all sword and sorcery.
The answer is obvious: there was no attempt at all in creating a “line”. Six comics had a theme based on the popularity of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian as well as the revival of that genre in the paperback market. Other than the one-page house ad, I doubt much more thought was put into it.
At this time DC was also publishing The Shadow – including one issue in which the Avenger guest-starred. The Shadow was cancelled by the time Justice Inc #3 hit the stands. Perhaps they could have advertised them as a “Pulp” line and increased circulation enough for both comics to continue for a few more issues.
But a “pulp line” may not have worked back then: Marvel’s Doc Savage only last eight issues two years before and the Doc Savage magazine – published concurrently with Justice Inc – also only lasted eight issues. DC’s The Shadow lasted 12 issues and was cancelled in between Justice Inc #2 & 3.
It works now, though. Goodness knows Dynamite is going great guns bringing back obscure characters like the Black Bat in comic book form.
But in 1975 DC included the Avenger in their “Adventure Line” and we the readers are better for it. Like most of the line, it didn’t last long; but Justice Inc was pure pulpy goodness while it lasted.
Original material copyright Michael Curry 2015