Here is the first part of a three-part "deep dive" into DC's new full-color, hardcover reprint of their 1970's comic book series "SHAZAM!" #19-35, reviving the original Captain Marvel. It provides background to the history of the character and places this series in its historical context.
C.C. Beck was the first man to draw the original Captain Marvel. According to all available evidence, it was he who designed the costume (although the coloring may or may not have been the choice of an anonymous colorist) and who established the definitive look of the hero and the stories of Captain Marvel/Billy Batson.
He was a 30-year-old staff artist for Fawcett Publications when he was tapped to do the job. According to his own words, he never really thought of cartooning as serious business. But he did it with a professionalism that was expressed in his writings as the "Crusty Curmudgeon" in later years.
His deceptively simple style was unsuccessfully imitated by a series of artists for Fawcett in the early years, until Beck's shop became the sole source of Captain Marvel art, and eventually the house style was cleaned up ad a certain stability in quality level achieved.
I have found it hard to give a fair assessment of the full arc of Beck's art development for the character, considering the scarcity of reprints available until recently and the prohibitive pricing of the original comics. Most of the reprints DC made available were originally drawn in 1945 or later, by which time the style and quality level was pretty much set. But the "Archive Editions" DC put out showed every single Captain Marvel story from the first couple of years of his publishing history.
The earliest stories were kind of rough. Beck's art was deliberately simple. He was a fan of such newspaper strips as Little Orphan Annie and Barney Google, and it shows in the charicaturistc renderings of certain characters. Captain Marvel's face was said to be based on Fred MacMurray,and was pretty well-defined from the beginning, but Billy Batson was little more than a small mouth, a small nose, and two dots for eyes. Figures seemed awkwardly positioned, layouts rough and simplistic. Some stories, like the origin of Dr. Sivana, showed Beck at the top of his craft, but others must have been done in a mad haste or by staffers.
When at the top of his game though, as he was after those first few years, a close examination of his work reveals an undercover sophistication and depth that is truly underappreciated by many comics fans today.
Clarity was his watchword, and he believed that everything on the page should advance the story. Thus, nothing that didn't advance the story should be on the page. This meant that excessive detailing, shadows, wrinkles, etc, were not necessary. The linework was always clean, not sketchy. Sometimes there was no background at all. But if you took a moment to look, you would notice that the perspective, very deliberately chosen, was drawn with precision. Little details, like a telephone on a desk, grain in wood, or a wrinkle in a carpet would give the image an touch of authenticity. There would be a key shadow under an armpit or highlights on the golden wristbands of the hero that gave the figures depth.
Landscapes would show true depth of field. Longshots used to establish a scene would show details like certain types of trees that would indicate the location. A long shot over the ocean would include cloud formations. A sunset might show silhouettes of palm trees.
And oh, those clouds and smoke! If ever Beck had to draw smoke from a fire or the clouds around a bolt of lightning, the billows would roil like a Wagnerian opera!
Space ships and fortresses would have a Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers art-deco style that gave them a fantastical, yet believable appearance.
His anatomy was impeccable.With just a few lines he could establish a person's figure and character from any angle. Ofttimes Captain Marvel would be shown flying, with his feet in the frame, and the feet were always drawn perfectly, with appropriate perspective. The difficulty of this was highlighted by the awkward, inexpertly drawn feet of other artists that drew attention to themselves like a blemish on the page. But Beck's feet were so perfectly drawn that they almost disappeared.
His animal anatomy was likewise fully believable. He was even able to show a gradual evolution of Mr. Tawny, the talking tiger, evolve from his natural, four-legged stance to his anthropomorphic, two-legged stride in just a few pages. The effect was so subtle you wouldn't even think about it.
Two pages showing the evolution of Mr. Tawny from four-legged beast to anthropomorphic tiger.
His sparing use of shadows in most of his work was a deliberate choice, keeping the images clear and whimsical, but he showed true mastery when he did use them. A scene on a city street at night would show the dark shapes of blackness that would be cast by a shadow in lamplight.
Three pages from Capain Marvel Adventures #100 showing C.C. Beck's work at it's finest: Note ease of following the story left-to-right, top-to-bottom, use of perspective, expressive gestures, anthropomorphic animal anatomy, judicious choices of how much background and foreground elements, use of silhouette and shadow, and juxtaposition of close-up, medium, and long shots.
