Today, we're going to talk about one of my absolute favorite superheroes, the one, true Captain Marvel!
|Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam #19. Art by Mike Norton|
Now, unless this is your first trip to the Comics Cube!, you'll know I'm a big, big fan of Captain Marvel. Created by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck for Fawcett Publications in 1940, I think the basic concept - that of young Billy Batson saying the word "SHAZAM!" and then turning into Captain Marvel, a man with the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury, was and still is pure genius. Such a basic setup is the perfect one to involve the reader - specifically kids. While kids could fantasize about being Superman - a meek and mild-mannered journalist who takes off his suit and becomes the mightiest man in the world - everyone could fantasize about AND relate to being Billy Batson, who was an actual powerless kid - with no pretenses - who turned into a superhero with a mere word.
It's the ultimate wish fulfillment fantasy, and goes a rather long way into explaining Captain Marvel was so successful in the Golden Age, when comics were at their peak and was almost exclusively a kids' medium. In fact, Captain Marvel was so popular that he not only had two titles (Whiz and Captain Marvel Adventures), an honor reserved only for Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman at the time, but also a number of spinoffs.
|From Superman/Batman: World's Funniest by Evan Dorkin. Art by Jaime Hernandez.|
Captain Marvel Junior carried the darker stories (with intricate Mac Raboy art) for the older readers, while Mary Marvel targeted the female demographic with Marc Swayze art. This one franchise carried a comic book company, something that no other franchise could claim to do at the time, with the possible exception of Archie. Superman and Batman didn't have spinoffs (until 1947, when Robin got one).
I hope that puts things into context for everyone, because it's important to know just how successful Captain Marvel was.
The Captain Marvel stories stood out among the Golden Age comics because of their sheer quality and sense of wonder and whimsy. With C.C. Beck's clean linework and the stories written mostly by Otto Binder, the Captain Marvel stories exercised the imagination of the readers and filled them with fantastic ideas to tickle their minds.
For example, here's Captain Marvel, pulling on a strand of string that is woven into a carpet from another dimension! It's as fun as it sounds and looks!
Captain Marvel Adventures #100, which I read back when I was 15 from a library book, was a thrilling and gripping tale, where Dr. Sivana took over the wizard Shazam's spot on the Rock of Eternity and tried taking over the entire universe. The story involves robots, magic, and Tawky Tawny, Captain Marvel's talking tiger.
Man, that art is pretty.
Now, because of a lawsuit from DC Comics, claiming that Captain Marvel was infringing on Superman's copyright. In the early 50s, the superheroes were dying out, so Fawcett just decided to concede the case and stop publishing Captain Marvel. Of course, at that point, it had already inspired a number of imitators - internationally, I might add!
DC then licensed Captain Marvel so they could use him, and in 1991, they just flat-out bought him. They segregated the Marvel Family into their own earth, designated Earth-S (for Shazam), and when they told stories of the Marvel Family on their own, they tried retaining the whimsical feel of the classic stories, the sense of wonder that had made Captain Marvel so important. Note this retelling (written by Denny O'Neil, and also drawn by Beck) of his origin in Shazam! #1.
But when they told stories where the Marvel Family interacted with the rest of the mainstream DC Universe - ah, well, there was a problem. For one thing, Captain Marvel would almost always have to be compared with his Golden Age rival, Superman.
This is a natural story, of course. A dream match for fans, the ultimate crossover -- whatever spin you want to put on it. Of course, though, the sheer number of times with which it happened just ended up limiting the Marvel Family. It seems that from that point onward, Captain Marvel always had to be compared to Superman. A true shame, because bringing Captain Marvel into the DC House Style really did make him what DC always accused him of being: a second-rate Superman.
After the Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1986, DC rebooted their entire line (kind of) so that there were no alternate earths, and there never were. A part of this decision was to reboot Captain Marvel from scratch. Therefore, in this new universe, not only would Captain Marvel have to exist in the same universe as Superman, but he would also have to deal with the fact that he could no longer retain the same role. Superman is the premiere superhero in his universe - the same exact role Captain Marvel fills in his. Thus, in this larger DC Universe, Captain Marvel is just plain redundant.
