Yesterday’s post on Marvel’s Savage Sword of Conan neglected to point out how long the series actually ran for. Nearly a decade elapsed between my last UK issue and returning to the title when Roy Thomas did in the early 90s. In fact, it survived until 1995- over twenty years!
It’s a staggering 41 years since Carmine Infantino attempted to increase DC’s market share with sixteen new titles. One of the few first issues of that raft of titles that I ever read was Justice Inc. I got it in Rothesay that sunny summer, encouraged by the vibrant Kubert cover and a glimpse in the old ferry terminal of Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life on a spinner rack.
Despite the US nostalgia craze that birthed the Wonder Woman tv series and Reeve’s Superman, not to mention George Pal’s campy Doc Savage movie, the majority of pulp fantasy heroes didn’t take off in comics. Paul Levitz famously said that once DC jumped on a trend, it was a signal that it was over.
Certainly, Karate Kid, Kung Fu Fighter Beowulf and Stalker didn’t last terribly long and looked like shameless attempts to mimic Marvel leftovers from the earlier part of the decade. In fact, Marvel’s colour Doc Savage series had ended after nearly a year in the dying days of ’73, (although the b/w magazine, cross-promoting the movie, was a second attempt to find a market.)
I didn’t even buy that mock-biography of Doc in Rothesay- I chose a Star Trek paperback instead, although my brother bought another printing in the early 80s.
Conan is the only 30s character who bucked the trend. Actually, the Cimmerian was on fire in ’75, if the launch of Kull and the Barbarians is any indication.
Justice Inc. 1 is the brutal story of a globetrotting adventurer, whose albino features become malleable after the shock of the murder of his wife and child . Benson is more believable than the lofty, utopian Doc Savage but his ally, Smitty, seems a combination of the loquacious Johnny and the giant Renny. He also reminds me of Marvel’s Beast, Hank McCoy.
The second issue continues with the mannered tough-guy scripting of Denny O’Neil but King Kirby replaces Al McWilliams’ gritty realism. “The Skywalker” concerns a sonic weapon and a process which renders metal invisible. I wonder if George Lucas read it?
This is the only JI comic I didn’t own in the 70s. It introduces two new operatives , Rosabel and Josh; the latter’s “dumb darkie act” is jarring to modern sensibilities. In the text page, assistant editor Allan Asherman speculates on “Death Wish” star, Charles Bronson, playing a movie version of Benson. The comic feels very much in tune with the zeitgeist: a Kirby version of the Punisher or the Spectre as the villain is undone by his own weapon and plunges to his death.
The third issue, “The Monster Bug” which I might have bought in East Kilbride, utilises Col. Sodom, a villain from an O’Neil/ Robbins Shadow story.
It also introduces a fourth operative, chemist Fergus McMurdie, whose wife is transformed into a monster by the Colonel’s bacteriological weapon. Asherman suggested last issue he could be played on screen by “any tall performer with a working knowledge of the dialect”… First Meenister?!
There is an in-joke where Benson disguises himself as “Allan Ash” at an automobile show. Sodom is, of course, transformed by the bug and plunges to his death, just like the Skywalker. On the letters page, we learn tha,t while the Avenger was created by the originators of the Shadow and Savage, a Paul Ernst wrote the books.
“Slay Ride In the Sky”, the final issue in the series and one I bought in Strathaven, concerns an insurance scam by the owner of a failing airline. He uses radio-controlled gulls (!) loaded with explosives to destroy his planes. The villain’s execution of any survivors brings down the wrath of the Avenger upon him. In the climactic biplane duel, Jason Comb- did you guess?- falls to his death since he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. In those days, I would have preferred a Kirby cover but I prefer Kubert now.
So, why did the dogged and thrilling Avenger fail? Perhaps because of the repetition in the stories but, really, I wonder if the DC audience for Kirby’s art might have diminished as early as 1973. Perhaps that dynamic Marvel “look” had fallen out of favour, replaced by the naturalism of artists like Chaykin , whose own 1975 pulp homage for Atlas, the Scorpion, was reworked at Marvel as Dominic Fortune.
Or perhaps DC lost its nerve, in the battle for the marketplace. Certainly, the company had seemed more experimental and original in the very early 70s. Compare the Relevancy issues of Green Lantern/Green Arrow, the Fourth World and the blackly humorous “Mystery” comics with later fare like Richard Dragon, Claw and the Freedom Fighters. But critical acclaim didn’t translate into longevity.
I suspect, in the end, the pulps just seemed too old-fashioned. “Heroic Fantasy” heroes could employ broadswords and laser beams ( as DC’s Warlord and Starfire demonstrated) and soon Marvel would be saved from financial disaster by Star Wars.
As you may know, DC also produced a JI miniseries in 1989 with art by Kyle Baker, possibly after the response to Chaykin’s yuppie revision of the Shadow. I still prefer the icy Avenger to the pure-hearted Doc and if I were pitching a tv series to cash in on Marvel’s Agent Carter, I would cast an eye on Justice Inc.
Coming soon: Blackmark
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