Friday, August 25, 2017

Four Hestons of the Apocalypse

...from Apes to Apotheosis...

(originally published April 2015)

If Buster Crabbe is the Rudy Vallee of scifi thespians, then Charlton Heston is the Elvis. And like Crabbe, there is a certain thematic unity to Heston's work that bears examination.

In the 1950's, when Heston was a young actor, the USA experienced a perceptible increase in overt religiosity. No doubt this was some kind of collective reaction to the successive deprivation and horrors of the Great Depression and World War II, as well as a cultivated propaganda campaign of the early Cold War.

Indeed, in 1954, the US Congress voted into effect the national motto: 'In God We Trust,' ostensibly as a tribute to the bronze-age Hebrew war-god Yahweh, AKA Allah, AKA God. In 1957, US mints began printing the motto on paper money, uniting the two things Americans worship the most.

Sec. of State, John Foster Dulles, author of some of the USA's most aggressive imperialist actions, such as the Iranian Coup, made this statement in 1955:
  • “Our people have always been endowed with a sense of mission in the world. They have believed that it was their duty to help men everywhere to get the opportunity to be and do what God designed.”

During this period of theocratic exuberance, there was a string of big budget religious movies, such as Sampson and Delilah (1949), Quo Vadis (1951), and The Robe (1953). From the 21st century point of view, it's strange to contemplate the Religious Film as being a big box office genre, since such films are now mostly Direct to Home Video or a commercial flop, but it filled a distinct need in 1950's America. Religious films allowed Hollywood to traffic in violence, lust, and all the other salacious ingredients Americans prefer, but with a veneer of sanctimony, so that movie-goers could still feel sufficiently pious.

Victure Mature, as Biblical Beefcake in Samson and Delilah
The biggest of these films was The Ten Commandments (1956), which featured the young thespian Charlton Heston.  He had previously appeared in notable films such as The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) and The Naked Jungle (1954), but directors and the American filmgoer obviously sensed a certain ecclesiastical quality in him, because it was the beginning of a string of religious-themed epics featuring Heston:

  • Ben Hur (1959)
  • El Cid (1961)
  • The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
  • The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)
The Heston Method

Although his acting style is not generally well-regarded by today's critics, Heston took his craft seriously and had high aspirations. While getting steady work in Hollywood A-pictures was no doubt appealing, he must have had misgivings about being Testamentary Typecast.

It was no doubt a fortuitous moment when Arthur P. Jacobs pitched Heston the idea for Planet of the Apes in 1965. Heston signed on the same day, and later participated in a short 'test reel' for 20th Century Fox, demonstrating the concept. 

Reading this article from the vantage point of the 21st century, it is worth a short side-trip into the history of Scifi film. Scifi cinema has trafficked in various apocalyptic scenarios since at least Things to Come (1936), but the sub-genre really came into its own in the 1950's. The need for low-budget product to fill the screens of America's drive-in theaters, combined with the potential thrills of Scifi and Atomic Age Anxiety, inspired a number of shoestring auteurs to produce a profusion of end-of-the-world epics. These films often opened with stock newsreel footage of exploding mushroom clouds and usually featured the desolation of Bronson Canyon or the Bronson Cave standing-in for a post-apocalyptic hell-scape. Robot Monster (1953)  and The Day the World Ended (1955) typify this group.

Humans fighting back against ape dominance in a post-apocalyptic Earth: the micro-budget Robot Monster (1953) strangely foreshadows Planet of the Apes.
Planet of the Apes (POTA) would be cut from different cloth. Costing almost $6 million to produce (in less inflated, 1968 dollars), it had an adequate budget, and an excellent cast and crew. The very fact that the story transpires on a ruined, post-apocalyptic earth is concealed until the last scene, although there are hints throughout the film. 

The Heston Method

POTA was released in early 1968, which turned out to be perfect timing for an apocalyptic Scifi film. Just a few weeks after the film's release, Walter Cronkite famously declared the Viet Nam war unwinnable, and was shortly thereafter followed the horrendous My Lai massacre. In April, and June, two eloquent and earnest political figures, MLK and RFK, beloved by millions, were respectively gunned down, shattering dreams for racial equality and peace.  In August, national TV broadcast live images of Chicago police brutalizing American youth at the National Democratic Convention. The self-righteous hypocrisy of American exceptionalism, the creed of the 1950's, was being challenged by disturbing realities.
By 1968, Americans had witnessed hundreds of civil rights marchers getting hosed. Now it was happening to a white guy.
A hard-hitting satire of race, religion, and politics, Planet of the Apes must have seemed like a bitter yet indispensable tonic. Its central conceit, to take a representative of the white male establishment, the most entitled species ever known on Planet Earth, and reverse his station, to humiliate him, cage him, cake him in filth, call him an animal and make him stand before a court of simian inquisitors, is Swiftian satire that remains potent after nearly 50 years.

The Heston Method

At the time of the film's production, Heston was mostly liberal in his political views, and decidedly anti-racist. There was no contradiction between the politics of the film and those of the thespian. 

Heston himself plays a character radically different from Moses or Michaelangelo, a hard-boiled, cynical, lusty, gun-toting, machismo American astronaut. This hero marks a significant step in the evolution of cinematic scifi, since most protagonists had heretofore been square-jawed hero types, ala Rex Reason, Gene Barry, or Leslie Neilsen.  

Heston would later describe Astronaut George Taylor in these terms: '...physically fleeing earth because of his contempt for man as a generally unsatisfactory animal. He finds himself thrust into the ironic situation of being the only reasoning human being in the anthropoid society, where he is forced to defend the homo sapiens whom he despises.This is a very interesting acting situation. I was of course fascinated by it...'

Yet in bringing to life such a character, there is more than cynicism and machismo, as evidenced by this excerpt from Astronaut Taylor's opening soliloquy:
  • 'I leave the 20th century with no regrets. But one more thing - if anybody's listening, that is. Nothing scientific. It's purely personal. But seen from out here everything seems different. Time bends. Space is boundless. It squashes a man's ego. I feel lonely. That's about it. Tell me, though. Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother? Keep his neighbor's children starving?'
Might these sentiments have also fit one of the actor's ecclesiastical performances as well?

Being as it is a satire of religious hypocrisy, it makes sense that POTA is full of quasi-scriptural language. Dig this quote from the simian holy book:
  • 'Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil's pawn. Alone among God's primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother's land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him; drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of death.'
But the concept of Apocalypse itself comes to us from religion. Nuclear War and the other technological horrors of the 20th century had merely brought Apocalypse back into style after a thousand year hiatus.

The POTA script, and the final, sucker-punch scene, strongly imply that the planet was the victim of war. War of course, is one of the famed Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, from the Biblical Book of Revelation. The Four Horsemen are typically identified by Christian Mythologists as follows: Conquest, Pestilence, War, and Famine.

Planet of the Apes was a mega-blockbuster and a genuine cultural phenomenon, grossing over $20 million in 1968 dollars, recapping the production cost more than threefold. A sequel was inevitable.

