The Crimson Avenger
(1988 - four issues, published by DC Comics)
Writers: Roy and Dann Thomas. Pencils: Greg Brooks. Inks: Greg
Brooks, Mike Gustovich.
Writers: Roy and Dann Thomas. Pencils: Greg Brooks. Inks: Greg Brooks, Mike Gustovich.
I've slightly embellished upon this review since first posting it.
DC Comics' earliest masked crime fighter, the Crimson Avenger (or "The Crimson" as he was initially known within the stories), started out as a shameless rip off of The Green Hornet (being newspaper publisher Lee Travis whose crime fighting alter ego is hunted by the police as a criminal, and with an Asian sidekick -- Wing) with a touch of The Shadow (big hat and cloak). When super heroes became big, a lot of the "trenchcoat avengers" followed suit and The Crimson Avenger and Wing switched over to matching red and yellow superhero tights.
The Crimson Avenger was never very big. Even in his heyday, he was more a supporting strip, or a member of the also-ran team, The Seven Soldiers of Victory (though he was given an emotionally powerful swan song in the back up story "Whatever Happened to the Crimson Avenger?" in DC Comics Presents #38).
Anyway, some fifty years after his first appearance, he finally got a self-titled mini-series. Sub-titled inside as "The Dark Cross Conspiracy", it's set in 1938 in the very earliest days of his career (still with the hat and cloak), and embroils the Crimson Avenger in all sorts of murky, pre-war goings on involving Nazi spies, Russian expatriates, Chinese nationalists and more, taking him from New York to San Francisco and back. The husband-wife team of Roy and Dann Thomas had previously dusted off the Crimson in a then-recent issue of Secret Origins #5, with the great Gene Colan as penciller, and this mini-series follows on its heels, even making a few references to it (though not so you need to have read it -- though equally, it's quite good and makes a nice companion piece, comprising the entirety of The Crimson Avenger's self-titled comics).
The story here, as noted, is murky and convoluted -- and I mean that in a good way. Less a simple super hero-fights-super villain, it owes more to the oblique, Byzantine plotting of Raymond Chandler...though with a death ray or two thrown in. The Crimson follows various seeming unrelated clues, becomes romantically involved with an enigmatic femme fatale, uncovers a conspiracy, and more, with everything -- more or less -- tying together. I say more or less because there were a few aspects where the Thomases seemed to be stretching to work something in, or where certain plot points remained a bit vague (there's at least one point where what the characters say in the comic, and what is recapped in the "previously" page, doesn't quite gel). The story is a mystery, mainly about what's going on and why, but eventually it becomes a "whodunit?" But that part is a bit disappointing as we aren't really offered a variety of suspects to consider.
Yet it's held together by a genuine sense of characterization and motivation, so that it's not just about the action, but the personalities, too.
Overall, it's an enjoyable, fairly absorbing read, fun precisely because the emphasis is on the plot-mystery, and the twists and turns, rather than just a lot of fight scenes. "Rascally" Roy Thomas has long been one of comicdoms premiere nostalgists, writing a variety of historical-set comics over the years, and the fun of this series is how thoroughly it's rooted in its time and place, as they work in as much period (and political) detail as possible. At one point, characters talk about going to a tongue-in-cheek "Hitler party" where everyone dresses like Hitler and speaks in mock German (something which, needless to say, offends the Crimson's anti-fascist sensibilities). I'd never heard of such a thing, I don't know if there were such affairs, and in any other story by any other writer I'd doubt it...but when it's Roy Thomas, I'm guessing he did his homework. I was initially going to quibble and say that, despite setting the story against the backdrop of a coming world war, the Thomases go the safe root and have the villains turn out to be apolitical...but I realize, actually, the nature of the villains is political and, probably in some circles, will make the story controversial.
The art is by then-newcomer Greg Brooks whose style reminded me a little of Klaus Janson -- interesting, stylish composition, with clever uses of close ups on faces and hands and the like, but a little crude and unsure when it comes to longer shots and people's bodies and action scenes. But just as Janson has a following for his pencils, there is an appeal to Brooks' style. It's moody and energetic, and suits the brooding, pulp detective story milieu, aided by the sombre, unobtrusive colours. (And it might even be deliberately trying to evoke the cruder, simpler art of the Golden Age of comics with more modern sophisticated composition and mood).
Because the plot is complicated, each issue features a full page recap of what's gone before...which means, even if you can't collect the whole mini-series, it might still be worth a read. The comic also flirts with "mature readers" subject matter (the Crimson actually - gasp! - sleeps with a woman!) though it received Comics Code Approval, so maybe it's not a big deal.
Recently re-reading this, I remain impressed with it, with the Thomases ability to mix the fast-paced, gee whiz adventure of old pulp stories (and the kind of period comics Thomas used to churn out for The Invaders and The All-Star Squadron) with the slightly sophisticated, introspective feel of a novel -- or a "graphic" novel, if you will. And, as mentioned, including Secret Origins #5 into the mix wouldn't be amiss.
Anyway, for those who want more plot twists and mood than is usually offered with your average super hero case, The Crimson Avenger is worth investigating.