Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A few words from Neal Adams...

On November 16 at the Big Apple Convention, Neal Adams was kind enough to say a few words about Captain Marvel...

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The "Return"

Over at Marvel Comics, Their first Captain Marvel has been brought back...sort of, but not really.

Marvel Comics' 2006-2007 company-wide crossover event, Civil War, began with 3rd rate superheroes with their own reality show invading a supervillain hideout. In the struggle, Nitro, the villain that had given Captain Mar-Vell his cancer, detonated himself, killing 600 people, including an entire elementary school. This led to a public outcry, which led to the US government passing the “Superhuman Registration Act,” forcing registration of all super-powered beings with the government. This caused a schism in the superhero community reminiscent of the cold-war era communist witch hunts. On the one side, Iron Man led those heroes who followed the registration edict (including one former Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel), and Captain America led those on the side of the right to privacy of identity. A prison was constructed in the Negative Zone to hold those who refused to register.

In the midst of this storyline, Captain Mar-Vell appeared. It turns out that he is really an alien Skrull named Khn'nr who had been planted as a secret agent as part of a plot to conquer Earth, but was conditioned so well to believe that he is Captain Marvel that he has rejected his mission. He believed that at a point in the past after his battle with Nitro and before he became aware of his cancer, he accidentally slipped into 2007. After the expected awkwardnesses that comes with figuring out that everybody is trying not to tell you that you are supposed to be dead, he was recruited to serve as warden for the superprison in the Negative Zone.

The Civil War ended when Captain America realized that the rebellion he was leading was tearing the country apart, surrendered to the authorities, and was assassinated. Captain Marvel then appeared on earth, inspiring the founding of a cult that would do good deeds in his name. The leader of the cult was killed by a military assault in the Sudan, and now this Captain Mar-Vell is going through deep psychological torment over feeling a need to live up to the good deeds of the cult that he inspired and rejecting his mission as a Skrull agent.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Funny Papers and Moving Pictures

Meanwhile, Jeff Smith, award winning creator of the Bone comic book series, has created a new Shazam story, again rebooting the original Captain Marvel franchise, in a mini-series using the title of the old Fawcett serial, “Monster Society of Evil.” Though he made his own adjustments to the canon, for instance making Mary Batson a much younger sister, and Mary Marvel the same apparent age as Mary Batson, and making Tawky Tawny a magical changeling whom Billy knew as a homeless man, and making Mr. Mind a monstrous alien, rather than a brilliant evil little worm, his version did prove that DC is willing to give Captain Marvel a chance at something with a look and feel that is more light-hearted, youth-oriented, and with a more “cartoony” drawing style. This willingness has been extended to a new book by Mike Kunkel, Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam! In DC Comics' Johnny DC youth-oriented line.

There has also been, for the past few years, a Shazam! movie on the slow track for production at New Line Pictures with Michel Uslan producing. The script has gone through several writers, including William Goldman and Joel Coen & Alex Soklow. Currently John August is writing the script, with Peter Segal signed to direct. Movies based on comic book characters have boomed lately. The quality and popularity of comic book-inspired motion pictures has been notoriously hit-and-miss since the Superman movie of 1978, but several low-budget movies based on independent characters in the early 1990's proved that when done with respect for the source material, a movie based on a comic book can be good and find its audience. Since then, the recipe for success has been to listen to the fans and find a producer-writer-director team that will serve the material well, rather than simply treat the material as a property to exploit. New Line has been working with PC Hamerlinck, publisher of Fawcett Collectors of America.

In a recent example of serving the audience, MTV Blogs appears to have influenced the casting of at least one character. Rumors had arisen years ago that Dwayne Johnson, the pro wrestler known as The Rock, would play the Big Red Cheese. Fan response was largely negative, some because they doubted his acting ability, some simply because Captain Marvel was never portrayed as half black-half Samoan. Some (including Yours Truly) suggested that he might be better as Black Adam. In late 2007, MTV Blogs held a survey asking whether Johnson should play Captain Marvel or Black Adm. The result was an overwhelming response in favor of Black Adam. So Johnson went public saying he would listen to the fans and would be glad to talk with New Line about playing Black Adam.

Next: Marvel...The Return

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Latest from DC, part 1

Lately, DC Comics has gone in two different direction with the original Captain Marvel. In the main DC Universe, they have decided to totally re-imagine the character, at least in part to differentiate him from Superman. Since the beginning these two characters have been at loggerheads. Both of them are super-strong, invulnerable, and can fly, and are the greatest heroes in their respective universes. When they wound up in the same universe, a logical question was “what do you need to have both heroes for, when each of them can do pretty much what the other one can?”

The answer, for DC Comics, has recently been to play on one key difference between the two: Superman was a science fiction concept: an alien from outer space with powers far beyond those of mortal man. Captain Marvel was a product of magic: a hero with the abilities of a half-dozen mythological and legendary characters.

In the ongoing trend of having a mighty, company-wide crossover event every year to drive collector and fan excitement about the company, as well as, yet again, “cleaning up” some of the messiness in the DC Universe left over since the last big “clean up the DC Universe” event, Zero Hour, DC Comics brought forth Infinite Crisis.

In the lead up to this event, Days of Vengeance, the magical element of Captain Marvel was brought to the fore. Captain Marvel was used as a focus of all the magic in the universe, as every magical character focused their energy on the Captain so he could grow in stature to battle the Spectre, a magical, god-like being that had, ironically, been created by Jerry Siegel back in 1939. He wound up losing the fight, though. Also in the story, old Shazam died and the Rock of Eternity was destroyed.
By the end of the Infinite Crisis, it was established that there were now 52 parallel universes. The “post Crisis on Infinite Earths” universe remains, and most of the old DC Universes (Earths 1, 2, 3, etc) seem to have been recreated, as well as self-contained universes for the characters of each company that they have acquired (Earths S, X, etc.). This now allows DC Comics to create stories with the characters in their original universes, if they ever choose to do so.

The Rock of Eternity had been rebuilt, and Billy Batson was installed there to keep an eye on the magical world, as the Rules of Magic have been “rewritten.” In other words, Captain Marvel became the top cop for magical monsters and demons. Before that could be explored further, however, something happened. Billy Batson said “Shazam” one day and the Captain Marvel he transformed into was different. He was in a white version of the Marvel suit, his hair was long, straight, and white, and his cape was long and had a hood. He looked like Elric of Melniboné, Michael Moorcock's magical albino, on steroids! At the same time, Captain Marvel Jr. and Mary Marvel both instantly lost their powers!

It turns out that Billy Batson/Captain Marvel is now to sit on the throne of Shazam. Billy Batson looks to never be seen again, and the character simply uses the name “Marvel.”

Freddy Freeman, the Shazam Family outsider, and former Outsider (since losing his powers) has been set on a quest to earn each individual power of Shazam (Solomon's wisdom, Hercules' strength, Achilles' courage, etc.) in a series of trials chronicled in the recent series Trials of Shazam. One result of these trials is that the hero who will ultimately say the magic word and wear the red suit with the gold lightning bolt (Freddy Freeman) will be called Shazam. Dan Didio, editor-in-chief of DC Comics has admitted that part of the reason for this is to finally have a comic book with the character who's name is the same as the title.

Mary Batson, after recovering from injuries sustained when she lost her powers, fell into a fit of depression, sought to regain her powers, and met Black Adam. He gave her back access to the Power of Shazam, but also a share of his powers. This made her more powerful and and gave her a greater range of use of magic, and she gained a new costume, a black, long-sleeved, capeless number with a very short skirt.. Once the moral center of the Shazam Family, she fell to the temptations of that power, almost becoming a tool of the villain Eclipso. She overcame that temptation, however, when she realized that she was being used, and lost her powers again. She regained her original powers (and a new white costume with long sleeves and a gray lightning bolt) when she realized that what she really wanted was to help people with her powers. Then the villain Darkseid tempted her with the powers that she had gained from Black Adam and debates of moral relativism, and Mary accepted them, and the black costume reappeared.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Ultimate Marvel

With the turn of the millennium, Marvel Comics has seen it fit to re-invent its entire universe in an alternate line of comics known as the Ultimates. This can be seen as something like what DC did in the 1950's, re-starting and re-inventing their line of superheroes, except that this universe of characters is not a parallel universe to the regular Marvels, it is completely separate with no apparent plans for communication between one universe and the other.

In this universe all the modern Marvel superheroes first appeared in the 1990's (there were still heroes in WWII, such as Captain America, and he fell into suspended animation like before, but was awoken in the 1990's). Captain Marvel appeared when this universe's version of Galactus showed up and threatened Earth in an adventure that gave a possible solution to the Fermi Paradox. The Fermi Paradox is the formula designed to figure out the likelihood of intelligent life in the universe contacting Earth. The paradox comes in when one plugs in numbers based on certain assumptions that make it look like there should have been contact by now, but most reasonable people accept that there is no evidence of contact so far.

The answer to the Fermi Paradox in this story is twofold. One, that the government is covering up all news of alien contact; Two, that Gah Lak Tus, a wave of sentient robots, devours all life on whatever planet it happens to come upon.

