Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Justice Inc

Avenger's Ensemble

Justice Inc
Dynamite comics Trade Paperback reprint
ISBN: 1606906623

So here we have another modern comic strip "mash up" of 1930s pulp characters, this time teaming up Doc Savage, The Shadow and The Avenger. Now I read a DC series called First Wave a few years ago which teamed up these characters but, as I recall, I found it so awful a rendition of the original source material, being nothing near these fictional people in either spirit or tone, that I just flat out refused to bother to review it. This one is a little better but... it's still not great and, especially in terms of Clark Savage Jr, still not what I would call a credible portrayal of the character.

The Avenger was a relatively short lived character created by the Smith and Street magazine as another one to try and rival their two aforementioned heroes in popularity but, despite having a radio series too, the magazine folded after a few years. The published pseudonym for the writer of the series was Kenneth Robeson and the publishers promoted it as being written by the creator of the Doc Savage tales but, honestly, I don’t think Lester Dent, the main Doc storywriter and creative force behind the property, ever wrote any of The Avenger stories. The initial novel, Justice Inc, told of how the hero Richard Benson loses his wife and daughter in a villainous plot involving a plane crash. He survives death but the shock of his ordeal causes his skin to go grey and harden like clay. This means he can resculpt his features to resemble anyone and this master of disguise, along with his aides, sets up Justice Inc to avenge the victims of crime. That's pretty much all I can remember of that initial pulp story, to be honest, as it's been over twenty years since I read it.

This first story hit the newsstands in 1939 and it's in this year that the bulk of this new comic book is set. Starting off with their new, present day incarnation of The Man Of Bronze, a time travel element is introduced into the story to allow Doc to travel back to 1939 to meet himself before returning to the present, leaving us readers back in 1939 to continue the story. A story which, as it happens, is almost a retelling of the original Justice Inc version of The Avenger, but interpenetrated with Doc Savage and The Shadow, intersecting the timeline and with Doc's miraculous science being responsible for the clay faced resurrection of Richard Benson as The Avenger. After both Doc and The Shadow train Benson in how to take care of himself, the three go on to work together to try to foil the dastardly plans of The Shadow's villain The Voodoo Master, Doc Savage's two-time nemesis Johnny Sunlight and a mysterious third villain who is another variant on the Lamont Cranston personae... who is neither The Shadow nor, in this version and more in keeping with the later novels, a dupe identity for The Shadow.

And there you have it.

Except the writing isn't brilliant to be honest. I can't speak for The Avenger because I've only ever read the first novel but Doc is engaging in far too much chit chat here and even displaying a
sense of humour and self awareness that just wasn't part and parcel of Doc's almost emotionless, inpenetrable character. Similarly, The Shadow seems way too verbally aggressive and disrespectful of people for me to take him seriously as a credible version of the character. So this didn't sit well with me.

A good point about the comic is the artwork, which gives it a nice, painted, 1930s style pulp sensibility throughout... but the plot is fairly choppy (if this was a movie I'd say it was badly edited) and is a distraction to comprehension at certain points, I found. Furthermore, the geeky fanboy nods to the actual identities of the writers of the original books, like having characters with names like Ernst, Grant and Robeson, felt clumsily done and less enjoyable than a more sly, subtle set of references.

Another element which didn't sit well with me was the lack of the original companions of the characters. Sure, Monk Mayfair and Margo Lane are in there briefly but they don't seem too much like their original, pulp counterparts and, especially in the case of the Doc Savage novels, they were very much ensemble pieces with all of the subsidiary characters carrying a lot of weight and bearing on the feel of the stories. Here, they're pretty much ignored, it has to be said.

Adding insult to injury, they've included Doc's cousin Pat Savage, The Woman Of Bronze, in the story but she's hardly in it. The pretext that Margo Lane uses to recruit her into the escapades sets up a plot development which seems to me, unless I somehow missed it, to be completely superfluous to the main storyline and a complete loose end, not picked up later on in the narrative. Which is a) not so great writing and b) completely pointless and a waste of a great character who has always had a lot of potential. Even Lester Dent himself uses the character a little too sparingly and she only appeared in a small fraction of the more than 180 original Doc Savage novels, as if Dent himself failed to exploit the richness of the character. Modern Doc scribe Will Murray, who writes the latest incarnations of the novels, has probably done more to make use of Pat's personality for dramatic purposes... perhaps even more so than Dent did. Here, though, writer Michael Uslan kinda drops the ball with the character as far as I can see. Of course, on the plus side, with Pat hardly being in this volume, at least she isn't as badly presented as Doc is here. So that's something.

So could I recommend this volume to fans of the characters and of comics in general? Well certainly I would tell Doc fans to steer clear. It's not great, to be sure, although it's a hell of a lot more entertaining than DC’s First Wave interpretation of the character, it has to be said. If you’re a fan of comics in general... well the story is fairly simplistic, as you would expect it to be when dealing with 1930s pulp characters, but if you’re into rip roaring adventures with plenty of action then you might find this one an okay addition to your library. For anyone else, however, I'd say go back to 1970s Marvel for a better comics fix of Doc Savage and 1970s DC for a better comic book version of The Shadow. Much better versions, to be sure, and ultimately more satisfying... especially the black and white Marvel magazine style comic of Doc Savage... that run was an absolute masterpiece of a series.

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