|cover art by Michael Kaluta|
Fortunately, later comic books and novels (such as those currently being written by Will Murray) fill in this gap. One of the first examples of this, though, might be DC's The Shadow #11 (June-July 1975), the penultimate issue of that sadly short-lived classic series.
This was written by Michael Uslan, with some excellent, atmospheric art by E.R. Cruz and it was my personal introduction to the character of the Avenger. By that point in my life, I had listened to at least a few Shadow radio shows (having whined at my mother until she bought me an LP featuring two episodes that I had seen at a local store) and I had read some of the Pyramid/Jove paperbacks reprinting the original Shadow pulps. So I had a handle on both these versions of the Shadow.
But, though Avenger paperbacks reprinting his excellent pulp adventures were also in print at the time, I had not yet read any of them. I don't remember if I had any idea who Richard Benson was when I bought this issue, but the Mike Kaluta cover alone would have sold me on giving it a try.
The story itself initially pits the Shadow and his agents against Justice, Incorporated.. Someone is planning on launching an invasion of the U.S. using an underground army and stolen military weapons. The weapon thefts are also being used to generate suspicion between different countries, which in turn threatens the start of a world war. Which, by the way, is a good way to make an invasion by an underground army plausible--they can strike while the U.S. is forced to deploy its military abroad.
Both the Shadow and the Avenger are investigating. But the Shadow's headquarters is then attacked by armed men. The attackers are defeated and one of them is captured. This turns out to be Smitty--one of the Avenger's men. And he helpfully confesses that the Avenger ordered the attack.
The Avenger, meanwhile, is having troubles of his own, when Margo Lane tries to assassinate him. Upon her capture, she helpfully acknowledges that the hit was ordered by the Shadow.
It's obvious to the reader that both agents have been brainwashed or hypnotized. Considering the ease with which they give away their respective bosses, one can argue that both the Shadow and the Avenger should have suspected shenanigans of this sort. But neither had met the other yet and rumors of the Shadow's often violent war against the underworld would have left him open to suspicion by an outsider looking in.
The script is tightly written and accomplishes an impressive amount of clear, strong storytelling in just 18 pages. I admit I'm tempted to whine a little about how a two- or three- part story arc might have been better, giving us more details about the initial investigations into the case by the two groups. But what we have is done so well that a complaint about something that wasn't written would be unfair. It's a fun what-might-have-been thought, though. I wonder if this might have happened if the book wasn't heading towards cancellation.
Both sets of good guys end up at a remote lighthouse being used as a rendezvous by the real villain. They fight briefly, but then the Shadow recognizes the Avenger as crime-fighter Richard Benson and realizes they've all been duped. The real villain then turns up and we discover that this is the Shadow's arch enemy Shiwan Khan, who is once again trying for world domination.
The Shadow's agents and Justice Incorporated abruptly find themselves on the same side, locked in a desperate struggle against Shiwan Khan's forces. I only recently re-acquired this issue as an adult, but I always vividly remembered the panel showing Richard Benson taking out a bad guy atop the lighthouse by making an epic knife throw.
Khan's men are defeated, so the Shadow and the Avenger go their separate ways--though not without some residual mutual suspicions. It's a neat way of ending the story--setting it up so that future encounters between the two heroes can either be adversarial or be a reluctant alliance.
So that was my introduction to the Avenger. It was also nearly the end of DC's The Shadow. Gee whiz, all you comic book readers of the 1970s, why weren't you buying The Shadow? I was. But the rest of you fell down on the job, didn't you? An excellent comic book adaptation of the Shadow properly set in the 1930s and it only ran 12 issues. I'm annoyed with the lot of you.
Next week, we'll visit again with the Rat Patrol.