After the 1953 shutdown of Fawcett's comics line. Beck never returned to comic full-time except for a brief revival in 1966 and his return to Captain Marvel in the 1970's But his legacy had been established through those 13 years of Captain Marvel and the Marvel family, and even still is underappreciated for those little things that made his art so perfect.
The 1970's had been an era of creative exploration at DC and Marvel Comics because of the new directions pop culture was going at the time the generational change in editorial staffs, and some works of real genius wound up on the stands. The 1980's was an explosion of creative possibilities in the independent comics scene as brand new comic book companies gave creators full ownership of their properties and had no Comics Code Authority to censor their work.
The 1990's, however, incubated creativity through the need to come up with the next big, flashy, collectible "thing" that would prove to be a groundbreaking triumph and raise the bar for the comic book industry. Alternate covers! New first editions! Exciting new changes to characters! Foil-embossed! Polybagged with a trading card! Pogz!
This series re-told the history of the Marvel Comics characters from before WWII up to the present day, but through the eyes of a news photographer, who called them "Marvels" (hence the title). The only Captain Marvel who appeared was Mar-Vell, who was in one double-page spread of the Kree-Skrull war, but The impact of this series, with its deluxe format and gloriously painted covers, was to become a superhero comic book benchmark.
This comic totally changed the game. Alex Ross set a new visual standard with his realistic painting, often compared with Norman Rockwell (he used models). The cover was a clear acetate sheet with a black border and the title framing the cover painting on the page beneath it. From thence on, the look of an Alex Ross-painted comic book, or even a book with his painted cover, would be seen as a mark of high quality epic storytelling.
The most directly-referencing work was a dark satire titled Ruins(written by Warren Ellis, painted art by Terese Nielsen, Cliff Nielsen, and Chris Moeller), in which everything that could have gone wrong with the Marvel superheroes did. In the case of Mar-Vell, he was part of a Kree invasion force that, due to a mishap involving the Silver Surfer, fell prey to American nuclear missiles that wiped out 90% of the force. They were captured and put in concentration camps in a former nuclear testing base.These last survivors and their children were slowly and painfully dying of radiation poisoning, and Mar-Vell was especially miserable, as his objection to the invasion was blamed for its failure.
Another, and much more well-known and impactful conceptual follow-up was from DC Comics in 1996, a vision of a dystopian superhero-deconstructionist future titled Kingdom Come, by writer Mark Waid and writer/artist Alex Ross. This story turned out to be the greatest use of the human/hero dichotomy of the original Captain Marvel ever.
Based on an idea Alex Ross imagined while working on Marvels and set in he hear future, super-powered being filled the skies and streets of cities having near-apocalyptic battles every day. Superman had retired to his family farm in Kansas, and Lex Luthor was organizing a movement against super-powered heroes. His personal bodyguard was Captain Marvel, dressed in a suit, standing quietly behind him lighting his cigar when needed. The threat of his power is enough to keep all other superheroes at bay.
A tragically destructive incident in a hero-villain battle brings Superman out of retirement, recruiting other superheroes to become the world's police and arresting and detaining those who decline or resist. Batman leads a resistance to this and teams with Luthor. I turns out, though that "Captain Marvel" is really a grown-up Billy Batson, brainwashed and mind-controlled by Luthor into believing that super-powered heroes are evil monsters. The climax occurs during a final, apocalyptic battle between all the superheroes and villains, and Billy Batson/Captain Marvel has the choice of either allowing them to all be destroyed (by a United Nations-launched nuclear weapon) or allow them to survive, their conflict to continue, and thus doom humankind.
It is Superman who gives him this choice, the reason being that because he has seen life from both the normal human and super-powered perspectives, Billy Batson/Captain Marvel (along with the wisdom of Solomon) is uniquely qualified to pass judgement on the existence of super-powers heroes. His decision sacrificed himself to same a portion of the heroes and inspired Superman to realize that it was the role of superheroes to help, but not lead, humanity to its future.
Other members of the Marvel Family were present in future-ized incarnations. Freddy Freeman/Captain Marvel, Jr. was now "King Marvel," with a costume redesigned to evoke an Elvis Presley jumpsuit (a deliberate homage to the King of Rock & Roll, who was a big fan of the Little Blue Cheese). Mary Batson/Mary Marvel was now either "Lady Marvel" or "Queen Marvel" (depending on which fan wiki you read). She and Freddy Freeman were married and had a child, "Whiz," who was the inheritor of the SHAZAM! power. Their family dynamic was obvious in their actions (always visible in the background), but none of these characters were given anything significant to do in the story.
