Tuesday, March 17, 2009

If You Blinked You Missed: Justice Inc.

Ol' Groove's mentioned this pulp-to-comic semi-classic in a few other posts (here, here, and here to be exact), but I thought it was time to give it the full treatment! Although it only lasted four issues, Justice, Inc. stands out as one of those "what could have been" series that had so much potential, but never lived up to it.

Hitting the spinner racks in February 1975, the series started off with a very cool adaptation of Paul Ernst's (Kenneth Robeson was a "house name" pulp publisher Street and Smith used to sell magazines, don'tcha know) original "Justice, Inc." novel by Denny O'Neil and Al McWilliams. O'Neil and McWilliams were an excellent combination for translating the Avenger's origin into comicbook form. For some reason, each issue of Justice, Inc. was self-contained, forcing O'Neil to adapt the bare-bones of each Avenger story he took on. For this issue, with it's pointed, poignant story of how Dick Benson's family was brutally murdered, leading the globe-trotting adventurer to avenge their deaths and declare war on crime, the done-in-one format worked. The story had a quick, brutal pace that perfectly matched the tone of the pulp original. McWilliams' art was also appropriately moody, with wonderful attention to detail and a very understated-yet-cinematic look. Topped with a Joe Kubert cover, Justice, Inc. #1 was a rip-roarin' success as far as Ol' Groove is concerned. See for yourself!

You notice I even threw in Superman and Star Trek authority, and then DC assistant editor and writer, Allan Asherman's Avenger editorial? Ol' Groove is nothing if not generous, baby!

Anyway, with issue #2, Jack Kirby, whose art I put above most all others, took over the penciling chores for the remainder of the series. I think he did a good job, but many feel his heart wasn't in it, because he contract with DC was winding down, and he was only allowed to draw, not write the Justice, Inc. adventures. Still, no matter which side of the fence you're on regarding his art on J.I., it is apparent that for all his skill, Kirby's big, bold pencils just didn't fit the mood the way McWilliams' did. That, to me, wasn't the downfall of the mag, though. I think, what killed the book was a three-pronged failure:

1) DC's pulp experiment just wasn't working out. The Shadow was on its last legs when DC put out Justice, Inc., so I really can't fathom why they even bothered with the Avenger and company in the first place.

2) The original Avenger novels weren't nearly up to the standards of Doc Savage or the Shadow, so why was O'Neil adapting them? Marvel flopped with their Doc Savage comicbook a couple years earlier by adapting Lester Dent's superior stories. Why did DC think they'd succeed with Ernst's less than stellar, highly repetitive plots?

3) This one really stems from problem #2: trying to cram a novel into a 17 page comicbook rarely works. It worked for the origin story, but that was just the luck of the draw. The other stories' plots were too complicated for 17 pages. O'Neil should have been able to come up with his own, original stories as he had done with the Shadow.

Ironically, the best thing DC did with the Avenger was to have him team up with the Shadow (the Shadow #11, March/April 1975). Writer Mike Uslan came up with a cool story, all his own, that was not only a good ol' page-turner, but highlighted the similarities and differences between the Avenger and the Shadow making for an interesting character study. The art by E.R. Cruz was nicely moody and pulpy making for an excellent issue.

I guess when your best story appears in another character's mag, the writing is on the wall. With issue #4, (August 1975) Justice, Inc. disappeared from the spinner racks.

10 comments:

  1. A casualty of the great DC implosion. I enjoyed the first issue as well, Groove. ( And that Kubert cover rocks ), but The Avenger has to be one of the strangest characters ever. Even before his family are killed, he's clearly a borderline psychopath!

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  2. Well, actually, the Great DC Implosion wouldn't happen for another three years, but yeah, the result is the same: too many titles tossed out with too little thought or preparation behind them. Great idea + less than great execution = certain cancellation.

    I agree with ya about the Avenger's mental health. At least he kept it reined in with his judicious use of "Mike" and "Ike"!

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  3. Really cool post. It's been years since I've really been into comics. But recently I've been wanting to learn more about vintage comics as well as see what's going on out there today.

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  4. nicely done, Groove, I was just thinking about this the other day, and I agree with pretty much everything you say. there was a cracking good two issue mini attempt to revitalize the Avenger in the early 'nineties, too, if I remember correctly - Kyle Baker? - which was much more successful, story-wise if not sales-wise.

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  5. Am I crazy for preferring the McWilliams artwork over Kirby on this series? It just seemed to be a better fit.

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  6. Wow! I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't know Kirby pencilled Justice, Inc. at one point! And I consider myself a huge Kirby nut! It's amazing how many books and characters he tackled in his career. "Justice, Inc." looks like one of the more interesting DC books!

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  7. Looks like I'll have to post some Kirby-illustrated Justice, Inc. pages...Stay tuned!

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  8. Andy Helfer & Kyle Baker did a great mini-series with the character

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  9. WOW! Thanks for posting this. Earlier this year, I posted a piloe of Alden McWilliams pages of SPACE CONQUERORS! (from BOYS' LIFE magazine), now I get to see some more. I'm slowly closing in on the end of my "early 70's Kirby DC" project, and I don't have a single issue of JUSTICE INC. in my collection. So far-- tonight!-- thanks to 3 blogs I've found, I've managed to get scans of 3 of them. #3 can be found at the "CrimeAndPunishmentComics" blog, as is the Shadow-Avenger team-up story, while #4 (AND MUCH-NICER scans of this one!!) are at "DrMonkeyRetroBlog".

    I'll probably be cleaning up YOUR scans my my Kirby_Land yahoo group. If you'd like, once I do, you could re-post the images here.

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