Friday, August 29, 2014

Unearthed: Justice, Inc.#2

Before I begin the review, let's talk about the Avenger; he's a pulp hero who appeared in Street & Smith magazines from 1939-1942 - a fairly brief tour of duty, yet he's been brought back via the medium of comics several times, courtesy of DC Comics. Most recently, he appeared in 2009's First Wave; he also appeared in DC's Shadow comic books and in his own mini-series around 1989; the series we're looking at began in 1975 and lasted only four issues. Launching as a companion book to DC's Shadow series, it seems as though whenever someone dusts off the Street & Smith back catalog he's given a mandatory revival. His DC books have been called Justice, Inc. after the Avenger's team, rather than himself - probably because of potential difficulties from either Steed & Ms. Peel or the Maria Stark Foundation.

Although I haven't read the Avenger's pulp stories, nor have I read issue #1 of this series, I don't think that's a necessarily a problem. Not being a comic book character by origin, the Avenger comic book incarnations have to seek new audiences by matter of necessity as his original demographic are all either in rest homes or cemetaries. Also, the first issue was written by Dennis O'Neil & Al McWilliams while as of this second issue Jack "King" Kirby is the man on deck. "Kirby is here!" should have been proclaimed on the cover. Let's check out that cover now, yeah?

Kirby's name isn't advertised per se, but you can't miss it - this is during the years where Kirby's signature had become an obtrusive seal. This is a good cover, although I don't think the pose of the "Sky Walker" is quite correct - he seems to be simply hovering mid-air, not walking. Oh, right, I should also mention the Avenger, the series hero - he's the man on the left.

We begin this fast-paced action-packed tale with a title splash page, something Kirby had mastered about 30 years prior (but seldom used in the Marvel super hero books) while the story begins on page 2. Helpfully, the title page informs us this is an adaptation from a story by Kenneth Robeson. We open on a train which derails due to someone sabotaging the track. The Avenger and someone named Smitty happen to pass by in their airplane and land to help the survivors. However, they find a gang of looters pillaging the bodies of the dead train passengers. After being roughed up, the looters admit they weren't responsible for the derailing but simply took advantage of the situation. However, they're all distracted by the presence of a man walking on the sky above them. As the skywalker disappears into the clouds, the Avenger tells Smitty they need to fly their plane to Chicago.

At the Chicago manor of inventor Robert Gant, we meet his African-American butler & maid, Josh and Rosabel. A gang of men in trenchcoats enter the manor and shoot Gant to death; seeing this, Josh tries to fight the killers bare-handed; he's helped by the Avenger & Smitty. Introductions are made and although at first Josh changes his dialect to a "minstrel show" voice, the Avenger recognizes Josh is wearing a Phi Beta Kappa Key on his suit, meaning he's actually quite intelligent; resuming his normal voice, Josh begins to learn about the Avenger and both he and Rosabel are welcomed to join Justice, Incorporated as they hunt the men responsible for Robert Gant's death. In an aside, Smitty tells Rosabel how the Avenger is really Richard Henry Benson and how his face was frozen in grief after his wife and daughter were killed. We're beginning to learn about the Avenger, although we still don't know why the derailed train and skywalking man led him here.

Checking Gant's laboratory, the Avenger learns Abel Darcy had been financing Gant's experiments and Darcy owned the train which was derailed. The foursome head downtown to confront Darcy, but mid-transit they see the Skywalker, just as a skyscraper suddenly collapses into rubble. The Avenger tells Smitty, Rosabel & Josh to help the survivors while he carries on to Darcy. The Avenger bursts into Darcy's office and questions him about Gant. Darcy says Gant had been developing a new type of steel for railroads; this was evidently all the Avenger needed to know and he exits, enters a hotel and uses a makeup kit to disguise himself as Darcy. When Darcy leaves his office, the Avenger takes his place there and searches the office, finding documents which explain everything (unfortunately we're still in the dark), but a gang of hoodlums enter the office, having ascertained "Darcy" is really the Avenger; thus, a fight breaks out.

The Avenger's makeup takes a bad dent during the scuffle, but Josh arrives (disguised as a janitor) to join the fight; however, the gang overcome the two men with a gas grenade. The gang tie the men up and leave, playing a message for them from Darcy (I guess Darcy knew the Avenger would return and recorded this immediately after their encounter?). Darcy informs him the Skywalker will be coming to destroy the building housing Darcy's own office. Darcy intends to extort Chicago for millions by threatening to destroy their skyline. The Avenger & Josh get our of their ropes and leap from the building to its neighbour before the Skywalker destroys it.

At last, the Avenger explains what's been going on: Gant created a sound ray which can cause steel to vibrate into pieces and Darcy tested it on the rail which was destroyed. Darcy also ordered Gant's death to protect the secret (although since the Avenger somehow knew Gant was the inventor of this sound ray without any sleuthing, that was a waste of time). Gant's other great invention is an invisible metal which has been used to create an invisible airplane - that's what the Skywalker has been standing upon (and now Paradise Island will lose their monopoly on invisible jets!). In fact, the Skywalker is Darcy himself.

The Avenger returns to his airplane and pursues the Skywalker, firing armor piercing shells which hit the Skywalker, causing him to accidentally activating the sound ray; the sound ray destroys his plane from the inside and the Skywalker falls to his death.

Following the story, there's a text piece "Justice Inc. in the Movies?" Although author Allan Asherman is confident the Avenger would soon have his own feature film, 40 years later it remains a pipe dream. The article is mostly fan-casting the film because in the primitive days of 1975, there was no Wizard magazine.

Thoughts: Kirby delivers an excellent series of action-filled panels, but there's way too much plot in this book, probably because of its origins as a novel. The trail which led the Avenger from the train crash to Chicago isn't apparent and it takes too long to connect the train crash, death of Gant, Darcy and the Skywalker together. Kirby's fine action-based story is not complimented by O'Neil's dense mystery-based plot.

Additionally, we don't get a very good look at the Skywalker because he barely appears in the story and is always at a distance, seen from the heroes' perspective until the finale, so the revelation he's actually in an airplane is interesting, but unprecedented. We're also never given a proper introduction to Smitty, nor is Rosabel ever seen to possess a talent or knowledge which justifies her membership in Justice, Inc. If the mystery were toned down - perhaps by omitting the train crash & robbery and instead opening at Gant's manor - there might have been more room to better establish the protagonists and antagonists.

So far as the story goes, I most enjoyed Josh's brief turn to "minstrel show" dialogue and his quick reversal when the Avenger found him out as a college man. That was a neat touch of period race relations.

I can't overstate Kirby's contribution to this comic; I fear with a lesser talent - an artist incapable of delivering information in a concise, energetic, highly visual manner - O'Neil's laborious plotting would have rendered this book impenetrable.

Next time: More of Kirby and the Avenger in Justice, Inc.#3!

No comments: