A murdered man who returns from the grave as a costumed avenging spirit of justice? That’s too good an idea to not swipe! It’s hardly surprising that a year to the month after Detective Comics introduced The Spectre that a rival company would unveil their own version of such a character.

During the 1940’s MLJ Magazines created a plethora of memorable characters in their comics line. More than a few of them have survived the passage of time; well after the company became Archie Comics they re-introduced their Golden Age characters in the 1960’s, and leased the rights in the 1990’s to DC Comics, who published them under a “sub-brand” called Impact Comics. So it wasn’t as though MLJ needed to crib from the competition but, as previously mentioned, The Spectre’s character concept was just too good. In February 1941, MLJ’s Blue Ribbon Comics presented the first adventure of their own spectral avenger, a character who bore the singularly unimpressive name of “Mr. Justice”.

When Joe Blair (who also wrote The Fox’s adventures for MLJ) sat down at the typewriter to bash out Mr. Justice’s origin tale, it’s entirely feasible that his conscious intent was to go out of his way to create an introduction that bore absolutely no resemblance to that of DC’s ghostly guardian. But if that was the case, he went very far indeed; Mr. Justice’s origin is pretty complicated.

During the (fictitious) medieval Roger’s Rebellion, England’s Prince James is betrayed and murdered by his brother in a castle near the Scottish border. Instantly upon the moment of his death, James’ ghost materializes from his corpse and kills his betrayers. The spirit then disappears into the castle’s stonework and becomes a permanent part of the structure. Centuries later during World War II, the castle comes under threat of destruction by German bombing, so the English government dismantles the castle stone by stone and ships the stones to the United States for safekeeping. But mere miles from the American shore the ship is torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat, releasing Prince James’ spirit. The prince’s ghost flies the rest of the way to the U.S., where he discovers that he’s able to make himself corporeal at will. After saving heiress Gloria Piddle (grounds for a legal name change) from a kidnapping plot, Prince James adopts the name Mr. Justice and decides to become a crimefighter in his newly-adopted country.

Of course in legend and folklore we encounter numerous examples of avenging spirits, so Blair could easily have been using any number of sources as inspiration; it’s not a given that there’s a direct connection between The Spectre and Mr. Justice. On the other hand, Golden Age publishers tended to keep a close eye on the competition and were not above swiping a successful idea. Mr. Justice appeared exactly one year after The Spectre was introduced, so it’s not unlikely that MLJ sought to emulate DC’s success with a spectral avenger of their own.

Mr. Justice’s origin story in Blue Ribbon Comics #9 contained a few inconveniences which were fixed by his second appearance (which we’re presenting in today’s blog post). Although Mr. Justice’s could “detach” his spirit, this left his body abandoned and apparently lifeless; the origin contains a sequence in which he seems to die in a police squad car, only to appear hale and hearty minutes later after his “work” as a spirit was finished. The “uninhabited body” idea was changed in his second appearance; whenever Mr. Justice reverts to his natural spirit form, his body vanishes in a puff of smoke.

The unfortunately-named heiress Gloria Piddle was also gone by Mr. Justice’s second outing, replaced by Miss Clark, who happens to be the mayor’s daughter and the district attorney’s girlfriend. This is absolutely a convenience for the writer, as Mr. Justice has two sources of information regarding criminal threats in his city (as well as a damsel who can easily require frequent saving from said underworld elements). As the series progressed, Mr. Justice developed a mystical “sixth sense” regarding the actions (and even intentions) of agents of evil, which also helped to propel a story’s plot (crucial at a time when most comic book tales were between 6 and 12 pages long). Within a year of his introduction, Mr. Justice was battling supernatural foes as well as human opponents.

As we’ve noted before, the publisher (MLJ Magazines) was never adverse to printing violent content in their comics. In the story we’re presenting today, numerous bystanders are murdered by the criminals’ death ray. And, as was the case with some other MLJ mystery men, Mr. Justice eventually reached a point at which he had no problem killing an antagonist.

From early 1941 here’s the second appearance of Mr. Justice, courtesy of The Digital Comic Museum. As always, right-click a page scan to open it in a new tab for easier viewing:

Blue Ribbon Comics #10, March 1941

Blue Ribbon Comics #10, March 1941

Blue Ribbon Comics #10, March 1941

Blue Ribbon Comics #10, March 1941

Blue Ribbon Comics #10, March 1941

Blue Ribbon Comics #10, March 1941

Blue Ribbon Comics #10, March 1941]

Blue Ribbon Comics #10, March 1941

Blue Ribbon Comics #10, March 1941

Blue Ribbon Comics #10, March 1941

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2015, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

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