Mr Heston was not enthusiastic, but agreed to it, citing a feeling of obligation to producer Arthur P Jacobs. The Flapdoodle Files suspects that the actor also wanted to put a few more miles between himself and the cinematic Holy Land.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes was released in 1970, and was another hit for both 20th Century Fox and Heston.  It is, admittedly, somewhat loopy, but good apocalyptic fun is still to be found. There is a particularly enjoyable speech by the Elvis of Sleaze, the great James Gregory, as General Ursus, as he eggs the ape parliament onward toward an invasion of the Forbidden Zone. Watching the film today, the Ursus speech is strikingly familiar to watching the primates on our current 24-hr cable news channels, egging us onto our next campaign of military aggression.  This film corresponds to the Horseman Conquest.

The Heston Method
BTPOTA is also graced by the presence of an underground cult of H-Bomb worshiping telepathic mutants. Since the film ends with the detonation of a world-destroying mega-bomb, one could say this film shows the power of prayer.

By this time, Heston was though with the Planet of the Apes but not finished the Apocalypse. While flying on a passenger jet, he chanced to read Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend and became interested in its adaptation to cinema, seemingly unaware that it had been previously by an Italian producer under the name The Last Man on Earth (1964) starring the brilliant but effete Vincent Price in the titular role. 

The Heston version was titled The Omega Man (1971) and takes many liberties with the source material. In the film, Heston plays a hard-boiled, cynical, lusty, gun-toting, machismo Army doctor, whose blood is uniquely and mysteriously immune to a strange post-apocalyptic plague of zombism.  This film corresponds to the Horseman Pestilence

Although this was Heston's third go at apocalyptic scifi, his leading lady, Rosalind Cash, balked at doing a nude love scene with him, citing her own reluctance to "screw Moses." Despite his efforts so far, the Biblical aura was still clinging to the craggy thespian.

The Omega Man is a harbinger of changes in Heston's political views. Instead of being a bearded, dirty, hippiesque type of hero, as he was in Planet of the Apes, in this film he is clean-shaven, wears a smoking jacket and ascot, lives in a plush apartment, drives a Detroit land-yacht, eats caviar and drinks expensive whiskey. Not quite a square, he nonetheless embodies The Man. He is menaced and persecuted by a bizarre counterculture zombie cult known as The Family, likely inspired by The Manson Family. 

To put it bluntly, The Omega Man is not a good film, suffering from a daffy script, uninspired photography, and overall inept direction. It is of value mainly to film historians, to scholars of the Fantastique, and to hecklers.  Despite its failings, however, due credit should be given to its clumsy director, Boris Sagal, for having the guts to create the film's final image, a crucifixion parody/homage, underscoring the fact that Our Hero saves the world by shedding his blood. A little bit of sacrilege worthy of our admiration, yet at the same time, revealing a messianic ego. 

The Heston Method
Heston's final apocalyptic scfi film was Soylent Green (1973), which contains the earliest cinematic usage the term 'Greenhouse Effect' known to the Flapdoodle Files. Soylent Green (SG) features Heston as the hard-boiled, cynical, lusty, gun-toting, machismo detective Frank Thorne, in the near future year of 2022. SG transpires in an NYC trapped in perpetual summer (due to the Greenhouse Effect), overpopulation, food scacrity, resource depletion, 50% unemployment, and a disintegrating infrastructure. A whodunnit set amidst extreme urban decay and masses of ragged homeless people crowding every available inch, there is a disquieting plausibility to SG which only increases as the years pass and our own prognosis grows ever worse. While NYC doesn't look quite like Soylent Green yet, a few cities, like Rio and Mumbai, look worse.

Viewers accustomed to the spectacular battles and dazzling special effects of the post Star Wars era will perhaps be perplexed by SG, which uses the format of a police procedural to tell its own particular apocalyptic story, which corresponds to the Horseman Famine. The gritty dystopian whodunit is interspersed with enjoyable expository scenes featuring Heston alongside the great Edward G. Robinson, in what would be his last role.

Although unlike anything made in recent years, Soylent Green is an excellent film and its social commentary is even truer now than in 1973. Approaching from another angle, we note that Robinson's character is named Sol, evoking both a disciple of the legendary demi-god Jesus and the Roman emperor who made the Jesus-cult a State Religion. The name is likely not coincidental, since the movie features a famous sequence featuring Sol's voluntary surrender of his own life and technological transubstantiation into foodstuff, echoing the ritual of Christian Cannibalism.

The Heston Method
It is a testimonial to the impact of Soylent Green that almost no reader was shocked by that last spoiler, just as no readers were shocked when we mentioned that Earth is really the Planet of the Apes. The film was a box-office success, and mostly approved by the critics.

This would be Heston's final apocalypse, with the thespian moving on to supporting roles in a number of genres, then to TV soap-opera, and then to lesser roles. He had broken through his ecclesiastical typecasting and had somehow avoided being completely pidgeonholed in scifi.

The Four Hestonian Apocalypses, each from a different director, each a divergent vision of the apocalypse, have an accidental quality of unity. Each features the former Moses as a hard-boiled, cynical, lusty, gun-toting, machismo protagonist, trying to make sense of a world gone mad. Heston serves as a kind of Gulliver, traveling between these strange worlds.

At the same time, Heston's hard-boiled, cynical, lusty, gun-toting, machismo scifi hero has become a genuine archetype, forming the basis for multiple performances by Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwartzenegger, Kirk Russell, Bruce Willis, and others. 

In the meantime, America and it's middle-class experienced a continuation of the national traumas and culture shocks which had begun with the 1968 Planet of the Apes release. The Stones at Altamont, the Mansion Murders, the Kent State Tragedy, the Patty Hearst kidnapping and the drug-related deaths of numerous promising young rock and roll artists disheartened the youth movement. Concurrently, the bills for the Viet Nam war started to come due, corporations began to move their factories overseas, and Oil Shock combined so that, after 25 years of gains, the American middle-class began its long (and as yet unabated) slide backwards.

Heston himself seemed to have misunderstood what was happening to America, perceiving it as being somehow a set of misfortunes exclusive to the white heterosexual male, as opposed to the generalized and widespread deprivation that actually existed. His final role, as a right-wing fundraiser and president of the NRA, afforded him a high profile platform to utter shocking, offensive, and surreal soliloquies such as these:

  • "I find my blood pressure rising when [the President]'s cultural shock troops participate in homosexual rights fund raisers but boycott gun rights fund raisers - and then claim it's time to place homosexual men in tents with Boy Scouts and suggest that sperm-donor babies born into lesbian relationships are somehow better served."
  • "The Constitution was handed down to guide us by a bunch of those wise old, dead, white guys who invented this country. It's true - they were white guys. So were most of the guys who died in [Abraham Lincoln]'s name, opposing slavery in the 1860s. So, why should I be ashamed of white guys? Why is Hispanic pride or black pride a good thing, while white pride conjures up shaved heads and white hoods?"
For a rich white heterosexual man who had lived the greater part of his life with the privileges of a fame and wealth to argue that white heterosexual men were an oppressed group in the America of the 1990's is certainly an endeavor of the imagination. Heston's evolution from celluloid thespian to a Right Wing Talking Head, to his final cameo performance as an elderly and infirm man in Michael Moore's Bowling For Columbine is perhaps more similar to the Reality TV Star than it is to the Performance Artist, however. 

The Heston Method

In fairness, Charlton Heston's emergence as a right-wing bloviator coincides with the Angry White Man movement of the 1980's and 1990's, in which millions of self-pitying Caucasians blamed the falling fortunes of the middle-class on Affirmative Action, Ebonics, liberals...anything but the structural economic forces actually at work.

