Richard Henry Benson isn’t the most recognized hero of the pulp magazine era, but the albino adventurer known as The Avenger has a surprising comics pedigree. And the history of Benson and his Street & Smith fellows the Shadow and Doc Savage are primed for a new chapter this August in Dynamite Entertainment’s “Justice Inc.”
Announced today at WonderCon in Anaheim, the new “Justice Inc.” carries the title of the Avenger’s crime-fighting organization, but pushes the concept into superteam territory as the Shadow and Doc Savage join the action from writer Michael Uslan and artist Giovanni Timpano. This is actually only the latest iteration of “Justice Inc.” as previous short runs on the book were published by DC Comics and included work from the likes of Joe Kubert, Jack Kirby, Denny O’Neil, Andy Helfer and Kyle Baker. The new series will boast covers by Alex Ross, Francesco Francavilla, Stephen Segovia, Ardian Syaf and Gabriel Hardman.
CBR News spoke exclusively to Uslan — best known as producer of the Batman films as well as a comics writer of high profile projects from “Life With Archie” to “The Shadow/Green Hornet: Dark Nights” — about the history of Justice Inc., his connection to the Street & Smith characters, why it’s taken this long to make a team of the pulp trinity and how history exerts a strange influence over the origin story of the original crimefighters.
CBR News: Michael, I know about “Justice Inc.” as a franchise and the Avenger as a character because of the creative pedigree of some of the previous comic book versions. That said, I get the impression the version you’re doing for Dynamite is more rooted in the pulp origins of all the Street & Smith characters. What did you want to do in bringing them together for the first time?
Michael Uslan: I think there are two things as far as I’m concerned that affected me in terms of the Shadow, the Avenger and all the pulp heroes. It started when I was in college, and I started writing for DC Comics. At that time, the first comic book I ever wrote was an issue of “The Shadow” during the Denny O’Neil/Mike Kaluta 12-issue run. Frank Robbins had come onto do the art along with E.R. Cruz, and Denny and I were going to alternate writing issues of that series. My first issue was #9, which turned out to have a Joe Kubert cover and Frank Robbins on interiors, and the next one I was due to write was #11. With that, DC Comics had gotten the rights to the Avenger and were planning on a “Justice Inc.” comic book. I’m proud to say that for the first issue there, they got a Joe Kubert cover with Al McWilliams doing the interior art before Jack Kirby took over the series with #2. Denny and I thought since they were doing that series, we’d cross promote it by teaming the Shadow and the Avenger. I was surprised to find out that had never happened before. Here you have a character from Street & Smith from 1930 and one from 1939, and their paths had never crossed. So I wound up writing “Night of the Avenger” for “The Shadow” #11 with a cover by Kaluta and interiors by E.R. Cruz, and in doing that I went back to look at their specific histories.
As a kid, I was first introduced to the Shadow thanks to the radio shows. On Sunday afternoons in New Jersey, WJRZ in Newark used to broadcast about two hours of old time radio dramas, and the Shadow was one of them. That was my entry point more than anything. But then I started to get the first of the Shadow paperback books when they came out from Belmont and a few other publishers over the course of the next few years. I started to then get old Shadow pulps and comics at conventions, and by the time I graduated high school, I had a collection of comics dating back to 1936, and my Shadow collection began with “The Shadow” #2 from the ’40s. So I’d read the Shadow and the Avenger and Doc Savage in paperbacks as they were coming out, and I loved that world.
Then a few years later in the early 1980s when I was producing movies and television animation, there was a project I had that dealt with magic. So I needed to bring in someone as a creative consultant who knew the world of magic, and I contacted [original Shadow writer] Walter Gibson who became my consultant on that project. I spent a lot of time with Walter, and I got to be the total fanboy geek around him — asking him a zillion questions about the history of the Shadow, differences in continuity, all of it. I also asked him a ton of questions about Houdini because that was the crux of this particular movie project. Having gotten all this stuff first hand from him, I always felt that if there was anything I was able to do with the Shadow, I’d work hard to carry on Walter’s legacy as best I can. I wanted to stick to the vision that he had.
I was very happy almost 35 years later when Nick Barrucci at Dynamite reached out to me to say, “We finally have the rights to the Shadow and to the Green Hornet as well. How’d you like to write a graphic novel or miniseries teaming up the two for the first time?” And he had me hooked with that. I wrote “The Shadow/Green Hornet: Dark Nights” which just came out as a trade paperback last month, and I was very happy with the experience. I think Nick and the entire Dynamite Editorial team was great to work with. What was important to me was that the work I did would resonate with Shadow fans and pulp fans. So I was extremely gratified by the reception the book got from the Shadow fan websites and the pulp fan podcasts. A lot of people indicated that they felt I’d honored Walter Gibson, which is what I set out to do.
So now, the new opportunity has arisen for “Justice Inc.” As a comic fan and comic historian, it’s inconceivable that the Street & Smith trinity of Doc Savage, the Shadow and the Avenger have been around for 75 years, and in all that time, they’ve never teamed up. It’s like if you can imagine a world where in DC Comics, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman had never teamed up. Or in Marvel/Timely Comics, it’s as if the Human Torch, Captain America and Sub-Mariner had never teamed up. How does that even happen? So I was thrilled to have the opportunity at last to bring the three of them together in one adventure and to use it as a kind of “Justice Inc. Begins” story that will tie these three characters into the Street & Smith universe in which they were born.
