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Secret Origins #5, The Crimson Avenger (DC, 1986)


Secret Origins #5, The Crimson Avenger (1986). Click for larger image.

Of all the comic book flirtations with the 1938 broadcast, the Crimson Avenger is by far the best, a hugely enjoyable paean to the 1930's. Rather aptly the Crimson Avenger was created in the October 1938 issue of Detective Comics and joins the ranks of other great masked crime fighting figures of the time such as The Shadow and The Green Hornet, all of whom were highly derivative of each other, though the Crimson Avenger is a particularly close match to the Green Hornet. Both of them were newspaper men with a secret identity, both had an Asian valet and their weapon of choice was a none lethal gas gun, but numerous rather suspicious similarities aside, the Crimson Avenger does have the unique distinction of being the first masked super-hero from DC Comics, predating even Batman.

The Crimson Avenger was essentially a forgotten character by the early 1950's, but in 1986 he was briefly resurrected for a single issue of the comic book Secret Origins, which undertook in its 50 issue run to retell or reinvent the histories of various DC super-heroes. In issue 5 it was the turn of The Crimson Avenger, and given the auspicious date of the characters first appearance, it would have been criminal not to include in some way a reference to The War of the Worlds. But in fact as scripted by comic book legend Roy Thomas, the story goes far beyond a mere reference, weaving the broadcast into the very fabric of the story with a great deal of panache and confidence.

It is the eve of the broadcast and 25 year old publisher of the Globe Leader newspaper Lee Travis is in ebullient mood. His newspaper is about to scoop The New York Times with the news that Japan is to withdraw from agencies of the League of Nations in protest at "slanderous accusations" from China. His good mood is not however shared by his Chinese driver, who is rather more concerned at the casualties inflicted on his homeland by the Japanese. Thomas works these authentic details into the story with considerable dexterity, building in a few frames of dialogue (with able assistance from artist Gene Colan) a vivid sense of a world teetering on the brink of disaster.

Stopping off at his office, Travis takes time out for an interview with a beautiful magazine reporter named Claudia Barker, in which we learn that Travis had fought in the Spanish civil war against the Fascists, and upon returning home injured had inherited the family newspaper business. The encounter with Ms Barker is bruising but invigorating, and Travis is looking forward to the opportunity to meet her again at a charity masquerade ball they are both attending that evening in aid of Chinese victims of the war. Travis' secretary has arranged a costume for him which turns out to be a flamboyantly attired "Highway Robber" and borrowing his driver's gun to complete the illusion he sets out for the party, but Travis is in rueful mood, wondering if as Claudia had insinuated in the interview, he has betrayed his ideals by taking over the running of the Globe Leader.

Interior page from The Crimson Avenger #5.

Arriving at the party in a now foul mood, he is saved from making a cutting remark to the snobbish hostess by a screaming woman who shrieks that the Martians have landed. The party goers gather round the radio to hear the news, the dialogue for which is a word for word transcript from the Howard Koch script, but Travis is skeptical and his instincts are confirmed when Claudia arrives to announce that they are listening to a drama by Orson Welles. That should be the end of matters, but suddenly the party is interrupted by the arrival of a quartette of Tommy gun toting Martians with the somewhat odd demand that the guests hand over their valuables. As Travis quickly realizes, these are no Martians, but rather an astute gang of criminals out to take advantage of the broadcast.

Claudia makes the same deduction, but on confronting the leader of the "Martian" gang she is fatally wounded. The costumed hoodlums flee the scene of the crime with Travis and his driver in hot pursuit and there follows a superbly crafted car chase, liberally interspaced with more original dialogue from the broadcast and scenes of the panic gripping New York. Finally Travis and his driver corner and subdue all but the gang leader, who is moments away from gunning down Travis when he himself is suddenly blasted by a shotgun. In a final twist, Travis' unexpected savior is revealed as none other than Bill Dock, the elderly farmer who famously posed for the press with his shotgun at Grover's Mill the day after the broadcast. Driving off into the night still attired in his masquerade costume, Travis realizes that fate may have shown him a way to continue his fight for justice.

Writer Roy Thomas clearly has a great affection for the time and place of the story and succeeds in packing into less than 2 dozen pages an impressive amount of fine detail, combining an effective origin story for the Crimson Avenger with a convincing snapshot of the tense world situation in 1938. The plotline featuring the fake Martian invaders could easily have derailed the carefully constructed reality of the story, but to Thomas' credit it is not at all out of place, and the authentic dialogue from the Howard Koch script (including Welles' famous closing remarks) and the final denouement at Grover's Mill brings the story to an extremely satisfying conclusion.

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