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. 


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