Some pulp characters have stood the test of time like The Shadow, Doc Savage and The Phantom… while others have lived in more obscurity, cherished by the true fans of the genre but ignored by the general public. The Avenger is one such hero, but now Dynamite has brought the character back in his own series, Justice Inc. Roger Ash of Westfield Comics chatted with series writer Michael Uslan about the new series.
MICHAEL USLAN: Some years back, I was working on a way to bring The Street & Smith Pulp/Comics Super-Hero Trinity of Doc Savage, The Shadow and The Avenger to the silver screen. Marvel and DC movies were all about first introducing single heroes then eventually teaming them up in a group. Thinking out of the box and based on my decades of Batman experiences, I decided to try the reverse tactic and start the three of them in one tenuous team-up film, then split them up into individual movies. I wrote a treatment and used "JUSTICE INC." as the title. I always liked that title and knew that before there was a Justice League. Before there was a Justice Society, there was a Justice, Inc. Ultimately, we could not travel that path in cinema and separated out the characters into a Doc Savage movie project and a Shadow movie project, while eventually and briefly, The Avenger wended its way toward TV.
Nick Barrucci and I had been talking for a long time about one day finding some great and historic comic book project we could work on together. He reached out to me first with an invitation to write the first team-up of two radio sensations, The Shadow and The Green Hornet. The result became my graphic novel with Keith Burns called, "The Shadow/Green Hornet: Dark Nights." That was a great experience for me. I'm a history buff and I love writing stories involving fictional characters mixed in with people who really lived intertwined in real events of history. I initially did this in my hardback Batman graphic novel, "Batman: Detective #27." Inspired by such novels as The Alienist, Ragtime, and Carter Beats the Devil, I spent upwards of six months doing historical research before I ever picked up a pen or sat down at a computer to write the comics. It was a labor of love. In addition, I knew Walter Gibson, the creative force behind The Shadow, and felt a personal obligation to be true to his pulp Shadow, even when the marketplace demands a hybrid-like tip of the hat to the enormously popular dramatic radio version. Following "Dark Nights," Nick asked me what content or characters would lure me back to write another graphic novel/comic book mini-series. I revealed I had a few dream team-ups I'd love to do someday involving The Shadow. One of these was to do what Street & Smith had failed to do in seventy-five years, and team-up The Shadow, Doc Savage and The Avenger. Back around forty years ago, I began my comic book writing career with DC's classic series of The Shadow. Through that, under the direction of my editor and mentor, Denny O'Neil, I was given the opportunity to write what would become the only team-up of The Shadow and The Avenger… until now. That tale, "Night of The Avenger," was very well received by readers and reviewers and is remembered fondly by fans. Thus, Nick thought it would be apropos if I was the one to write the first team-up of the three heroes. I couldn't say no. And he knows there are three or four more ways he can get me to say yes again. But we'll leave those to another day.
MU: In the story I had conceived and written, going back to the old movie treatment, I wanted to enhance the actual origin story of The Avenger, since a certain Jody Foster movie stole The Avenger's origin scene on a plane and I didn't want new readers thinking The Avenger stole it from her. And so, the story I expanded dealt with an outlandish science fiction premise of an airliner that vanishes in mid-flight and no one is able to figure out what happened to it or where it disappeared to (except, of course, Doc Savage). How utterly bizarre then, when at about the time of the announcement of the publication of "JUSTICE, INC." that the Malaysian airliner would vanish in-flight without a trace. Indeed, truth is stranger than fiction.
So how do you create a team-up of three heroes who have almost no business being teamed-up? At best, this can only be a loose confederation of three men with opposing ideologies and methodologies being forced to work together by extenuating circumstances. I had to search organically for the most logical strings that could tie both The Shadow and Doc Savage to The Avenger. I found them.
In addition to the main characters of The Shadow, Doc Savage, and The Avengers, will any of their classic supporting characters appear as well?
Well, here we go with minor spoiler alerts… There is NO way I can write the first ever team-up of three major heroes (one of which demands I include a detailed origin story), and feature enough super-villains that would justify this coming together, and still have enough "screen time" left to devote to agents and co-workers of each of the three protagonists. It would steal too much essential time and spotlight from the Trinity of heroes. So, while Monk is there, as is Margo and the real Lamont Cranston who serve The Shadow, the rest of the supporting cast is on leave.
MU: It's a roller coaster ride! But note that I LOVE roller coasters! I started writing issue #1 and suddenly I stopped and cried out, "What am I doing?! I'm writing a Doc Savage graphic novel here!" Six pages later, I'm screaming, "Oh no! This whole thing is a Richard Henry Benson story!" By the time I was writing the second issue, I'm thinking, "The fans are gonna accuse me of favoring The Shadow!" The key thing here is this… I'm writing this as a three act movie screenplay in terms of structure. I'm not writing it as a six part comic book. Oh sure, it will break down suspensefully at the end of each of these issues, but regarding the larger picture, I'm not sacrificing the proper slow build-up of plot and character arcs carried over the three Acts just so I can "blow stuff up" and have an early action sequence so as not to lose readers with short attention spans. There will be plenty of action, but it's a build-up. Same goes for the villains. They are mysterious and lurking in the shadows and the reveal of them physically and their plot(s) will unfold piece by piece over the first few issues. There will be much (I hope) to intrigue, mystify, and puzzle the readers initially. I don't want them getting too far ahead of our heroes, Clark, Kent and Richard.
MU: This man is a writer's artist! He doesn't just draw a script. He delves into it, ruminates over it, ponders it, then begins doing two critically important things BEFORE he draws. First, he does his research. This story takes place partly in 2015 and partly in 1939. Giovanni wants to make sure the aircraft are exactly accurate, that fashions and skylines are historically correct, and that figures from real history are properly drawn. Next, he bombards me with question after question and I am in comic book heaven! He wants to understand the full history of each character, the continuity, the accuracy of each page and panel. He has called a couple of potential discrepancies to my attention so we can discuss them and make sure there are no plot holes or inconsistencies. And then… he draws. I just saw the color proof of issue #1 and it's one of the most CINEMATIC approaches to graphic story-telling I have seen. It's exciting and it's bold. I'm thrilled!
MU: Have you seen the COVERS of issue #1?! Holy Moley! These are some of the most blow-away pieces of art I've seen on the debut of a comic book series. I think they should all be made into posters.
This marks my return to The Avenger and The Shadow after forty years! I couldn't be happier and I hope the fans appreciate and enjoy my passion for these characters.
One thing I can promise (to the joy or consternation of different fans) is that each issue will NOT be a four minute entertainment experience with an average of 18 words per page. I am a believer that the reason they called them "comic books" is because they uniquely combine half "comic" and half "book," so it remains an obligation of the writer and not just the artist to tell the story in words as well as graphics. You know, back at DC in 1975 when I was writing "The Shadow," the editorial rule I was given was no more than 35 words in a word balloon. Today, changing with the times, I do try to keep not each word balloon but rather my entire panels limited to no more than 20-25 words… enough to tell the story, allow the artist to unfold it creatively, and provide a longer reading experience for the readers shelling out the bucks for the experience. As usual, each issue includes a page of FOOTNOTES pointing out the real people and events in history, and what the fans like to call "Easter eggs" I tend to scatter about my stories for those hard-core fans who will smile when they find them.
I do love every minute of this!
For a special deal on Justice, Inc #1… click here.