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!