Apotheosis is the term to describe the process by which ancient heroes or kings became transformed, in the imagination at least, from mere mortals to gods.  Charlton Heston began his career as an ordinary actor, appearing in westerns, crime stories, and other genres but at a critical moment in cinema history became so closely identified with religious heroes that in the mind of the public, the borders began to blur.  

In the seemingly-secular realm of scifi, each his characters each confronted the apocalypse, a concept with origins in ancient religions, and there is a strange messianic quality in these performances. The final chapter of his life, as a professional demagogue, thrust his own personality, or at least the simulacrum of it, into the public eye, upon the stage of the 24-hour TV news cycle. 

Even now, 7 years after his death, the NRA website has immortalized Heston's speeches, in all their racist/homophobic dog-whistling glory, echoing across the globe via the information superhighway.  

Alternatively, while his Biblical and religious-themed films are seldom seen today, the original Planet of the Apes is still in regular rotation on classic movie channels and scifi film festivals, and Astronaut Taylor preserves the memory of Heston for millions of viewers. 

An Old Testament prophet, the Last Man on Earth, an Angry White Man...a living technicolor memory, transmitted digitally, toward an undefined apotheosis... 

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Many Deaths of Captain Marvel

By Alan Schnell, copyrighted by the artist 2015-2017.
(Warning: Believers in any of the various gods worshiped on Planet Earth may find certain passages offensive.)   

For a few weeks in early 2015, the outrage du jour in Europe and the USA was the deliberate & self-publicized smashing of ancient artifacts in Iraq & Syria by the insurgent group ISIS. The best word for the intentional destruction or defacement of historic treasures is iconoclasm, a word given directly to us by the ancient world, specifically the Greeks.

It should be noted that ISIS is only the latest in a long string of historical iconoclasms. Going back only as far as the ancient Hebrews, the myth of Moses smashing the golden calf is a sanitized memory of an archeologically validated truth: destruction of the enemy's religious icons was Standard Operating Procedure for God's Chosen People, just as it was for most of the other theocratic cults emerging from the Middle East during this period.

After Yahweh apparently converted to Christianity and started calling himself 'God' circa AD 33, the pattern of iconoclasm continued. The burning of the Library at Alexandria (391 AD) and Rome's Bonfire of Vanities (1497) are just two famous highlights of a long-standing tradition lasting at least through the Bosnian genocide in the 1990's, when approximately 92% of Mosques were either damaged or destroyed. 

The intent of iconoclasm is never merely the destruction of images or idols of course, but rather to obliterate beliefs & ideas. The thin-skinned god Yahweh and his cowering subjects  view the mere existence of any alternative belief system as an existential threat, and history is littered with millions of corpses because of this belief system. 

But in more modern times it has become possible to obliterate beliefs and ideas without direct physical violence, using instead the mechanisms of law, media & money. 

So it is that this seemingly tangential introduction leads to the story of the most powerful and popular comic book superhero of the golden age: 
  • The hero who sold the most comic books at the time when the industry reached its highest circulation ever. 
  • The hero who starred in 3 comic books every month, reaching a maximum sales of about 1.3 million copies per issue. 
  • The hero who outsold Superman.
  • The first comic book superhero to be adapted for the cinema.
  • The first comic book superhero to star in a graphic novel. 

A character so powerful & popular that he had to be destroyed.  

A character who will soon be completely lost to obscurity: the Original Captain Marvel. 

The Original Capt. Marvel, featured in the 1941 movie serial & 1943 graphic novel, was not the blond cosmic superhero or any of his various successors published by Marvel Comics, but was rather a black-haired, red-suited, cape-wearing muscle man. 

Many modern persons mistakenly call the Originial Capt. Marval 'Shazam.' 
Shazam of course is the title of a series of DC comics published from 1973 onward, intermittently, and the title of a popular 1970's Saturday morning TV show.  

The Original Capt. Marvel, however, was first published in late 1939 by Fawcett Publications. Fawcett sought to create a competitor to DC Comics' new hero Superman.

Like Superman, the Original Capt. Marvel was strong, and he could fly, and he was indestructible, and he wore a cape, and when he wasn't busy doing superhero business, he worked in the news media. 

But rather than being a mere ripoff of Supes, Cap was actually an improvement on the formula. This was because the Original Capt. Marvel was actually two of whom of course was the titular superhero, while the other an ordinary mortal boy named Billy Batson. 

Billy had been gifted with a magic word: Shazam! When he spoke it, magic lightning  struck, transforming Billy into Capt. Marvel, the World's Mightiest Man. 

Besides being sheer wish-fullfillment for the juvenile audience, this sidestepped the tiresome requirement our hero having to sneak away from the action for costume changes to protect his 'secret identity.' 

And better yet: Prior to 1949, Kryptonite did not exist, and thus Superman was always indestructible, even when wearing his Clark Kent glasses. 

Whereas the Original Capt. Marvel's alter ego was  a completely mortal human boy and therefore entirely killable.

By virtue of this design, the stories had more intense peril than Superman, and more intense audience identification. Fawcett Publications fused the superhero and the kid sidekick into one.

In March 1941, less than 2 years after his debut, the Captain scored a major media coup by being the first comic book superhero of the silver screen. The Adventures of Captain Marvel (TAOCM) was a movie serial or 'chapter play,' wherein a single meandering story is told in 12 weekly installments. 

Although it was mostly forgotten after the demise of chapter plays in the 1950's, TAOCM was hugely popular in its day and was re-released several times. Scholars of this peculiar cinematic sub-genre unanimously praise TAOCM, particularly the special effects. TAOCM blazed a trail which, after many years & many detours, leads to the megablockbuster comic book movies of the futuristic 21st century.

1941: Cowboy actor Tom Tyler as Capt. Marvel & Louise Curry as his pal, Betty
After a few somewhat rudderless (but profitable) early years, in the mid-1940's Captain Marvel started hitting his stride creatively. This was largely due to addition of scifi scribe Otto Binder to the creative team.

Binder had a vision of scifi superhero whimsy that fit perfectly with the imagery of the chief artist, CC Beck. Capt. Marvel stories soon became more imaginative, clever, and entertaining than Superman's.

Even better, they developed a quirky brand of humor which avoided insulting the characters (and by extension, the readers) as the 1960's Batman TV series eventually would do. 

Captain Marvel also had a better supporting cast than Supes, which included his pal Mr Tawney, a talking tiger who wore loud sport coats and walked upright like man.

Mr. Tawney, like the Captain himself & every other member of the cast, could instantly pivot from comedy to the adventure and back again. The writers & artists interchanged whimsy and superhero action with finesse & delicacy rare even in the Golden Age of Comics, and almost unknown in the Grimdark world of modern comic books.

In 1943, Otto Binder created what might be viewed as the first ever superhero graphic novel, the multi-chapter 'Monster Society of Evil' serial. Creating the narrative template for Alan Moore's Watchmen, the Monster Society ran a record-setting 25 chapters over two years in Captain Marvel Adventures (CMA) 22-46.

Binder also wrote the Captain into some incisive social commentary, including one of the earliest anti-nuke stories, 'Capt. Marvel & the Atomic War' (1946). More than 70 years later, this tale of Capt. Marvel, powerless to save the human race from death by radiation poisoning, still packs a powerful punch & remains sadly relevant.