In this story, Captain Marvel is Pluskommander Geheneris Hala´son Mahr Vehl of the alien Kree intergalactic military. This was, of course, an adaptation of Captain Mar-Vell. The name Hala'son meant that he was supposed to be of the line of the Kree god Hala, but he denied the divinity of Hala, believing instead that he was simply a Kree who believed all life was sacred. Mahr Vehl had come to earth as a spy, took the identity of Dr. Philip Lawson, and helped design a space ship engine capable of interstellar travel (along with a Dr. David Binder, obviously a tribute to Otto Binder). He defected when it became apparent that the Kree wanted to watch Earth fall to Gah Lak Tus.

This version also had a Carol Danvers, again a security chief at an Aerospace Development station, and there was adversarial banter between Lawson/Mahr Vell and Danvers reminiscent of that between Walter Lawson/Mar-Vell and Carol Danvers in the '60's.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Gay Captain Marvel

Right about that time, rumor surfaced that the next Captain Marvel would be gay. The excitement coincided with the revelation that Hulkling, a teenage superhero who was already “out,” was the son of Captain Mar-Vell and the alien Skrull Princess Annelle. But there already was a gay Captain Marvel, Phyla-Vell, who revealed her orientation in the final issue of Genis-Vell's series when she and Moondragon hooked up. Since then, Phyla has given up the title of Captain Marvel since she has been granted the quantum bands of Quasar. Quasar, the previous bearer of the quantum bands, was an Earthman named Wendell Jones who had been made “Protector of the Universe” by Eon after Captain Mar-Vell died (The Quantum Bands, incidentally, had originally been worn by Marvel Boy, a short-lived, Cold War era version of a character that Marvel Comics had re-imagined several times). This job was also passed to Phyla.

Recently Moondragon died while fighting to save the universe along with Phyla in the “Annihilation” crossover epic. Phyla, as Quasar, has since joined the new "Guardians of the Galaxy," a team of obscure sci-fi and space opera superheroes led by Peter Quill, the former Star Lord, and including such characters as Rocket Raccoon, Captain Universe, Groot (a sentient, animate tree) and others.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Don't Ms. the Next Captain Marvel!

Meanwhile, Carol Danvers had eventually come back to Earth, rejoined the Avengers, lost her Binary powers, became an alcoholic, was court martialed and kicked out of the Avengers, sobered up, rejoined the Avengers and changed her name to Warbird, faced an alternate version of Marcus and, in the heat of a battle over Earth during the Kang Dynasty wars, killed him. An Avengers court of inquiry found the killing justifiable, and she was vindicated. Then came the House of M.

In the first decade of the New Millennium, the major comic book companies were bringing out massive cross-over epics apparently designed to keep readers thinking that something “important” was happening. For Marvel Comics in the summer of 2005, this was the House of M.

Mutants had come a long way from the time that the X-Men was one little comic book parabling the struggles of the outsider in society. Since the Chris Claremont/John Byrne run that led to the Dark Phoenix saga, the X-Men had become wildly popular, leading to several spin-off titles and a never-ending, ever growing, roster of mutant superheroes and villains. One of them, the Scarlet Witch, became so powerful and mentally unbalanced that she was able to change reality. She did this and the world she created was called the House of M.

In this world, her Father, Magneto, was a benign leader of a world in which mutants were the dominant species and humans were basically biding their time as second-class citizens slowly awaiting extinction. In this world Carol Danvers was Captain Marvel, the world's greatest hero.

When the storyline ended, and the world was brought back to normal, Danvers remembered what it was like to be the world's greatest hero, and she liked that feeling. She realized that she had been shortchanging herself, underachieving, and that she could be that hero again. She has since taken back her Ms. Marvel name and has been fighting to fulfill her potential while being beset by problems and adversaries from the mundane to the cosmic to the esoteric.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Legacy

With all these upstart companies filling up the comic shelves, Marvel Comics increased the number of titles they were putting out as well. In one massive company-wide gimmick, every “Annual” issue introduced a new superhero. One of them was Legacy, real name Genis-Vell, who was the cloned offspring of the late Captain Mar-Vell. He was artificially aged and implanted with false memories so that he would be ready to face his potential enemies immediately.

Legacy turned out to be a long-haired, leather-jacketed punk, a young wastrel who drank and caroused with his low-life friends on an alien world as often as he fought crime. Though he had his father's nega-bands, he did not really learn how to use them at first. He had an adventure with the Avengers in which he and Monica Rambeau met, and though the (now former) leader of the Avengers showed that she was a much more capable hero, she decided to let the younger Vell take on his father's name and “legacy,” and she would take a new name, “Photon.” (this name was later a source of ridicule).

Genis-Vell, now Captain Marvel, had a new series that was canceled even before the story being told in it was finished. Then a future version of him appeared in an Avengers epic event titled “Avengers Forever,” at the end of which he wound up merged with Rick Jones, just like his father was. He also wound up with his future appearance, with short hair and a costume moire like his father's. Then he was given another ongoing series,.

This series was written by Perter David and dealt with a lot of contemporary issues. It was canceled and restarted several times, like the earlier Marvel Comics series, at one point even starting its numbering all over again in a blatant gimmick move to boost sales. Genis was trying to learn how to be a good superhero (to make up for his past and live up to his father's name) and Rick Jones was alternately trying to help him and playing tricks on him. Genis did have the cosmic awareness that his father had, but it drove him mad. So here we had an omnipotent insane person who was trying to understand people in the universe, who, of course, never makes sense. In other words, he was a mad god. He would kill with abandon and seeming randomness, and figured out how to manipulate Rick Jones into killing himself, but resurrected him shortly after. He participated in the destruction of the universe, and then helped it be recreated again.

Ultimately, he was forced into a mental health intervention, in which he appeared to gain stability and serenity, but it was left unclear as to whether he was now going to be a true hero, or simply hold his insanity closer to the vest. In the course of this breakthrough his sister, Phyla-Vell, appeared, claiming to be “The New Captain Marvel.”

His sister was part of his false memories (which he knew were false), but was part of the universe that he had helped re-create. His mother (who had died but now seemed to be alive again, which was unexplained but probably also part of the re-created universe) had given her the mantle because she had seen how Genis had become a travesty of heroic ideals. And she participated in the intervention.

Shortly after this, this series of Captain Marvel comics was canceled. In a very self-aware final issue, it was revealed that Rick Jones was actually aware of the fact that he was in a comic book. It was also summed up that Genis-Vell's uniqueness, his unpredictability, was also his curse. The audience could not grasp what the was supposed to be, and left. In that same issue, Phyla-Vell hooked up with Moondragon, a bald female sorceress, psychic, and superhero. This played right into the contemporary trend that was popularizing, even mainstreaming, lesbianism.

Genis-Vell resurfaced in the pages of The New Thunderbolts, a comic book about former supervillains trying to redeem themselves by being superheroes. He was killed in his very first appearance, but returned several issues later, transformed into a new cosmically-powered superhero called “Photon.” This annoyed Monica Rambeau, but over drinks they agreed to get along, and they came up with a new name for her, “Pulsar.”

The new Photon proved to be short lived, however. A character of mysterious and questionable motivation, Baron Zemo (son of a villain by the same name) discovered that due to Genis-Vell's connection to the universe, he was actually destabilizing it, and thus had to be destroyed by being broken into many small parts which were sent to distant separate points in time. Through various nefarious means, Zemo managed to do this, and that is the last we have seen of Genis-Vell.

Phyla-Vell then held the title of Captain Marvel, which she has since relinquished since she gained the Quantum Bands and taken the title of Quasar, protector of the universe.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The power of...the Ordway!

In the early 1990's, comic books were enjoying an unprecedented boom in sales and creativity. The fight for creator's rights had a breakthrough when several high-profile artists for Marvel Comics left and formed a new company, Image Comics. At the same time, a new company, Valiant Comics, also made up of former professionals from Marvel and elsewhere, appeared on the scene.

At the same time, the comic book industry had started to really play to the collector's market. Gimmicks such as variant cover editions, canceling books and starting them with a new “first issue,” packaging comics in plastic bags with trading cards in them, foil-embossed covers, and the star treatment given to hot new artists were driving collectors and fanboys to buy multiple copies of many comics.

The mainstream public had long been growing in awareness of the collectible value of comic books. Now many people were buying comics with no intention of reading them, merely storing them until the could, theoretically, sell them at a vast profit. With so many people buying comics, new comic book shops were opening all over the place. Businesses that had never sold comics before were now selling comics. One neighborhood in Brooklyn had a glove manufacturer, a laundromat, and an auto parts store all selling comics within a 5 block radius in 1993. And they were selling just about every comic book that was coming out, and now everyone with a dollar, a pencil, and a dream was coming out with a comic book.

