5/12: Void Influences – The Avenger! (1968)
I’ve been overwhelmed by responses to my last “influence” installment on the Man of Bronze, Doc Savage. Most readers told me they recalled the character and were happy to be reacquainted with him, but many others said they’d never heard of him at all and were thrilled to learn about him for the first time. This week’s installment will cover a man even more obscure than ol’ Doc, but still an integral part of my childhood imagination expansion. Welcome to the adventures of Dick Benson, aka “The Avenger!”
The Avenger first appeared in September 1939 in his own pulp magazine published by Street & Smith, the same company that published Doc Savage. His star never really caught fire and his last adventure was printed in Clues Detective magazine (1942–1943) and The Shadow magazine in 1943.
Like Doc Savage, The Avenger was credited to Kenneth Robeson (actually a house pseudonym used by a number of different writers). Most of the stories were written by Paul Ernst.
The Avenger’s real name is Richard Henry Benson, a globe-trotting adventurer who “made his millions by professional adventuring.” This always fascinated me … all the fictional heroes of the era were wealthy beyond measure. I attribute this to be part of the fantasy at the time as most families of this era were still destitute and suffering from the effects of the Great Depression.
Deciding to settle down and raise a family, the first Avenger adventure (Justice, Inc) finds Benson’s plans for a peaceful life shattered when his wife (Alicia) and young daughter (Alice) are murdered by thugs during an airplane journey. The shock of this loss has a bizarre effect on Benson. His face becomes paralyzed while both his skin and his hair turn white, his facial flesh becoming malleable, like clay. His face was thereafter described as follows:
|…dead, like something dug out of a cemetery. The muscles were paralyzed so that never, under any circumstances, could they move in an expression. This dead, weird face was as white as snow — as white, in a word, as you’d expect any dead flesh to be! In the facial expanse of the face were set eyes so light-gray as to seem completely colorless.”|
How cool is that? If I were to imagine the face beneath the mask of Deacon Void, I think it would look just like the above description of Richard Benson! Maybe we’ll unmask Void together some day!
Bantam Books, anxious to capitalize on the success of the newly released Doc Savage books in 1964, followed with a reprinting of The Avenger in novel form as well. I picked up book #1. BOOM! I was hooked.
As a result of this tragedy, Benson vows to avenge himself on the villains and to fight for all those who have suffered at the hands of criminals. The murder of his family was probably the strongest motivation accorded any of the great pulp heroes of the era. In addition to the death of his family, Benson suffered his own “death in life.” Cool stuff!
The stories by veteran pulp/magazine writer Paul Ernst were well-plotted mysteries. He was a master of the last-minute escape, cool and collected, and totally fearless. But the thing I’ll always remember about him was his face! As one critic of the day wrote:
The plastic, malleable state of his otherwise unexpressive features allowed the character to reshape his facial features into a likeness of any person, his features remaining in sculpted form “until they were carefully put back into place.” This ability, coupled with hair dyes and colored contact lenses, earned him the sobriquet “The Man of a Thousand Faces.”
Hey, isn’t that the nickname of the second name on the Void influence list, Lon Chaney, Sr? The look, feel, and determined mission of The Avenger brought me much excitement in the summers of 1967-1970. His influence on the development of Deacon Void cannot be overlooked!
In the 70s, DC Comics made a run at a comic book version of The Avenger, with artistic giants Joe Kubert (SGT Rock) and Jack Kirby (Captain America, Fantastic Four). The comic never found an audience, but it introduced the Avenger to yet another generation. To me, he lives on still!
In the roaring heart of the crucible, steel is made. In the raging flame of personal tragedy, men are sometimes forged into something more than human. It was so with Dick Benson. He had been a man. After the dread loss inflicted on him by an inhuman crime ring, he became a machine of vengeance dedicated to the extermination of all other crime rings.
He turned into the person we know: a figure of ice and steel, more pitiless than both; a mechanism of whipcord and flame; a symbol to crooks and killers; a terrible, almost impersonal force, masking chill genius and super-normal power behind a face as white and dead as a mask from the grave. Only his pale eyes, like ice in a polar dawn, hint at the deadliness of the scourge the underworld heedlessly invoked against itself when crime’s greed turned millionaire adventurer Richard Benson into — The Avenger.
The thrilling introduction to … The Avenger!