The Avenger -- The Mystery of the Giant Brain

Saturday, 14 November 2009 22:01 Dave Truesdale

The Avenger radio program was a spinoff of magazine publisher Street & Smith's The Avenger magazine (Street & Smith being the original publisher of Astounding Science Fiction, and for many decades the largest magazine publisher in the world), which ran from 1939-1942 and whose adventures were written by Paul Ernst. Hitting the airwaves in the last throes of World War II, The Avenger was brought to radio, perhaps in hopes that if popular enough the magazine might resume publication, though this was not to be the case. The Avenger on radio was short-lived, lasting only twenty-six episodes from June 8, through November 30, 1945. The shows were written by Walter Gibson (1897-1985, pictured at right--who wrote The Shadow magazine novels under the house name of Maxwell Grant) and starred James Monks as Jim (The Avenger) Brandon. Truth be told, The Avenger was a cross between Doc Savage and The Shadow, with the emphasis placed on The Shadow. The Shadow and The Avenger were both rooted in the crime/detective/sleuth milieu.

The Shadow's primary advantage (aside from his detective abilities and his close circle of confidants and helpers) was his ability "to cloud men's minds" so that they could not see him, and his phantom voice which, in many cases, frightened criminals into their fatal mistakes, or deaths. Doc Savage, on the other hand, was self-schooled in many scientific and physical disciplines, and had no "powers" of any kind. Jim Brandon, as The Avenger, combined both. He was a biochemist who, through years of scientific experimentation, perfected two inventions to help him fight crime: a telepathic indicator, which allowed him to pick up random thought flashes, and a secret diffusion capsule which cloaked him in the "black light of invisibility." Thus, the scientific aspect of his persona reflected Doc Savage, where his "black light of invisibility" was a more-than-obvious nod to The Shadow. While The Shadow on radio (as opposed to his original magazine persona) had Margot Lane as a companion, partner, and love interest, so did The Avenger have his "beautiful assistant Fern Collier."

Doc Savage and The Shadow magazines were immensely popular in their magazine formats, as was The Shadow subsequently on radio, which ran from 1937 through 1954. The Avenger-on-radio's first episode was in June of 1945--eight years into The Shadow radio program, and nine years before its demise in 1954--smack dab in the middle of one of the most popular genre radio shows in history, with said magazine's history going all the way back to 1931. Gibson's (or Street & Smith's) attempt to create an alternate character combining the best aspects of both Doc and The Shadow--while a terrific idea on paper--didn't work quite as hoped. While many of The Avenger episodes followed the formula of The Shadow episodes with minor variations (noting that Fern Collier was a terrific companion to Jim Brandon, and also knew his secret identity as did Margot Lane in the radio version of The Shadow), somehow the show never quite caught on as planned.

(Of interest to science-fiction fans is that Ron Goulart {writing under the name of Kenneth Robeson--Robeson being the house name for the Doc Savage novels} wrote twelve Avenger novels in the 1970s.)

That said, and with many of The Avenger's storylines and plots (traditional crime-related villainy centering on murder, fraud, theft, crime-rings, rogues, and even eccentric, exotic villains, etc.) virtually interchangeable with those of The Shadow (remember that they were written by the very same Walter Gibson, while he was still writing for The Shadow magazine--two pounded-out, first-draft novels per month!), perhaps it was the lack of the expected and familiar eeriness longtime readers and listeners had come to enjoy and expect from The Shadow radio programs, against the more straightforward, no-nonsense delivery and general tone of The Avenger episodes, that led listeners to somehow feel that Avenger stories failed to distinguish themselves enough from The Shadow for its eventual continuation. In other words, while well enough done and perfectly acceptable for the most part, why listen to Shadow-lite when the original was available?

With all of the above on your mental bulletin board for ready reference, the episode presented below is definitely not one of The Avenger's customary (and eminently listenable-to) tales. In fact, while a wild and unexpected departure into the SF ballpark, it is so over-the-top, hokey, over-written, and campy-cliche, that it deserves your immediate and undivided attention. This one is, in parts, so bad it's beyond funny. It easily qualifies as the radio equivalent of a Drive-In B Movie Classic. Inasmuch as there are fan clubs, both book and movie, for truly bad books and movies, this The Avenger episode from June 15, 1945 (the 2nd of its 26 episode run) should garner some sort of cult--Bad Single Radio Episode of the Year--award (think Plan Nine from Outer Space). Dig it: we've got the traditional mad scientist, in this case assembling metal robots powered by electro-magnetic batteries in his home, but who will soon (if his plans are successful), see his creations powered and directed by organic brain material. But here's where it gets interesting. He's robbed zoos...and silver fox farms...for animal brains (why silver foxes, of all things, is never explained). He's taken only specific areas from (count'em) fourteen different animal brains and then intends to further "conglomerate" them with three human brains into one Giant Brain (hence the title), to power, and consciously enliven, his robots. Never mind any scientific explanation, or the logic behind any of it; there is none. And of course the three human brains are to be that of his disillusioned fellow scientist, Dr. Giles (now imprisoned in the secret laboratory in the basement) who's been against his mad plan from the beginning, his new assistant, one Miss St. Clair--who's also had enough and quickly finds herself joining Dr. Giles--and Fern--with only The Avenger left to save the day.

But hold, we're not done. Wait until the thrilling conclusion as the giant, disembodied, pieced-together-from-fourteen-animal-brains Giant Brain is accidentally set free from its glass receptacle by the rampaging robots and attacks and kills the mad scientist! It's all too much, and too funny for words.

Herewith, for your amusement, is episode No. 2 of The Avenger, "The Mystery of the Giant Brain," from June 15, 1945. Note that the organ interludes fill air-time while local stations insert their own advertising.

Play Time: 30:00