The Crimson Avenger was created by Jim Chambers and debuted in Detective Comics #20 (1938). I’m going to guess that someone at DC comics recognized how successful pulps about masked crime-fighters were selling and decided that DC comics was due for its own masked crime-fighter. As a matter of fact, the Crimson Avenger bore a very striking resemblance to then-popular pulp hero the Green Hornet (both characters were newspaper publishers in their civilian identities, both characters had an Asian chauffeur/sidekick who was experienced in the martial arts, and both characters wore a fedora and a domino mask to conceal their identities when they fought crime – the only difference was that the Green Hornet was created in 1936 and had a much larger, highly established fan base thanks to his radio show).
The Crimson Avenger was the first masked crime-fighter published by DC comics*. Yet, at the time, that wasn’t enough to keep him as the main feature – Batman debuted in Detective Comics #27 (1939) and the Crimson Avenger was relegated to back-up feature status.
The Crimson Avenger seemed to be an unfortunate victim of whatever trend was occurring in comic books at the time – when the superhero genre got big during the Golden Age, the Crimson Avenger traded in his domino mask, fedora and cloak for a garish red and yellow skin-tight spandex costume in Detective Comics #44 (1940). The Crimson Avenger ran as a back-up feature in Detective Comics until 1944 before he slipped off into comic book limbo (occasionally appearing in a Seven Soldiers of Victory story).
In 1981, the story of his death was told in DC Comics Presents #38 as a “Whatever Happened to [insert character name here] ?” type of story. In 1984, Roy Thomas re-integrated the Crimson Avenger into the Earth-two mythos (but only in brief appearances of All-Star Squadron – a series that re-told tales from WWII-era DC). It seemed that the Crimson Avenger was doomed to remain an unimportant footnote in DC history…
…and then the Crisis On Infinite Earths happened. When the DC comics editorial team decided to reboot the history of Batman to make him more contemporary they needed to remove him from Golden Age continuity (effectively retconning him from being the inspiration for many of DC’s other Golden Age masked crime-fighters). They quickly needed someone to fill that HUGE continuity hole and Crimson Avenger filled the gap perfectly. In Secret Origins v2 #5, the Crimson Avenger’s origin is told for the first time and quickly re-affirms that he was DC’s first masked crime-fighter and the first to inspire all of the others that came after him.
Just to summarize that last paragraph for you: the Crimson Avenger, an obscure DC comics character from the 1940s was upgraded to ‘milestone character status’ thanks to a 1985 Crisis On Infinite Earths retcon. How’s that for a turnabout? I’m sure the newly elevated status of this character led to future projects that normally never would’ve seen the light of day. Case in point.
This 4 issue mini-series, which coincidentally celebrated the 50 year anniversary of the Crimson Avenger’s first appearance, was published in 1988 and was written by Roy Thomas (who had pretty much established himself as the authority on Earth-Two characters by this point) and his wife Danette Thomas. In this pulp-styled tale, the Crimson Avenger fights Nazi sympathizers for the possession of a Faberge egg in pre-World War II America. It was a really good series and it’s a shame that it didn’t evolve into something more as I would have liked to have seen more Crimson Avenger stories (even if they were retconns). The Shadow (also from DC comics) was also being published during the same time and maybe the market couldn’t handle/support two books about handgun-wielding fedora’d vigilantes at the same time?
As a child, something about this character really stuck out for me (even though I have only ever seen him in Secret Origins and knew little to nothing else about him) and he always remained one of my favorites. I never made the connection that he and the spandex-clad version were the same character.
*For anyone keeping count, the first masked crime-fighter to appear in comics was the Clock who debuted in Comic Magazine Company’s Funny Picture Stories #1 (1936).