This production established two things:
1. Captain Marvel truly was the World's Mightiest Mortal in the DC Universe, able to go toe-to-toe with Superman and with power enough to hold all other heroes at bay. His magic lighting could even be used as a weapon.
2. Alex Ross was a big fan of the original Captain Marvel, and his vision of the character became the most popular iconic image through which the character would be marketed by DC for some time. He has placed the hero in the same level as DC's "Trinity" of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.
An Alex Ross design for his early 1990's project. Note the deliberate resemblance between Captain MArvel adn Fred MacMurray, Mary Marvel and Kathy Ireland, and Captain Marvel, Jr. with Michael Gray.
It never came to pass, being superseded by Jerry Ordway's Power of SHAZAM!, but Ross' star rose with Kingdom Come and other projects. He soon got more assignments designed to take full advantage of his majestic interpretation of comic book superheroes. One such was four tabloid-sized issues, each featuring one hero of DC's Trinity, plus one with the original Captain Marvel. That book was titled SHAZAM! The Power of Hope.
In this gloriously-painted book (written by Paul Dini), what was presented as special and unique about Captain Marvel was that even with his mighty powers, he could still relate to children (being, in his alter ego, a child himself) and give them hope in the midst of despair.
Before we get too far away from the 20th century, there is one short-lived Captain Marvel and several related characters we should mention for the intriguing possibilities of these characters as well as the groundbreaking means by which they were created.
Since the success of Marvel's Contest of Champions, and Secret Wars, and DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths, company-wide crossover events had become the go-to attempted circulation boosters for both Marvel and DC. Furthermore, comics fandom was always a-chatter with theories and speculation on what would happen if superheroes from the two big rival companies were ever to meet.
There was an extra gimmick to this series, though, that did engender greater reader interest, and that was that for the matches between the bigger names of each company, the winners would be decided by reader vote! For better or worse, however, Captain Marvel vs. Thor was not one of those matches.
I suppose this was as logical a matchup as one could imagine. Both of them being of godly power and with a lightning and thunder theme. And though they threw in a one-panel gag that acknowledged how one character was a rip-off of the other, DC's Snapper Carr and Marvel's Rick Jones razzed each other.
The fight was won by Thor in a conclusion some Captain Marvel fans felt unsatisfying. But that was not the last appearance of a Captain Marvel in the DC-Marvel co-production.
The story that contained these battles was extended to bring the two universes, Marvel's and DC's, together in an amalgam not just of the worlds, but of the characters and the companies. Superman and Captain America became "Super Soldier," Batman and Wolverine became "Dark Claw," Wonder Woman and Storm became "Wonder Woman," but looked like Storm in a mashup of her and Wonder Woman's costume, and Captain Marvel and Captain Marvel became..."Captain Marvel."
The conceit of the concept was that it was a line of comics called "Amalgam Comics," and that these "amalgamated" heroes had been around all along, in place of the ones with which we were familiar. There were backstories and publishing histories of each character with made-up titles of comics combining titles of existing comics. Captain Marvel fit into this paradigm easily.
Though only seen briefly in two published comic books and a few trading cards, he had a secret identity and backstory. His alter ego was young Billy Mar-Vell, who upon saying the alien word "Kree!" would "super-scientifically" transform into Captain Marvel, with a white suit, green gloves, boots, briefs, and yoke, and green lightning bolt logo on chest. He had powers of super-strength, super-speed, invulnerability, and flight.
As he was only one of a bunch of heroes in "Judgement League: Avengers," he didn't get much to say or do, but he did express disdain and distrust of aliens and "metamutants." This disappointed me, as all other Captain Marvels had actively fought against prejudice in some form or another.
The fictional history of this character included him first appearing in "Whiz Marvels #1," being a founding member of the "Judgement League: Avengers" and present in the "Secret Crisis of the Infinity Hour" (a crossover epic that was never really published, but key story points were related in a series of trading cards. the title referenced Marvel's Secret Wars, DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths, the series of Infinity War-related stories from Marvel, and DC's Zero Hour) when "American Girl" (a pastiche of Ms. Marvel and Supergirl named "Carol Barnes," a combination of Carol Danvers and Bucky Barnes) sacrificed herself to save the universe.
For her part, "American Girl" was a successor to "Super Soldier," the living legend of WWII, and his fellow hero, "American Belle" (herself a pastiche of Marvel's Miss America and DC's Liberty Belle).