During this period, Jerry Ordway was given the Captain Marvel assignment at DC, which would come to be called Power of Shazam. The Roy Thomas project was shelved. Another version of Captain Marvel that was being worked on by John Byrne was abandoned by him when the editors of DC Comics insisted that Captain Marvel exist in the main DC Universe. This was to be the Captain Marvel that would emerge after the “Zero Hour” crossover DC Comics event that was meant to re-order the DC Universe, tying up the loose ends that had been left by Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Jerry Ordway wanted to pay tribute to the original Captain Marvel while making his version more thought-out and updated. He set the stories in the fictional Fawcett City, which was under the magical protection of Old Shazam, keeping it a cleaner, nicer place than the rest of the world, and also keeping its “production design” stuck in the 1940's. Ordway loaded the city with street and business names that payed tribute to the old Fawcett people, such as Beck Lane and Raboy Trucking.

His stories were very well done, well thought out and interesting to read. However, from the beginning I felt that it was done wrong. First, when Billy said “Shazam!” for the first time and turned into Captain Marvel, Captain Marvel still had Billy's mind. Billy got violently upset and was unable to handle it. The first time he battled criminals he freaked out when he almost killed them. He said the magic word while on top of a blimp and the lightning caught the blimp on fire!

These things were all different from the way Captain Marvel was handled at Fawcett and in the first DC revival (which was supposed to be a continuation of the Fawcett stories). From his first appearance, Captain Marvel had been composed and confident. There was never any indication that he had any doubt or confusion or insecurity about his abilities. He knew what he could do and he did it when it needed it to be done. There was never any indication that he still had the mind of Billy Batson. He always seemed to be a separate personality. And finally, the magic lightning never had any effect on the things around it!

Ordway tied the origin of Captain Marvel into some elements of “The Adventures of Captain Marvel” serial and made Black Adam, a one-shot villain from the Fawcett days, a main adversary. Black Adam, a villain with the same Shazam-granted powers as Captain Marvel has since become the major boogeyman of the DC Universe, becoming the leader of the middle-eastern nation of his birth and going on a murderous, Hulk-like rampage across the Middle East when his wife and adoptive son were killed.

Mary was a younger sister and also became a grown-up, like Billy, when she said “Shazam!”. Her origin was tied in with Mr. Tawny, who was now a “pookah,” a type of magical spirit in the form of an anthropomorphic tiger. For the longest time, Mary was not known as “Mary Marvel,” but rather “the Lady Captain Marvel.” There was no moment when she actually took the name during the 47-issue life of the series. But whenever she appeared in another comic, she was referred to as “Mary Marvel.” The two most significant instances of this were her guest appearance in Supergirl, where her wholesome goodness totally got on the nerves of the new, hip, modern, teenage Supergirl; and I Can't Believe it's not the Justice League, in which her youth and innocence played comedic contradiction to her beautiful, fully-grown look.

Freddy Freeman appeared, after Mary rather than before, as a high school BMOC and sports hero. He was injured the same way the original Freddy was, and was again granted a share of the Shazam power.

In this version, the power of Shazam was limited, and when more than one Marvel used it, each individual Marvel had less. This was unlike the original Marvel family, in which the three members used teamwork to battle menaces that the power of one of them alone could not defeat. Instead, if more power was needed by one member, the other members of the family had to transform back to their normal identities, so the third would have all the power to face whatever the challenge of the moment was.

Ordway also wrote in some tension in the family. Freddy liked Mary, Mary was attracted to Freddy, and Billy was jealous. Ultimately Freddy left Fawcett City and went to New York. He joined the Teen Titans, whose writer didn't know what to do with him, and he was quickly forgotten. He then joined the Outsiders, a dark, edgy team of former sidekicks, grown up Teen Titans, and other oddball heroes. It seemed like he was just fitting in when the Infinite Crisis hit, and he disappeared from the team.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Captain Marvel is Energy

But Marvel Comics could not let the trademark go away. Immediately after the death of their Captain Marvel, they created a new one, introduced in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man Annual # 16. This one was Monica Rambeau, a stunningly beautiful black female harbor patrol officer from New Orleans. Created by writer Roger Stern and artist John Romita, Sr., she absorbed extra-dimensional energies when caught in an explosion of a dangerous, extra-dimensional energy tapping device. Though a lieutenant, an old family friend had been referring to her as “mon Capitan,” and a Spanish-speaking security guard losing consciousness referred to her as a “Captain Marvel.” The press got a hold of the name, and it stuck.

The energies gave Monica Rambeau the power to transform herself into energy, any form of energy on the electromagnetic spectrum. She pulled together a costume in a Mardi Gras costume storeroom. She was inducted into the Avengers as a member-in-training until she gained full mastery of her powers, and remained with the team for quite a few years, even being the chairman for a while.

As one of the few black female superheroes, she added needed diversity to the ranks of superherodom. As a stable, smart, responsible hero, she was a contrast to the other high-profile black female superhero, Storm of the X-Men (who had become a near schizophrenic, and suffered horribly from claustrophobia). At the beginning there was some awkwardness as friends of Mar-Vell were not sure about this new hero taking on the name of their respected late friend. But Monica Rambeau proved herself, and even though she herself considered giving the name up (she had not known about Mar-Vell when she first accepted the name that the press had bequeathed her), she embraced it. It was acknowledged that she was a worthy successor of Mar-Vell's heroic legacy.

She never had her own regular series, though she proved herself an admirable superhero. Though she had her ups and downs in her personal life, she took the job of being a hero seriously and responsibly, eventually becoming leader of the Avengers. For some reason, though, editor Mark Gruenwald wanted Captain Marvel to be shown as an inferior leader so that Captain America could take over the team. Writer Roger Stern objected, noting that this could be seen as racist and sexist. Stern was then dropped from the book. New writers had Rambeau developing insecurities about the job. Ultimately she lost her powers and nearly her life when she came in contact with sea water in her energy form and was spread across the ocean. She recovered, and took part in many, many significant adventures, many of them in outer space. But she never led the Avengers again.

She had two one-shot special issues (in 1989 and 1992) that were issue driven, specifically about racism and intolerance, in the early 1990's, but by then the comic book world was changing, and a new Captain Marvel was created.

New Announcement About the Shazam Movie

I found this press clipping through some random Captain Marvel searching:

It has all the depth of "Playtime is Fun!" and gives absolutely no new information that any hardcore fan who has been following the development of this movie wouldn't know already. It also reports the Dwayne Johnson/Black Adam angle as a "rumor," rather than citing the MTV Blog survey.

At least it is keeping the story alive.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Crisis

By 1986, DC Comics had created two generations of superheroes, and acquired the rights to characters from at least three other companies, Fawcett, Quality, and Charlton Comics. They had explained the existence of these different superheroes by saying they existed in different parallel universes, and they were able to do cross-over stories by having the characters travel between the dimensions.

It was the heroes of the Silver Age that first discovered these dimensions, therefore, their world was called Earth 1. Because the world they first discovered was the world of the original superheroes, that world was called Earth 2. So in other words, the world of the first heroes, the first version of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman., etc, was Earth 2, and the world of the heroes created or re-started in the 1950's was Earth 1. Confused yet? Just you wait.

There was Earth 3, where the parallel super-powered characters were all villains, and Lex Luthor turned out to be a hero. The Fawcett characters, including Captain Marvel, were on Earth-S (for Shazam). The world where superheroes were all in comic books (ostensibly the world in which you and I live) was called Earth-Prime. This list went on and on.

It was decided that the readers were finding this confusing, so something had to be done. The answer was the Crisis on Infinite Earth. In a long, convoluted 12-issue limited series epic in which almost every single character that had ever been in a DC comic (except for those that were licensed properties, like Jerry Lewis and Mighty Isis) appeared, all the excess universes were destroyed, and most of the superheroes wound up on the same planet. Duplicate heroes, like Superman and Batman, were consolidated, and retconned (retroactive continuity) into not having existed before now, and heroes that were revamps of the originals (Flash, Green Lantern) were generally explained as the elder having been the inspiration for the younger.

So in this world, Captain Marvel existed on the same world as Superman. It was decided to start the series over from scratch.

Writer Roy Thomas and artist Tom Mandrake created a mini-series called Shazam! The New Beginning. It sold rather well, but response was mixed. While some liked it, traditionalist fans of the original World's Mightiest Mortal hated it. The series took place in San Francisco instead of New York, Dr. Sivana and Uncle Dudley both turned out to be Billy's real uncles, and Billy's personality was fully intact when he transformed into Captain Marvel.

A new series was planned that would have drastically re-interpreted the Shazam Family. Mary would now be a wild punk girl, not the sister of Billy, and Freddy would be a black kid in a wheelchair. There were at least three different versions of the first issue drawn, but none seemed to pass DC Comics muster. Captain Marvel was installed as a member of the newly-formed Justice League, but dropped out after a few issues when he got tired of being treated like a kid (even though he was written as one).

Next: Black Light

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Death and Other Changes

Over the next couple of years, a confluence of the growth of independent comics and the rise of the comics specialty shops and conventions, and the increasing recognition in America of the potential for comics to be serious, quality literature and art led to the rise of independent comic book companies, creator-owned comic book properties, and graphic novels. By 1982, Marvel Comics was jumping on this bandwagon. They used their Epic imprint (which had been so far used for their Heavy Metal-inspired , adult-themed magazine) to start a line of creator owned comics, and they began a series of graphic novels. They asked Jim Starlin to do their first graphic novel, The Death of Captain Marvel, and he agreed if they would publish his Dreadstar series in their Epic line of comics.

