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"

1 comment:

Glenn Walker said...

Looking good so far, man. Great blog!