Secret Origins #5: The Crimson Avenger

Ryan Daly and guest host Siskoid review issue #5 of Secret Origins, which tells (for the first time) the origin of the Crimson Avenger.

Listen to Episode 5!

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Sample pages from Secret Origins #5, written by Roy and Dann Thomas with art by Gene Colan and Mike Gustovich, and cover by Colan and Dick Giordano.

#5cover #5page1 #5page10 #5page14 #5page17 #5page21

Plus, images from Crimson Avenger’s earliest appearances in Detective Comics by Jim Chambers and the 1988 miniseries drawn by Greg Brooks.

#5page22 CA#1 Detec#20.1 Detec#20.2 Detec#20.3 Detec#22

Check out Siskoid’s Blog of Geekery at: http://siskoid.blogspot.ca

“Premonition” (Theme for Secret Origins Podcast) by Neil Daly.

Additional music this episode: “Green Hornet Theme” by Al Hirt.

Leave a comment, Secret Admirers!

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19 thoughts on “Secret Origins #5: The Crimson Avenger

  1. This is one of the DC characters I didn’t encounter until I was in college. I’m not really sure what I saw first. While I was in college, I found the second part of that Seven Soldiers of Victory (after reading the name in the letters pages of either Shazam or the Freedom Fighters) story, in JLA #101. That was my first glimpse of the Crimson Avenger; but, he is not a central character in that chapter of the story. Who’s Who was my first real look at the character. So, this is all fresh to me. Then again, his origin is fresh to the issue.

    I love pulp heroes, which is part of why I tend to love the Golden Age heroes more than the Silver and Bronze Age ones, from a design standpoint. The costumes tended to be more realistic and theatrical and also more powerful, in their simplicity. So, this is right up my alley. The only problem is, it reads way too much like the Green Hornet. Obviously, the radio series probably inspired the character, so Thomas just went with it (including the mention of the Lone Ranger). Unfortunately, the story reads a little too much like a retro take on the late 30s than a contemporary story. It was an occasional problem in Invaders and a bigger one in All-Star Squadron. Thomas applied a lot of hindsight to his stories, which leads to things like the discussion of the Chinese fighting the Japanese. The interaction between Lee and Wing doesn’t sound like one you’d find in the 1930s, certainly not in a comic. It makes Lee an extremely enlightened guy. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it, just that it tends to shatter the illusion of the period.

    What can I say about Colan except the man knows how to do moody stories, which fits a pulp-style hero perfectly. Mike Gustovich is largely forgotten (and not that well known in the 80s); but, he made a great inker for Colan. I still miss his Justice Machine, which was a fun book, both in original form and the Comico revamp. I don’t really count the stuff that came after Gustovich sold the property. Digression…

    It’s 1938, we have a hero derived from radio; so, let’s have Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater. And, let’s have the media exaggeration of the actual broadcast. At least Thomas presents the idea that plenty of people knew it was just a drama.

    Siskoid brings an interesting perspective to this, though, listening to his French Canadian accent, I am picturing a cross between pro wrestlers Rick Martel and Pat Patterson, both French Canadians. Forgive me if that feels insulting, Siskoid; they are just the French Canadians I know. I will say, I would love to hear someone do a podcast (assuming there is one of which I am ignorant) for the great Franco-Belgian comics, like Asterix, Tintin, Lucky Luke, Valerian, Blake & Mortimer and so many other great ones. Thank heavens for Cinebook (and companies like Catalan and NBM, who were there earlier) for helping bring some of those works to the US, in English. I read about many in Maurice Horn’s excellent World Encyclopedia of Comics (both the original 1970s edition and the later 90s updated edition) and have been lucky to read many of the foreign entries in the ensuing years.

    The red cape and mask are a bit jarring and don’t really work as well, in the shades depicted (in the the 30s and 80s), especially since it isn’t exactly crimson. The blue suit is also a bit too bright. When you think pulp heroes, you think darker colors and shades. It kind of serves to make it look like a poor man’s Shadow, which he kind of was.