Indeed, it was after the end of WW2, when overall comic book sales began to decline, that the Original Capt. Marvel reached his creative & artistic. In 1949, Fawcett commemorated the publication of the 100th issue of CMA with extra length story, 'Capt. Marvel Battles the Plot Against the Universe.'
This was the 'Citizen Kane' of Golden Age Superhero Stories, intricately combining perfect measures of scifi, high adventure, magic, & humor, expertly plotted and drawn to perfection by Beck & his assistants.

The Original Capt. Marvel was the best-selling hero of the 1940's, selling up to 1.4 million copies per issue of CMA. In fact, for several years CMA was published twice a month, with the Captain appearing regularly in several other monthly comic books, including Whiz Comics, of which he was the star feature. 

Cap's popularity triggered several successful spinoffs. In 1941, three years before the teen-age Superboy character would appear, a boy on crutches with a bum leg became Cap's teen-age pal Captain Marvel Jr. 

 And in 1942, a mystery girl with half of a broken locket was introduced, leading Cap to discover his long-lost sister Mary Marvel

Within a year there were regular stories featuring the team of all 3 Marvels teaming-up as The Marvel Family

The Marvel Family was not the first super-team of the Golden Age: that honor goes to the legendary Justice Society of America (JSA), introduced by DC comics in 1940. But the Marvel Family was more popular: declining sales forced the dissolution of the JSA in 1951, but the Marvel Family still enjoyed brisk sales through 1953, and only ceased publication due to external forces. 

The biggest of these external forces was DC Comics, the famous publisher of Superman & Batman. By 1940, following the phenomenally successful launches of their two favorite sons, DC viewed the invading brigade of costumed imitators as a direct threat to its Gravy Train.

Quickly lawyering-up, they shot cease-and-desist letters at anyone who published a superhero vaguely similar to the Man-of-Steel. There was some irony in this, since all the while DC comics had been creating their own ersatz Supermen.

Starman, Green Lantern, the Spectre, Hourman and Dr. Fate, to name but a few, were all flying men, dressed in tights and capes, exhibiting vast super powers & immunity to bullets and other conventional weapons. And all were published by DC during the same period as their persecution of Captain Marvel.

But although DC had quickly filled their own fictional universe with other long-underwear crime-fighters, they seem to have determined early on that Superman would be the strongest and most bullet-proof. Management at DC seemed to believe that the key to Superman's market-share would be the idea of total physical supremacy, even amidst a veritable sea of superheroes.

This editorial philosophy is evident when one considers how Superman's powers evolved in his first 6 years in print. In his initial 1938 appearance, 'nothing less than a bursting shell' could penetrate his skin, and he was capable of leaping 1/8th of a mile. But by 1946, not only had his strength been multiplied, but he had also gained the ability to fly and was now capable of surviving an A-bomb blast.

The evolution of Superman was in effect the pursuit of ultimate market dominance by means of a character with unlimited power.

This type of ruthless pursuit of unlimited power has many ancient precedents, but perhaps the most apt comparison would be with ancient Hebrew invention of a monotheistic god. 

Originating as a set of loosely-connected clans & tribes worshiping various imaginary supernatural beings, the followers of the god Yahweh gradually began to consolidate power & hit upon a fairly novel concept.

Ancient depiction of the god Yahweh
It was Standard Operating Procedure for any conquering tribe to claim the supremacy of their patron deity or deities, and the Hebrews were no exception to this rule. But the followers of Yahweh took it a step further, deciding that not only was their patron god the strongest, but that he was the only living bona-fide god dwelling amidst the vast firmament of the cosmos. Yahweh was the original totalitarian dictator, the prototype for Pope Innocent III, Stalin, Mao, etc.

The Hebrew Pantheon

The belief in Yaweh's absolute uniqueness & supremacy has, over the millennia, become so deeply embedded in Western Culture that most modern humans cannot conceive of any other metaphysical alternative to this arrangement.

And this is more or less what DC wanted for Superman. A hero whose supremacy is not only unquestioned, but in fact unquestionable. Superman, like Yahweh, represented a Power Fantasy.  A kind of megalomania by proxy. And the existence of another flying, indestructible super-hero represented a threat to DC's plan.

DC wanted a monopoly on omnipotence within the 4-color world of the comic book. Accordingly, they set out to eradicate from consciousness any potential rival for their imaginary Superman.

They succeeded handily in dispensing most of Superman's other potential rivals. The 1939 Wonder Man, created by the great Will Eisner for Victor Fox Publications, lasted only 1 issue, and Fawcett Publications' Master Man was gone after 6 issues.

In a similar manner, DC went after the Original Capt. Marvel, issuing cease and desist letters to both Fawcett, and Republic Pictures (makers of the Capt. Marvel movie serial) in June, 1941.

Fawcett outright defied the notice, and so DC filed suit in September 1941, naming Republic Pictures as a co-defendent. 

Interestingly, Republic produced a final chapter of the serial showing [SPOILER ALERT!!!] Capt. Marvel mysteriously vanishing and the word Shazam apparently losing all of its magic potency, seemingly banishing the hero into oblivion. In retrospect, one wonders if this ending was a cryptic attempt by Republic Pictures to mollify DC's attack dogs.

Capt. Marvel's sales were already brisk and perhaps the management of Fawcett Publications didn't like being bullied. Whatever their motivation, Fawcett mounted a robust legal defense to DC's aggression.

A1948 story, 'The Marvel Family Battles the Monarch of Money,' seems to have been inspired by the predicament of the Capt. Marvel's creators, defending themselves against what had by then become a Comic Book Leviathan.

Seeming to anticipate the Ultra-Right-Wing media bully Rupert Murdoch, this tale concerns itself with the efforts of a predatory capitalist to take-over or destroy the independent broadcasting station WHIZ.

DC was in a good position to bully Fawcett.  They had spent most of the 1940's expanding themselves from a shoestring funny-book maker into a powerful media corporation. Throughout WW2 and the immediate aftermath, comic books sales were astronomical, thanks to the homefront needing the comfort of fantasy & soldiers killing time at military bases, buying them by the jeepload.  Besides Superman, DC owned the famous Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash and about a dozen other heroes.

Besides comic book money, however, DC had been highly successful at the licensing & franchising game. Besides Superman and Batman both having nationally distributed daily newspaper strips and movie serials, the Man of Steel had a hugely popular daily radio show and starred in a series of 16 gorgeous technicolor cartoons distributed by the prestigious Paramount Pictures.

Concurrently, DC succeeded in thwarting most of Fawcett's attempts to exploit the merchandising potential of Capt. Marvel. This was accomplished in the same manner that Republic Pictures had been pressurized, by means of the cease-and-desist letter.

Fawcett was partially able to work around this obstacle by using their own printing facilities to create some toys and games themselves, and in some instances hiring out factories to produce the novelty items under the Fawcett banner. 

But 1941's cinematic Adventures of Captain Marvel, would be the Captain's only significant venture into other media. Other publishers and producers saw little profit in antagonizing the formidable and litigious DC.

Hanging like a Sword of Damocles, DC's lawsuit against Fawcett finally went to trial in 1948, and, due to a technicality, was decided in Fawcett's favor in 1950.

