One Fan's Opinion: Issue #33

Fri, April 14th, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist

A CASE FOR CAPTAIN MARVEL

As a kid, I was a big fan of Captain Marvel.

Not the Stan Lee/Gene Colan Captain Marvel or even the redesigned Roy Thomas/Gil Kane Captain Marvel that clicked his wrists together and traded places with the Hulk's old sidekick Rick Jones (although I did like that Captain Marvel) but Fawcett Comics' Captain Marvel. You know the guy -- the guy who said that one magic word and changed from boy reporter, Billy Batson, into the World's Mightiest Mortal.

You likely know the story of the young orphan Billy Batson who was taken by a mysterious stranger into a magical subway station (back in the heyday of comics where youngsters were encouraged to talk to and follow strangers into darkened subway tunnels), which lead to the ancient wizard, Shazam. The young newsboy was granted the power of six elder gods whose names made up the Shazam acronym: Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury and he became the caped adventurer, mighty Captain Marvel!

Captain Marvel was the ultimate wish fulfillment for a kid! This kid wasn't a sidekick or a pal of an established hero-he turned into a full grown adult with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men!

As I've mentioned before, my dad collected comics when he was a kid and I grew up with his collection around the house. He brought them out when we were far too young to take good care of them, but just the right age to enjoy the hell out of them. He had a smattering of Batman and Superman comics and many others, but his longest run on any title was that of Captain Marvel Adventures.

And I was, and am, a fellow fan.

I read them over and over marveling at the inventive plots, the charming antics of the characters and the outstanding art. Captain Marvel was an anomaly. It was whimsical and goofy yet heroic and imaginative. Unlike Superman, Captain Marvel stories often had fantasy elements, which were anything but realistic. The Earth itself might decide it was tired of humans running around on it and well-intentioned scientists were forever screwing up and wreaking havoc. Gods were real, living in the heavens above and magic elves and evil imps abounded. Where Superman had one mischievous imp to deal with, Captain Marvel had a whole host of them! It was a world where ghosts walked and played tricks on people and the hero at large was as likely to be stuck babysitting a couple of irrepressible brats as he was to face down some deadly menace hell bent on the destruction of the human race. There were cities floating in the sky and built in craters and it was not at all uncommon to meet an alien or two and, more often than not, those aliens looked about as threatening as the Michelin Man! I'd rather face a roomful of aliens from the pages of "Captain Marvel Adventures" than one Bill Sienkiewicz normal guy!

Captain Marvel appeared first in "Whiz Comics" (which my dad did not collect) and later in "Captain Marvel Adventures" (which he did). "Whiz Comics" had one Captain Marvel story per issue whereas "Captain Marvel Adventures" commonly had at least four.

Captain Marvel's rogues' gallery was, to put it mildly, somewhat lackluster. The World's Mightiest Mortal faced the "World's Wickedest Scientist" Sivana on an almost monthly basis, he fought King Kull (the beast man) numerous times as well, he confronted Mr. Mind (the World's Wickedest Worm) once (in a 25-part serial), he met Mr. Atom (an atomic-powered robot) three times (he was destroyed forever at the end of their third skirmish) and many others appeared once or twice (Black Atom among them). Most often he was dealing with wacky one-off dilemmas or street thugs than a legitimate superpowered menace worthy of his abilities.

Captain Marvel's (and Billy's) supporting cast consisted of Mr. Morris (his boss) and Steamboat (an especially stereotypical black youth, who was sometimes portrayed as Billy's manservant or assistant and sometimes his roommate. Steamboat eventually vanished, due in part to fairly vocal protests from people of color at the time) and few others, to begin with. Later, other supporting characters were added such as Billy's secretary Miss Jameson, Talky Tawny (a civilized tiger who had gained the ability to talk and reason from a special elixir), Dexter Knox (boy genius), Ma and Pa Potter (who he boarded with toward the end of the series) and Timmy Tinkle (a robot -- who really should have appeared in Whiz Comics, given his last name). There were others who appeared infrequently as well such as other members of the Marvel Family (which included three Lieutenant Marvels, Mary Marvel, Captain Marvel Jr. and the lovable fraud Uncle Marvel who just pretended he had powers like the others), plus a smattering of other friends.