    You mention the Spanish Civil War. The Lincoln Brigade and the International Brigade were mostly made up of dreamers and were pretty ineffective fighting units, especially since they were poorly equipped and led. The fascists had support of the Nazis, who used the conflict as a testing ground and the German Condor Legion were devastating, in their air attacks (including the notorious Guernica). It is a nice background for a pulp hero, especially since most were tied to the older WWI. In fact, Howard Chaykin would borrow it for his take on Blackhawk. If you want a nice comic book take on the war, check out Vittorio Giardino’s No Pasaran! and Pierre Christin and Enki Bilal’s Ranks of the Black Order, reprinted in the late 80s by NBM (and the Bilal story was reprinted again during DC’s partnership with Humanoids, in the late 90s/2000s).

    The story here is pretty decent and sets up the character well. I would have been interested in reading more, though I missed out on the mini-series that followed, a year or two later. I haven’t read all of it; but, was Crimson Avenger included in DC’s First Wave books (before they canned it and the Street & Smith characters moved on)? if not, it just demonstrates why DC let that one slip through their fingers. As you guys said, this is a nice noirish tale, and a decent pulp riff. I would say I would like to see a Darwyn Cooke take on this, or a Chris Roberson-penned tale. Thomas never really had that noir style to his writing. He could do the Howard and Lovecraftian Weird Tales style; but not so much the Walter Gibson/Lester Dent/Norvell Page style, though he did write the Marvel Doc Savage. At least Wagner got to tackle the character in Sandman Mystery Theater.

    I would totally be onboard for a Golden Age tv mini-series, done on a Game of Thrones budget.

    Great recommendations on the pulp heroes. The Spider stories are totally gonzo. I have pdf files of the Doc Savage and Shadow stories, and have read a few. The Shadow is great for mystery and atmosphere and Doc is great for adventure; but, the Spider is wild as heck, with only Operator 5 and G-8 matching or surpassing the insanity of the stories. Also, check out the Dynamite pulp comics and the pair of Spider mini-series that Tim Truman did at Eclipse.

    Sorry for being wordy; but, this stuff brings that out in me. I love history, especially comics history, and this series feeds that love.

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  2. Man, I was really cranky on that Captain Marvel post. Too close to the material. I swear I only rant at the kids on my lawn every other month.

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  3. Don’t apologize for being wordy, Jeff, not to two guys who spent more than an hour TALKING about this ;-).

    You can compare me to French Canadian wrestler, I don’t have a problem with that. At least your mind didn’t go to Celine Dion. (That said, all those guys are Quebeckers I think, and I am NOT a Quebecker. Sorry about my Acadian nationalism there, it took me over.)

    You don’t have to sell me on the Tim Truman Spider, it’s where I first encountered the character! It’s completely bananas! Dynamite’s Spider was my favorite of their pulp line and still miss it.

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  4. Very interesting episode. I don’t have this comic in my collection, but I did read a friend’s copy when it was released. I’d really like to get another copy of it. You guys sold me on it.

    “The Crimson” is pretty much a straight-up rip-off of the Green Hornet. As a character who originated on radio, DC (or National) probably thought it was safe to plunder that particular property. I think the closing music was very appropriate, as well as the intro by Orson Welles. Nice choices, Ryan.

    One reason why this and the follow-up mini-series haven’t been reprinted is a rather grisly one. Shortly after finishing this series, artist Greg Brooks was convicted of murdering his wife with a hammer. Roy Thomas discusses this a bit in Alter-Ego #100. I believe Brooks worked on a Wildcat story for Secret Origins that was never published. Some folks at DC had a sick sense of humor concerning this incident. According to Thomas in that issue of Alter-Ego, a DC editor hung a hammer on the wall and put a sign on it that read “Greg Brooks Memorial Hammer.” And then there’s the “Cap’s Hobby Hints” strip in the Christmas with the Super Heroes special from 1989. This half-page strip originally ran in DC comics of the 60s, giving kids tips on how to build the then-popular model kits DC advertised elsewhere. In this 80s strip, a kid smashes his thumb with a hammer, and his friend tells him how to do it safely. The person credited with sending in the suggestion for the strip was named…Lee Travis. I kid you not.

    Anyway, great episode! And I hope to find that issue of SO in a back-issue bin soon.