It was in that year that the Original Capt. Marvel got his second tiny bit of movie exposure, in Columbia Pictures product-placement comedy, The Good Humor Man. An obscure, uneven, & cartoonish film starring the now-forgotten comedian Jack Carson, it was obviously financed with 'plug money.' Besides the eponymous ice cream company, the film contains numerous references to Capt. Marvel comics, a Capt. Marvel fan-club, and a non-existent Capt. Marvel radio show.

The film was a lost opportunity. Despite the fact that Fawcett obviously paid their plug-money, the references to the Captain include nothing specific about the character, such as his super-strength, or ability to fly.

Perhaps more conspicuously, when the script calls for the Capt. Marvel fan club to utilize a recognition code word, there is no a mention of either of the Original Capt. Marvel's two trademark catch-phrases: 'Holy Moley!' or 'Shazam!' Instead, the rather awkward 'Niatpac Levram' (Captain Marvel spelled backwards) is used.

It is as if the script had been written generically, so that any hero's name could put be used to fill-in-the-blanks. Or perhaps DC had pressurized Columbia Pictures to minimize the film's promotional value. The Good Humor Man was released on June 1, 1950, to mostly unfavorable reviews.  

Meanwhile, Columbia released the first chapter of the serial Atom Man Vs. Superman on July 20, roughly 6 weeks later. This, the second (and last) Superman chapter play is reported to have been the highest grossing US movie serial of all time. 

In a strange twist of fate, the villain of The Good Humor Man's turns out to be [SPOILER ALERT!!!] George Reeves.  Reeves wasn't in either of the Superman movie serials, but in 1951 he would accept a job playing the Man of Steel in what has become the most durable superhero TV program ever, eventually granting the star his own tragi-comic immortality.

In retrospect, Capt. Marvel's bad luck with Columbia Pictures and Superman's successful foray into TV seem to foreshadow the former's destruction

Because the DC had appealed the court's 1950 ruling, and in 1951 the US Court of Appeals 2nd Circuit dropped the Big One.  Reversing the lower court's ruling, the Court of Appeals ruled in DC's favor.

Believers in Truth & Justice think Fawcett would have prevailed if they appealed this decision, but no one will ever know. Overall sales of comic books had been gradually declining since 1946, and the ownership of Fawcett estimated that Captain Marvel's future revenues might not justify additional legal expenses.

Settling with DC, they paid their tormentor $400K in damages and agreed to cease publication of their comic books.  Their last magazine featuring Capt. Marvel was Marvel Family #89 (cover dated Jan. 1954), which featured this fitting image:

The Original Capt. Marvel was dead. But, like the ancient god Osiris, his substance soon be rended apart, with various aspects assuming a new independent life, before eventually coming together again.

The Fawcett creative staff were all suddenly displaced. Artists Kurt Schaffenberger and Pete Costanza eventually found work at DC comics, both working on the Superman family of magazines. And in within 48 hours of losing his Capt. Marvel job, the Great Otto Binder had been recruited to work on Superman magazines. 

Soon Binder was tapped to be the head writer for the the new title Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen, the first issue of which was cover-dated October, 1954.

The format for Jimmy Olsen was remarkably similar to that of Capt. Marvel. Like Capt. Marvel's alter ego Billy Batson, Jimmy Olsen was a boy reporter. Like Billy, Jimmy was entirely mortal. He could be killed

And like Billy, Jimmy had a special relationship with the superhero. Whereas Billy could utter a magic word to invoke Capt. Marvel so as to get him out of a jam, Jimmy had a special Signal Watch, capable of hailing Superman from long-distances the way Aladdin might summon a genie.  

Depending on the needs of the particular story, Jimmy's signal watch mostly worked, except when it didn't. Under this arrangement, Jimmy solves some of his own problems, while in other instances he is dependent upon superheroic aid.

It was a happy kind of balance...a character young & mortal so that readers could identify with him, quick-witted and resourceful like one of the Hardy Boys, and with a best friend more powerful than a hydrogen bomb.

Additionally, Binder & the other writers populated Jimmy's adventures with myriad aliens from outer space, robots, monsters, time-travelers, and of course magical and mythological beings. A superhero world with room enough for whimsy.

Such was the Binder Effect, and it extended beyond Jimmy Olsen. Over the years, Otto made many significant contributions throughout the various Superman magazines, including the creation of Supergirl, Brainiac, Krypto the Superdog, the Legion of Superheroes, and the Bottle City of Kandor. Most of Binder's expanded Superman mythology survives today, albeit in modified form, such as the tween-friendly TV Supergirl currently flying across the airwaves.

A Curt Swan poster circa 1960 captures the essence of Binder Era
In addition to Binder, DC also got Kurt Schaffenberger, one of Fawcett's best Capt. Marvel artists. Between 1957 and 1986, Schaffenberger worked on hundreds of stories for Superman and his pals. Schaff's style, based on a strong, fluid line delineated with laser accuracy, was perfect for that era's fantastic, whimsical and goofy Superman.

 Superman had been infused with some of Capt. Marvel's creative lifeblood, re-invigorating the Man of Steel for the next 30 or so years, until the sheer monotony of his own increasing omnipotence at last finally up with him

All this time, the Original Capt. Marvel himself, although gone, had not been forgotten. Many of the original comics had survived in attics and basements, passed on from parents to children, and so on. His existence had migrated into the realm of cultural memory. 

At the same time, however, various aspects of the Original Capt. Marvel's continued to re-emerge onto tangible, material, and sometimes profitable, newsprint. 

Carmine Infantino, tapped in 1956 by editor Julius Schwartz to redesign DC's proprietary hero of the 1940's The Flash, borrowed heavily from the look of Capt. Marvel. 

Infantino's Flash wore what amounts to a streamlined Capt. Marvel suit: red tights with yellow lightning bolt on his chest and even a yellow belt, retaining these elements even 60 years into the future.

And like the Original Capt. Marvel, the Infantino Flash first gained his incredible powers as a result of a transformative lightning bolt:

The Flash soon proved a big seller, eventually inspiring a newsprint tsunami of long-underwear heroes.

Meanwhile, in the UK, there existed a publishing house called L. Miller & Son, who had, until 1954,  subsisted by importing & reprinting the original Capt. Marvel for benefit of the British Isles.

Finding themselves in possession of robust market but with a sudden stoppage of new material,they commissioned artist Mick Anglo to create Marvelman, who deliberately emulated the style and content elements in hopes that readers would think that MM was simply a reboot of Fawcett's suppressed superstar.

Marvelman's secret identity was reporter Micky Moran. Moran who, rather than saying 'Shazam,' instead uttered the magic word 'Kimota.' Like his US counterpart, Marvelman was soon joined by two young, super-powered sidekicks, but both were boys: Young Marvelman & Kid Marvelman. Marvelman was extremely successful until the early 1960's, when US comics began entering the British market in significant numbers. MM's last original appearance was in 1963, but in the 1980's, Marvelman would return with a vengeance.

But back in the USA, the cultural forces were moving in unexpected ways...

In a 1963 episode of The Andy Griffith Show, 'The Great Filling Station Robbery,' Gomer Pyle is shown reading an unnamed comic book. Later, in awe of Barney Fife's seemingly ingenious scheme to catch a crook in the act, Gomer exclaims: 

'Shazam! Even Captain Marvel couldna thought-a that!'

