Not every comic book reader is intimately familiar with Richard Benson, but Mark Waid is ready to make them all diehard fans.
The albino adventurer known as The Avenger got his start in 1939 at the legendary pulp house Street and Smith Publications. Never quite the breakout star his company brethren The Shadow and Doc Savage were, Benson still lent his emotionless mask of a face to a number of projects boasting A-list creative talent over the years, including Joe Kubert and Jack Kirby. Those books left an impression on Waid as a young man, and this June, the writer is living out the dream of working with his favorite pulp anti-hero in Dynamite Entertainment‘s new series “Justice Inc.: The Avenger.”
Teaming with artist Ronilson Freire, Waid is tapping into his childhood love of the character by pulling out a very adult sense of tragedy to drive the book’s action. The writer told CBR News about his origin with Benson, why a man so broken by loss that his face melts makes for a terrific lead and how equal parts period adventure and character madness should leave an impression on readers new to the world of “Justice Inc.”
CBR News: Mark, most people aren’t extremely familiar with Richard Benson — I think the general take is that he just shares a lot of DNA with his more famous Street & Smith pulp hero brethren. What about The Avenger stands out to you as a unique element worthy of exploring?
Mark Waid: There’s a theme to the character’s life that runs pretty true, which is a theme of coldness or a distancing from humanity. His origin — years before the Jodi Foster movie “Flight Plan” or whatever — tells the story of how Richard gets on a plane with his wife and daughter, and then he goes to the bathroom, and by the time he’s back, they’ve disappeared. Everyone says to him, “No, no. There was never anyone else on this plane. You’re mistaken, sir.” It ends up being a murder plot, and he loses them forever in that moment. Just by itself, that’s very compelling to me.
From that moment, the shock of that event turns Richard cold, inside and out. He never connects to any human being ever again. He never smiles again. He never shows any emotion. He was so stricken by the loss of his family that his very facial muscles get paralyzed, and they become like putty. It wasn’t just that he had these albino features or that his hair turned white. The trauma affected him so much that it allowed him to move his face, as it were, like a makeup putty, so he could become a master of disguise. I thought that was fascinating, too — to be able to do the impromptu disguise stuff with your own skin and a makeup set. The whole idea of a very sad, tragic hero worked for me.
When the initial news hit about you writing The Avenger, the PR said that this character was one you’ve been wanting to write for years. I read that and thought, “So he’s the one!”
[Laughs] Exactly! I know, I know. I’m the one guy sitting around going, “I can’t wait for this to be available someday.” But that’s how you get a job like that. I’ve been telling Nick Barrucci this for years, and before that, I was telling Dan DiDio when DC had the license. I’d just say, “Please let me write Richard Benson. Let me write The Avenger.” I don’t know what it is about the quirkiness of that character. It may be something about the fact that he was such a short-run character in the ’40s. He had, like, 24 adventures compared to The Shadow or Doc Savage. It made him almost a blip in the radar. I just like the character and his conceit a lot.
I know the character from the various comic revivals he’s experienced over the years — particularly the few DC issues from the ’70s that featured work from Joe Kubert and Jack Kirby, but also from later in the ’80s by Andy Helfer. What was your introduction to him?
It really was that comic connection. It was reading about the character in that four-issue DC Comics run from 1974 to ’75. I picked that up when I was 12 years old, so I was just at the right age. Getting a sampling of that character in those comics, I immediately wanted to know more. That was about the time that Bantam books was reprinting the Avenger pulps as paperback the way they’d been doing the Shadow and Doc Savage ones. I was able to find one of the Avenger paperbacks on a family vacation to the mountains, and I must have read that book cover-to-cover two times on that trip. That’s in part because we were in the mountains, and there wasn’t much else to do. [Laughs] But it was also because I just kind of absorbed it. I grew to have a lifelong love for that character.
