Retro Reviews: DC Comics’ Justice Inc. By Helfer & Baker!

Justice Inc. #1-2 (July – August 1989)

Written by Andrew Helfer

Art by Kyle Baker

Spoilers from twenty-seven years ago.

When I picked up the complete set of The Shadow by Helfer and (mostly) Baker (see my most recent column), I thought I may as well also grab the two-part Avenger prestige format comic, Justice Inc., that came out after the Shadow was unceremoniously canceled in the middle of a long multi-arc story.

The Avenger had appeared in The Shadow, but in that title Richard Benson was portrayed as a mostly retired and aged assassin who tried to maintain a level of moral standards in the jobs he selected.  This series does not really fit with that take on the character.

When this series opens in 1948, Benson is watching a film serial about his real-life exploits in the thirties and during the war.  He’s been running Justice Inc. for a while, and finally agreed to letting his life be portrayed on the screen, but when he is shown his own origin, with his wife and daughter murdered after he forces his way onto a private airplane for a trip to Montreal, he kind of loses his mind a little.  This is an effective way to provide us with the necessary backstory, and to introduce the notion that Benson’s face is malleable and that he is able to disguise himself as anyone he wishes, which he believes to be a consequence of the shock he felt upon awakening in a hospital bed and learning that his family was dead.

Benson ends up taking a job for the government, impersonating a Russian looking to buy nuclear secrets, but is very upset to learn that the man whose identity he stole later committed suicide.  Justice Inc.’s employees are all offered jobs with ISD, and eventually Benson agrees to go with them.  He is given an operation that makes his face and body even more malleable (a device is attached to his spine), making him the ultimate undercover agent.

Throughout the 50s, Benson takes the place of various world leaders, steering their countries towards more anti-Communist, pro-American stances, with little concern for the effect those policies have on the countries’ populace.  Benson maintains doubts about what he is doing during this whole time.

Eventually, Benson learns that there are Soviet agents with the same abilities as him, and trying to figure out how that can be, he discovers that the doctor who was with him when he awoke in the hospital after his family was killed was also the same man who put the implant in his spine.  He decides that he needs to kill this man, suspecting he had something to do with his family’s death.  He leaves the ISD to track down this doctor, and that ends the first issue.

The second issue has Benson successfully find the doctor, but then learn that the person who was really responsible for everything that happened to him is really the director of ISD, R. Thomas Grayl.  Benson learns that Grayl has a device that alerts him to Benson’s presence, and steals another device that will kill the implanted Soviet agents.  He kills the doctor.

Benson then spends the next decade returning to places where he had acted before, reversing various country’s position in the world, rejecting American business interests and working to improve the lives of average citizens.  Grayl figures out what Benson is doing, and tries sending his former Justice Inc. associates to stop him, but that doesn’t work.

Eventually, Benson, with the help of his black former friend who is resentful of how he’s been sidelined within the ISD, captures Grayl, learns all of the secrets of his past, and then kills the man, taking his place.

This is an odd little series.  We don’t really get to know Benson well enough at the beginning of things to really understand the direction his moral compass points, and so it’s a little hard in many places to care all that much about the things he cares about.  Instead, we just sit back and watch his story unfold over decades.  Likewise, I never felt like I knew who any of his associates were, and that made it hard to care about them.  Perhaps these characters were around in the pulps or Denny O’Neil’s short-lived 1975 series, but I never read any of that, and with fourteen years between issues, they should have been better developed.

I did find the cynical look at American foreign policy interesting.  This was written in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra hearings, and fits nicely with the brilliant 1988 graphic novel Brought to Light by Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz that revealed the CIA’s dirty dealings with other countries.

While I found Helfer’s story interesting but a little disjointed, I did really like Kyle Baker’s slightly abstract artwork, with one odd exception.  All characters, not just Benson, with his damaged chalk-white skin, were drawn very strangely, with their facial features and expressions looking like they were being projected on a screen.  Very faint lines were used in drawing faces where everything else on the page is done with thick lines.  Coupled with the mottled colouring that Baker used, it makes for an odd and disconcerting effect.

Anyway, this was an odd little book, but at the end of the day, I enjoyed it.  For my next set of columns, it’s time to look at another long-running Marvel title that went through a few drastic changes in its time, before being cancelled and relaunched as a different title completely, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to get through those issues – they were terrible.  Any guesses?

If you’d like to see the archives of all of my retro review columns, click here.

It doesn’t appear that these comics were ever collected, but I do see them turn up pretty regularly in comics shops, so if you’re curious, they shouldn’t be that hard to track down.

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