And speaking of Carol Danvers, a character by that name was the alter-ego of Amalgam's "Huntress," a former US secret agent super-spy with a crossbow (an amalgam of DC's Huntress and Marvel's Hawkeye, along with elements of Carol Danvers' Marvel Comics history) who filled a sort of "Batwoman" role to Dark Claw.
Rick Jones was not left out of this. He appeared in an amalgam with his DC counterpart/inspiration, "Snapper" Carr, as Snapper Jones, a.k.a. "Bismouth," a member of "Magneto's Magnetic Men" who appeared in an eponymous comic. He was super villain, an amalgam of Tin, a member of DC's Metal Men, and Toad, a member of Marvel's Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.
Apparently, he was created by Magneto, killed, revived, gained sentience, told to live a human life, and became a street musician.
(Incidentally a Steve "Snapper" Jones was a star basketball player in the American Basketball Association who became a popular broadcast announcer)
Another miniseries involving the Amalgams came out in 1997, titled Unlimited Access. In it, the character of "Access," a normal Earth Human who wound up with the power to amalgamate characters from the DC and Marvel universes, created more of these amalgams, only some of them with less apparent relevance between the component characters.
The Captain Marvel-related character here was "Captain America, Jr," (appearing in Unlimited Access #4) whose alter ego, Freddy Rogers, could transform into his hero by shouting "Uncle Sam!" His powers appeared to be based on characteristics of United States presidents, including the strategy of Eisenhower and the trickery of Nixon. He only appeared in this one issue.
But I feel that the Amalgam missed an opportunity here. The original Captain Marvel is one of the all-time great superheroes. He managed to capture an audience at just the right time that wanted to see a hero exactly like him and outsold Superman. His paradigm, the mortal, particularly a child, who could transform by magic into a hero, was the template for many other superheroes, both seriously within the industry and as a trope in everything from advertising to satire.
Furthermore, Marvel's first Captain Marvel was a hero with depth and dimension. He had an uneasy history of persecution and struggle. He even died! Combining this backstory with the sunny, optimistic, eternally-young Billy Batson-Captain Marvel would have been a fascinating challenge.
Amalgamating Billy Batson and Rick Jones would have been interesting. Billy Batson was a radio and TV reporter, Rick Jones a musician. Billy had a youthful fan club, Rick had his "Teen Brigade." Rick Jones was the sidekick of several superheroes over the years. I might have been interesting to have that his backstory be of a young journalism student with musical talent who winds up sickicking for several superheroes before meeting the old wizard Perhaps the boy's experience as a sidekick, his journalistic integrity, and his musical soul would have been a factor the wizard considered in selecting him to be his new champion. And now, as a superhero, it is that experience which informs him in how to use his powers to fight crime, evil and injustice.
Here is where the contest comes in, folks! Design and draw the above mashup of Billy Batson with rick Jones and Captain Marvel with Captain Mar-Vell and post it in the comments below. We will then have a contest where readers an vote on their favorites. The winner will receive a free copy of my three-pamphlet series "Captain Marvel Culture."! :)
On top of all this, there was the cosmic power thing. Mar-Vell gained "cosmic awareness" from the entity Eon, granting him the ability to be universally omniscient. He was aware of all things in the universe. The wizard Shazam resided in the Rock of Eternity, at the nexus of all universes, and from there knew all things. Perhaps some bizarre partnership or mashup-of these two mentor-like figures who granted powers to their heroic proteges could have been explored in this series!
And finally, the big red elephant in the room: Both companies had Captain Marvels, but the original one could not have his name in the title, even though three other companies had plastered that name all over their covers! It would have been a fine and fitting tribute to the legacy of Parker, Beck, Binder, Schaffenberger, Lee, Colan, Thomas, Kane, Starlin, Gruenwald, Milgrom, Broderick, et al, a symbol of camaraderie between the two companies, and simply, ridiculously appropriate for Amalgam Comics to publish a Captain Marvel comic book.
And with regards to Monica Rambeau, perhaps she could have amalgamated with the light-based DC superhero The Ray to become "Lightray" or something...
As the first decade of the New Century ground forward, Marvel Comics found itself with several Captain Marvels and a seeming lack of ability to make any of them "stick."
The most game, and outrageous, attempt, was Peter David's version of Genis-Vell. To catch us up on his status at the time, here is the "splash page" from an issue of that era...
