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SHAZAM! — The Power of One Magic Word

Longbox Graveyard #126

EDITOR’S NOTE: This week I welcome a new voice to Longbox Graveyard with guest blogger Dean Compton, who offers his personal experiences with one of the foundational heroes in comics. Take it away, Dean!

Welcome to my guest blog entry here at Longbox Graveyard! I’m Dean Compton, and Paul has been gracious enough to allow me to fill an egregious omission from The Longbox. Paul has done a rather splendid job of showing us the exploits of the Captain Marvel brought to us by the House of Ideas, but so far, there has been nary a mention of the Big Red Cheese, the World’s Mightiest Mortal, the ORIGINAL Captain Marvel!

That ends now!!!

Of course, it isn’t as though Paul is some kind of evil troll just dedicated to depriving you canny readers of the chances to learn more of the Bronze Age exploits of Captain Marvel so much as it seems that he just wasn’t a fan. While I find that to be the sort of superhero fan crime that should be punishable by repeated readings of Sleepwalker and NFL Superpro, Paul has instead given me the opportunity to correct this tiny slight on what is otherwise a tremendous blog.

NFL SuperPro!

let the punishment fit the crime: right before Superpro tackles said crime

Lest I get too carried away here, it’s an honor to try and convey just what the Billy Batson/Captain Marvel character means to me. I have loved superheroes my entire life, and I think part of that is the safety of the heroes. I loved how they used their massive power to help those who were helpless, and while that meant lots of fun for me, it also hit very close to home because I was an abused child who was looking for a safe place like the worlds these superheroes strived to create. I also wanted to believe that those who had power did not always abuse it, and superheroes showed that to me.

Of course, that makes Captain Marvel very near and dear to me, because, as I am sure those reading a comic book blog would be aware, Captain Marvel is a kid who says a magic word to become the World’s Mightiest Mortal! If you are looking at this comic book blog and you weren’t aware, wow! How did you get here? Seriously, I’d love to know!

Take a look here and see a quick origin of Captain Marvel from SHAZAM #1 (1973).

Shazam! #1

who could have caused that exile?  Don’t worry, I will tell you after just a little more whining about my childhood

So obviously, once I learned of Captain Marvel, it held a special place in my heart. I wanted to say my own magic word and be able to overcome the evil in life. In times when I just felt like giving up, Billy Batson and Captain Marvel helped inspire me to keep going, and I guess I made it out. I have a steady job in television, great friends, and a girlfriend who somehow manages to tolerate stuff like my constant need to launch into long soliloquies about Billy Batson and other EARTH-SHATTERING comic book stuff. I am not going to go into great detail about my situation growing up, but I will say that lots of folks don’t come out as unscathed as I did, and part of the reason is the hope brought by Captain Marvel into my life.

I think the first time I ever saw Captain Marvel was in the early 80’s. I’m a 70’s baby by 3 months, so many things at Longbox Graveyard happened before I was born, but anything in the late Bronze Age I recall. One of my gifts in life has been to have a tremendous memory, and so I can recall seeing SHAZAM! Slurpee cups at a young age. I also recall a Captain Marvel cartoon on Saturday Mornings paired with Hero High. I didn’t learn about Captain Marvel though (and thought his name was SHAZAM!) until I was in 6th grade. I started collecting the DC and Marvel cards of the early 90’s, and I was captured by the idea instantly.

DC Comics Trading Cards  Series I #180 (1992)

So, now that we have gotten all that gobbledygook out of the way, perhaps you’d like to actually read about some comics. Hell, even the people who love human interest stories at this point are probably taking to the streets with picket signs reading “GET TO THE COMICS!”, so without further adieu, I’d like to share with you guys SHAZAM #1 and #2 from 1973!!!!

To put things in perspective, there hadn’t been a Captain Marvel comic featuring the Billy Batson Cap in about 20 years at this point. DC Comics sued Fawcett Comics, the original publishers of Captain Marvel, over the fact that that they felt Captain Marvel infringed upon the copyright of Superman. The courts originally said that DC had let Superman’s copyright lapse, but an upper court then decided it wasn’t true and said the case had to be looked at again. At that point, Fawcett just settled out of court and stopped publishing Captain Marvel or any other comics. 1954 is the last year they published. (This had as much to do with declining sales after the war as anything else.) They licensed the Marvel Family to DC in the early 70’s and they eventually finished selling their properties to DC in 1991. Of course, thanks to the interim, if you are like Paul, you have been bamboozled into thinking that Mar-Vell is THE Captain Marvel at this point, when from the ashes of legality DC comics licensed Captain Marvel and his family, and gave us this!

Shazam! #1

it looks like Superman is some sort of magician here and he is taking credit for bringing Captain Marvel back

So twenty years after the courts decided that Captain Marvel infringed upon Superman’s copyright and Fawcett quit publishing the adventures of the Big Red Cheese, DC licensed the rights to the Marvel Family and brought them back in the above SHAZAM! #1. If you ask me, they really got off on the wrong foot right away. Putting Superman on the cover in this way (he does not appear in the comic book at all) just sort of cheapens the event! Instead of safely entrenching Cap in his own world in his own adventures, instead we get the instant Superman/Captain Marvel comparison. Not only is it a comparison we do not need to make, but the way Superman is drawn makes it seem like he is either taking credit for the book or that he is deigning to let it happen. Perhaps the pose is done on purpose as one final “WE WON” from DC, but who knows? That probably wasn’t the reason for it. I do like the “BOOM!” sound effect.

