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Welcome to the debut of “Collect This Now!,” an occasional Robot 6 feature where we look at out-of-print, untranslated, uncollected or just plain ignored comics that, in our humble estimation, need to be put back into print as soon as bloody possible, preferably in hardcover, with fancy-shmancy paper and an introduction by Jeet Heer.
We’re kicking off this column with a look at one of the more interesting and, in my opinion, unfairly ignored prestige mini-series of the last 20 years. So pull up a chair and allow me to expound, won’t you?
Back in the late 1980s, folks were reinventing classic heroes left and right, adding dashes of sex, violence and other hallmarks of sophistication where appropriate. This was especially true at DC, where getting a well-known creator to add their own modern spin on, say, Green Arrow or Batman was all but de rigeur.
Take The Shadow, for example. In 1986 Howard Chaykin offered up a four-part mini-series (later collected in trade) that gritted up the classic pulp hero, adding plentiful dollops of the sort of off-kilter eroticism and black humor that were his trademark at the time.
The mini-series was popular enough to justify an ongoing, monthly comic. Since Chaykin was unavailable or unwilling to take on that responsibility (Blackhawk was calling no doubt), the job of writer fell to once and future DC editor Andrew Helfer (perhaps best known for shepherding the Paradox Press line), who picked up Chaykin’s ball and ran it all the way out the stadium, creating a sly parody of pulp heroics that veered wildly between over the top slapstick and high (but dead serious) melodrama.
The first handful of issues were ably illustrated by acclaimed artists like Bill Sienkiewicz, but it wasn’t until Kyle Baker took over the art chores with issue eight that the book really found its footing. Baker’s cartoonish style (while nowhere near as elastic as it is today) and Helfer’s barely contained silliness formed an able partnership.
It didn’t last long; true-blue Shadow fans (and, apparently, the owners of The Shadow trademark) didn’t care for Helfer and Baker’s smart-ass approach, especially when they killed the character off and resurrected him as a killer cyborg. It’s not surprising that happened to also be their final issue.
We’re not talking about The Shadow today, however (although we probably will at some later date). No, today we’re talking about Justice Inc., a two-part spin-off by Helfer and Baker that took elements of their Shadow work and combined Cold War politics, the pulp ethos and some subtle satire to make a near-perfect comic.
The story centers on the classic pulp adventurer The Avenger, aka globe-trotting adventurer Richard Henry Benson, who, through a tragic mishap, lost his wife and child but gained — allegedly through shock — snow-white hair and paralyzed facial muscles (in a rather sly film reference, Baker draws him as a Robert Mitchum lookalike). This in turn allowed him to manipulate his face like silly putty, giving him the Lon Chaney-like ability to become a master of disguise and look like virtually anyone.
In 1948 we find Benson still tortured over the loss of his wife and child, but also frustrated over his inability to “make a difference,” his detective agency being subsumed by petty adultery cases. Enter Agent Williams, a mustachioed and virulently anti-Red government agent who asks Benson and his crew to fight the good fight against the communists by impersonating a scientist suspected of trading nuclear secrets to the Russians.
Although successful in his subterfuge, the consequences of his actions initially prove to be more than Benson can bear. His compatriots, including his girlfriend, however, naively dream of making the world safe for democracy and convince Benson to go work for the government along with them, a job that in Benson’s case requires even more plastic surgery.
Now a mimic able to change his appearance via an actual punch card slot in the back of his neck (insert your own metaphor about the drone-like 1950s company man here), he sets off overturning left-leaning governments across the globe, a feat which usually involves killing whoever else is in charge.
Of course, as in most stories of this type, it isn’t too long (or at least, too many pages) before Benson discovers that the side he’s working for is just as corrupt and compromised as his long-maligned rivals. Not only that, but they may also be responsible for the death of his family and the accident that changed him. His revenge makes up the second half of the series and provides a nice counterbalance to the previous skullduggery as Benson finds himself finally making a difference in the cause of freedom, though his former friends do all they can to stop him.
To some degree Justice Inc. is tied into the afore-mentioned “hero re-evaluation” movement, when Green Arrow had to deal with the Iran Contra affair and Hawkman had to battle imperialism in order for their stories to matter.
But (and not to slag those works) Justice Inc. is a lot smarter and sly than your run-of-the-mill hero revamp. It offers a sharp, penetrating insight into the vast time period it covers and offers some thoughtful analysis on the dangers of “us-versus-them” jingoism beyond “don’t do it.” Baker’s art is framed in a rigid grid structure, but wonderfully expressive, especially in the book’s more satirical moments. His washed out color tones give the book a lush feel, harking back to a more elegant if no less morally compromised, era.
Plus, the book is really funny. It has a real sense of the absurd and tends to look askance at its characters’ motives, but it never once sacrifices their emotions or pain for the sake of a cheap laugh. Well, maybe except for that sequence where Benson, in a fit of sexual passion, finds his face being pulled on like so much taffy.
Justice Inc. blends satire, politics and pathos all in one neat little package. It was one of the great little gems of the 1980s and sorely deserves to be reprinted.