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      1. Yeah, it’s awful. I know there are some “seedy” behind-the-scenes comic stories, but this one is probably the worst. Thomas didn’t go into a lot of detail in AE #100, because he was obviously disturbed by the whole affair. And who can blame him.

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    1. Holy shit, Chris! I picked up the first issue of the miniseries from a fifty-cent bin in order to find out what the hell Siskoid was talking about when he mentioned Hitler Parties. I had no idea Brooks killed his wife with a hammer!

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    2. I’ve worked in newspapers for nearly a decade now, and newsrooms often have a bit of a twisted sense of humor. It’s a coping mechanism for people who deal with tragedy and the darkest parts of humans on a near-daily basis. I’ve heard — and, let’s face it, probably made — jokes I could never, ever repeat outside of the newsroom … and even I’m put-off my the “memorial hammer” gag. Yikes.

      Still, I’m interested in checking out the mini-series. I liked this issue quite a bit, and the mini-series’ covers really are great-looking! It’d be interesting to check out some of those original stories in DETECTIVE as well and see how those hold up seven decades later.

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  5. There are a couple of things about this issue that stuck out for me and worth mentioning here.

    First off, this was my first experience with the cloaked and masked Crimson Avenger, not the red-tights wearing Seven Soldiers guy. And I ate this up with a spoon. Maybe it was because I was just starting to discover The Shadow at this time. Or maybe because I loved the inclusion of Orson Welles. Or maybe it is because of the pulpiness of it all. But I loved this story. And, like the best of the Secret Origins book, it made me want to read more. I know I bought the mini-series that came after this. Unfortunately, somewhere in my adult moves and culling my collection, I gave that mini away.

    But the biggest thing about this issue was that this was the first time I read a book and truly loved Gene Colan’s art. I had read Night Force. I had read the Phantom Zone mini. I had even read a smattering of his Wonder Woman. But as a kid, I thought his art was rough and too sketchy. But as I was a teenager when this came out, my tastes were starting to mature a bit. It was around this time that I began to recognize the genius of some legends whose art didn’t work for me before (like Ditko and Kubert). And Colan was one of them. I read this book and his moody art, the ethereal feel at times, the use of shadows .. it all worked. I went back to the other books and saw how well suited he was for the chaotic Night Force and the surreal Phantom Zone. And that’s when I saw Colan’s art for the brilliance it is.

    Thanks for the review!

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    1. I first saw Colan on Daredevil. That was some great swashbuckling action. He got moodier as he progressed into the 70s. It took me a while to appreciate that, too. Kind of the same for Kirby. At first I hated his 70s stuff, but liked more of the 60s. Then, as I grew older, I came to understand what he was doing and just accept the sheer majesty of his work. It also helped that I read more of his better work from the 70s.

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  6. Great listen – always had a soft spot for the noir-ish Crimson Avenger that I first met in Secret Origins #7, the Sandman issue, and 1st reading this issue several years ago helped convert me the The Legion of Colan-Lovers.

    By the by, it was the final issue of Aztek the Ultimate Man, written by Millar & Morrison that introduced that JLA initiation ceremony using the Crimson’s accoutrements.

    Really looking forward to upcoming episodes, especially that #7!

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  7. Great episode fellas! Another winner!

    I love the Crimson Avenger, my first exposure was to the Roy & Dann Thomas penned 4-issue mini-series! Man was that an action-packed, suspenseful pulp noir romp! Imagine my disappointment when I couldn’t find him in anything else post-Crisis outside of a few appearances in All-Star Squadron and Young All-Stars.