The worst thing about Captain Marvel's involvement in the DC Universe is that it happened in the 80s - the era of the grim and gritty. Roy Thomas and Tom Mandrake came out with Shazam: The New Beginning, attempting to set the tone for Captain Marvel in this new universe. In the new history, Cap is the only one of his kind - no Junior, no Mary, definitely no talking tigers. Billy Batson is orphaned, and is then adopted by his uncle-by-marriage, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana. Note the updated version of Dr. Sivana - full of shadows, more grotesque than impish. A true sign of the 80s.
As part of their attempt to make the character more realistic and updated for the modern day, Thomas and Mandrake tried making him more badass, with panels like the following.
The truth is that Shazam: The New Beginning is actually a pretty good comic, considering that it's generically 80s (and the 80s were great!) . . . if it weren't a Captain Marvel comic. It would have been fine if it were anyone else, anyone that people didn't really have care much about, but Captain Marvel, who became an icon exactly because of his whimsical nature, just was not the right character for this project. Note the scene in which Billy gains his powers - in an attempt to be "realistic," we see the power go to his head almost right away. This provides a rather sharp contrast to the original sequence shown above.
Thomas and Mandrake's version was not so well received, and in 1994, they decided to change Cap's origin again. DC went to Jerry Ordway, an established artist on Superman, and had him write and draw the series. Unfortunately, Ordway is a talented artist, but his style tends to favor the grittier kind, while Cap needs, again, the more whimsical type.
But those painted covers sure are pretty.
Ordway's series was as 90s as Thomas and Mandrake's was 80s - perhaps even more, highlighted by the obvious attempt to not be a product of its times. See, in the 90s, the fad was really big guns and lots of grimacing, and Ordway really tried to steer clear of this. Of course, bits of it still crept in, and because he tried so hard not to do it, when they did creep in, it was more accentuated. Note his version of Billy's getting his powers.
Seriously, my niece laughed when she read this. A lot. "Why is Billy beating up the wizard?" she asked. Try explaining to a kid the reason, and you won't find anything that will satisfy them, because no one is going to Captain Marvel for angst and anger.
I also have to add this particular sequence where Captain Marvel fights his opposite number, Black Adam.
"I lived on the streets"? Ugh. Really, Jerry?
In addition, whereas the identity separation of Billy and Captain Marvel was quite distinct in the Golden Age - Cap was one person that Billy turned into - this new treatment had Billy retaining his own mentality and staying a kid even when he's the world's mightiest mortal. This was their way of explaining why he was kept cheerful and lighthearted in the DC Universe.
It also effectively neutered him, as seen in this panel where Superman - with fading powers - chooses to go on a suicide mission, while the guy who's at least as strong as he is, whose powers aren't fading, stands there and says "Holy Moley, Superman!"
In fact, it seems that the only way Captain Marvel seems special at any time is when he's beating up Superman, like in this panel from Grant Morrison and Howard Porter's JLA.
And note that even after beating Superman, he has to say that he's not as important as Superman!
Captain Marvel was also used in James Robinson and Tony Harris' Starman run to show how special and what a hard fighter Starman is.
I have no problem with this; it's the same kind of reasoning Frank Miller used when he chose Superman to be Batman's "enhancing counterpart" in Dark Knight Returns, and at least Robinson captures the "kid-as-superhero" characterization perfectly, even if it does make Billy look stupid. (I mean, look at that exchange up there.)
Ordway's The Power of Shazam lasted for a few years, which is considered a success for pretty much any average title in comics in the 90s - as well as these days - and that's simply not good enough for the character who, at one point, was the biggest character of the Golden Age. This continued insistence on keeping everything in one universe, to keep the continuity among titles and characters, has severely neutered Billy Batson and the Marvel Family. As much of a hodgepodge as shared universes are, Captain Marvel's whimsy and sense of wonder stands out so much in the more realistic setting of the larger DC Universe and ends up resembling silliness. By 2007, the Marvel Family was so broken that they just decided to take them all the way to the extreme and turn them evil.
I know. I know. I know. This isn't a sense of wonder, folks. This is a sense of bewilderment.
The reason Captain Marvel doesn't work in the DC Universe is obvious: it's that he was never meant to be in there, and that his role is already filled by someone else. I think it's massively telling that the best use of Captain Marvel has been away from the entire DC Universe. I refer, of course, to Jeff Smith's excellent miniseries, Shazam! and the Monster Society of Evil. My full review is here, and I'm not going to recount it.
