The Avenger (fictional character)

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The Avenger is a fictional character whose original adventures appeared between September 1939 and September 1942 in the pulp magazine The Avenger, published by Street and Smith Publications. Five additional short stories were published in Clues Detective magazine (1942–1943), and a sixth novelette in The Shadow magazine in 1943. Newly-written adventures were commissioned and published by Time Warner/Warner Brother's Paperback Library from 1973 to 1974. The Avenger was a pulp hero who combined elements of Doc Savage and The Shadow though he was never as popular as either of these characters.

The authorship of the pulp series was credited by Street and Smith to Kenneth Robeson, the same byline that appeared on the Doc Savage stories. The "Kenneth Robeson" name was a house pseudonym used by a number of different Street & Smith writers. Most of the original Avenger stories were written by Paul Ernst.


Following in the wake of a slew of cancellations (The Skipper, Bill Barnes and The Whisperer "had failed to capture the audience loyalty" of Doc Savage and The Shadow, in 1939, readers of Street & Smith's Doc Savage pulp magazine "thrilled to a special announcement" that a new periodical - The Avenger "was soon to be published," and would feature stories:

"written by none other than Kenneth Robeson, 'the familiar creator of Doc Savage.'" Don Hutchison The Great Pulp Heroes - 3: The Avenger in Peter Harris (ed.) (In actual fact, the original 24 stories featuring The Avenger were the work of writer Paul Ernst, Robeson being merely a house name used by a number of authors, including Lester Dent, the true creator of Doc Savage.)

The first issue of The Avenger was cover-dated September, 1939, and featured a cover story/'lead novel' entitled "Justice Inc.". Interior art was produced by Paul Orban, well-known to pulp fans for his "similar work on Doc Savage and The Shadow." The character of The Avenger, described by pulp expert Don Hutchison as "clearly an effort to form a hybrid of the company's more successful creations" - echoed his forebears in other ways, also. Whereas Doc Savage was known as "The Man of Bronze," The Avenger was described as "The Man of Steel." The Avenger's "marksman's eyes" echoed the "burning eyes" of The Shadow, who continued to be referred to as 'The Masked Avenger.'

Pulp demise

Describing the stories as "well-plotted" with good characterization and "an unusual amount of attention paid to detail," Hutchison notes that as a derivative character, The Avenger was destined not to be as popular as his original rivals: "Doc Savage, The Spider, G-8, The Shadow, Operator #5 [and] The Phantom," while still the character "can perhaps be considered the last of the great pulp heroes," while his stories ran initially in his own magazine for 24 stories, first monthly and then bi-monthly in four volumes over exactly three years, ceasing in September, 1942. The character was kept alive in Clues Detective for a further five short stories, and as a single tale written as a The Shadow back-up in 1944 by Emile Tepperman.

In Don Hutchison's estimation, The Avenger was following in big footsteps, and hamstrung by appearing too late in the day. Following the "instant justice" of The Shadow, the global stage of Doc Savage and other pulp heroes, The Avenger was, by 1939, "simply an unnecessary commodity." "Second best[,] he had tried harder... but the timing was all wrong." Ultimately, Hutchison concludes simply that:

"The world did not require another good ten-cent hero."


Nevertheless, the character was revived in the 1970s by Warner Paperback Library, given a brief lease of life by DC Comics, and was the subject of new short stories in 2008 from Moonstone Books. (See below)

Character biography


The Avenger's real name is Richard Henry Benson, a globe-trotting adventurer who "had made his millions by professional adventuring," discovering rubber in South America; leading "native armies in Java," making "aerial maps in the Congo," mining "amethysts in Australia and emeralds in Brazil" and finding gold in Alaska and diamonds in the Transvaal. Following the pulp archetype of a wealthy hero, despite an internal chronology making them (and Benson in particular) "children of the Great Depression," The Avenger's backstory gave him the funding to ultimately "support [his] crime-fighting appurtenances."

Deciding to settle down and raise a family, the first Avenger adventure ("Justice, Inc."), Benson's plans for a peaceful life as a "world-renowned industrial engineer" are shattered when his wife (Alicia) and young daughter (Alice) are killed during an airplane journey, . The shock of this loss has a bizarre effect on Benson. His face becomes paralyzed while both his skin and his hair turn white, his facial flesh becoming malleable, like clay. His face was thereafter (for the first dozen stories) regularly described (as in "The Smiling Dogs") as:

"...dead, like something dug out of a cemetery. The muscles were paralyzed so that never, under any circumstances, could they move in an expression. This dead, weird face was as white as snow -- as white, in a word, as you'd expect any dead flesh to be! In the flacial expanse of the face were set eyes so light-gray as to seem completely colorless."

As a result of this tragedy, Benson vows to avenge himself on the villains, and to fight for all those who have suffered at the hands of criminals.

