Holey Moley! Introducing Captain Marvel!

A look at Superman's main competitor in the 1940s, that Big Red Cheese, Captain Marvel.

I first encountered Captain Marvel in Dick Lupoff's closet. Dick, future author of The Comic Book Killer (among many other novels), had been collecting the Big Red Cheese's comics for years and would later write about his exploits in a book he co-edited with the late Don Thompson, All In Color For A Dime (Arlington House, 1970). I had missed the Captain's thirteen-year run as a Fawcett Comics character and Dick and his wife Pat were kind enough to put up with my periodically pawing through the collection. As a preteen I had never been interested in super hero comics, but the World's Mightiest Mortal's adventures had a streak of good-humored fun, unselfconscious campiness, that made them a delight to read years later.

It's hard to believe that Captain Marvel originally suffered death by litigation for alleged similarities to DC's Superman. He had started his life in the panels not as an alien immigrant to this planet, but as humble Billy Batson, a young orphan magically gifted with super powers by an immortal Egyptian sorcerer, Shazam. Merely by reciting the wizard's name, Billy was changed into a strapping red-clad muscle-bound figure of a man bearing a marked (and quite intentional) resemblance to actor Fred MacMurray.

Shazam reveals that for three millennia he has been fighting evil, aided by the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury (S.H.A.Z.A.M.). Now Captain Marvel possesses all those attributes and can revert to Billy again by shouting Shazam's name.

Billy's first test as Captain Marvel occurred in Whiz Comics #2, 1940 (a title now worth $4000 in mint condition), when he simultaneously debuted with his perpetual enemy, the comics field's most gleeful mad scientist, the bald and diminutive Dr.Thaddeus Bodog Sivana --he really got a bang out of evil!

A scorned man on this planet and the co-ruler, with his daughter Beautia, of the planet Venus, Dr. Sivana vows not only to rule the earth, but the entire universe as well!

Curiously, his grand campaign starts with a plan to extort money from a local radio station, WHIZ. Billy offers to track Sivana down in exchange for a job as announcer and roving reporter at WHIZ. Naturally Captain Marvel triumphs, but the leering Sivana was far from finished and would return in numerous Fawcett titles again and again, at one point stealing the Capital Building and all the senators in Congress.

Off the printed page, Captain Marvel's creators were writer Bill Parker and artist C.C. Beck, assigned by Fawcett to come up with a new super hero. Parker, who originally planned six characters to share Shazam's powers, had little interest in comic books as a career, and after launching Captain Marvel (and a stint in the National Guard) returned to Fawcett as a magazine writer, eventually editing Mechanix Illustrated.

Beck, however, made a life-long career in the field, being promoted to chief artist at Fawcett and enjoying editorial control over the majority of the scripts crossing his drawing board. Beck is the definitive Captain Marvel artist and drew the character from the founding days in 1940 through Fawcett's demise in 1953, and on to the Captain's revival at DC in 1972. Beck's charming drawing style is simple, perhaps the cleanest and most straightforward to appear in comics, and was ideally suited for the gently satirical tales.

After the Big Red Cheese's demise, Beck moved to Florida to open a commercial art studio, but was lured back into the comics field to draw the short-lived Fatman, the Human Flying Saucer (Milson Comics) in 1966, and then later for a nine issue run on DC's version of Captain Marvel, which ended in a bitter editorial dispute over the direction the title was going. His last years in the field were spent as an irregular columnist for The Comics Buyer's Guide (The Cantankerous Curmudgeon) and as a frequent speaker at comics conventions. Beck died in Florida, at age 79, in 1989.

If Beck was the definitive Captain Marvel artist, Otto O. Binder, stands out as the definitive Captain Marvel writer. Although the series was also scripted by Ron Reed, Bill Woolfolk, and Bob Kanigher, among others, comics creator and historian Jim Steranko  once estimated that Binder wrote 451 of over 600 Marvel-title scripts, a significant proportion of the entire Fawcett line. Binder's comic book career spanned 32 years of scripting for 18 major companies, ranging through the entire spectrum of comics' genres. (He also enjoyed a long career as a science fiction writer, creating stories with his brother, Earl, under the pseudonym Eando Binder.) Binder retired from steady comic book writing in 1969 and passed away in 1974.

A comic book's popularity is often determined by the quality of its villains and Captain Marvel Adventures and Whiz Comics had some of the best. There was the notorious Captain Nazi, Captain Nippon, King Kull, Ibac, and Black Adam, to name just a few of the Captain's bestial (and often zany) adversaries, but in my opinion, and aside from Dr. Sivana, the grandest of them all was a mysterious Mr. Mind, who debuted merely as a voice over the radio in the hot collector's item, Captain Marvel Adventures #22 (1943).

Created by Otto  Binder,  Mr. Mind originated on another planet, traveling to ours with (what else?) the goal of conquest. After organizing the Monster Society of Evil (Captain Nazi, King Kull, Black Adam, Adolf Hitler), the initially unseen fiend battled Captain Marvel for 232 pages of the series before being captured and revealed as a two-inch worm with glasses and a voice amplifier. In the trial of the century, Mr. Mind was speedily found guilty of committing 186,744 murders and was immediately strapped into an electric chair, shrieking for mercy like the coward he was. (I keep hoping that someone manufactures a Mr. Mind action-figure!)

The World's Mightiest Mortal proved to be an astounding success; Captain Marvel Adventures often sold over a million copies every two weeks, and its peak reached 2,000,000 per issue. Such popularity didn't go unchallenged, however; Superman publisher National Comics slapped Fawcett with a copyright infringement lawsuit in June 1941. The legal action dragged through the courts in several trials through the years, which added to Fawcett's decision to eventually fold its comics line in 1953. Killed by time-consuming litigation, rising paper costs, and a declining popularity of superheroes, after 150 issues of Captain Marvel Adventures,155 issues of Whiz Comics,a Republic 1941 serial, and dozens of toys, games, and novelties, the Big Red Cheese was finally grounded.

But, fortunately, not permanently. Ironically, Captain Marvel would fly again as a DC character, resurrected in 1972 (Sivana had trapped everyone in a "Suspendium sphere."), and he's continued to appear in the DC Universe ever since then. Holey moley!
 

--Steve Stiles