In any case, I read and reread my Dad's "Captain Marvel Adventures" comics and the "Marvel Family" comics and even "Mary Marvel." At that point there were no new comics coming into my life. I was a kid and I was content to read these old ones.

Then something miraculous happened -- Captain Marvel returned!

In 1973, DC Comics acquired the rights to produce new Captain Marvel comics! The thing was, that their chief competition, Marvel comics had, in the intervening years after Fawcett had ceased publishing the adventures of the Big Red Cheese, come up with their own Captain Marvel (the afore mentioned Lee/Colan/Thomas/Kane version) so DC couldn't use the title Captain Marvel! They opted for Shazam, instead.

But something was missing.

In the intervening years, comics had gone through a number of changes. Captain Marvel looked much the same thanks to the return of Captain Marvel's chief artist C.C. Beck, but the stories somehow fell a little flat. The whimsy was gone and continuity crept in. In days of old, they played fast and loose with continuity. If a story called for the old Wizard Shazam to wear a magic bracelet in order to remain an intangible ghost, so be it. The unnamed city in which Billy lived was, at times, a great metropolis and at other times, a more modest-sized city. It all depended on what a given story required.

While I acquired that first issue of Shazam, it wasn't as good to me or as "real" as the original Captain Marvel Adventures.

And, after a few years, Shazam ended.

And that was that.

He appeared a few more times over the intervening years, eventually working his way into the Justice League and later into a second ongoing title.

And then a very strange transformation occurred.

You see, in all the years that I grew up reading Captain Marvel comics, it never once crossed my mind that Captain Marvel had Billy Batson's mind. Sure, they both had some shared thoughts and a peculiar penchant for using the unlikely phrase, "Holy Moley," but there were far too many instances where it was obvious that Captain Marvel had his own distinct personality for me to buy that it was all an act by Billy Batson.

That changed. This new Captain Marvel was Billy -- through and through and I was not pleased.

The thing is, that it seemed in all other cases, the Marvel Family members shared the personalities of their counterparts. When the three Lieutenant Marvels first appeared they had the same accents and voices of "Tall Billy," "Hill Billy" and "Fat Billy." When Mary Batson first became Mary Marvel she stopped to admire her own dress. Clearly, it was young Miss Batson in the driver's seat.

But that was not the case with Billy Batson.

You see, Billy and Captain Marvel would disagree on things from time to time. Captain Marvel's voice might even beg him to unleash his power! Billy and Captain Marvel exchanged Christmas presents (Billy wanted a particularly loud tie -- Cap wanted Tiddlywinks)! There was even an episode (see "Captain Marvel Adventures" #73) where Billy met Captain Marvel! In that story, Zeus (who was often the guy throwing down magic lightning in response to Billy's magic word) had a stiff shoulder and his aim was off! When Billy yelled, "Shazam" somebody else became Captain Marvel and Cap's previously established personality was intact! Heck, later in that tale, the bad guy of the piece became Captain Marvel and Cap let Billy tie him to a chair so that the thug who was trying to dispose of the meddling youth would be bound when Captain Marvel changed back!

As far as this fan is concerned, Frank Miller got it right in "Dark Knight Strikes Back" (Book 3, if you must know) when he had the good Captain state that, "I never turned into Billy. A lot of people got that wrong. What happened was, me and Billy, we switched places."

The thing was, it was never stated conclusively as far as I've been able to tell in the classic Captain Marvel stories from the '40s and '50s. It was somewhat ambiguous. "Captain Marvel was often shy around women -- like a kid might be", some would say -- but Billy wasn't particularly shy around women -- in fact, Billy had a girlfriend fairly early on and, as a reporter, he often had to be around and interview attractive females and he managed to do it admirably, without tripping all over his tongue.

