Blog: Commentary from the den of a pulp super-fan

Meet Justice Inc.: The Avenger

Posted by at 10:00 am Monday, July 14, 2014 in Hero Pulps, Pulps, The Avenger
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Meet Justice Inc.: The Avenger

The AvengerWhen we think of the Street & Smith pulp heroes, we think of The Shadow and Doc Savage and sometimes also The Avenger. Which is kind of funny as The Avenger was one of several other pulp heroes created at S&S, and many of those others had a lot more stories. But I think due to the paperback reprints of The Avenger — which the others didn’t get — most pulp fans are more familiar with him.

The Avenger was an attempt to create another successful pulp hero, taking his cues from The Shadow and Doc. Instead of just being based on either The Shadow or Doc Savage, they decided to combine elements of both.

To further capitalize on Doc Savage’s popularity, they would use the “Kenneth Robesonhouse name.

Paul Ernst was hired to create and write him. Both Lester Dent and Walter Gibson gave him advise. We now know that Ernst pulled in elements from previous characters he had created for this new character. (I have covered those characters in a prior posting.) As I recall from reading them, the stories were a mixture of the two characters, going from science-adventure stories to supercriminals or a bit of both.

The first story, “Justice Inc.,” is pretty much an origin story. We met Richard Henry Benson, with his wife and young daughter. We learn that Benson has been a globe-trotting adventurer and engineer, knowledgeable in many subjects (almost superhumanly), almost physically superhuman and now wealthy. Forcing his way onto a plane with his family, he is shocked after returning from the washroom that they are gone and no one will admit they were ever there. Overcome, he is put in a hospital and due to the shock, his hair is now white and his facial muscles are now paralyzed, his skin pale.

"The Avenger" (September 1939)He sets out to find out what happened to his family, along the way he picks up the first of his associates. Algernon Heathcote “Smitty” Smith, an electronics genius, and Fergus “Mac” MacMurdie, a pharmacist and chemist.

Benson also has two special weapons: Mike and Ike. Mike is a streamlined, silenced four-shot .22 pistol which he “creases” the scalp of bad guys to knock them out; and Ike is a needle-pointed throwing knife.

Benson, Smitty and Mac soon setup shop on a small street as “Justice Inc.” The skills of Smitty and Mac ensure they had a lot of Doc Savage-like gadgets. Benson’s facial paralysis allows him to mold his face to look like anyone, making him a master of disguise, though he can’t express emotions.

They are soon joined by others. In the second story, Nellie Gray, a diminutive girl who is a martial-arts expert gets involved. In that case, they get access to a horde of Aztec gold (similar to Doc). In the third story, they are joined by an African-American couple whose employer is murdered, Josh and Rosabel Newton, who are Tuskegee graduates. Despite the times, they are treated as equal members of the group, which is very unusual. The last to join is Cole Wilson in the 13th story.

With this story, S&S decided to “de-power” The Avenger and have him go back to normal. A theme that was true for all the members of Justice Inc. was that they were touched by tragedy, which was part of what drove them and brought them together (though less so with Wilson, who seemed to have been added as a sort of substitute for Benson, as they seem to make him older as the series went on).

Thus, as a group, Justice Inc. is different from other groups that gathered around most pulp heroes. Most were either like Doc’s men, who joined together for a common cause and a thrill of adventure, or were like The Shadow’s agents, who where there when called for.  But the members of Justice Inc. in many ways formed a new family around The Avenger.

The Avenger pulp lasted for 24 issues. When it ended, new stories began in Clues Detective (similar to what happened to other S&S character who lost their magazines), but only lasted for six more stories. These were written by Emile Tepperman. I have not read them, but have heard that they are not quite in character from the Ernst stories.

Radio

A radio show based on the pulps was done at the same time. Apparently, a few scripts were based on the pulp stories, but some of the secondary characters were left out. A couple of scripts were included in the Sanctum reprints of The Avenger. I’m not aware of any recordings surviving.

Comics

"Justice Inc." comic book coverOver the years The Avenger and Justice Inc. has appeared in the comics. Due to the fact that Marvel has a team called “The Avengers,” the more recent comics have been titled “Justice Inc.”

While Street and Smith published comics, The Avenger appeared in backup stories in a few. I know the first few adapted pulp stories, but have no idea of the rest. What stories I have seen aren’t too good.

When DC Comics first got the rights to The Shadow in the ’70s, they also got the rights to The Avenger. They had The Avenger show up in a Shadow comic, then in a short-lived “Justice Inc.” comic which first adapted the pulp stories before doing original ones.

When DC Comics again had the rights to The Shadow in the ’80s, they again got the rights to The Avenger. They did an updating of the characters, giving a new explanation of the origin of The Avenger, making him and his associates nothing more than CIA operatives. It wasn’t a good series, as it didn’t give the characters much respect, in my view.

When DC Comics did their more recent First Wave series, they again had The Avenger. Here they made major changes to the characters, making Justice Inc. nothing more then a pro bono skid-row detective agency. In a backup series in their Doc Savage comic book, they did a storyline that mainly focused on his aides, which, again, didn’t give the characters much respect. Josh was given a gambling habit, and Smitty and Mac’s scientific skills were ignored, and The Avenger himself rarely showed up. The only people who seemed to enjoy this series had no idea who these characters really were.

Now that Dynamite has the rights to Doc Savage and The Shadow, they are now adding an Avenger comic book (due out in August) that will co-star the others, the first time all three have met. It will be a mini-series written by Michael Uslan. We will see how this works out.

Revival and New

Warner's "The Avenger" paperbackThe modern awareness of The Avenger is most likely due to the paperback reprints done by Warner Paperback Library in the 1970s. Taking their cue from the Bantam Doc Savage reprints, they created a distinctive typeface and got artists Peter Caras and George Gross to do the covers. I really wish we could get a detailed article that looks into how they came up with these covers. Gross did covers for several pulp-hero reprints that deserve to be looking into further, especially as I believe he got Steve Holland, who posed for the Bama Doc covers to pose for his.

When Warner ran out of the 24 original stories, they ignored the Tepperman stories and instead commissioned Ron Goulart to write 12 new stories. This makes The Avenger one of the few copyrighted pulp heroes to get both all their original stories reprinted as well as new ones.

More recently, Moonstone Books has done three volumes of new Avenger stories by a variety of authors.

And Sanctum Books did a reprint series of the original pulp stories, including the Tepperman short stories, but leaving out the later Goulart novels. Thanks to this reprint series, we also learned more about The Avenger pulps, such as the fact that Mac was originally intended to be black, and that three stories had to be re-written to conform to the new “de-powered” version of The Avenger.

I have heard that we will be see more new Avenger works from Moonstone, but am not certain when or in what form.

The best in-depth work on The Avenger is “The Gray Nemesis” by the late Howard Hopkins. I have an early edition of it, but know it’s still available from Amazon.com.

The Avenger is an interesting pulp hero, and now is a great time to get into this character, what with the availability of new and original stories.

3 Comments

  1. I never did like the Ron Goulart AVENGER novels. They pretty much were “The Adventures of Cole Wilson guest-starring The Avenger” as Richard Benson was reduced to being a supporting character in his own series.

  2. avenger radio show exists-from 1945. can be found almost everywhere …

    • Thanks, but I had ignored the 1945 show as it’s not the pulp Avenger. The character has nothing to do with the pulp.

      I was referring to the earlier show from 41-42 which is based on the pulp version, but which I have not heard of any recordings surviving.