When the adventures of the 1930s pulp magazine hero The Avenger were reprinted in paperback in the early 1970s, they were right up my alley. I had already become a fan of the Doc Savage paperback reprints and the Avenger books were labeled as being by Kenneth Robeson, creator of Doc Savage.
I later found out that the stories – which originally appeared in Street and Smith pulp magazines from 1939 to 1942 – had actually been written, all those decades earlier, by Paul Ernst. Robeson was a Street and Smith “house name” that several action hero writers used. The Doc Savage books had been written by Lester Dent, to a great extent.
But the stories of The Avenger were so cool and so dire that it didn’t matter.
Like Doc Savage, the Avenger – originally a normal guy (if you call a wealthy world-traveler and adventurer normal) named Richard Henry Benson – fought crime with the help of a band of comrades and a healthy bank account.
But Benson/The Avenger drew his crime-fighting inspiration from the same dark well as Batman. Benson’s wife and daughter were brutally killed by gangsters.
Benson didn’t just take up the mantle of crimefighter. The shock of his family’s slaying was literally a shock to Benson’s system. His hair turned white. His eyes – somehow – turned pale. And Benson’s face froze. No longer could he voluntarily change his expression. His bleached face was described as like something out of a graveyard.
But Benson could suddenly mold his face, moving his jaw and nose and cheekbones and brow to resemble other people. With the help of makeup, colored contact lenses and wigs, Benson could now go undercover, infiltrating crime rings and mobs.
Armed with his ghoulish visage and high-tech weapons – including a streamlined gun and knife set he called “Mike and Ike” – Benson brought criminals to justice.
I was fascinated by all this. By the time i was reading the Avenger stories in the early 70s I was familiar with Batman’s tragic backstory, of course. Richard Henry Benson’s was perhaps even stranger and more tragic in that it also left him disfigured … but he turned the handicap into a crimefighting tool.
The Avenger had a couple of changes at revival after the paperback stories were published. DC Comics – which in the early 1970s had revived another great pulp hero, The Shadow – published an Avenger comic book in 1975. No doubt because DC competitor Marvel had been publishing “The Avengers” for more than a decade, DC called its Avenger book “Justice Inc. featuring The Avenger.”
Jack Kirby even did some work on the comic.
Besides the nostalgia factor, I’m noting all this now because of the recent news that producers are developing, for The CW network, a new TV series version of The Avenger, with several changes, of course. Instead of Richard Henry Benson, the heroine is Alice Benson. The new Avenger has the same malleable features and the same undercover missions as she investigates the deaths of her parents (rather than spouse and child).
I’m guessing in light of Marvel’s big-screen “The Avengers” movie, the TV series will be called something else.
It’ll be interesting to see if the new series can capture the same feeling of an adventurer – an avenger – with nothing left to lose in a hell-bent pursuit of evildoers.