The magic power of the word was instantly evident. Capt. Marvel was never mentioned again, but
'Shazam' became Gomer Pyle's #1 catch-phrase.  

When the character was given his own eponymous sitcom in 1965, the magic word gained even more exposure. When Gomer Pyle was adapted into a series of 3 Dell comic books in 1966-67, the word 'Shazam' reappeared in the 4-color firmament.

As Gomer Pyle was beginning his cultural ascension, the rennaissance of American super-hero comic books, initiated a decade earlier by Carmine Infantino's Flash, was hitting its peak. 

The super-hero craze spilled over into TV in 1966 and '67, with a string of cartoon adaptations of Superman and Spider-man, not to mention a set of superheroes specifcally created for TV, most of which came from Hanna-Barberra studios. 

One of these superheroic cartoons was titled Shazzan, and although it is nearly forgotten today, the character was created by the great DC artist Alex Toth. The cartoon featured Chuck & Nancy, a juvenile brother & sister combo, who could summon forth a flying, indestructable magic genie by uttering the magic word 'Shazzan'  and pressing two halves of a broken magic ring together. 

Besides the nearly identical magic word, Chuck & Nancy's broken magic ring echos a plot device employed in Mary Marvel's first appearance (1942), wherein Billy Batson identifies his long-lost sister Mary because the siblings each carried half of a broken locket. 

Shazzan was broadcast from 1967-69, on CBS, which happened to be the network of Andy Griffith & Gomer Pyle.

It's obvious that Alex Toth, whose career began in the heydey of Fawcett comics, borrowed many various key elements of Capt. Marvel for the show, and obviously modifying the magic word was someone's strategy to avoid legal action from either Andy Griffith's production company or Fawcett Publications. But note that Toth's stylized lightning bolt, as seen in the model sheets above & below bears an uncanny resemblance to the insignia of the Original Capt. Marvel.
But since many of Shazzan's target demographic was pre-literate, many or perhaps most of the young viewers thought that the titular genie was indeed eponymous with Gomer Pyle's catchphrase. 

DC comics & Saturday Morning were not the only showcase for superheroes during this period.

Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, working for Martin Goodman's Atlas Comics, created The Fantastic Four in 1961, then quickly following suit with The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, and a whole growing universe of heroes & villains. 

In 1962, Lee & Kirby borrowed heavily from the Original Capt. Marvel to create the Mighty Thor. Magic lightning, the transformation from mere mortal to having god-like power, super-strength, and the ability to fly...and like Capt. Marvel Jr., Thor's alter ego had a bum leg, being dependent upon a cane for his mobility. 

We don't know if Lee & Kirby were deliberately scavenging from the corpse of Capt. Marvel, or if Thor's creation was more accidental in nature, simply the manifestation of the four-color unconscious, if you will. But in the final analysis, it scarcely matters.

The Mighty Thor, like Capt. Marvel himself, was a highly derivative creation. But also like Capt. Marvel, he transcended the circumstances of his creation, achieving a distinct and vibrant identity, and becoming a vessel to carry the dreams of youthful dreamers.

The surging popularity of Goodman's long-underwear stable inspired the publisher to retitle his magazine line the Marvel Comics Group, an homage to his long-deceased Marvel Comics magazine, originally published in 1939: the original Marvel Comics magazine had carried the exploits of three of Superman's Golden Age competitors: the Human Torch, Captain America, & the Sub-Mariner, each of whom was successfully revived and adapted for the 1960's by Lee & Kirby. 

But in 1966, with the Marvel line expanding and creating a strong brand loyalty among the fans, the Marvel name was suddenly appropriated by a superheroic interloper completely beyond Goodman's control.

The name of the interloper was Captain Marvel, and not only did he have nothing to do with Marvel Comics, he also had nothing to do with Fawcett Publications or the Original Capt. Marvel. But since Fawcett Publications was in no position to enforce a copyright claim on the nomenclature, the name of this great hero was up for grabs.

This new Captain Marvel was an alien android, published by MF Enterprises for a mere 5 issues in 1966-67, and is now something of a legend in the prodigious ranks of failed superheroes.

Ten years into the Great Superhero Renaissance, most of the good ideas, such as Dr. Strange and the Doom Patrol, were already scooped-up, leaving MF to scrape the bottom of the cosmic barrel for a concept.

 And they couldn't have scraped much lower. The MF Captain Marvel had the power to split his body into its component limbs and appendages, presumably for some kind of fighting advantage, and to then re-assemble himself by uttering the magic word 'Xam!'

Phonetically, 'Xam!' was nearly identical to Shazam (just like Alex Toth's Shazzan). 

Depending upon the circumstances, the exhibition of this super-power tended to be either ridiculous or emotionally disturbing.

And, in the words of George Costanza, it 'didn't take.'

By mid-1967, MF Enterprises abandoned their Captain Marvel, but not before attracting the notice of Martin Goodman, who took displeasure at the thought of another publisher either profiting from or tarnishing the reputation of the word Marvel.

Hastily, Goodman determined that no other company would ever again be able to make their own Captain Marvel, and ordered his #1 guy, Stan Lee, to create the 3rd Captain Marvel.

Years later, Lee would admit that he was already over-worked & not enthusiastic for the assignment, and that his version of Captain Marvel was not up to par with his other creations, such as the Invincible Iron Man and Darvel. (Lee had already, in fact, borrowed much from the Original Capt. Marvel to create Thor, as we have already seen.)

There is an apocryphal version of the story which claims that Lee deliberately tried to hobble his new Captain Marvel, with intentionally sub-par writing and bestowing the character with a deliberately goofy costume for his debut, cover dated December, 1967. Artist Gene Colan, who typically performed as a virtuoso, eventually went on record as hating his work on the new Capt. Marvel.

Whether due to intent or simply creative fatigue, it is clear that the New Captain Marvel was somewhat less than awe-inspiring.

The New Captain Marvel, like the MF Captain Marvel, was not a person with whom readers could easily identify. He was instead an alien warrior, whose proper name was actually Mar-Vell, strong but dependent upon a set of alien weapons whose functions & limitations varied frequently, with an excessively talky & melodramatic space opera backstory. The talkiness & melodrama only increased with the second story, when Roy Thomas took over scripting.

Not surprisingly, the Mar-Vell's sales soon began to sputter.

Therefore, in issue #16, he was jazzed-up with a new costume, super-strength, the power to fly, and a sort of alter-ego: Rick Jones, Marvel Comics' ubiquitous & perennial teenager, was saddled with the duty of sharing consciousness with Mar-Vell. In an homage to the Original Capt. Marvel, the youthful Jones had the power to 'switch atoms' with him by slamming his wrist bands together.

The changes were good, but sales remained weak. After issue # 19, Mar-Vell was often published intermittently, perhaps only as a ploy to retain the copyright, until 1973, when the publisher settled into a bi-monthly schedule.

The Jim Starlin Capt. Marvel
It was also in 1973 when Jim Starlin took over writing & drawing Mar-Vell, and bestowed him with Cosmic Awareness, which was sort of like a cross between Peter Parker's Spider-Sense and Zen Buddhism. Starlin's version of Mar-Vell caught on with enough readers for the character finally to maintain a cult following and develop a  distinct identity in the crowded superheroic least, for a while.