Don Hutchison suggests that "Benson's extreme personal misfortune was probably the strongest motivation accorded any of the great pulp heroes," stemming as it did from the death of his family and his own "death in life." The stories, by veteran pulp/magazine writer Paul Ernst "were well-plotted mysteries with mild science-fictional extrapolations" albeit often appearing somewhat subdued when compared to rival publications such as The Spider and Operator #5. Benson was "the master of the last-minute escape," cool and intellectual, mentally "the equal of Doc Savage" but otherwise "an average-sized man." The plastic, malleable state of his otherwize unexpressive features allowed the character to reshape his facial features into a likeness of any person, his features remaining in sculpted form "until they were carefully put back into place." This ability, coupled with hair dyes and colored contact lenses, earned him the sobriquet "The Man of a Thousand Faces."

A new face

After twelve issues, Ernst was directed editorially to eliminate Benson's facial affliction in the hopes that this would bolster the dwindling audience for the magazine. Thus the second "distinct era" of The Avenger began with the first issue of the now-bi-monthly third Volume, just over a year after the magazines debut.

The thirteenth issue, "Murder On Wheels," saw the introduction of the last major recurring character, Cole Wilson. Initially an opponent of The Avenger (before joining Justice, Inc. in the same issue), Wilson trapped The Avenger in a machine which "provided a nerve shock of a different sort," turning Benson's flesh back to normal and his hair black. Although The Avenger still disguised himself after this, he could no longer mold his now normal flesh. Three stories -- "Nevlo" (#17), "House of Death" (#15) and "Death in Slow Motion" (#18) -- had been written by Ernst prior to this radical shift in character, and underwent rewrites before seeing publication. Although the original texts would place these three stories chronologically earlier than #13, the rewrites serve to fit them into the timelines as published (although some slight original traces remain under the heavy-handed later insertions).


The Avenger far preferred trapping criminals into "destroy[ing] themselves in traps of their own devising" than killing them himself, allowing writer Ernst to create considerably elaborate plots.

Like Doc Savage, Benson relies on a variety of special gadgets to help him overcome criminals. These include knockout gas bombs, miniature two-way radios, a woven, transparent bullet-proof garment and "glass pellets containing a gas... [which] instantly [spread] a black impenetrable pall like instant night," also accessible through a stud on Benson's collar.

His car rivalled those of the later James Bond series, "being a rather dull 1935 model" capable of speeds up to 130 mph (unheard of at the time), "bullet-proofed throughout and equipped with devices and special little inventions for offence and defence," including automatic bullet-proofed windows and "miniature torpedoes of potent knock-out gas."

The Avenger also carried a pair of weapons "strapped in slim sheaths on [his] right and left calf" - his specially streamlined and silenced .22 revolver ("Mike") and a needle-pointed throwing knife ("Ike"). Using these customized tools, Benson could shoot someone so that his bullet just touched their heads and knocked them out, or "hit a fly-speck from twenty feet."


Like Doc Savage before him, Benson rarely underwent his adventures alone, gathering a number of assistants to help him. His small band, known as "Justice Inc." was made up of people who had all been "irreparably damaged by crime," and who have specialized skills:

  • Fergus "Mac" MacMurdie ("Justice Inc.") is a stereotypically dour Scotsman who is also a gifted pharmacist and chemist. His family was killed by racketeers, leaving Mac embittered, vengeful and "indifferent to the threat of... death."
  • Algernon Heathcote "Smitty" Smith ("Justice Inc.") is a gigantic man (6' 9") of incredible strength. Smitty looks slow and stupid but he is actually a genius with electronics. He was framed - and spent a year in jail - for a crime he did not commit, and initially attacked Benson believing The Avenger was out to arrest him.
  • Nellie Gray ("The Yellow Hoard"), "the Emma Peel of her day" is a beautiful, delicate-looking young woman who is actually an expert at jujutsu and other martial arts. Her archaeologist father was killed by criminals for the buried Aztec gold he had found. After his murder was solved by Benson's Justice Inc., the treasure "became the equivalent of Doc Savage's hoard of inexhaustible Mayan gold."
  • Josh and Rosabel Newton ("The Sky Walker") are an African American couple whose employers were killed by criminals. They often go undercover as domestic servants, making use of the stereotypes of the time to hide their investigative abilities, in "an ironic comment on the image... in the films and fiction of the day." Both are graduates of the Tuskegee Institute (now University), and the couple have children later in the series. (The Avenger series is notable its presentation of minorities, and while many of the pulp magazines of the time are well known for racist stereotypes, but Josh and Rosabel are always presented as brave, intelligent people of good character.)
  • Cole Wilson joins the group near the middle of the series. He is much less distinctive than Benson's other assistants and has a light hearted manner that contrasts the Avenger's serious tone, described as having "a streak of Robin Hood in him."

Avenger Novels and Short Stories

The Avenger (1939-1942)

Novels written by Paul Ernst and published in The Avenger magazine. The first thirteen stories are believed to have been published in the order in which they were written. After the considerable changes introduced in Murder on Wheels (Nov. 1940), three earlier-written stories were reworked by Street & Smith's editors to realign them to the new status quo. Since they were reworked, the stories nevertheless follow internal chronoloy as well publication order.