Jim Starlin used the feelings he had been experiencing over the recent passing of his father to write a very moving story about Captain Mar-Vell dying of cancer, a very un-heroic death for a very noble character. The source of his cancer had been established in the last issue of Captain Marvel that Jim Starlin had written, in which the hero had been exposed to a toxic gas while battling a villain called Nitro. His nega-bands had held back the cancer for years, but by the time he told anyone about it, and despite a team of the most brilliant scientists, doctors, and magic users in the Marvel superhero pantheon, it had progressed too far to be operable. Ironically, this story came out on the eve of the breaking of the AIDS epidemic, in which many, many people would know the tragedy of loss to such an illness.

Thus ended that Captain Marvel, for the time being.

Meanwhile, Carol Danvers was fed up with her old friends, and planet Earth for that matter. She made friends with the X-Men, and wound up adventuring in outer space. There she developed a latent power, bursting into a form with the energy of a binary sun. She then took the name Binary.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Return of the Original!

Meanwhile, one day in 1972, Carmine Infantino, at the time publisher publisher of DC comics, decided that he was going to try to acquire the original Captain Marvel for his company. He called up Fawcett Publications and asked them what they wanted. They asked him to make an offer. He believes they were happy to get rid of him. This makes sense, considering they they could not make any money off of him any other way as a result of the lawsuit.

DC Comics leased the rights to the original Captain Marvel and his Marvel Family from Fawcett Publication, but they ran into a stumbling block about the comics they would appear in. Marvel Comics had the name of Captain Marvel trademarked. Therefore, DC could not produce a comic book with the title “Captain Marvel.” So the folks at DC put their heads together and came up with the idea of calling the book “Shazam!” This made sense. After all, the book would have all the members of the Marvel Family (now to be called the “Shazam Family”), so it would be a logical choice for a title. In fact the full title of the first issue was “With One Magic Word... SHAZAM! The Original Captain Marvel.” Marvel Comics threatened to sue over their use of the name of the hero anywhere on the cover, so after a few issues it was changed to “With One Magic Word... SHAZAM! The World's Mightiest Mortal.”

This legal trivia has led to a world of confusion. Since the only way anyone would ever see the name of Captain Marvel would be if they actually read the comic book, anyone who did not read the book would never know that his name was Captain Marvel. Although there were still plenty of people alive who certainly remembered the classic character, most of them were not reading comics any more. When a TV series was made in 1974, it used the title “Shazam!” although they did call the character Captain Marvel in dialog. Action figures could only use the word “Shazam!” on the box. So before long, in the eyes of the non-comic reading public, the red suit with the gold lighting bold was the costume of a hero named Shazam.

C.C. Beck was hired to draw the new comics, but the writers selected to write them, Denny O'Neil and Elliot S! Maggin, did not seem to catch the magic that made the originals so wonderful and popular. They started by explaining how virtually every character form the original Fawcett comics had wound up in suspended animation for 20 years, and played on the fish out of water, man out of time theme. But that was soon forgotten in favor of really silly stories involving everything from a growing gelatin desert to a talking frog to an invasion of “Salad-Men.” Beck was very unhappy. The years he had spent drawing Captain Marvel had given him a sense of propriety over the character, and he could not stand what these writers and the editor, Julius Schwartz were doing to him. They were taking all the fun out and replacing it with absurdity. He and Schwartz did not get along at all. Many years later Infantino said that he would have taken Schwartz off the book and let Beck write his own stories, but that did not happen. One day Beck finished his final story and quit.

The TV series turned out to be the most popular live-action Saturday morning TV show ever. Though remarkably tame and stiltifyingly boring by today's standards, the adventures of Billy Batson (portrayed by Michael Gray) and his Mentor (Les Tremane) touring the country through 28 episodes were repeated over 3 seasons. The role of Captain Marvel was played by Jackson Bostwick for the first 16 episodes and John Davey for the last 12.

Beck was replaced by Bob Oksner and later, Kurt Schaffenberger, who had been the most productive Marvel Family artist after Beck in the old Fawcett days. Reprints of old stories were printed regularly, sometimes filling 80 page issues. The new stories got a little better. With the coming of the Bicentennial, and the popularity of the TV show, they started a series of American history-themed stories while giving Uncle Dudley a mustache and making him Billy's mentor as the two of them toured the country in a Winnebago, just like Billy and Mentor on the TV series.

But the success of the TV series and the topicality of the Bicentennial stories was not enough to save this series. In a last-ditch effort, the old, Fawcett house style of Captain Marvel art was ditched in exchange for a “dynamic new look,” a more modern, detailed, realistic drawing style. After two issues of that, the book was canceled, and the stories of the Shazam Family were moved to the closing feature of World's Finest Comics. The art of Don Newton during this period was very well done, and although realistically detailed, was characterized by whimsical, cartoonish exaggeration. This matched the stories being written, which alternated between comedic romps and serious drama developing the Shazam mythos, which have since been all but forgotten.

Next: Death and other changes

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Don't Miss the Ms.

This Captain Marvel did engender a superhero spinoff that would become another Captain Marvel. Carol Danvers absorbed radiation from a Kree machine. This radiation had the effect of turning her into a superhero, the Kree Warrior known as Ms. Marvel.

Ms. Marvel made her first appearance in 1976, just a few years after the first issue of Ms. magazine. This was no coincidence. She was deliberately marketed as “the feminist superhero.” It does seem odd, then, some of the choices that were made for this character by writer Gerry Conway. Carol Danvers had been dismissed from NASA for her unsatisfactory handling of security issues involving the early adventures of Captain Mar-Vell, and now she was starting her new job as editor of Woman magazine, a publication mirroring Ms. She then would have blackouts, during which Ms. Marvel would appear. In other words, she was a schizo! What does this say about women and feminism?

This personality split was ultimately resolved, but she still was wearing a remarkably skimpy costume with one of the most impractical costume elements ever, a scarf! The costume was altered to stop showing her navel, and then completely redesigned to not have any resemblance to Captain Mar-Vell's.

Her series only lasted two years. She became a member of the Avengers, one of its most powerful However, her earliest appearances were punctuated by constant remarks, both in thought and out loud, as to how aggressive she was, as if not being a shy, retiring, submissive was the definition of feminism.

Then one day she turned out to be pregnant, but had not had any sex recently. The pregnancy ran its course in a matter of days. The offspring grew to adulthood even faster. He turned out to be Marcus, the son of Kang, an immortal time-traveling dictator and adversary of the Avengers. He had been trapped in Limbo and this was the only way he knew to get out. He had brought Danvers into Limbo, seduced her with the aid of scientific devices from the future, and impregnated her. Unfortunately, he was unable to survive on Earth, so he had to go back to Limbo, and Danvers volunteered to go with him, believing she was in love.

The truth is, she was raped, and her friends (the Avengers) seemed more concerned with the baby than her welfare. No one batted an eyelash when she left. When Marcus, who continued to age rapidly, died, the effects of the devices wore off, and Danvers found her way back to Earth. There she was almost immediately set upon by a new supervillain, Rogue, who stripped her of her powers and memory. In other words, she was raped again. Is this any way to treat the character that is supposed to be your feminist superhero?

Next: The Return of the Original!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Marvel's First Marvel

History is undecided on what happened next. In Les Daniels' official history of the Marvel Universe, Stan Lee says that he looked around, decided that it would be only right for Marvel Comics to have a Captain Marvel, and engaged in complex legal negotiations to get the name. Roy Thomas, who was assigned writing duties for the character after Stan Lee's first story, states both in articles in Alter Ego magazine and the Marvel Masterworks edition reprinting the first Marvel Comics Captain Marvel stories that it was Martin Goodman's idea, that he had to “protect his investment in the name”...Marvel. One thing is for sure, it was a perfectly reasonable business decision to grab a hold of the name Captain Marvel when your company is called Marvel Comics. There is no end of stories of people assuming that Captain Marvel was a product of Marvel Comics simply by word association alone. In any event, in 1967, Stan the Man created a new Captain Marvel. This one was an alien from the intergalactic Kree empire. He was a Captain in the military and his name was Mar-Vell. He was assigned to spy on Earth and determine if the human race was a threat to the Kree, and thus should be wiped out.

He took the guise of a mild-mannered yet mysterious rocket scientist named Walter Lawson and infiltrated the Cape, a US military space exploration base (they never actually called it Cape Kennedy, which was the name of the US space base at the time, but some years later, in flashbacks, it was referred to as Cape Canaveral). There he earned the suspicions of Carol Danvers, the beautiful female head of security. As he worked with and observed the humans, he began to feel sympathy for them and resisted opportunities to kill them, even fighting to defend them from various threats such as robots and monsters from various sources that seemed to make a habit of attacking the base (using the superior strength of his alien physiology and the superior technology and weaponry of his Kree space suit). In the course of saving the base from these threats, his name, Captain Mar-Vell, came to be pronounced by humans as “Captain Marvel.”