Genis-Vell, as written by Peter David, had gone mad from his constant "cosmic awareness." He also had omnipotent power. This made him a self-described "mad god." He killed himself to end it all, but it didn't stick. He wound up convincing Entropy, (one of the Cosmic Entities of the Universe), to kill his brother Eternity, thus ending the universe. The only survivors were Entropy, Epiphany, Genis-Vell, and Rick Jones. The resultant nothingness was boring, so Rick and Genis convinced Entropy to remake the universe exactly as he knew it, and Entropy became the new Eternity.
This was actually the origin of Marvel's next Captain Marvel. Try to stay with me on this...
In this new universe, things were ever so slightly different. Genis-Vell was not quite as insane as he was in the original universe. However, the Genis that had existed in the past of this new universe that was just created (complete with a past and everything, so the experience for Genis and Rick Jones was rather like picking up a familiar book and opening it in the middle) was replaced by the Genis that had existed in the original universe (the titular character in this eponymous comic book).
Also in this new universe, Genis-Vell's mother Elysius, who had died in the original universe, was alive here, was aware of the Universal Recreation, and did not like the new Genis-Vell. So she cloned Mar-Vell again, this time into a female named Phyla-Vell, artificially aged her (as she had Genis-Vell), gave her nega-bands, and made sure she had her father's cosmic awareness. She was to replace Genis-Vell as "The New Captain Marvel."
The obligatory conflict ensued, and when the dust settled, Genis-Vell claimed that he was no longer insane and would work to improve himself and make the universe a better place. Was this the truth, or was he now just going to hold his insanity closer to the vest? Only time would tell.
Or would it? Genis and Rick went on to have a few more adventures, one that proved to make him the most tragic superhero ever. It was a time-travel story that led to him deciding to kill his baby son in his crib to prevent him from growing up to be a super-powered evil galactic emperor. This story confirmed that he would marry and have at least one child with the reformed super-villain, Songbird.
The series was cancelled with the following issue, in a finale that revealed that Rick Jones actually knew that he was in a comic book. In that final issue, it was also revealed that Phyla was a lesbian and she hooked up with the psychic superhero Moondragon, daughter of Drax the Destroyer.
Expediency, one of the "Friendless," personifications of aspects of the universe, informs Genis-Vell of the end of his series. Matthew Younker wrote a great little article about Genis-Vell's insanity for PopOptique.
Genis-Vell then joined the team of reformed super-villains known at the New Thunderbolts (in their self-titled series), of which Songbird was a member. He was killed by the team's giant, Atlas, in a manipulated rage over a her, then came back to life with a new power set and took on a new name, "Photon."
This last part pissed off Monica Rambeau (again), but in a discussion over beers, she decided to call herself "Pulsar."
Genis eventually proved to be an unstable element in the space-time continuum and was torn into pieces and sent to the far corners of space and time by Baron Zemo. He has not been seen since, despite not yet having married Songbird.
Phyla, meanwhile, spent a brief time as a Captain Marvel, but then gained the quantum bands of Quasar, Defender (not "protector") of the Universe, and took on that mantle. She served with the Guardians of the Galaxy and went through more drama (at one point, Moondragon actually became a real, space-faring dragon, and the two became the hottest cross-species lesbian superhero couple in comics). She was involved in several company-wide crossover events with the Guardians. Eventually she changed her name to "Martyr," and ultimately got killed. Twice.
Phyla-Vell getting killed by Magus, the future, evil version of Adam Warlock.
Meanwhile, in 2006-7 Monica reappeared as the leader of a new, satirical superhero team, NextWave, Agents of H.A.T.E., in their eponymous, possibly-not-in-canon 12-issue limited series.
In the course of their (mis)adventures, the team faced the satirical character Forbush-Man. When exposed to his "Forbush-Vision," she faced herself as a mash-up with Mar-Vell and the Ultimates Mahr Vehl with just a touch of SHAZAM! and Superman...
Then, in 2013-2014 she became the field leader of the Mighty Avengers, a new version of Marvel's premiere superhero team, this time led by Luke Cage, Power Man, and notable for having not one member who was not female or a person of color for a time.
More about Monica Rambeau, and how she teamed up with Carol Danvers, to come!
Multi-talented entertainer, writer, filmmaker, artist, historian, grappler, swordfighter. I am writing a book about the many Captain Marvels, and compete in swordfighting and submission grappling. I make movies, act, sing, and do stage combat, and critique on all media.