The first two Volumes appeared monthly (with the exception of the twelfth issue), and featured covers by H. W. Scott. Volumes III and IV were covered in artwork by "Graves Gladney, Lenosci and Leslie Ross."

Clues Detective (1942-1943)

Short stories written by Emile C. Tepperman and published in Clues Detective magazine. Internal dates and references lead most experts to adjust the numbering on Tepperman's short stories, hence the non-sequential numbering.

Moonstone Books (2008 - )

Beginning in the early 2000s, Moonstone Books (under editor/publisher Joe Gentile) have produced a number of prose and comic books based on licenced pulp, detective and other characters, beginning with The Phantom. In 2008, a prose anthology (available in paperback and limited edition hardback) was released containing new stories featuring The Avenger, with covers by Dave Dorman, 1970s paperback cover artist Peter Caras, and a Limited Edition cover by Douglas Klauba. The anthology was edited by Joe Gentile and Howard Hopkins, and featured numerous stories by authors including Gentile, Hopkins, Ron Goulart, Will Murray, Win Scott Eckert, Richard Dean Starr, Tom DeFalco, Paul Kupperberg, Mel Odom, and others.



Following the original 24 novel-length stories by Paul Ernst, and the half-dozen continuations by Emile C. Tepperman (all under the "Kenneth Robeson" pseudonym) in the 1940s, thirty years later, Warner Paperback Library reprinted the first twenty-four stories in a paperback format similar to Bantam Books' successful Doc Savage library.

Continuing on from the 24 Ernst-written stories, Warner commissioned writer Ron Goulart to write an additional 12 tales for this format, eschewing Tepperman's short-stories in favor of new book-length tales. The covers for the paperback series were initially painted by Peter Caras and later by George Gross.

In 2009, Sanctum Productions began reprinting the original pulps in near-replica editions. Each issue reprints two stories and contains the original interior illustrations from the pulps as well as the original covers on the front and back. This is similar to their current reprint series of Doc Savage and the Shadow. Because of the internal chronology of the stories, they will be reprinted in order.

Continations, extrapolations

The Avenger is mentioned by author Philip José Farmer as a part of his Wold Newton family, and in an essay published in Myths for the Modern Age: Philip José Farmer's Wold Newton Universe [MonkeyBrain Books, 2005), Chuck Loridans contributes an article entitled "The Daughters of Greystoke" wherein he constructs a family tree linking Nellie Gray to Tarzan and Jane Porter.

In 2008, Moonstone Books produced the first The Avenger anthology, featuring stories written by a number of pulp fans and writers - including Goulart and Myths for the Modern Age editor Win Scott Eckert.


There have also been a couple of attempts to revive the Avenger as a comic book character, beginning in the 1940s in Street & Smith's own Shadow Comics, but none (to date) have proved particularly successful.

In 1975, DC Comics published a comic called Justice, Inc. which starred the Avenger. This was during the time they were also publishing The Shadow. The Avenger also appeared in issues #11 of the Shadow. The first two issues were based on stories from the pulp magazine. Issues #2-4 were drawn by Jack Kirby (as were the covers to issues #2 and #3). The comic only lasted 4 issues.

In the 1980s, when DC Comics was again doing "The Shadow", an 'updated' version of the Avenger showed up briefly. In 1989, DC released a two-issue miniseries, in 52-page prestige format, written by Andy Helfer and penciled and inked by Kyle Baker, titled Justice, Inc.. The mini-series revealed the 'truth' behind the Avenger's origin.

In November 2009 The Avenger will be shown in the series The First Wave spun off from the Batman/Doc Savage Special. He has a backup series in the new Doc Savage comic, written by award-winning thriller author Jason Starr, however, several alterations have been made to his aides and to Justice, Inc. The series ran in Doc Savage #1-9, plus staring in the First Wave Special.


Similarly short-lived was "an Avenger radio serial carried by Station WHN in New York City and syndicated in other parts of the country."


Cover to issue #1 of DC Comics' 1989 Justice Inc. series. Art by Kyle Baker.

External links

Science fiction pulp magazines

A. Merritt's Fantasy Magazine · Amazing Stories · Astounding Stories · Astonishing Stories · Captain Future · Comet · Cosmic Stories · Dynamic Science Fiction · Dynamic Science Stories · Famous Fantastic Mysteries · Fantastic Adventures · Fantastic Novels · Fantastic Story Magazine · Fantasy · Future Science Fiction · Marvel Science Stories · Miracle Science and Fantasy Stories · Out of This World Adventures · Planet Stories · Satellite Science Fiction · Science Fiction · Science Fiction Quarterly · Space Stories · Startling Stories · Stirring Science Stories · Strange Stories · Strange Tales · Super Science Fiction · Super Science Stories · Science fiction magazines · Tales of Magic and Mystery · Tales of Wonder · Ten Story Fantasy · Tops in Science Fiction · Two Complete Science-Adventure Books · Uncanny Stories · Uncanny Tales (Canadian) · Uncanny Tales (U.S.) · Unknown · Vargo Statten Science Fiction Magazine · Weird Tales · Wonder Stories


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