There was also a complex romantic polyhedron going on. Mar-Vell was in love with a medic, Una, on board the Kree ship that was orbiting Earth. She loved him too, but Colonel Yon-Rogg had lustful designs on her, and had a seething hatred for Mar-Vell as a result. Meanwhile on Earth, Carol Danvers was falling for Captain Marvel, who was beginning to develop affection for her, while she was ever suspicious of Walter Lawson, who kept on disappearing at remarkably convenient moments and around whom strange, unexplainable things happened.

Put all this together, and you had a character who was in many ways, more like Superman than the original Captain Marvel. An alien from outer space with powers and abilities beyond those of mortal men, who disguises himself as a mild-mannered person, then slips away to change into his heroic costume and save the world. He had a hyphenated name that ended with “el.” He even had a Lois Lane parallel in Carol Danvers, who incidentally has the same last name as Superman's cousin, Linda Danvers, Supergirl (Roy Thomas, who created her, insists was an accident).

Stan Lee likes to justifiably boast about the seemingly magical success about every one of his creations from the 1960's. However, in his autobiography, there is not a single mention of Captain Marvel. Whether he forgot, or was embarrassed, the fact is that his Captain Marvel did not sell as well as most everything else he created in the 1960's. Gene Colan, who designed the uniform and drew the first few issues, said it was the worst superhero costume ever.

Captain Mar-Vell first appeared in the pages of Marvel Comics' compendium book, Marvel Super-Heroes, and after two issues, he got his own book. However, after a year of repetitive stories, there began a series of plot devices and shark-jumping changes galore. Unfortunately, none of these changes really were able to grab a loyal audience.

Both his love-interest, Una, and rival, Yon-Rogg were killed, he was used as a pawn in Kree politics, got swept up in racial conflict within the Kree Empire, then ultimately was given new powers, a new costume, and then unceremoniously dumped into the Negative Zone. Then Rick Jones, Marvel Comics' official all-purpose sidekick (yes the kid who got Bruce Banner turned into the Hulk), found a pair of golden bracelets called “nega-bands,” and by banging them together, found he could trade places with Captain Mar-Vell in the Negative Zone. This was a new take on the Billy Batson/Captain Marvel transformation. This time, instead of it being a strict transformation, where the alter-ego was subsumed by the superhero and vice versa, the alter egos were actually able to communicate with each other, essentially living in each other's heads.

But the biggest change for Captain Mar-Vell was when, in 1973, Jim Starlin wrote and drew a storyline that had Mar-Vell being chosen by the cosmic entity Eon to be the Protector of the Universe and granted Cosmic Awareness (the ability to be aware of absolutely everything in the universe, past, present, and future. A handy ability, and one that can give great serenity to one who has the mental and emotional stability to handle it). This turned the alien warrior into a cosmic space hippie, very much a product of his times.

Despite this, and a very concerted effort by Marvel Comics to identify this Captain Marvel as one of the front-line heroes in its universe, the title was eventually canceled in 1979.

Next: Don't Miss the Ms.!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

New Captain Marvel "Shazam!" Figure

At San Diego Comic Con, A new Captain Marvel figure was revealed.

I notice some things I like and some things I dislike with it. WARNING: they are ALL nit picks! But with a figure so realistically sculpted, I feel it deserves it.

Hair - not wavy enough, not "wet look" enough.
Eyebrows - too deep, doesn't turn up at the inside.
Eyes - greater effort should have been made to simulate the pupil-less squint.
The chin - not cleft.
The cuffs - only 4 bands, not 5
The cloak button - On top of the collar flap

Cuffs - the loop is on the side of the forearm.
Boots - the seam
Overall - the effect is of a heroic, smiling champion, which is what the original Captain Marvel is all about.

Half & half:
The cloak cord - Some illustrations show it twisted in one direction, some the other, so I can't pick on that.
The lightning bolt - I prefer the bolt that points to the navel to the one that points to the hip, but that's a losing battle these days.

Captain Zorikh

Saturday, July 26, 2008


Shortly after Fawcett shut down its comic book line, Senator Estes Kefauver's anti-crime hearings concentrated on juvenile delinquency. The comic book genres of crime and horror were very popular at this time, and there were certain groups and individuals concerned that this was damaging the minds of small children. Dr. Frederick Wertham and publisher William C. (Charlie) Gaines (publisher of EC Comics and the son of Max Gaines, who had produced that “first comic book” back in 1934) both testified. Though Dr. Wertham's research methods were flawed (he asked juvenile delinquents if they read comic books. Since almost all kids did, of course all delinquents did also, but Wertham did not ask any other kids but the delinquents), Gaines' attempts at defending the artistic virtues of a horror comic did not go over well. There were rumblings of government censorship of comic books, but the publishers themselves got together and created the Comic Code Authority. This assured parents and newsstand owners that the comics were all in good taste, wholesome, and safe for kids to read.

Sales of comics plummeted. Many comic book companies folded. But then DC Comics decided to shake things up. In 1955 they revived their line of superheroes. They asked writer Robert Kanigher and artist Carmine Infantino to revamp the golden age superhero The Flash.

It turns out that Infantino had already created a new superhero and a whole line of villains for him to fight. He had always been a fan of Captain Marvel, and he had created a new hero with a red costume and lightning bolt motif called “Captain Whiz,” and the stable of villains were the “Colors of Evil,” each one having a costume of a different color. He simply took his “Captain Whiz” concept, tweaked it slightly, and it became the new Flash and the “Colors of Evil” became his “Rogue's Gallery” of Mirror Master, Captain Cold, Heat Wave, etc..

The new Flash was a big hit. DC followed up by reinventing Green Lantern, the Atom, and others, rebooting Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, and letting other heroes, like Aquaman and Green Arrow, simply slide into the new generation. They created a new superhero team, the Justice League of America, They found a new audience of young people almost as enchanted by superheroes as their parents (or at least elder siblings) had been a decade and a half earlier.

Then, in 1961, Martin Goodman, publisher of Atlas Comics (the company that had been known as Timely, and would soon be known as Marvel), asked one of his most prolific writers, Stan Lee, to create a new team of superheroes, since Justice League of America was doing so well. Stan had considered quitting the whole comic book racket, as he was getting tired of writing Atlas' monster tales. But he had wanted to do something new with superheroes, make them more realistic. His wife convinced him top take the plunge and do it now. He could always quit later.

The result of this was the Fantastic Four, which was a big hit. It was followed by Spider-Man, the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, the Avengers, the X-Men, and a host of others. Captain America, whose comic had been canceled in l950, then revived briefly in 1953, was revived again. The commonality for all these characters was that they existed in a more realistic world. They had problems and insecurities that normal people could relate to. They became incredibly popular and ushered in a new era of comics as pop art.

By 1966 comics were so popular, that ABC decided to create a Batman TV series. The popularity of the series and the merchandising that went along with it inspired a further boom in comic books. Myron Fass, a publisher who had drawn some comics in the early 1950's, decided to take advantage of this new interest in superheroes, and published a new Captain Marvel.

Credited as having been created from an idea by Carl Burgos (the creator of Marvel Comics' original Human Torch), this Captain Marvel was a robot from outer space who had been sent to earth on a mission of peace as his planet was destroyed by war. His special power was that he could separate his limbs and head from his body by saying the word “Split” He could then re-assemble himself by saying “Xam!” (get it? Split + Xam = Shazam). He wore a red suit, sometimes had a mask, and had orange hair. In his civilian identity he was Robert Winkle, college professor, and his best friend was a boy named Billy Baxton.

This comic played on contemporary fears of global war and the extremely topical space race, but this could not disguise the fact that the comic was poorly written, indifferently drawn, and that many of the characters, including Tinyman, Elasticman, and the Bat, were blatant rip-offs of other characters form other companies. It also cost 25 cents for each “giant action issue,” which was more than the typical 12 cents comic books were going for. Through there were twice as many pages, there were not as many kids with that much money to spend on a comic book.

There were four issues of Captain Marvel that MF Enterprises published, followed by two issues of Captain Marvel Presents the Terrible Five. Sales were poor, and the title folded, quickly forgotten.

Next: The First Marvel Marvel

Monday, July 21, 2008

The British Marvel

During WWII, American comic books had been used as ballast in cargo ships across the Atlantic. Upon their arrival in England, they wound up in the hands of British children. A British publisher, Len Miller & Sons, obtained the license to reprint Fawcett's comics in the United Kingdom. When Fawcett pulled the plug on their comic books, Captain Marvel was still as popular as ever in England, so Len Miller had Mick Anglo's art studio create a new versions of Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family, blatant rip-offs named Marvelman., Young Marvelman, and Kid Marvelman (for whatever reason there was no female member of the family).

Marvelman's Alter ego was a copy boy for a newspaper called the Daily Bugle named Micky Moran. He had been subjected to the effect of a special machine by the dying astro-physicist Guntag Barghelt. This gave him the key to great power. He would be able to unlock this power by saying the word “Kimota” (Atomic misspelled backward). Then in the flash of a mushroom cloud (sound effect: WOOF!) would transform into Marvelman!

