Wanting to capitalize on the success of 'The Shadow', publisher Street & Smith imagined a masked hero that would essentially be a hybrid of their own pulp hero, 'Doc Savage' and 'The Shadow'. Using Doc Savage authors Lester Dent and Walter B. Gibson for advisors, the publisher hired author Paul Ernst (1899-1985) to write 'The Avenger' pulp magazine from 1939-1942. The character would later appear in “Clues Detective Magazine” (1942-1943) and a 1943 issue of “The Shadow Magazine.” Launching the series in an era of the pulp demise, The Avenger was well liked but seemed an unnecessary edition to an already crowded pulp hero market.
“Justice, Inc.” was the debut Avenger story, appearing in September 1939 and later reprinted in paperback novel format by Paperback Library in 1972. In 1975, DC Comics published a comic called “Justice, Inc.” starring The Avenger. The 1972 paperback debut is my first experience with the character. While enjoying Doc Savage, and other pulp heroes, I managed my expectations expecting the novel to be a failure.
Much to my surprise, I absolutely loved this book. “Justice, Inc.” contains many of the rewarding elements I enjoy from the 1950s and 1960s crime-noir novels. In fact, I'd speculate that beyond the Avenger's fantastic ability to morph his facial features, this is essentially just a crime novel with a pulp gimmick.
The paperback introduces us to protagonist Richard Benson, a wealthy, seasoned adventurist who has settled into a life of domestic tranquility. While commuting via a commercial flight to Montreal, Benson's wife and young daughter seemingly disappear while Benson is in the lavatory. As he begins asking passengers and staff questions, they inform him that he was the only passenger that boarded the plane. Pulling a gun from his side, Benson is knocked unconscious by the co-pilot wielding a fire extinguisher.
Awakening from a three-week coma, Benson finds that his face is now paralyzed. This paralysis allows him to shape his facial skin and muscles into new forms. The paralysis holds the tissues in place, allowing him the ability to easily transform himself into different facial disguises. After his hospital release, Benson begins interviewing and probing for answers to learn where his family were taken. After talking with a number of airline employees, the only consistent story is that Benson was on the plane alone. Knowing this is inaccurate, Benson teams with a Scottish airline mechanic named Fergus MacMurdie and a giant of a man named Algernon “Smitty” Smith.
Using his new allies and disguises, Benson senses there is a criminal element to his family's tragedy. After learning that many wealthy stockholders have gone missing, Benson goes to work on the perpetrators with two weapons. “Mike” is a .22 caliber short pistol and “Ike” is a slender throwing knife. Both are used to stun the enemy, but Benson is opposed to killing. The novel is a swift read consistent with crime fiction tropes – the crime, notable suspects, gunfights, car chases and the obligatory mystery. Without giving away too much, let's just say Benson doesn't necessarily find all of the answers. The unresolved elements provide the motivation to create a crime fighting trio based in New York City as the launch of the pulp series.
Warner Brothers’ Paperback Library reprinted all 24 Avenger titles in paperback from 1972-1975, including 12 additional stories authored by Ron Goulart. Although I'm not a big pulp enthusiast, Ernst's suspense and rapid-fire delivery was very entertaining. I've purchased a number of these paperbacks and I'm really excited to learn more about the series and characters. I'm sure it's sacrilege, but I enjoyed “Justice, Inc.” more than the two 'Doc Savage' titles I read. Long live The Avenger!
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