Meanwhile, another major Captain Marvel development also occurred in 1973, coming from Marvel Comics' arch-rival, DC.

DC, as you remember, had sued the original Capt. Marvel out of existence in 1953. But changing times, flagging sales, and a wave of Golden Age Comics nostalgia combined to induce DC to not only to license Capt. Marvel from Fawcett for their own line of comics, but to also hire original artist CC Beck, so as to retain the distinct visual style of the original series.

Choosing Beck & the classic Fawcett style was bucking a 20+ year trend of making heroes more visually 'realistic' & 'modern.' Perhaps this was a kind of counter-programming, since the magazine racks were already over-full of 'modern' & 'realistic' heroes.

Or perhaps it was an attempt to ape the success of the Archie comics line, whose house style was not realistic or modern at all. Archie sales had been gangbusters since the late 1960's, while sales of DC's superheroes had been steadily declining.

Whatever the rationale, Beck was back. But Otto Binder had by this time retired, having suffered a terrible tragedy 6 years earlier:

The apple of Binder's eye had been his daughter Mary, a beautiful blond teenager who had inspired his creation of Supergirl in 1959. But in 1967, Mary was killed by drunk driver. Binder retired & slowly succumbed to alcoholism, dying in October, 1974.

DC's Capt. Marvel revival had another strike against it, thanks to Marvel Comics' appropriation of the Captain Marvel copyright. Unable to use the hero's name as a title to the new magazine of the Captain's adventures, editor Julius Schwartz determined that the magic word 'Shazam,' restored to the American lexicon by Jim Nabors, would prove worthy.

To market the greatest superhero in history via a hillbilly sitcom catchphrase seems, in retrospect at least, a dubious venture. Shazam #1 was cover-dated February, 1973. A reader aged 10, the approximate target demographic, would have been familiar with Gomer Pyle and would likely have had a vague memory of a cartoon genie with pretty much the same name. To make the jump from this funny word to a powerful superhero was asking a bit much. 

The cover of each copy of Shazam was subtitled 'The Original Captain Marvel' for the first 14 issues, but Marvel Comics, refusing to shed even the tiniest drop of magnanimity, issued a cease-and-desist letter, so that the Captain's name was banished from the cover. The foreseeable effect was that American youth quickly came to think that 'Shazam' was the name of the red-suited superhero depicted in the comic.

But a confused nomenclature was not the end of the troubles.

The stories, most of which were penned by the otherwise excellent Denny O'Niell & Elliot S! Maggin, seldom recreated anything even vaguely resembling Otto Binder's intuitive blend of whimsy, philosophy & adventure. Instead, they tended toward fairly mundane superheroics interspersed with awkward attempts at humor and the occasional smattering of Batmanesque camp.

Julie Schwartz & his writers were never able to duplicate the magic of the Fawcett team. The unique combination of artistic forces which created and developed the Original Capt. Marvel, a kind of alchemical interplay of the specific artists, writers and editors, could not be recreated.

Unsatisfied with the direction of the magazine, CC Beck left after issue #10, with Bob Oksner and Kurt Schaffenberger handling most of the art from that point onward. 

In retrospect, that moment represented a decision-point: Should Beck's replacements have continued the strip imitating the highly stylized (and simple) rendition of Capt. Marvel, or should they have been free to rework the character somewhat?  

For reasons unknown to this researcher, Schwartz & DC determined that the Original Capt. Marvel and his pals would be rendered as closely as possible to CC Beck's designs, maintaining a look that set the magazine apart from most superhero comics of the 1970's.

On the upside, however, by aping Beck's visual style, DC could stealthfully insert Golden Age era reprint stories from the Fawcett archives with many readers unaware that they were getting second-hand goods.  And just as the Law of Unintended Consequences would have it, the golden age reprints were, overall, the best feature of the magazine. 

Indeed, the ongoing Shazam magazine, along with several tabloid-sized "Limited Edition" collections, provided a copious & impressive sampling of some of the finest Golden Age comic book stories,  as well as introducing  a unique & original vision of the superhero concept to a new generation of fans. In this instance at least, DC comics undeniably performed a public good.  

Of course, this was insufficient to atone for the crime of murdering the Original Capt. Marvel in the first place. And persons who believe in Karma might point to the fact Shazam never sustained any anything beyond mediocre sales. 

DC was fortunate, however, in that Filmation TV studios licensed the Original Capt. Marvel and the Shazam name for a live-action Saturday morning TV program. The program was mostly anemic, but its star, Jackson Bostwick, was a credible Capt. Marvel & ratings were sufficient to justify its broadcast from 1974-77.  

Publicity from the show had propped up the comic book though several years of flagging interest, but after Shazam left the airwaves, sales figures went fatally low. In a rare bold move, the editorial directive came forth to move the stories away from humor & camp toward a more 'realistic' and dramatic style, especially regarding the art. The penultimate issue, #34, was pencilled & inked by Alan Weiss and Joe Rubenstein, but for the final issue, longtime Capt. Marvel fan Don Newton took over drawing, with Kurt Schaffenberger on inks.  

The new dramatic look came too late to save the Shazam comic book, but DC continued the series, extending Don Newton's virtuouso performance and the solid stories by E. Nelson Bridwell, as a recurring feature in World's Finest comics, from #253 to #282 (1978-82). The Newton/Bridwell stories then continued in Adventure Comics until 1983.

Don Newton died in 1984, at the age of 50, and E Nelson Bridwell died 3 years later, aged 56. It was during these years that DC fully embraced the strategy of 'rebooting' their venerable characters on an as-needed basis, with Superman & Batman leading the way in 1986. 

Not suprisingly, DC launched a Shazam reboot in 1987:

The 1987 Shazam comic that no one bought.
Roy Thomas, who had effectively rebooted the competition's Mar-Vell almost a generation earlier, wrote Capt. Marvel's reboot & Tom Mandrake did the art. But sales were poor, so 'it didn't take.'

The Original Capt. Marvel spent the next few years as a supporting character in various DC super-team books and limited series magazines, until 1994 when the excellent artist Jerry Ordway produced the graphic novel The Power of Shazam, which led to an ongoing series with the same title, lasting until 1999. 

Ordway's version of the Original Capt. Marvel took many of it's cues from Newton & Bridwell, making the characters more 'realistic' and visually dynamic than the Fawcett originals, and avoiding any serious attempt to recreate Otto Binder's peculiar brand of humor.

Yet Ordway did take pains to incorporate certain whimsical & sentimental elements, and to create a distinct hero to bridge the worlds of childhood & adulthood.  Ordway's versopm is simultaneously a unique personal vision and an homage to a timeless clasic

And for the most part, The Power of Shazam avoided the grimdark cliches which dominated superhero comics following Frank Miller's 1985 Dark Knight series.  Fearturing high quality stories & art, it remains DC's best attempt at the Original Capt. Marvel. In a better world, the series would be widely acclaimed and its entirety would have been reprinted in soft-cover, available in fine book stores.

Sadly, however, in the intervening years, the series has drifted towards obscurity, remembered only by fans of the Original Capt. Marvel. 

DC tried another reboot in 2007, with the Jeff Smith graphic novel, Monster Society of Evil. Although well-intentioned, it was ultimately unsatisfying and 'didn't take.' 