The latest "SHAZAM" outing was particularly irksome to this Captain Marvel fan for several reasons. First, everything was "reinvented for the '90s" including origins and whatnot. They came up with "more believable" backgrounds for Talky Tawny and Mr. Mind and all the other characters deemed too "silly." Second, it was illustrated in a more traditional realistic superhero style -- gone were Cap's distinctive features. Third, there was continuity galore -- you couldn't simply read any issue in any order and be entertained -- one story led into another. Fourth, Captain Marvel's unnamed town was named (Fawcett City, in honor of Cap's original publisher). Whereas, in the past, a reader might think of Cap as a local hero, now he was nailed down to one, clearly imaginary, city. Fifth, Captain Marvel Jr. was given a new name (CM3 -- a particularly awful name for a superhero. And yes, granted, it was silly that junior was the only hero -- that I know of -- that couldn't say his own name without changing identities -- Freddie Freeman said "Captain Marvel" to affect his change, not Shazam like the others, but still!). Sixth, Mary Marvel was given a new costume (hers was subtly altered and updated in the past, sure, but it was always red not white -- ghaa!). Seventh, Captain Marvel was given the costume he wore for one issue with its buttoned up flap. And eighth, Billy Batson and Captain Marvel were the same person with the same personality! Jerry Ordway had killed Captain Marvel!

Now, I like Jerry, and I enjoy his work tremendously, which is why it's particularly painful to admit how much I loathed the "Power of Shazam." It missed on all cylinders. This simply wasn't Captain Marvel -- or at least -- it wasn't to me.

Sigh.

But honestly, I don't know if Captain Marvel can be "done right" in a way that modern readers would embrace (although it would be really nice if, for once, somebody tried to do a book that was the same as his book from the '40s and '50s which was, at one point, the best selling comic book in the United States)! Jerry had suggested to me at some point that I give DC a holler and see if I could give it a shot, but I'm not convinced that I'm the right man for the job.

Double sigh.

I saw a few pages from Jeff Smith's upcoming "SHAZAM" project…and, while I think it's somewhat delightful, it too reinvents the wheel. And it's a wheel that I don't think needs to be reinvented.

More sighs.

I wish you could read Captain Marvel. I wish DC wasn't reprinting them at such a snail's pace that by the time the book really gets cooking, I'll be long dead. I'd like to be able to share with you the original Captain Marvel, but I can't.

I'm putting together a complete run of "Captain Marvel Adventures" for myself. At this point I'm missing a few scattered issues and a number of the awful ones that started the run (I'm satisfied having these in reprint form. The early issues were uniformly poor. Even the first issue by Simon and Kirby was lackluster by their standards. It's kind of nice that the most expensive issues in the run are also the worst issues in the run -- it makes not having them that much easier to cope with).

When I helped start up this Image comics outfit back in 1992 I did a book called "Savage Dragon" (and I'm still doing it, actually -- ask for it by name) and in it, I introduced my own character who was a tip of the hat to Fawcett's Captain Marvel: Mighty Man. And, as a way of "changing things up" (or so I thought) I made Mighty Man an entity, not an identity. Whoever changed into Mighty Man (and several people have assumed the mantle) would retain their original personality. Mighty Man himself had no personality to call his own. Little did I know that Captain Marvel would be revised so that he was similarly lacking his own personality. Strangely enough, the best Captain Marvel stories in the last 50 years were Mighty Man tributes to Captain Marvel penned by Gary Carlson for Big Bang Comics! There were three such tales collected in "Savage Dragon" #50 and they're brilliant -- and I had nothing to do with them (other than coming up with the guy). If there was to be a guy penning tales of the "real" Captain Marvel, I can think of no better person for the job than Gary Carlson. He gets it.

I love Captain Marvel. I love the original Captain Marvel.

And these days I read "Captain Marvel Adventures" to my own children, who are third generation Captain Marvel fans. I'll even bring a stack of Captain Marvel comics on vacation to read to them as bedtime stories. There's nothing the kids look forward to more than having Dad come home from a convention with a new batch of books to freshen up the pot.

I know, I know, you just don't see it. I wish you could see it. I wish it were available so that you could see it (the Shazam Archives are not enough).

There are times when I wish DC had just left well enough alone rather than try and recreate the magic. And I really wish that the next time somebody sets out to "fix" something that they're damned sure that it's "broken" first.

'Cause I don't think Captain Marvel was.

But that's just one fan's opinion. I'm willing to concede that I could be wrong.

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