How are you going to step into this series, considering the comics that have come before? I know Dynamite and Michael Uslan recently did a team-up version of Justice Inc. Will you look through some of those previous iterations for inspiration, or do you just say, “Give me the original pulps and let me go”?
It’s more the latter. I’m certainly taking cues from some of the other comics. The Andy Helfer/Kyle Baker series was set in the modern day, which was then the mid ’80s, so that is not an issue here because this is a period piece. Really, all I have to take into consideration is the original DC series and the Michael Uslan stuff. And even then, Michael and I have talked. There are a few things he did in his, some of his improvements on the legend in regards to some of his weaponry, and I’m going to hew back more to the original concept there. We don’t go back and directly contradict anything else, but there’s just not much I have to be beholden to in comics.
Recently we’ve been talking about — and I think Grant Morrison said this — how so many comics today are the ultimate crisis that shatters the whole reality of the character rather than just telling a good story with them on its own terms. What’s your version of The Avenger have to say in terms of whether this is trying to be a kind of major event in his life?
I think you can do both. Here’s the thing: I didn’t want to sit down and go, “We’re going to start with a story where we reveal that his wife and child are still alive and it’s all a hoax!” That’s the kind of story that you’re talking about, and it becomes a giant part of the canon. I know there’s the urge to do those stories, but I didn’t want to lead with that. I wanted to lead with a really cracking good pulp adventure in the style of the character and of the era.
What I’m able to do is really dig in intensely to him in a way that the pulps never did. What is the psyche of this man? For example, there’s a moment in one of the issues where he disguises himself to infiltrate an arms manufacturer, and he meets someone who the person he’s disguised as works for. He knows enough to play along and pretend to be that guy, but then, when the boss tells him a joke, he laughs, but he doesn’t smile. He can’t smile. It’s very off-putting, and it almost blows his cover. So I’m playing with a lot of little character moments like that. What is it like to live in a world where your face really is a frozen mask of expressionless pain, 24/7?
With all these issues swirling around you, where do you step into this story in a way that can help you attract a modern audience? Because I feel with an older, more obscure character like this, you’re just going to have him fighting a bunch a mobsters out of central casting.
Sure. I understand what you’re saying. Part of the problem in today’s market is that every new issue is something that you have to buy otherwise you’ll miss out on the thing that changes the character forever. I can’t promise that here, but what I can say is that the threat that menaces this story was one I designed specifically to draw out all of Richard Benson’s own psychoses and fears in a way that is important. He’s got his assistants the way The Shadow does and the way that Doc Savage did, but this is the first time that they’re all going to look at each other and say to themselves, “Maybe we’re working for a crazy man. We don’t want to accept this, but maybe the boss is off his rocker.” That’s a big part of the emotional thread of that first issue and the first year of stories.
Your artist here is Ronilson Freire, whose samples have a distinctive style that somewhat reminds me of Dale Eaglesham. What has he brought to your first issue that you’ve particularly enjoyed?
His storytelling is really good, and he’s really good at capturing the period of the era, which is terrific. The last thing I needed with an artist who is doing the 1930s was a guy who’d rather be doing cell phones and Dodge Chargers in the background. He makes the other characters in the story act with expression and momentum in a way that make up for the fact that Richard is so devoid of emotion. It’s clear that the Avenger doesn’t have the opportunity to be like that. In a way, it’s hard to tell a story with a character who can’t move his face and shows no expression. Luckily, Ronilson has a lot of the other characters carry that water for him.
With The Avenger now under your belt, are there any big characters left on Mark Waid’s comic book bucket list?
There are still a couple on my hitlist. There’s still Buckaroo Banzai, someday, and I’ve never done Doc Savage. Doc is still on that list, and the Lone Ranger is on that list somewhere. I’m hoping that if I cut down on the double cheeseburgers a bit and get a little more exercise, I may make it to the finish line having hit all my bucket list items.
“Justice Inc.: The Avenger” arrives from Dynamite Entertainment in June.
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