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Who Is Captain Marvel? Part 2: Crisis on Infinite Re-Boots

 

In 1953, DC Comics, then known as National Comics, succeeded in doing what Dr. Sivana never could. By getting Fawcett Publications to agree to cease publication of their comic book line, they effectively killed off Superman's biggest rival, Captain Marvel. But if there's one thing comics have taught me, it's that super-heroes rarely stay dead.

Some echoes of the character still lingered. Spin-off character Hoppy the Marvel Bunny lived on in reprints at Charlton Comics, albeit under a different title. British publisher L. Miller & Sons, which had been publishing black & white reprints of Captain Marvel in the UK, rubbed the serial numbers off and began putting out a similar character named Marvelman; (later re-named "Miracleman"). Marvel Comics appropriated the unused name for a succession of cosmicly-powered heroes. And the Captain's wizard mentor remained in the memory of Pop Culture in the catchphrase of Gomer Pyle.

Then, Captain Marvel returned, rescued from limbo by the very company which had exiled him there. In the early '70s, DC Comics was looking for new properties to develop, and it's then publisher, Carmine Infantino, negotiated with Fawcett to license Captain Marvel and the Marvel family. This was a licensing agreement; Fawcett still owned the characters, but for the first time in decades the Big Red Cheese was appearing in a comic book. Though not under his own name.

In the intervening years, as we have seen, Marvel Comics had come out with its own Captain Marvel and trademarked the name. (Since Fawcett hadn't published the character in years, their own trademark had long since lapsed). This meant that DC could not use “Captain Marvel” as the comic's title. (And the title the character originally appeared in, “WHIZ COMICS”, was deemed inappropriate for other reasons. Snerk.) The solution DC came up with seemed appropriate: they named the book SHAZAM!, after the magic word Billy Batson used to transform into the World's Mightiest Mortal.

The Return of Captain Marvel was something of a coup for DC, at least as far as old-time comics fans were concerned; especially since DC was able to hire original Captain Marvel artist C.C. Beck to draw the new series. But the comic faced other obstacles. As Beck later told it, when he and writer Bill Parker created the character back in the '30s, they made a conscious decision to avoid the pulp action conventions that other Masked Mystery Men of the comics followed and to try to emulate the sense of old folk-tales and myths, updated to the 20th Century. But during Cap's hiatus, mainstream comics had changed. Partly this was due to the influence of Stan Lee over at DC's competition, who had established new standards of realism and characterization to the literature of Super-Powered Men in Fancy Tights; partly this was due to an older readership which expected a little more sophistication in its comics; and partly this was due to a reaction in fandom against the campy “Bif!” “Pow!” era of the BATMAN TV series. But whatever the cause, it meant that fans were unaccustomed to the gentle whimsy of the Golden Age Cap.

How could the bright and cheery storybook Cap fit in with the more action-based main DC Universe? Initially, they didn't even try. Writer Gardner Fox had set the precedent a decade earlier with his story “The Flash of Two Worlds” in which he established that there were other, alternate universes, similar to our earth in some ways, but different in others; and that the heroes of the Golden Age existed on one of those other Earths. As the Silver Age progressed, other Earths were added: Earth Three, home of Superman's evil counterpart Ultra-Man and the Crime Syndicate of America; Earth-X, where the Nazis won WWII, but heroes like Uncle Sam, Phantom Lady and The Ray (characters originally published by National's sister company, Quality Comics) carried on the struggle for freedom. So Captain Marvel and the Marvel family were assigned a universe of their own: “Earth-S”.

DC re-introduced Captain Marvel to the modern audiece with a story written by Denny O'Neil and drawn by the character's co-creator C.C. Beck. O'Neil might have been a strange choice to revive the Big Red Cheese; he was better at and more comfortable writing street-level, non-powered characters; but he was Julie Schwarz's go-to guy for character re-vamps and had done good work on Batman, Wonder Woman and Green Arrow.

In the story, the evil Doctor Sivana, ("The World's Maddest Scientist") develops a substance which puts any living thing it touches into a state of suspended animation. He uses this at a public event honoring Marvel to immobilize him, along with all his friends and supporting cast; (and Sivana himself, due to a goof on his part). They all end up frozen in time for twenty years, which explains where the Marvel Family has been for the previous two decades. But I suspect that the story was meant to explain the Marvels' wholesome innocence to the modern audience; that Captain Marvel was the product of a Simpler, Less-Cynical Time and so Doctor Sivana's huge globe of Suspendium also allowed the comic to bring that Simpler Time along with him to the present.



