A man with a face as frozen as his soul, who battles super-crime so that no others should suffer as he has.
In 1939, Street and Smith, publishers of The Shadow and Doc Savage, decided to try yet another variant on the "hero pulp" magazine. To lure in the readers, it was advertised as being written by "Kenneth Robeson". The house name was in this case being used by Paul Ernst, though he was coached on proper pulp formula by both Lester Dent and Walter Gibson. The original The Avenger magazine ran from September 1939 to September 1942, with a few short stories by a different author (but under the same house name) running until 1944.
The Avenger was Richard Henry Benson, a compact but powerful man who'd made a small fortune as a professional adventurer, learning the many skills he'd later use to fight crime. At the start of the first story, "Justice Inc.", Benson has retired from adventuring and become an industrial engineer, devoting his off-hours to his lovely wife, Alicia, and adorable daughter, Alice. A family emergency calls them to Canada, and when no tickets are available, Benson forces himself and his kin aboard a small commercial plane already taking off, which he happens to notice has some empty seats. He promises to pay their fare upon landing.
In mid-flight, Benson uses the washroom, and on returning to his seat, finds his wife and daughter missing, as is their luggage. And all the other passengers and flight crew swear up and down that Benson got on the plane alone. As do the folks at the airfield from which the plane had taken off, and the taxi driver who'd brought them to the field! It's as if Alicia and Alice Benson never existed. The shock is too great for Richard Benson, and he snaps, attacking the crew until he is knocked out.
Benson awakens three weeks later in a sanitarium, and is startled to discover that not only has his hair turned white, but all pigmentation has left his skin, and his facial muscles have become paralyzed. He quickly talks his way out of the loony bin, then starts investigating the cover-up of the disappearances. He eventually discovers the truth behind the conspiracy, gaining allies along the way, but the true fates of Alicia and Alice are left just slightly open.
Deciding to continue fighting crime so that no others will suffer as he has done, The Avenger and his allies become "Justice Inc."
The Avenger's allies included:
- Fergus "Mac" MacMurdie: Gifted pharmacist and chemist from Scotland whose wife and child were killed by a racketeer's bomb when he refused to bow to a protection racket.
- Algernon Heathcote "Smitty" Smith: A giant of a man at 6 feet 9 inches, he looks kind of stupid, but is actually an electronics genius. Smitty was convicted of a crime he did not commit, and in the first story has been reduced to working as a chauffeur for the one man who will believe him.
- Nellie Gray: A petite and pretty schoolteacher—who's actually an expert in jujitsu and other martial arts. Her archaeologist father was killed by criminals looking for Aztec gold. After the Avenger cracked the case, Nellie joined the team and gave her inheritance to them to fund their activities.
- Josh and Rosabel Newton: An African-American couple whose employers are killed by criminals, and join Justice, Inc. to avenge them. Despite having to often go undercover as menials, the Newtons are actually both Tuskegee Institute graduates (and Rosabel is an excellent shot.) Notably for the time period, their depiction is refreshingly non-stereotyped. Later in the series, they have children.
- Cole Wilson: A latecomer who (temporarily) cures Benson of his facial paralysis accidentally by exposing him to electrical shock (they were opponents at the time). Wilson is not very distinctive, being a handsome, light-hearted young man.
The Avenger often used gadgets invented by himself and his assistants, including advanced television, knockout drugs, blackout bombs and a souped-up car. But his most distinctive weapons were Mike, a streamlined .22 pistol, and Ike, a needle-sharp throwing knife, which he wielded accurately but non-fatally.
The series was reprinted in the 1970s, and had an additional twelve books written by Ron Goulart. Recently, a book of new short stories was published by Moonstone Books, and the series is again being reprinted.
Notably, after World War II, the radio producer discovered that it still had distribution rights to a radio program of "The Avenger", and created an In Name Only remake. In this program, the Avenger was biochemist and police scientist Jim Brandon, who'd invented a Telepathic Indicator that allowed him to pick up strong thoughts from a great distance, and the "Diffusion Capsule" which reacted with a serum to which he'd acclimated himself and "cloaked him in the black light of invisibility". Along with his "lovely assistant" Fern Collier and a frequently-baffled police inspector, Brandon investigated crimes in a blatant Follow the Leader of The Shadow radio show.
Tropes exhibited in The Avenger series:
- Being Watched: Benson pointed to the importance of a lesson taught to him by "a so-called Arizona badman" : "When you go to a place where you have the least suspicion of being watched, son, don't come out the same hole you went in."
- Belligerent Sexual Tension: Between Smitty and Nellie from the first time they met.
- Blasting It Out of Their Hands: Subverted. The Avenger avoids killing opponents but doesn't aim for their limbs either. He attempts to "knock out people by creasing their skulls". Which would indicate he aims for their heads and estimates the wounds to be superficial.
- Bulletproof Vest: "The Flame Breathers" (1940) introduced bulletproof clothing for the Avenger and his aides. They feature regularly in subsequent stories.
- Death in the Clouds: The murder of Benson's wife and daughter.
- Depending on the Writer: Paul Ernst wrote the Avenger as "a non-lethal crimefighter". Emile C. Tepperman wrote the character as "a violent slayer of criminals".
- The Eeyore: Mac is this—unless the odds are truly hopeless, when he suddenly cheers up.
- Embarrassing Middle Name: Smitty doesn't like either his first or his middle name.
- Executive Meddling: The early stories feature the Avenger about 35-years-old, having a lengthy career as an adventurer. His hair was white and his facial muscles paralyzed. Later editorial decisions had Benson de-aged to be about 25-years-old, restored his black hair and cured his paralysis. The changes all taking place in "Murder on Wheels" (1940), the 13th story of the series.