Young Marvelman's alter ego was Dicky Dauntless, a delivery boy for Transatlantic Messenger Service, and Kid Marvelman's alter ego was Johnny Bates, a 9-year-old boy. Both of these boys effected their transformations by saying the name of their senior hero-family member, ”Marvelman,” just as Freddy Freeman had affected his transformation by saying “Captain Marvel.”

These comics were drawn in an imitation of the C.C. Beck style, and sometimes covers were blatantly ripped off of original Fawcett covers. The stories followed the same basic patterns, and even their enemies paralleled the Marvel Family's. In the place of Dr. Sivana was a Dr. Garzunga (complete with the short stature and bad teeth, although with hair) and in the place of Black Adam was Kid Nastyman (complete with black and yellow version of the Marvelman costume).

This line of comics enjoyed its ups and downs of success and popularity until it was folded up in 1963. But that was far from the last that would be seen of these characters.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The World's Mightiest Lawsuit

Comic books grew in popularity during WWII for several reasons. One reason was that many superheroes battled against the enemies of America during the war. Captain Marvel was no exception. During this period Captain Marvel comics began to outsell everything else, even Superman. At its height, Captain Marvel Adventures was selling nearly 1.3 million copies every two weeks.

In 1941, Detective Comics, the company that owned Superman, sued Fawcett and Republic Pictures, saying that Capitan Marvel was a violation of their copyright. They claimed that because he was super-strong and invulnerable, and did many of the same things Superman did (fought crime, threw cars around, flew, etc), and many Captain Marvel drawings resembled Superman drawings, Captain Marvel was in violation of Superman's copyright. DC had successfully stopped a couple of other characters through threatened or actual lawsuits. Fawcett answered by saying that because a certain series of the Superman newspaper strip had been printed by the McClure Syndicate without the copyright notice, Detective Comics had abandoned their copyright on the character.

After many delays, the case was tried in 1948, by which time Detective Comics, Inc was known as National Comics Publications.. It was decided that although the similarities between Captain Marvel and Superman were great enough to constitute copyright infringement, the lack of proper copyright citation in the McClure Syndicate strips did constitute abandonment. National appealed.

The appeal was heard by Judge Learned Hand, who ruled that there was no expressed intention by the original copyright holder to abandon Superman, and sent the case back down to the original court. Since it had been decided that Captain Marvel was in violation of Superman's copyright, it now had to be decided what the damages would be. The basis for this was to determine how much Captain Marvel material had been copied from Superman material. Fawcett made the case that there was Superman material copied from Captain Marvel material (in those days almost everyone copied from everyone), and this would mitigate the damages owed. So staffers were put to work on both sides poring over Superman and Captain Marvel comics, looking for matching pictures.

At this point in history, comic books were loosing sales, superheroes in particular. Captain Marvel was only doing half the business he had during the war. There were also rumblings of social pressures against comic books, such as Dr. Frederick Wertham's book Seduction of the Innocent. With the expense of the court case combined with the declining income from comic books, in 1953 Fawcett made the financially responsible and business-wise decision to settle out of court. They agreed to pay National $400,000 and not to produce Captain Marvel comic books. At the same time they shut down their entire comic book line.

During the next 13 years the name of Captain Marvel was gone from comic books but far from forgotten. He was mentioned in the Broadway musical West Side Story (which came out the same year as The Music Man, which anachronistically mentioned Captain Billy's Whiz Bang). He was mentioned in the Beatles song Bungalow Bill. The word “Shazam” was used regularly by the TV character Gomer Pyle and once by Peter Tork on the TV show The Monkees.

Quick Trivia: Fawcett did produce one other comic book line after the 1953 settlement: Dennis the Menace, 1958-1980

Next: The British Marvel

Monday, July 14, 2008

Captain Marvel Goes Hollywood

Movie serials had been in decline through the late 1920's and the early '30's as long-form motion pictures and sound came to dominate the industry. Then in 1936, Universal Studios brought forth Flash Gordon, a serial adapted from the newspaper comic strip drawn by Alex Raymond, starring Olympic swimmer Buster Crabbe and the stunningly gorgeous Jean Rogers. It had three times the budget of the typical serial of the day, and its action and production values blew audiences away.

The success of this serial led the studios to make more serials based on comic strips. Ultimately, they started to turn to comic book superheroes. Republic Pictures at first tried to make a Superman serial but could not come to an agreement with the company that owned him, So they turned to Fawcett, and Captain Marvel. Thus, in 1941, did Captain Marvel become the first comic book superhero in any motion picture.

The Adventures of Captain Marvel is generally acknowledged to be one of the best serials ever made, and its cast had an amazing set of pedigrees. Tom Tyler (Captain Marvel) was a champion weightlifter and a member of the US Olympic team in 1928. He appeared in many westerns as well as Gone With the Wind. Frankie Coghlan Jr. (Billy Batson) played boys and teenagers for most of his career, and ultimately wound up in an episode of the Shazam! TV series. Louise Currie (Betty Wallace) appeared in movies with such stars as Bela Lugosi, Orson Welles, Gene Autry, and W.C. Fields. William “Whitey” Benedict (Whitey Murphy) was a Dead End Kid and a Bowery Boy. Nigel deBrulier (Shazam) had played Cardinal Richelieu in five different movies, was in most of the big silent epics, and had been in a silent film version of Oscar Wilde's Salome that was featured in the documentary Before Stonewall (this was not the only connection to the gay community that the name of Capitan Marvel would have). Gerald Mohr, who played the voice of The Scorpion, the villain of the story, in 1967 went on to play the voice of Green Lantern/Hal Jordan in "The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure,” and Mister Fantastic in “The Fantastic Four.”

When Superman was finally made into a serial by Columbia pictures starring Kirk Allyn in 1948, the studio got in a dig at Captain Marvel. They used a lot of stock costumes to populate the planet Krypton, the home planet of Superman's father, Jor-El. One of those costumes, worn by Jor-El's adversary on the Science Council, was the costume Tom Tyler wore in The Adventures of Captain Marvel.

Quick trivia: In the days of black-and-white film, various shades of gray were sometimes used to simulate color on screen. The costume Tom Tyler wore as Captain Marvel was actually gray, but “looked” like red on screen.

Next: The World's Mightiest Lawsuit

Friday, July 11, 2008

Mr. Tawny, the Feline Everyman

While many of Captain Marvel's adventures could be seen simply as fun adventures, there were times when moral lessons were imparted. These were frequently through the use of a very popular character, Mr. Tawky Tawny, the talking tiger.

Mr. Tawny was the everyman. A tiger from a non-specified jungle on another continent, he had been given a serum which enabled him to speak and think like a human. His curiosity of the big city brought him to America, where he did his level best to fit in. He would face those common challenges that we all have faced in our lives. He would struggle with his weight. At times he would fall prey to get-rich-quick schemes or “personality potions” or other gimmicks that he thought would make him more popular. But the most serious challenge came when he tried to get a new house.

Published in 1947, “Mr. Tawny's New Home” came out right when both pro football and big-league baseball were breaking their color barriers. Black people had come home from WWII proving that they could do anything whites could do, and the march towards the end of Jim Crow was beginning. But prejudice dies hard, and hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan still existed. This story had Mr. Tawny moving into a new neighborhood, where it turned out the people feared and distrusted him. They even formed a citizens group to drive him out, complete with robes, masks, torches, and pointy hoods.

Captain Marvel stopped their rampage, and Mr. Tawny proved himself to be a good fellow, and so the community learned something about tolerance and acceptance. This was a lesson Captain Marvel taught in several other stories as well. But this valid and important point was inadvertently undercut by some other things that had appeared earlier in the pages of Captain Marvel comics.

Early on, Fawcett had decided to try to appeal to a black audience, so Ed Herron created the character of Steamboat. Steamboat was a hot dog salesman who became Billy Batson's valet at station WHIZ. He spoke in a stereotypical “Negro” dialect, was nobly loyal to his boss, and had big red lips that took over half his face. In short, he was a demeaning racial stereotype.

But such stereotypes were the norm for popular entertainment at that time. Steppin Fetchit was the most popular (and wealthiest) black actor in mainstream Hollywood. One could still find blackface minstrels in the movies, with nothing thought bad of it. This even had a tradition within Fawcett Publications history; Captain Billy's Whiz Bang was notorious for its off-color and racial jokes. It is sad, really, that in an attempt to appeal to a specific audience, they wound up creating a character that described everything that that audience found offensive. The character was discontinued after a delegation from the black community marched into the Fawcett offices and demanded it.

Perhaps it is easier for people to swallow a moral lesson if they can see it as a parable, rather tan seeing the story in its unvarnished truth. Perhaps by seeing a real black person, prejudiced people would be blocked from the lesson by their prejudices. But Mr. Tawny was an already popular and beloved character (a mail-in contest to give him his first name drew thousands of responses), so using him to highling social issue must have seemed more effective.

Next: Captain Marvel Goes Hollywood!