It’s interesting because so many superheroes take their initial cues from the pulps in terms of origin or look or approach. But one thing superhero comics did on their own in an original sense was the team concept going back to the Justice Society. Are we seeing the influence work in reverse here where superhero teams are informing the core of how “Justice Inc.” works?
I think that’s really true. As you mention, before there was a Justice League or a Justice Society there was Justice Incorporated. What I’m doing here is expanding the back story of Benson so that the origins of the whole Justice Inc. concept in certain ways tie into the Shadow and Doc Savage. I think with Savage, you could see how Doc and his whole organization can inspired someone to pull together a group of agents or a team each with their own area of expertise. With the Shadow, it’s not quite as easy, but when you look at his methodology and his agents you can see the possibilities. Back in 1975 when I wrote the crossover between the Shadow and the Avenger, there was quite a moment of intense conflict where the two butted heads over their very polar opposite ideologies and methods of crime fighting. And I don’t shy away from that here.
Despite the fact that they were all pulled from one publisher in Street & Smith, these characters have always had very different ideas on how to operate. If you look at Superman and Batman, it’s not that different. And of course, if you go back to the roots of Superman and Batman, it’s well documented that Doc Savage was the primary influence on Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster when they created Superman. Whether you look at the ads from the ’30s that billed him as “Doc Savage: Superman” or the fact that his name was Clark or the fact that he had a secrete base in the arctic called the Fortress of Solitude or that he was called “The Man of Bronze” which in turn inspired MLJ/Archie comics to create Steel Sterling, the Man of Steel — eventually Superman shows all of that. The inspirations are huge. And with Batman, it’s even more direct. If you look at the research that’s come out over the past several years by Tony Tollin or Arlen Schumer, you can see very clearly that when Bill Finger said he was inspired by the Shadow in the creation of Batman, that was an understatement. In fact, “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” from “Detective Comics” #27 was a direct swipe from a November 1936 Shadow story, and some of Bob Kane’s artwork was a swipe as well. So the connections between Batman and the Shadow are very, very, very strong. And as someone whose career — if not life — has been intensely involved with Batman, it becomes pretty clear how interested I would be in the Shadow and characters like him.
So this is a sandbox that I love, love, love to be playing in. And I should mention that one of the storylines in this series utilizes the first names of Doc Savage and the Shadow — “Clark Kent.”
What are the qualities from the pulps and the original radio stories that you’re pulling into this origin for “Justice Inc.”? I’ve always felt one of the key things that makes these character stand out is the thread of violence that runs through their adventures that gives them a more unique tone. Is there a piece of the story that primes that kind of action?
When you’re teaming up heroes together, you better have some awfully powerful villains at work. I’m a subscriber to the Stan Lee school of villain writing, which notes that some of the most successful and longest running superheroes are the ones who have had the greatest supervillains. In the case of “Dark Nights” when I teamed the Shadow and Green Hornet, I felt I needed a substantial supervillain and so I used Shiwan Khan from the Shadow stories. In this series, the story requires more than that. I won’t spoil it, but I’m featuring more than one significant villain and what I’m hoping will be a surprise villain as the series heads toward its conclusion.
You’ve done a number of stories from “Just Imagine Stan Lee…” to “Life With Archie” where you take an iconic idea, give it a new twist and set it up for future series. Does your “Justice Inc.” series have similar designs as your past work?
That’s really true. And if you look at characters I’ve written in comics over the decades, you can see that I’ve had a tendency to go for the fedora heroes. I was absolutely lucky enough to be the first writer of The Question after Steve Ditko, and I was lucky enough to work on that story with Alex Toth — one of the all-time great graphic storytellers. I learned more from Alex on that experience than I did from anyone else at any time in the world of comics. Plus when I wrote that, I was just emerging from my college hippie phase and jumped into writing a total right wing character. [Laughs] But beyond that, I’ve written the Spirit in “Spirit Black & White,” and with Batman I wrote the hardback graphic novel “Detective No. 27” where I reimagined Bruce Wayne as a fedora-clad, trenchcoated pulp hero.
In addition to my love for comics and the pulp heroes and Batman, I also love history. I was a history major and am a history buff. I love novels like “Ragtime,” “The Alienist” and “Carter Beats The Devil” in which real events in history and people who really lived are organically intertwined in a story with the fictional characters in the cast. I did that in “Detective No. 27” which received a very warm critical response, and I did it again in “The Shadow/Green Hornet: Dark Nights.” I’ll continue to use those elements with the Shadow, Doc Savage and the Avengers as “Justice Inc.” emerges as a series.
When I do these stories, I spend months before I even pick up a pen doing historical research. It’s like I’m back in college, and it’s a passion and a love. I don’t just sit down to write, but sometimes when I do write, truth ends up becoming stranger than the fiction. When I was looking for a new take on how Richard Henry Benson became the Avenger many months ago, I had the story beginning with an aircraft that almost mystically disappeared out of the sky. So you can imagine my shock five weeks ago when I started hearing about the Malaysian airliner. So sometimes you write this stuff, and the real world catches up to you.
“Justice Inc.” debuts this August from Dynamite Entertainment.