Saturday, July 26, 2008

Split!


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

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