This '70s revival of Captain Marvel was one of those experiments DC puts out every now and then which is more interesting than successful. The old-time Captain Marvel fans thought that the new series missed the charm and whimsy of the original; and the new readers just couldn't get into the Big Red Cheesiness of it all. To be fair, DC was grappling with a problem that companies trying to re-invent a classic property for a new generation still face today: How do you make an old character fresh and appealing to new audiences without irking fans of the original?



The SHAZAM! revival petered out after a few years, but Captain Marvel remained a presence at DC, popping in from Earth-S for the occasional team-up with Superman in DC COMICS PRESENTS.



Then came the CRISIS.



In its CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS miniseries, DC consolodated all of the adjacent sub-universes it had accumulated over the years into one single amalgamation. At the same time it used the opportunity to re-tool and re-define some of its existing heroes, like Superman and Wonder Woman. By this time, DC had bought Captain Marvel from Fawcett outright, and used the Cosmic Reset Button of the Crisis to finally integrate the World's Mightiest Mortal into the New DCU.

They had already begun modifying Cap's look to reflect the DC "house style"; but in order to fit into the mainstream Post-Crisis DCU, Captain Marvel had to be more realistic. The innocence and cheerful optimism of the Golden Age, and even of the Silver Age, had become outdated; and the early shadows of what would become the Grim-and-Gritty Era were beginning to seep out of Crime Alley and permeate the rest of the universe. But this same innocence and cheerful optimism were exactly what defined Captaim Marvel as a character, and without those qualities, he is nothing more than what Judge Learned Hand ruled he was in the '50s: a Superman knock-off.



How DC solved that conundrum can be encapsulated by the tagline to SHAZAM: A NEW BEGINNING, the 4-part miniseries re-introducing Cap and revising his origin for the Post-Crisis Universe: "The World's Mightiest Mortal is Just a Kid At Heart.

"

Which, come to think of it, is pretty obvious. The reason why Captain Marvel possesses such a child-like innocence is because he is still a child. He may have the physique of Charles Atlas and the handsome face of a young Fred MacMurray, but deep down, he is still Billy Batson. You wouldn't think this would be controversial.



But some fans of Captain Marvel have disagreed with this interpretation. They point to repeated instances where Cap and Billy are depicted standing side-by-side on covers, although I don't think we need to be continuity literalists regarding cover art. Covers tend to be symbolic of the stories inside rather than accurate representations of them. There was also at least one occasion where Billy whispered the Magic Word during a test at school so that Captain Marvel could use the Wisdom of Solomon to slip him the answers, and in that case they were definitely portrayed as two separate people; but I'm not sure how much weight we ought to give to a single isolated sight-gag. More relevant, Billy and Cap somtimes would refer to each other in the third person. Then again, Clark Kent does much the same when he says "This looks like a job for Superman!"



I have to admit that while writing this piece I've gone back and forth between the two interpretations. From a writer's point of view, it makes sense to show Billy experience his super-powers and learning to used them for the first time from his point of view. It makes for a better story than to just have Cap emerge fully-powered from the head of Zeus. Or of any of his other divine patrons, for that matter.



Frankly, Billy has a more interesting personality than Cap does. In the old stories Marvel sometimes comes of as one of the blander cheeses, like muenster, rather than a sharp chedder. And what kind of grown man says "Holy Moly!" anyway? (Well, I might; but then, I'm weird)

.

But their personalities do seem different. Perhaps it's due to Cap having access to the Wisdom of Solomon. Perhaps it's increased confidence due to having the strength of Hercules and the Courage of Achilles. Maybe we can chalk up the difference to just being Billy pretending to be grown up, like Tom Hanks in the movie "Big". Or perhaps the difference is simply my own perception, the way I imagine Cap's larger body giving him a deeper voice than he has as Billy.



The new movie version of SHAZAM! is following the example of Tom Hanks in how it portrays the World's Mightiest Mortal. He's a kid in a hero's body, and he revels in his new form and abilities with wonder and excitement. For the movie that's probably a good thing. I'm enough of a "Crusty Crumudgeon", as C.C. Beck used to refer to himself, that it bugs me that DC has succumbed to inevitability and officially re-named the character "Shazam"; but I'm open to different interpretations of the character, so long as the character retains some sense of the joy and the exuberance of the original. That, even more than innocence and whimsy, are to me the essential qualities of Captain Marvel.



And talking tigers. But that will have to be a subject for yet another column.


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Kurt Wilcken draws the webcomic “Hannibal Tesla Adventure Magazine” at http://www.kurtoonsonline.com/ and writes a weekly blog about obscure Bible stories, “The Ones You Didn’t Hear in Sunday School” at: http://onesyoudidnthear.blogspot.com/ He also sometimes refers to himself in the third person and he lives for feedback.