Wednesday, July 30, 2008

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.

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