Monday, July 7, 2008

Something about Mary...and the rest

One spin-off begat another, as Billy Batson's long-lost twin sister appeared, and was found to also have to power to transform into a hero upon saying “Shazam!” She turned into Mary Marvel, who was unique among female superheroes of the period. She was one of the the few female superhero who was not marketed on her sex appeal. Her beauty was meant to inspire affection, not lust. She was a young teenage girl, after all. Her powers were also different from Captain Marvels; for her, the acronym of Shazam stood for:

Selena = Grace
Hyppolita = Strength
Ariadne = Skill
Zephyrus = Fleetness
Aurora = Beauty
Minerva = Wisdom

These powers were indicative of a society in which it was important to stress certain differences between males and females, boys and girls. A later age would find women debating and rebelling against some of these assumptions, as would future female Captain Marvels.

Rounding out the Marvel Family were three Lieutenant Marvels, boys from different backgrounds all named Billy Batson who, when they all said the magic word together, became grownup Marvel versions of themselves; Uncle Marvel, a lovable fraud inspired by W.C. Fields; and Hoppy, the Marvel Bunny, the Marvel Family's entry into the genre of funny animal comics.

There was never any deep examination of the psychological relationship between Billy Batson and Captain Marvel (or the other Marvel family members, for that matter). It appeared that Captain Marvel was a separate person from Billy Batson; that both people were aware of the other's memories, but were not psychologically tortured by the fact that they were trapped in the other's body. It was more like Billy Batson actually became a different person when he said the magic word. This was reinforced by moments when, for instance, Billy would buy Christmas presents for Captain Marvel, Captain Marvel would say “when Billy said the magic word...” and one early story where Billy needed help on a test ad whispered “Shazam,” at which point a ghostly apparition of Captain Marvel appeared over his shoulder to whisper the answers into his ear. Hey, this was magic, and it was a comic book, after all!

Next: Mr. Tawny, the feline Everyman

Friday, July 4, 2008

Captain Marvel and King Arthur have the same issue...

The stories of King Arthur are probably based on things that probably happened so long ago nobody remembers, and successive versions of the story placed the values, mores, social trends, and literary styles of their times onto the legend. When motion pictures began adapting that legend, scholars and fans would debate how well those movies were true to the traditions of the legend. Sometimes, such as the Antoine Fuqua-directed film “King Arthur,” changes from the literary tradition are so great that no matter how good, or even simply how interesting, the movie may be, it begs the question, why even bother using those characters' names? Why not just create new characters and let people accept that you were inspired by the originals but wanted to interpret them your own way?

This last approach has worked for such Captain Marvel-inspired characters as Marvelman/Miracleman, Mighty Man, and Prime.

Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family (now known as the “Shazam Family”) first appeared in Fawcett Publication's comics in the early 1940's and, after a brief maturation period, found their groove and remained true to their original concepts and aesthetics up until the end of Fawcett's comics in 1953. Since then, every revival, reboot, and re-interpretation of the characters has been compared with those stories.

Other famous comic book characters, such as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, having been in constant publication, evolved with their times through periods when the memories of comic book readers were short. A reader of comics in 1962 would not have been likely to know what the characters were like in 1952 or 1942, and is not likely to have complained much about drastic differences in art style, writing style, costume, or continuity. Other characters, like The Flash and Green Lantern, were re-booted as completely different characters on a different Earth, merely with the same name and similar powers. Thus even if a reader cared, they would not have to make an issue of the way the character was being interpreted. Still other characters, like Captain America and Marvel Comics' 1950's Marvel Boy, were “brought back to life” after decades, and the fact of being out of their own time was used successfully as a defining part of their character, as their new stories were written for the contemporary audience.

When the original Captain Marvel was revived in 1973, 20 years after Fawcett Publications had ceased publishing comics as a result of the lawsuit by DC Comics, he started to be treated in this manner, but that was quickly dropped, and the attempt was made to create stories with the sense of fun and “whimsy” that the original Fawcett stories were remembered for. They were never truly successful on that score. Later, the characters were incorporated into the regular “DC Universe” of heroes, but despite occasional creative and commercial success, there remained dissension from those who felt that the spirit of the original Captain Marvel was not being served, that he was not being “done right.”

Dan Didio, Executive Editor of DC Comics has stated Captain Marvel never really fit into the regular DC Universe, and that this new line of stories, “Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam!” is outside even the “52” continuity. It is meant to bring Captain Marvel back to the kids, back to its original sense of fun.

But does it work?

First, the art:

Part of the brilliance of the original CC Beck style of Captain Marvel was it's deceptive simplicity. While it appeared that the art was simple and cartoony, at its best it was based on a foundation of reality. If you examine the figures, the backgrounds, the composition, you will see that there is little exaggeration, merely brilliant simplification. The pictures are clear, readable, and entertaining. Mike Kunkel's art, however, goes all the way with cartoonish, even childish exagerration. Big heads on the children, big torso and tiny legs on the hero, impossible anatomies based on exaggerated physical stereotypes exemplify the work. The lines are all sketchy, giving the work a sense of hurried animism. It evokes an extreme version of the drawing style in Disney's “The Sword in the Stone.” Sometimes it is actually difficult to tell what is going on with all the sketchyness.

Next, the canon:

This story mostly follows from the version of the Shazam Family started by Jeff Smith in “Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil.” Everything is pretty much the same as the “classic” version with regards to Billy Batson having been led to the cave to meet the ancient wizard Shazam who gave him the power to turn into Captain Marvel with the speaking of his name. It follows the New Beginning/Power of Shazam tradition that Captain Marvel is simply Billy's mind in Captain Marvel's body. Billy Batson appears to be about 10 years old and Mary is several years younger (in the original stories, they were twins, roughly 12-14 years old). It does not follow Jeff Smith's version in the necessity to remove shoes before entering the Rock of Eternity to visit old Shazam, and it doesn't follow the concept that one should not kneel for wizards. It does follow Smith's concept that the state of the eyes of the statues of the Seven Deadly Enemies of Man (here called the “Seven Deadly Evils”) is significant. It also follows Smith's exploitation of the concept of Mary Marvel's powers being different from Captain Marvel's due to her “Shazam” anagram being from different gods. Most significantly for the story, she is faster than Captain Marvel but not as strong.

The villain is introduced, but is a child version of the character that he is based on. It is presumed that the character will transform into a super-powered version of himself before the end of the story, but we do not know if it will be as a super-powered child or adult. I wonder if the yellow shirt he is wearing is a reference to Kid Marvelman/Kid Miracleman,a character from Mick Anglo's Marvelman Family, which was created in 1953/1954 to replace the Marvel Family in England?

Most importantly, Mary stays the same apparent age when she transforms, and is a motormouth. In the original Fawcett stories, and Smith's version, she stayed the same age, but the motormouth quality is all Kunkel.

Design-wise, Billy is given the red shirt and yellow star that Jeff Smith gave him referencing his “Bone” comic, and Captain Marvel's jacket flap has a row of four buttons, rather than just one, and the brocade is gone from his cape.

Having said all that, let's look at the comic on its own merits:

The story is very fun and entertaining, with banter and rivalry between the Batson/Marvel siblings. The set-up of the world of these characters is well handled, with a good balance of exposition with the story. The adventures are thrilling, lighthearted, and fun, and can be enjoyed by people of all ages. It does remind me that comic books don't have to be all about violence and moody introspection, that it can be fun to be a kid who turns into a hero.

Some of the humor comes from actual comedy, some of it is found in the fact that this comic book is handled partly as a satire of superheroes. The fact of kids as superheroes is kind of funny when you consider the priorities that children sometimes have, and what the ability to have super powers or turn into a super-powered grown-up can allow you to do.

There is a “Monster Society Code” decoder on the front page that will help you decode certain passages at the beginning and end of the story. This is a tribute to the “Monster Society of Evil” storyline that was serialized in Captain Marvel Adventures in the early 1940's, when Secret Decoder Rings enabled readers to decode short passages at the end of each story, usually the title of the next episode. Here the passages are full dialogs, and even a hefty amount of text on the last page. While I appreciate the tribute, for my own taste, I think it's a bit gratuitous. In the “Power of Shazam” series written by Jerry Ordway, Mr. Mind spoke in code, and a decoder was available, but Mr. Mind was an alien worm, so it made sense, and you could follow the story even if you didn't decode it. Here it just seems like its code for code's sake, and gets in the way.

I would not be afraid to show it to a kid, or embarrassed to read it in front of adults. It's a wonderful reading experience, and I look forward to future issues. It says a lot about it that only a small, nagging part of me, says “could you not have done this with a new character with a different name?”

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Blue Boy

Before long Captain Marvel was given his own solo comic book (one issue of which was written and drawn disposably by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, creators of Captain America), and a spin-off character was created, Captain Marvel Jr., This character was a lame boy, Freddy Freeman, who had the power to turn into a mighty hero with the powers of Captain Marvel, except he looked exactly the same (apart from the costume, of course). This hero was drawn more realistically, with an aesthetic established by Mac Raboy. His adventures were more personal, its mood more sensitive than Captain Marvel's. It is said that Elvis Presley was such a fan of Captain Marvel Jr. that he used his hair as a model for his own. Further evidence of this Elvis-Shazam connection included the lightning bolts on his airplane and his “TCB” ring, and the short capes that he affected with his jumpsuits. The magic word for this character's transformation was “Captain Marvel,” thus making Captain Marvel Jr. the only superhero who could not say his own name without losing his powers.