    With regards to the Daily Planet, its first appearance as Ryan stated was in Action Comics #23, which also marked the first chronological appearance of Lex Luthor, went on sale in February 1940. The change from Daily Star to Daily Planet was made because of the Syndicated Superman Newspaper Comic Strip. The Superman daily debuted on January 16th 1939, and like the appearances thus far in Action Comics, featured Clark Kent’s place of employment as the Daily Star. The Daily Star’s first actual appearance in the strip would have been in the 13th Daily Strip, which I believe dropped on January 30th 1939 (if my past research on the subject is correct). Superman co-creator and artist Joe Shuster grew up in Toronto until he moved with his family to Cleveland as a teenager, where he would meet Jerry Siegel. Growing up in Toronto, and needing a great metropolitan newspaper for Clark Kent to work at, he drew on the Toronto Star name and building design as his inspiration. Now naturally as the Superman Newspaper strip (and the character for that matter) began to grow in popularity, and get more circulation, it probably wasn’t a good idea to have your hero working at a Newspaper that was clearly inspired by the Toronto Star. Rival newspapers that carried the strip probably didn’t see the humor in that, so the name and design were changed, resulting the creation of the Daily Planet, which would then debut just 13 months after the Superman newspaper strip had been in syndication. The Daily Star would return as the place of employment for the Earth-2 Superman Pre-Crisis, and as a “tabloid rag” and rival newspaper of the Daily Planet in the Post-Crisis continuity (and the Lois & Clark TV show).

    I love this issue, I love the character, I love the pulpy action, and Colan’s art is absolutely fantastic.

    I hope someday again we’ll get to see new Crimson Avenger stories set in the 30’s and 40’s. I’d love to see Francesco Francavilla tackle the character, he had a great creator-owned pulp noir character Black Beetle, that was just awesome. I’d love to see what he could do with the Crimson Avenger in a Vertigo mini-series.

    Yeah that whole ordeal with artist Greg Brooks…yikes! That forum that Chris provided a link to had a comment referencing that Waid had a Brooks character he used that went unnoticed. Anybody know what character that would have been?

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  8. WOW! Green Hornet got ripped off a lot! Blue Beetle, Crimson Avenger…who else?

    Listening to this, and re-reading the issue makes me want to dig into more of these old stories! I love the old pulp heroes, especially when they’re done right. The Shadow, the Spider, the Phantom. How can I not have connected guys like Crimson Avenger to them before? Speaking of connections…am I the only one that thought about this?

    “War of the Worlds” –> Orson Wells –> The Shadow –> Crimson Avenger

    It’s almost as if Roy Thomas was jumping up and down waving his hands saying “Look, look! See? They’re cut from the same mold!”

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    1. No; I kind of figured Thomas included Wells because of the Shadow, until I read Roy’s endnotes, on the letters page. The Shadow was probably ripped off more than the Green Hornet; but, this was so spot on. This is a nice companion to James Robinson’s Vigilante mini-series. It would be kind of neat to see a pulpy take on the entire Seven Soldiers of Victory.

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  9. Like most of the people on the planet commonly known as “Earth,” I have very little interest in the very typical for his times Crimson Avenger. I do like that he was referred to as “Crimson,” so that the “Avenger” is a descriptive name for the strip instead of the character. I also dug his role in the JLA ceremony from Aztek #10.

    I like Gene Colan, and he seemed a pleasant fellow who perhaps liked his cat too much at a panel I saw him on fifteen years ago. I definitely grew up with him and enjoy his work on moodier pieces like Tomb of Dracula and Nathaniel Dusk, but I never fell for him the way I did other Silver Age greats like Gil Kane, probably because he was usually inappropriate or undesirable on super-hero material. Mike Gustovich was a decent Adamesque penciler though a bit mild mannered for action stories, but he’s prettied up other artist’s pencils as an embellisher. I have a stack of his Comico Justice Machine issues I bought at a con for about a quarter each that I ought to read sometime, though I liked the ones I fished out of deep discount boxes in the early ’90s. Their work on the cover though… No. All kinds of funky proportions while still being dull. Another issue I passed on.

    I’ve heard the Greg Brooks murder story before, but I always forget about it because he wasn’t an artist of note, so I rarely have cause to recall anything about him. Don’t think I knew about the hammer. Gristly.

    My passing interest in Tim Truman’s Spider mini-series (only bought the first issue because I briefly had access to a comic shop) spurred me to pick up one of the novels a few years later and try to draw the character a couple of times. Never finished it, but what I read was as stated– gonzo fun.

    I initially read Anj’s comment as “somewhere in my adult movies and culling my collection,” and struggled with the context of that overshare before catching my mistake.

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  10. This issue may have been the first Secret Origins I bought. I remember reading about the Crimson Avenger and the War of the Worlds connection. I know for sure it was the first (and last) time I ever read anything about the character. I’m loving this podcast and am slowly catching up!

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