Lost Civilizations and Found Adventures:
The Avenging of Nellie Gray
The Yellow Hoard, by Kenneth Robeson (1939; Bantam reprint 1972). PB
“In the roaring heart of the crucible, steel is made. In the raging flame of personal tragedy, men are sometimes forged into something more than human.”
This opening of the famous blurb on the Avenger book covers perfectly captures the essence of this series. The entire series, more than with any other pulp hero, revolves around the pain and suffering of victims of crime, the psychological damage wrought, and the desire to overcome grief and find purpose in fighting back and righting wrongs. The Avenger truly lived up to his name.
The Avenger– “the greatest crimefighter of the Forties”– is a character who was modeled on the success of the scientific adventurer Doc Savage, yet blended with the tough street level vengeance of the Spider and the Shadow. Richard Henry Benson was a multi-millionaire, a rather self-absorbed magnate, who was devastated by the loss of his family to a crime syndicate (see the later Executioner and Punisher characters for similar examples). The shock of the crime put him in a coma and when he awoke he found he had become horribly transformed. He had a paralyzed face, immobilized by shock, and his ink-black hair had turned stark white over night. After this trauma, his gimmick was the fact that he could mold his face in different ways and it would hold, like modeling clay, thus allowing him to be the master of a thousand faces. With his now deadened face and chilling, grey eyes that were as bleak as an arctic wasteland, he not only offered a frightening visage, but, dressed in all grey (like a death shroud), he was called “the man of steel” (before Superman made it more famous, and as an echo of Doc Savage’s famous Man of Bronze nickname), and he became a ghost of vengeance.
In this way the Avenger was a far grimmer character than the almost godlike perfection of the super-scientist Doc Savage. Kind of a Batman-to-Superman comparison in tone. Or, one could say, a more realistic tone to the books. Because in its way, The Avenger series was very groundbreaking and the most realistic of any of the pulps. Ignore for a moment the gadgets, the mastery of every known field, and almost super strength. Look at the sociology and we see a reflection of reality unlike almost any other popular series at its time.
The crimes the Avenger solved were often smaller scale than those of Doc Savage, more like local crime stories to Doc’s global adventurers. They usually focused on a corrupt businessman or political scheme that would shatter lives and destroy an entire community. Now they were still fantastic, but in a way more focused, more personal. They seemed more plausible or real. The Avenger was a distinctive engine of destruction aimed at crime, but looking out for the small guy.
The Avenger couldn’t do it all alone, so, like Doc Savage, he eventually gathered five aides. Unlike the Savage series, he gathered his aides organically from his missions, not just from preexisting friends and partners from past adventures. His organization Justice, Inc., grew over time. He didn’t even immediately start with an awesome headquarters, like Doc Savage already has at the top of the tallest skyscraper in the world and where we are all standing with his already gathered aides when we meet him for the first time. No, Justice, Inc. grew over time. In the first book, the Avenger gained two friends, Fergus MacMurdie and the literal giant Algernon Heathcote Smith (for your own health, you better call him Smitty) and founded his organization, hence the title of the book, Justice, Inc. Mac and Smitty, like all of his aides, were victims of tragedy and had suffered from crimes as well. These people truly knew the hardships wrought by the criminals they fought against. The second book, The Yellow Hoard, added Nellie Gray. In time the couple Josh and Rosabel Newton joined the team and finally broke the mold for pulps everywhere. There was also a much later aide, Cole WIlson, added perhaps as a foil or to lighten the grimness of the earlier books, who came to dominate the series when it was continued by Ron Goulart in the 1970s, which I am ignoring here.
The interesting thing about these characters is their diversity. Not that they were all experts of various disciplines, I mean that they were truly diverse: younger and older, male and female, Caucasian and African American, single and married, rich and poor. This was a real cross-section of American society. The fact that there was such a diverse team in the 1940s is astounding. Even in the most popular pulp series of all time, Doc Savage, though they traversed the globe and explored amazing cultures in every book, the team itself suffered from the typical all rich white men syndrome.