As for those fans of the Original, it would be unwise to expect any new generations to arise. In 2011, DC rebooted the character once again, except this time his name is simply...Shazam. It was probably inevitable, seeing as most people had been calling the character by that name since 1973. 

The abandonment of the Capt. Marvel name signifies the break of yet another link to the past. Now only bearing a vague resemblance to the Original, the character's relationship to it's Golden Age incarnation is so tenuous as to be effectively irrelevant. 'Shazam' is not the Original Capt. Marvel. The Original Capt. Marvel is once again dead.

Meanwhile, Marvel Comics still controls the name of Captain Marvel, but follows a somewhat counter-intuitive approach to this pursuit.

Mar-Vell's regular adventures had discontinued in 1979, and Marvel Comics had taken the unusual step of commissioning Jim Starlin to write & draw the critically-praised & poetic graphic novel The Death of Captain Marvel in 1982.

What made it unusual was that Mar-Vell's death was not a hoax, not a dream, not an imaginary story...and most unusual of all was Mar-Vell has actually remained dead for more than 35 years. . 

DC was not able to capture the Capt. Marvel name however, since Marvel immediately created a new superheroine, the erstwhile police lieutenant Monica Rambeau, to be commissioned as the new Captain. Since Rambeau Marvel was both African-American & a woman, Marvel gets some credit for inclusionary casting. But, despite being featured as a member of the mighty Avengers super-team, she never became an A-Lister like Spider-Man or Wolverine. 

Rambeau's tenure ended in 1996. Since that time Marvel Comics has appointed a succession of characters to bare the name, including the genetically engineered son of Mar-Vell and Carol Danvers, a one-time romantic interest of Mar-Vell. Like Rambeau, none of them has rivalled Iron Man or the Hulk for the limelight...the strategy seems to be for Marvel to simply hold onto the copyright, keeping it out of the hands of competitors such as DC. 

Marvel's aim, to protect the trademark, has been effective. The chilling effect of their fierce territoriality was demonstrated in 1985 when a US publisher began to import the British Marvelman.

Marvelman, as we discussed earlier, had come to existence in 1953, as a British replacement for the Original Capt. Marvel, and had been discontinued in 1963. But  in 1982, the character was revived in the UK, heavily revamped in a distinctly darker and more subversive tone, by writer Alan Moore and a succession of talented artists.

By 1985, with the US magazine industry realizing that Alan Moore was the greatest literary genius in the history of mainstream comic books, the small, independent Eclipse Comics bought the rights to reprint Marvelman in the USA. 

The tiny publisher was undoubtedly aware of Marvel having slapped-down DC's attempts to use the Capt. Marvel. Therefore, Eclipse opted to publish Moore's Marvelman under the moniker Miracleman (apparently heedless of the wrath of Elvis Costello).

Miracleman's success in the rich markets of the US spurred the publisher to reprint some of the Mick Anglo 1950's stories, pasting over every mention of 'Marvelman' with the character's Yankee nomenclature. Alan Moore kicked out new stories up to 1990, when Neil Gaiman and a few others took over the reins.

The critical success of Marvelman/Miracleman notwithstanding, Eclipse Comics went bankrupt in the 1990's, and its assets were bought by occasional Miracleman scripter Todd McFarlane for $25K. This transaction eventually led to a lawsuit, which put MM/MM into limbo for more than a decade.

After paying off Marvelman's creator, Mick Anglo, Marvel Comics began reprinting the Eclipse Marvelman/Miracleman stories in 2010, maintaining the name Miracleman.

In an interesting twist, however, superstar writer Alan Moore refused to allow his name to be published with the far as anyone can tell, Moore's refusal is based on his belief that Mick Anglo had been ripped-off by both Eclipse & Marvel Comics.

Alan Moore as 'The Original Writer' for Marvelman

So it is that now all of the Marvel Comics reprints of MM/MM penned by Moore cryptically refer to the legendary gadfly as 'The Original Writer.' [Later writers have allowed (and presumably enjoyed) having their names on the books, and in 2014, Marvel began producing new tales.]

For 36 years, Marvel Comics had used corporate and legal power to forbid DC from using Capt. Marvel's rightful name. And so it came to pass that now and for the foreseeable future, Alan Moore is going to forbid Marvel Comics from using his famous name.

DC, being the target of Marvel's dickish behavior, was never able to properly exploit a character which had once outsold Superman. Which is somehow fitting, seeing as DC had used its corporate and legal power to originally suppress Capt. Marvel back in the day. 

While the forces of Karma are usually unable to exact anything resembling true justice, perhaps these strange forces sometimes put the occasional limit on a bully.

Back in the mid-1980's, while Marvelman scribe Alan Moore was ascending to rock star status, artist/writer Frank Miller was right up there with him, especially after the 1985 Batman novel, The Dark Knight Returns.  

In 2001-02, Miller published a sequel to the Dark Knight, titled The Dark Knight Strikes Again. A mostly wretched & nihilistic opus, it was covered in critic & fan scorn before the ink had dried, and rightfully so. 

Yet, like many other awful things, there are a few decent moments scattered about. The Original Capt. Marvel has a significant presence, but of course for a Nouveau-Fascist deconstructionist author such as Frank Miller, there was no alternative but to [SPOILER ALERT!] kill him off.  That isn't the good part.

The good part is Miller indulging in a small bit of lyricism, delivered by the Original Capt. Marvel, half an instant before saying 'Shazam' one last time, blazing himself out of existence via the lighting which one gave him life itself: 

'...Where's a wish go? Where's a dream go when you wake up and can't remember it? Nowhere.'

Comic books sales across the board have been steadily diminishing, despite an occasional brief upward tick, for more than 40 years. The hottest books now might sell perhaps 100,000 copies a month, a very far cry from the Original Capt. Marvel's high water of 2 million a month.  

Superheroes make their money nowadays from movies & merchandise, and DC's Shazam and Marvel's Captain Marvel have performed poorly in this regard. We expect that they will continue to fade from memory in the years to come. 
Meanwhile, the perennial merchandising juggernaut, Superman, continues to survive, despite a series of mostly gawdawful feature films and atrocious editorial policies. His claim to fame, just as DC comics wanted, is his singular power & invulnerability. 

Ostensibly Superman fights for Truth, Justice, & the American Way. However, his dark secret is that a certain portion of his success comes not from his own virtues, but instead owes to the fact that back in the day, DC comics successfully suppressed a series of much better comic books. 

The situation is highly ironic. Superman's market value depends largely upon the perception of his fairness and nobility. Yet in reality this perception was created in no small part by DC Comics' relentless campaign of coercion & intimidation via the legal system.

In this manner Superman operates just like every other powerful entity. Power attracts the masses, but that is never enough to satisfy Power. Power is compelled to obliterate rivals, to achieve hegemony, to consolidate control. The world is strewn with the pieces of millions of broken artifacts, and the ashes of a million burnt books, mute testimonials to the relentless impusles of history's totalitarians.

The Original Capt. Marvel is now a relic, of interest only to a peculiar breed of sub-cultural archeologist such as the editors of the Flapdoodle Files. In 1953, when DC Comics finally killed in him, they succeeded only too well

Yet the ideals and archetypes of which he was assembled live on, infusing life into other creations. And therein lies the hope, that ideals and archetypes themselves, though vulnerable to suppression and destruction, may be rediscovered again. Perhaps even through the utterance of a magic word.