The difference between Billy Batson/Captain Marvel stories and Freddy Freeman/Captain Marvel Jr. stories was a deliberate and smart decision by Fawcett. Billy lived in a world that was always bright, where the biggest problems were those that required a hero like Captain Marvel to solve (mad scientists trying to take over the universe, alien invasions, etc). Billy was a successful and popular radio news reporter, independent with none of the troubles one would expect an orphan to have.

Freddy, on the other hand, was more of a sad case. He sold newspapers on the street, dressed in rags, limped on a crutch, and lived in a run-down boarding house. Many of his cases were on a more personal level, dealing with personal tragedies and struggles with sensitivity and heart. While Captain Marvel was a beloved celebrity that could always count on the support of the authorities, Captain Marvel Jr. was more of a lone wolf, a solo operator who would have to rely on his own abilities to help the underdog get out from their oppression.

Next: Something About Mary...

Friday, June 27, 2008

Early Captain Marvel

Immediately Captain Marvel and Whiz Comics became a success. It is not hard to see the attraction Captain Marvel may have had to young boys. He was, in his alternate identity, a young boy. This boy was a resourceful, adventurous kid, who could handle himself in tough situations, but when faced with a challenge that was greater than a normal man could handle, he could change into a grown man, a mighty hero, by simply saying a magic word. As more than one historian has commented, this was total wish fulfillment. It may have been more difficult for young boys to identify with a grown man who was an alien from outer space.

Further, while the early adventures of Superman were tales of social justice, and laced with the sexual tension of the Superman/Lois Lane/Clark Kent triangle, the adventures of Captain Marvel had it's heroes (Billy Batson and the Captain) battling absurd, almost comedic plots to conquer the world, with little or none of the embarrassing awkwardness of a Clark Kent/Lois Lane exchange. In fact aside from Captain Marvel being particularly shy around women, the whole romance angle was conspicuously absent.

Captain Marvel's primary adversary was Dr. Sivana, a bald scientist who was struggling to rule the world and ultimately gain the crown he believed he deserved, that of the “Rightful Ruler of the Universe.” His look was inspired by C.C. Beck's childhood pharmacist. This was one of the most tenacious and entertaining villains in history.

Shortly after Captain Marvel first appeared, the US entered WWII. Bill Parker went into the service, and never returned to comics. After a while Otto Oscar Binder, an already successful writer of science fiction famous for, among other things, the original “I, Robot” stories, got a job writing for Fawcett's comics. He got the Captain Marvel job and ultimately wrote more than half the Captain Marvel and related character stories published by Fawcett. His writing style established the sense of “whimsy” that so many historians have described Captain Marvel's stories to have. After the end of Fawcett Comics, he went on to write for DC, adding a similar sense of humor to many Superman-related stories, and creating characters like Supergirl.

Next: The Blue Boy

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Thunder is Marvelous

Comic books at this time were still mostly anthologies with several stories of different characters. The first Fawcett comic book would be no different in this regard. The lead feature would be the costumed super hero of Fawcett's concept. Daigh selected Bill Parker, a supervising editor of Fawcett's movie magazines, to be the editor and develop the material that would fill this new comic book. He wound up writing every story and creating all its characters. Charles Clarence Beck, a staff artist and cartoonist at Fawcett, was assigned to be the artist for this new superhero Roscoe Fawcett wanted

Parker's original concept for the super hero lead feature was to be a team of a half-dozen heroes, led by a Captain Thunder. This captain and his lieutenants would each have a different power, such as strength, speed, wisdom, etc., which they would use to fight evil. This would have been the first super hero team in comics, coming before the Justice Society of America and even before Batman had his sidekick, Robin. This idea was dropped, though; in favor of one hero who would have the powers of several ancient gods and heroes granted to him by a bolt of lightning and his name would be "Captain Thunder!"

Captain Thunder would be the lead feature in a new comic called Flash Comics. An "ashcan" issue was produced, dated January 1940. Unfortunately, All-American Comics, an enterprise begun by Max C. Gaines in partnership with Detective Comics, released their Flash Comics, the same month. Fawcett's book was retitled Thrill Comics. Then pulp magazine publisher Standard Magazines introduced Thrilling Comics. Finally it was decided to give Fawcett Publication's first comic book the title of Whiz Comics, harking back to Captain Billy Fawcett's first magazine, Captain Billy's Whiz-Bang.

The hero himself had to go through a name change, though. At the last minute, the name “Thunder” was rejected, and artist Pete Costanza suggested the name “Marvelous,” which was shortened to “Marvel.”

The original Captain Marvel appeared in Whiz Comics #2 (most historians credit the ashcan as being #1) in 1940. In the story, young orphan newsboy Billy Batson was invited into an abandoned subway station by a mysterious figure in a dark hat and trench coat. The stranger took him to meet and old wizard named Shazam. The wizard introduced himself as one who had used the powers of a half-dozen ancient heroes to battle evil for thousands of years. His name was a acronym of those heroes:

Solomon = Wisdom
Hercules = Strength
Atlas = Stamina
Zeus = Power
Achilles = Courage
Mercury = Speed

Shazam told Billy to speak his name. When he did so he was transformed into Captain Marvel, a tall, muscular fellow in a red suit with a strong resemblance to Fred MacMurray (artist Beck's idea).

Next: Captain Marvel: The Early Days

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Pre History: The Captain and the Major

This is the first in a series of twice-weekly posting I will be making to this blog, synopsizing the history of the many Captain Marvels as I see it. This is the groundwork for the forthcoming book "Captain Marvel Culture." For more details, go to

Magazines, regular periodical publications containing brief, self-contained articles, had been around since before the American Revolution. The advent of regular passenger train service in the 19th century gave the magazine industry a big boost as passengers sought reading material that was portable, of moderate length, and disposable. By the first half of the 20th century, one genre of magazine that had developed a particularly strong following was the pulps. Pulps were magazines that were generally printed on cheap paper and contained short stories , mostly of adventures that appealed to men and adolescents.

Comics, cartoons, and sequential art, illustrations that told stories, had been around, in various forms, since Ug the Caveman took a burnt stick to the cave wall. Combining these illustrations and sequential images with words has been done almost as long as there have been alphabets. Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Bayeux Tapestry, and 18th century broadside cartoons all are examples of this. At the end of the 19th century, comedic comic strips became a regular feature of newspapers. In the early 20th century various types of collections of comic strips, sometimes called “comic books” had been released. In the mid 1930's reprints of newspaper strips had found success as premium giveaways, until in 1934 a publisher named Max C. Gaines got the idea of putting out a collection of newspaper strip reprints with a 10-cent price tag and left them on a few newsstands. They sold out over the weekend. For a couple of years several publishers, many of whom had been in the pulp business, began regular publication of newspaper reprints. One new publisher, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, a colorful character who had a successful career writing adventure stories in the pulps, used his connections to put together the first comic book of all-original material with advertisements, Detective Comics #1.

While this was happening, two young Jewish science-fiction fans, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, were desperately trying to make a splash in the comic strip industry with their science-fiction creation, Superman. After several years of rejections and failures, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson's company gave them a break, making their character the lead feature in a new comic book, Action Comics in 1938. Thus was the first comic book superhero brought into the world, and the comic book industry never looked back.

The popularity of Superman grew faster than anything else in the publishing industry. It opened the floodgates to a myriad of masked adventurers and imitation superheroes.

Meanwhile, back in the magazine industry, Fawcett Publications took notice. Fawcett was company founded by Captain Wilford H. “Billy” Fawcett. He had fought in the trenches of WWI, and when he returned home, began a pamphlet of jokes and patriotic writings which he distributed to veteran's hospitals. The pamphlet proved to be a success on newsstands and soon became a popular magazine for the flaming youth of the Roaring '20's. A congenial networker and tireless businessman, “Captain Billy” parlayed the success of this magazine, “Captain Billy's Whiz Bang,” into a publishing empire, with titles in almost every magazine genre imaginable. A family man, he brought his children up in the businesses. One of his sons, Roscoe K. Fawcett, noticed the sales of comic books and thought that Fawcett Publications should enter that arena as well.

Roscoe Fawcett tapped art director Al Allard and editorial director Ralph Daigh to head the project. Citing surveys that said that the biggest market for comic books was 10 to 12 year old boys, he said "give me a Superman, only have his other identity be a 10- to 12-year-old-boy rather than a grown man"

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Captain Marvel Culture on YouTube!

An-G of the gives Captain Marvel Culture some publicity outside the Big Apple Convention!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

It starts with SHAZAM!

...and so begins the Captain Marvel Culture blog. In this blog I will endeavor to comment on the developments of the many Capytain Marvels, synopsize stories, and announce updates on the development of the Captain Marvel Culture project.

If you have no idea what I am talking about, then go to