The racial diversity of The Avenger series is quite unique. It was intended to be. This is the first series to have main characters who were African American, and it was as groundbreaking as Lieutenant Uhuru on the bridge of the Enterprise in Star Trek. In fact, the writers (Paul Ernst wrote the original series, with the creative help of Lester Dent, who is the author of Doc Savage, both under the house name of Kenneth Robeson) attempted to put in dual racial couples. Among the aids of the Avenger, there were two couples. Josh and Rosalind were married. Nellie and Smitty were just…very in love with each other; Smitty was smitten. Josh and Rosalind were actually the second attempt, which is why they were added after the other aides. The Newtons were exemplars of virtue. They were the American Dream come to fruition: a brilliant, loving couple that met and graduated from Tuskegee Institute, got married, and went on to devote themselves to righting wrongs and fighting for justice for all. It is hard to top that and simply amazing for its era.
However, the first attempt at an interracial couple was Nellie and Smitty, who were supposed to be a gigantic black colossus and his precious little love. Smitty was deemed too stereotypical as the “sleepy black giant” who would be the muscle of the operation and turned into a white man. Nellie Gray was originally supposed to be a black woman. Her name still retains her origin from a popular slave song written in 1856 by the composer Benjamin Hanby:
Oh! My poor Nelly Gray, they have taken you away,
And I’ll never see my darling any more;
One night I went to see her, but, “She’s gone!” the neighbors say.
The white man bound her with his chain;
The writers of the Avenger were shrewd enough to reverse the tragedy of the slave girl’s kidnapping. This Nellie Gray is a dynamic, fully empowered modern woman, who has great acumen, her own wealth, and her own physical prowess. Even though Nellie is often the victim of kidnapping attempts, she is a powerhouse who can take care of herself. The very first time the Avenger is with her, he is surprised to see her overwhelm two large attackers with her mastery of jujitsu:
The three men were on them then.
It was smoothly done. There were people all around. The plan had been for one man to knife Benson efficiently and unobtrusively in the back and for the other two to get the girl to a waiting car before the people around them knew what happened. But that nice plan went overboard.
With machine-like precision, the two men got Nellie by each arm just as the knife in the hand of the third flashed toward Benson’s back….He saw a curious thing when he faced the girl.
One of the two men who had grabbed her arms was on the sidewalk, staring at her with pop eyes. The other man executed a back flip over her extended leg as Benson took a step toward her, and crashed beside the first on the sidewalk. Nellie Gray didn’t need help.
This is the reenvisioned, fully empowered Nellie Gray. She is no longer the victim of kidnapping or the slave of her times. She has taken control and is the master of her own destiny.
I do not know whether it was editorial decree or writerly angst, but for whatever reason the interracial coupling of Smitty and Nellie was deemed too much for the time, so Nellie also became a Caucasian character. However, it is still profound that she is one of the first female partners in super heroic crimefighting, rather than just being the typical bystander or victim. She was something more than an aide. She was independently wealthy and became a co-financier of Justice, Inc., and their missions. In fact, the inherited ancient Aztec golden hoard alluded to in the adventure that introduces her is tantamount to the hidden Valley of the Vanished Maya tribe that supplied Doc Savage with unlimited gold. She is the source of limitless wealth.
Nellie Gray is young, female, an heiress, and a full-fledged partner of Justice, Inc. She is one of the most dynamic characters in pulpdom. She is a multifaceted member of a very diverse team. In her way, even though no longer black, this version of the character has avenged the former victimhood of the original slave Nelly Gray and made her the powerful master of her own tale. This Nellie Gray shows the future of self-motivated, entrepreneurial women who can save themselves from the frail, screaming, nubile, victimhood of pulp femme stereotype. They do not need a hero. They are the heroes.