What I will do is talk about the follow-up series, Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam. While I skipped the first four issues completely because I couldn't stand Mike Kunkel's art, the subsequent issues written by Art Baltazar and Franco, and drawn by Byron Vaughns and Mike Norton are entertaining, amusing, and wonderful. I got them for my niece and I ended up getting drawn into the story myself!
Look, here's Dr. Sivana riding a big robot called Mr. Atom!
Later on in the story, Cap's old enemy, the caveman King Kull, gets involved, so how does Mary beat both Kull and Sivana? With a solution that evokes the best kind of sense of wonder: the real kind.
The cartooning style here is fun! It's whimsical and it carries the story perfectly. It stands head and shoulders above a bunch of the photo-based - pardon me - crap we see today. Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam is one of the best titles on the market today, getting the sense of fun, whimsy, and wonder that made the Marvel Family so big and fun to begin with!
And of course, because it's (1) unconnected to the main DC Universe, and (2) marketed toward kids, it's getting canceled in a couple of weeks, because apparently, no one's reading it.
How to solve this? Well, I think that it's clear that I don't think that working Captain Marvel into the main DC Universe doesn't work. I also don't think that targeting him towards adults works. There are two steps: (1) Get him the hell away from Superman, and (2) Make sure the kids are reading him.
Now, next year, Grant Morrison and Cameron Stewart are coming up with a Captain Marvel comic in which the Marvel Family is set on Earth-5, an earth modeled after the old Earth-S, where the Marvels are the premiere superheroes on their earth. In short: in this earth, Captain Marvel is the Superman.
That's step one, and Morrison is definitely a good enough writer to bring in that sense of wonder, and certainly a good enough writer to come up with thrilling narratives when he's editorially constrained, but that's not enough. We all know that it's comics readers, not kids or casual readers, who go into comics stores and see the offerings. So how to get this in the hands of kids? Well, for that, we go to fellow Captain Marvel fan, Pol Rua! Pol thinks that DC should:
Create a digest-sized quarterly or bi-monthly for sale in bookstores and to elementary school libraries. Aim it at young readers.
The quarterly should run to about 100-120 pages and include one main, self-contained story (taking up about half the page count) and two or three back-ups, either all self-contained or a multi-part serial which runs for a certain amount of issues.
The main story should either be Captain Marvel (usually) or The Marvel Family. Back-ups can be Mary Marvel, Captain Marvel, jr., Tawky Tawny or whatever.
This is a great idea, because the digests are affordable and thick for their price-size ratio. Moreover, they're convenient in bookstores and even here, used book sales sell new Archie digests. Imagine if superheroes were that convenient for purchase.
Pol then gives some suggestions for how the creative teams should be handled:
"Unless it's a serial, the writers and artists should rotate, to allow busy creative people to produce work at their own speed. Art should, for the most part, be simple, clean-line work - Mike Allred, Steve Rude, Cliff Chiang, Jaime Hernandez... but who wouldn't love to see Colleen Coover or Dean Trippe do a Mary Marvel story, or Sergio Aragones or Kyle Baker do a Tawky Tawny story?
Freaking hell, I love this idea! Here's some suggestions of my own: David Mazzucchelli, Pete Poplaski, and Ty Templeton.
I also suggest - and I think this stuff is great - that when stories of the entire Marvel Family are told, we go back to the old style where the characters are drawn differently (I detail it here), as opposed to all being drawn in the same style.
It distinguishes them and appeals to all the demographics (girls for Mary, younger boys for Cap, older boys for Junior), and also it gives it a really different look from any other franchise in the industry. So I'm all for this idea.
Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family are too significant, too important to the history of comics to be ignored. And they're such good characters and good concepts that to do this wrong is really a disservice to the fans, the readers, the writers, and the artists. This franchise is quite simply too good to keep at the wayside.
And before anyone tells me that the Captain Marvel storytelling engine is outdated and that kids don't want to read about kids who turn into superheroes, I mean, really, that's bull. I give you Ben10, a very successful cartoon about a kid who turns into powerful beings.
And besides, how cool would it be to have more kids running around saying "SHAZAM!"?