- Faking the Dead: The main plot of "To Find A Dead Man" (1944) has the Avenger facing Egon Black, an old enemy who faked his death in a plane crash years ago.
- Gadgeteer Genius: Benson is a mild example. He earned part of his pre-Avenger fame for inventing "the alpha lamp, which produces light without heat", a "tin-reclamation process", and a "new smokeless powder process".
- Genius Bruiser: Smitty.
- Great White Hunter: Among the other elements of his personal history, Benson mentions earning forty thousand dollars by selling Malay jungle animals to the Cleveland Zoo.
- Happily Married: Josh and Rosabel.
- Heroic BSoD: The three weeks Benson spent in the sanitarium after his family's disappearance.
- Huge Guy, Tiny Girl: Smitty and Nellie, though due to their common dedication to crime-fighting, neither would admit it.
- I Call It "Vera": Mike and Ike. Mike is his favorite firearm, Ike his throwing knife.
- Improbable Aiming Skills: The Avenger often uses these. According to his narration, he was a teenager when "a madman with a hatchet" tried to kill him. The incident inspired Benson to learn to throw hatchets himself. "He could split a knot at thirty feet" (9 meters). He also practiced throwing axes and knives. Years later, he practiced with firearms. He reportedly could "hit that dime at fifty paces".
- Intercontinuity Crossover: In "The Purple Zombie" (1974), Cole Wilson briefly encounters Lamont Cranston. The Cranston identity is shared between a supporting character of The Shadow series and The Shadow himself. "Dr. Time" (1974) mentions a friendship between Smitty and Click Rush, the Gadget Man. The latter was a regular in the "Crime Busters" series. "Demon Island" (1975) features the Necronomicon from the Cthulhu Mythos.
- Job Title
- Master of Disguise: Due to his facial paralysis, The Avenger's face stays in any shape he puts it in. Combined with skin makeup and colored contact lenses, it makes very convincing disguises. Outside of inability to change facial expression, that is. When his paralysis is temporarily cured, Benson must resort to a special chemical to get the same effect.
- Never Found the Body: Alicia and Alice. This is milked for all it's worth.
- New Old Flame: "The Blood Countess" (1975) by Ron Goulart introduced Elizabeth Bentin. Supposedly Benson's girlfriend from his college years, she returns to his life c. 1943.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: In "Nevlo" (1941), the Avenger himself is suspected as the mastermind behind a crime-wave. He is pursued by federal agents led by Paul Edward Arnold, head of the "Bureau". Arnold is a thinly-veiled parody of John Edgar Hoover, then-head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
- Obfuscating Stupidity: Josh and Rosabel affected vaudeville "colored" accents when around white people they didn't know to appear uneducated and unintelligent.
- Omniglot: Benson supposedly "knew twelve languages". Including an obscure dialect of Hungarian, which he learned while active in Transylvania.
- Phenotype Stereotype: Mac is often mentioned to look like a stereotypical Scotsman, even out of national costume.
- Pressure Point: According to "The Yellow Hoard" (1939), Benson "could render people unconscious by touching nerves on their necks".
- Race Lift: An interesting case. Smitty was originally intended to be the black member of the team, but Executive Meddling had him switched to Caucasoid at the last moment, enough time to rapidly change all the text descriptions but not the already-completed art for the first story. (Thus the Smitty in the illustrations is considerably darker than the one in the text.) This adds an extra dimension to his backstory, in which Smitty is convicted of theft on the grounds that he looks like someone who'd steal. It also adds an interesting dimension to his relationship with Nellie, with whom he shared a Belligerent Sexual Tension throughout the series.
- Renaissance Man: Benson is supposedly an expert in aerodynamics, dentistry, Egyptology, engineering, hypnosis, law, linguistics, locksmithing, medicine, military tactics, and psychiatry. With written works in each field. Besides that he is a pilot, a musical composer, a sculptor and a military adviser.
- Retired Badass: Benson starts the series as one of these. After earning "his last half million" in Australia, Benson decided to retire. He, Alicia and Alice had spent two years vacationing in Bermuda, Hawaii, California, Florida, and Alaska. Then that fateful flight to Montreal occurred.
- Self-Made Man: Richard Benson earned his fortune as a mine engineer, gold miner, hunter and apparently adventurer-for-hire. While there are numerous references to his career prior to becoming the Avenger, there is a pretty good summary in "The Smiling Dogs": "Richard Benson had spent years adventuring. His tremendous personal fortune had been acquired in jungle and arctic waste, in dangerous desert and on hazardous mountaintops".
- Super Senses: Benson mentions his "miraculous hearing" has served him well "in steaming jungles and Antarctic cold, in city and wilderness". He reportedly can catch distant sounds, while the people around him fail to notice anything. His eyes could see in the dark. At least one story, "The Devil's Horn", claims that his "eyes could take on telescopic power when necessary. Just as they could examine a close object with almost microscopic ability".
- Tap on the Head: Benson's favorite maneuver. He can do it with a bullet!
- Thou Shalt Not Kill: Benson killed a man in Tahiti, years ago. The experience convinced him never to do it again, learing his Improbable Aiming Skills to facilitate this. However, The Avenger has no qualms about using a Batman Gambit to maneuver criminals into a position where they will suffer a Karmic Death if they continue to act villainous.
- Trademark Favorite Food: Josh is partial to the maple nut sundaes served in Mac's drugstore.
- Tranquil Fury: The Avenger's blazing eyes would give the only clue as to just how angry he was.
- Undisclosed Funds: Benson's fortune, supplemented with Aztec gold.
- Violent Glaswegian: Mac loves him a good scrap.
- Waif-Fu: Nellie, aided by 1930s attitudes towards women making it hard for her opponents to realize just how dangerous she is.
- We Help the Helpless: Justice Inc.
- Wrongly Accused: Smitty. It's never cleared up, either.