Saturday, September 6, 2014

Unearthed: Justice, Inc.#3

Welcome back to another installment of Unearthed and a last look at Jack Kirby's Justice, Inc., as published by DC Comics in 1975. This time, the issue at hand is #3 and the story "The Monster Bug!"

I have to say, I don't think too much of this cover. Perhaps some of it is a little disappointment - noticing at first glance the car and the prominent words "Monster Bug" I'd hoped this story would involve the Avenger battling a VW Beetle; however, the word "bug" refers to a virus.

Besides the lack of lovebugs, Kirby's cover has only 2/3rds of the page and it feels too constricted. There'a also something very overpowering about Al Milgrom's inks over Kirby's pencils. The monster figures seem almost too heavy - the monsters don't seem to stand apart, but merge into a multi-coloured blob. Ah, but that's only the cover!

The story opens in a pharmacy run by Fergus MacMurdie and his wife. The monocled figure Colonel Sodom (of the New Hampshire Sodomites) has come to obtain chemicals needed to win "the coming war" with germ warfare. Fergus refuses to comply and begins to fight Sodom and his men; to Fergus' luck, our hero the Avenger (and his subordinate Josh) has also arrived on the scene and helpfully informs us Colonel Sodom is an enemy of the Shadow (author Dennis O'Neil wrote both comics for DC).

In the midst of the fight, Sodom's vial of germs are dropped and MacMurdie's wife is infected; she transforms into a monster and one of Sodom's men kills her in self-defense. Sodom himself escapes as Fergus vows revenge; the Avenger and Josh invite Fergus to join the ranks of Justice, Inc., promising together they'll get Sodom; Fergus agrees. They journey to the Justice, Inc. headquarters in Manhattan and soon Fergus is busying himself in the lab. Josh's wife Rosabel reads up on Fergus and discovers he's more than a mere pharmacist, but a chemist who had once been nominated for the Nobel Prize. Between Josh & Fergus in these two issues, there seems to be a pattern in Justice, Inc. stories where the Avenger recruits people who (for some reason) are operating in low-income menial jobs rather than the prestigious roles their backgrounds would suggest.

The Avenger takes the time to introduce Smitty to Fergus (still no explanation of Smitty's speciality; still no assigned role for Rosabel). At this point, one notes Smitty & Fergus are both giant, red-haired men, which is needlessly confusing; to help us, the colourist has outfitted both men in green clothing. The Avenger thinks Sodom's next target will be the chemist Allan Ash, so he intends to bait the villain by impersonating Ash. While Fergus toils on a cure for Sodom's germs, Rosabel places a newspaper notice about Ash visiting an automobile show to draw out Sodom; the disguised Avenger goes to the show, accompanied by Smitty & Josh. The plan works, but when Sodom sees he's been trapped, he drops another vial of his germs, turning innocent bystanders into monsters which attack the Justice, Inc. crew. Although Sodom escapes, one of his men surrenders and reveals Sodom's base is at Tiro's Gun Shop.

While the Avenger heads to the gun shop, Smitty & Josh are sent to protect the real Allan Ash. To do this, Josh masquerades as a simple janitor to surprise Sodom's men; this prompts Smitty to wonder how Josh can "pretend to be so stupid." Josh's justification that his people "have been practicing for two hundred years" might have been a progressive line of dialogue at some stage, but even by 1975 it's an awfully patronizing idea to come from a white guy. Black people might not all be stupid? What a shocker! Colonel Sodom's not the only one to drop his monocle!

The story moves now to the gun shop where Sodom is returning, for some reason having abandoned the men he sent to collect Ash (Sodom didn't see Smitty & Josh stop them). There's a fantastic billboard in the street near the gun shop, depicting a giant face blowing smoke. The billboard is for "King" cigarettes, probably an in-joke on behalf of the series' beloved penciler.

The Avenger and Fergus fight their way into the gun shop; although the Avenger shoots Sodom's men he notes they aren't dead, having only creased their skulls. Strangely, although he does kill frequently (such as last issue's Skywalker), the Avenger does make a point of avoiding bloodshed when he can. Sodom confronts Fergus and the Avenger, threatening them with another vial; when Fergus tries to charge him, Sodom shoots him in the hand. The Avenger pins Sodom's coat sleeve down with a knife so Sodom throws the vial, but the germs do nothing to the Avenger - Fergus succeeded with his antidote and administered it to he and the Avenger in advance. Sodom pulls the Avenger's knife from his coat and tries to kill the Avenger, but stupidly inhales the fumes of the vial he just dropped; Sodom turns into a monster and, confused by the King cigarettes billboard outside the window, the now-simplistic creature leaps out the window and falls to his death.

It's a very sudden end to the comic - you have to read it yourself for the full effect. The last page consists of: 1) Sodom steps into the vapors; 2) Sodom becomes a monster; 3) Sodom sidesteps the Avenger to lunge at the billboard; 4) Sodom bursts through the window; 4) Sodom flies halfway across the street; 6) Sodom falls toward the ground. Although there's not actually anything more to say, it feels as though O'Neil & Kirby ran out of pages

Thoughts: At this point, the series seems to be building its cast issue by issue. The members of Justice, Inc. don't receive much focus, but this is primarily the Avenger's show anyway. I do feel it's an improvement over the previous issue with less emphasis on mystery and sudden leaps in deduction.

The one point where an attempt is made to develop the other cast members is, unfortunately, the business about Josh and "his" people. Josh is a pretty decent African-American hero, it's a pity that these stories were written in such a way that "a black man - with a brain!" is repeated each issue as though it were a novelty. Novel amongst pulp magazine heroes, perhaps, but not exactly a revelation to anyone intelligent enough to read these comics.

Also, although the death of Fergus' wife is his motivation in this story, I wish she'd been given a name; Fergus' repeated references to "Wife" makes it sound as though she were a stranger.

Although the ending is quite abrupt, Kirby seemed to be doing his best on this book - drawing people mutated into monsters definitely plays to Kirby's strengths. Kirby is the reason to seek these issues out - the story is pedestrian, but that keeps the plot from getting in the way of Kirby's visuals.

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