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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

The Avenger -- "Tunnel of Disaster"

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The Avenger (1941-42, 1945-46) aired "Tunnel of Disaster" on July 20, 1945, exactly 74 years ago today. I have run only three previous episodes of The Avenger, the last being in January of this year, and the one previous to that in June of 2018. For those coming to this program for the first time, I reprise my introduction to the previous episodes, beginning with the fact that The Avenger radio program was a spinoff of magazine publisher Street & Smith's The Avenger magazine which ran from 1939-1942 (cover at left, July 1941 issue) and whose adventures were written by Paul Ernst (Street & Smith being the original publisher of Astounding Science Fiction, and for many decades the largest magazine publisher in the world). The Avenger on radio was short-lived (at least in its 1945-46 incarnation), lasting only twenty-six episodes. Many of 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'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 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 (again of its second iteration) 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. Roughly 1/4 the Shadow and 3/4 Doc Savage in makeup, radio historian John Dunning wrote (in his 1998 book, (
On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, Oxford University Press) that these 1945 shows were  "a poor man's version of The Shadow." And, to be honest, that is a fair assessment.

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 further continuation. In other words, while well enough done and perfectly acceptable for the most part for its intended young audience, why listen to Shadow-lite when the original was available? However, The Avenger has proved popular enough through the intervening years that his adventures have appeared in comic books, a series of original novels
(of interest to science-fiction fans is that SF author Ron Goulart [1933-    , photo at right] writing under the name of Kenneth Robeson--Robeson being the house name for the Doc Savage novels} wrote twelve Avenger novels in the 1970s, and among his other credits ghostwrote the TekWar novels by William Shatner), and in 2009 Anthony Tollin's Sanctum Productions began reprinting near perfect facsimiles of the original The Avenger magazine, featuring two complete novels with the original illustrations, original covers, and several new features (usually historical, and fascinating in nature) added to each reproduction. They are in the same trade paperback format as Tollin's beautifully reproduced The Shadow and Doc Savage facsimiles (I own several), and can recommend them without reservation for pulp magazine lovers of these (and other) heroes of the pulp era.

As with many Golden Age radio shows, information is lost, inconclusive, inconsistent, or downright conflicting, depending on which historical venue one visits for research. In the case of The Avenger, some sites have the original show as running from either 1941-42 or 1941-43, and with up to over 100 shows (now all missing/lost, alas, which fact seems to be accurate). Of the second series, the 1945-46 iteration, there seems to be a consensus that there were but 26 half-hour shows (or were there 52?). One site lists 26 shows for the 1945 season but has no titles, and with 26 shows with air dates and titles for the 1946 season. Then there is yet another site with a complete listing (air dates and titles) of 26 episodes for the 1945 season, but which, aside from different air dates, are aired in the same order but on different dates for the 1946 season as given from one of the sites mentioned above. The air date I have decided to go with is from the Old Time Radio Researchers Library, which lists all 26 of the remaining episodes with air dates and titles from the 1945 season.

The "Tunnel of Disaster" concerns the christening of the city's new Riverfront Tunnel by the tunnel commissioner and the events surrounding his vehicle's disappearance while in the tunnel just moments before his speech (which Jim Brandon) has helped him write, covered live by the press. It seems the tunnel has had its detractors since the very idea of it was raised some years ago. Arguments against ranged from its cost to the real need for such a tunnel, when there were other slightly longer ways of traffic getting from point A to point B. But now, after predicted cost overruns and delays, the tunnel is completed, but with the commissioner's abduction (and complete disappearance) during a live city broadcast while in the tunnel, something more nefarious is at work and it is up to Jim Brandon and his alter ego as the Avenger to find out the who, what, and why of this mystery.

Please note that the first 1:45 or thereabouts is place holder music so local stations could insert their own opening commercials and comments, and the same applies to the final 3-4 minutes which are also the same place holder music just before the episode wraps up with closing dialogue from Brandon and his "beautiful assistant Fern Collier."

Play Time: 30:00

       {The neighborhood gang had already bought their usual SF/F pulps in July of 1945, so after listening to this episode of The Avenger they gathered at the end of the block for their trek to the nearby newsstand for more detective/mystery fare. Black Mask (1920-51) was the gold standard by many estimates and so was an easy choice. It was a bi-monthly in 1945. The Phantom Detective (1933-53) was also a semi-regular favorite, with its blend of a masked hero as the crime fighting detective. Though a regular monthly through 1941, the paper shortage during the war hit it as it did many another pulp magazine, and by 1945 it was a bi-monthly as well. Ten Detective Aces (1928-49) was another long-lived detective pulp that flourished with its formula of hard-boiled detectives getting down and dirty with all variation of crime and corruption. As with the other pair of pulp magazines shown here, it was a bi-monthly in July of 1945.]

[Left: Black Mask, July 1945 - Center: The Phantom Detective, June 1945 - Right: Ten Detective Aces, July 1945]

     

To view the entire list of weekly Old Time Radio episodes at Tangent Online, click here.