The creative team for this book is Denny O’Neil writing and art by CC Beck, and while CC Beck is THE Captain Marvel artist, O’Neil’s stories in SHAZAM! just are not very enjoyable. They just feel forced and, at the risk of offending the God of puns, cheesy. Even for 1973, they feel decidedly whitebread and almost insultingly inoffensive due to their simplicity. I figure either DC wanted these stories to be this way (much is made of the Marvels coming out of Suspended Animation); they are so far removed from what Denny O’Neil is good at as a writer (his “realistic” takes on Batman, or Green Lantern/Green Arrow, for instance); or a combination of the two.  One thing is for sure though, after the origin story, CC’s art is about the only reason to keep reading the first issue.

Shazam! #1

I now know where James Cameron got the awful idea to call his mineral “Unobtainium” in Avatar

Yep, Dr. Sivana was behind the disappearance of Captain Marvel teased earlier in the origin panels, which to be fair, are done well. It’s when O’Neil does Sivana and his family as the most idiotic mad geniuses you will ever see or even the entire idea that Cap has been in suspended animation for the twenty years he was legally gone. It probably would have been best to have just started his adventures back up without addressing what was going on while he was gone. Of course, if they had done that, someone (PROBABLY ME) would complain about it because those years were not documented.

We have a saying for that here in the south: Can’t win for losing.

One thing that O’Neil loved to do in his SHAZAM! stories that gets old faster than baby crying on an airplane is the cheesy joke. Scope these two pages and try not to cringe at the pun toward the end. I do love the use of the “KA-RUNCH” sound effect though. I wish real world punches made that same noise.

Shazam! #1

UGH! Even in the 70’s, that suspended sentence joke had to be unacceptable and possibly a war crime

On the other hand, one of the great things about the 70’s SHAZAM! series was how it provided cool reprints of Golden Age adventures of Captain Marvel adventures, and the one we get in SHAZAM#1 is priceless to me, mostly because of how awesome this old dude is:

Shazam! #1

No one in history has ever loved string more, which makes me love this old man. Too bad for him, the people who actually own the string take string theft so seriously as to utilize a Spy vs. Spy bomb in order to stop this delightful string-loving old man.

Shazam! #1

the old guy is collecting the string TO SELL IT. Has string ever been worth anything? For real, I am really asking

There’s also a scientist in this story who believes that since they have string and vases in this other dimension, those people must be monstrous! Surprise, scientist! They look just like us!

Shazam! #1

that is truly the skulking walk of any scientist whose crazy theories have been disproven by a superhero

A quick comment on that house ad too: Do I really need Doll Man and the Atom in the same comic? I mean, I like both guys, but they both do the same thing. If Doll Man shrinking down doesn’t save the day, HOW WILL THE ATOM DOING THE SAME THING SAVE DAY?

But I digress. Let’s move along to SHAZAM #2, which starts off with a better cover, although those kids kind of scare me.

Shazam! #2

the meta cover idea always gets me. I love infinity!

The kid holding the comic seems ok, but the girl and the other little boy frighten me to Kingdom Come, and if you have read that, you know that isn’t a great place to be.

SHAZAM #2, on the other hand, is a great deal of fun. Denny O’Neil and CC Beck do the main story, and O’Neil does a better job here. It seems less silly for the sake of silly, and more of the embrace of silly. Of course, a talking tiger named Mr. Tawky Tawny and a worm bad guy named Mr. Mind will sort of do that for you.

Of course, so will an old arch enemy crocodile that attacks Captain Marvel for no reason and then is forgiven. For no reason I can discern other than Beck’s great art, these pages have such charm:

Shazam! #2

if you’re so happy with the circus and your life in crime is over, why did you attack Captain Marvel? Why is he just letting you go?

The highlight of the story though is when Mr. Mind makes a FOOTBALL OF DOOM!

Shazam! #2

Of course, our hero manages to catch Mr. Mind in a neat little tale, but the highlight of this issue, and if you ask me, the first 10 issues of SHAZAM! is this backup story by Elliott S! Maggin and the brilliant Beck!

Captain Marvel meets Sunny Sparkle, the nicest kid in the world. He is so nice that people just do things for him all the time, which is good, because he is easily the creepiest child in history. In fact, he is even creepier looking than the live action kids on the cover of issue #2.

Shazam! #2

Ye Booke Nooke is now filled with hipsters and a cup of black coffee is $8.99

You see, for Sunny Sparkles, being so great is just awful because people give him things! This is somehow a problem for him. For me, I can’t think of much better, but maybe what makes Sunny Sparkles so nice is his lack of materialistic concerns like the ones I have. Of course, this is a comic book, and if I lived in comic book world like Sunny, and I had this power, I would inexorably get involved in some sort of heist and misunderstanding that would lead the most gangster gangster of all time to come looking for me.

Shazam! #2

look at Sunny on the second page looking at Captain Marvel and tell me the reason people give him things isn’t that they are scared to death of him. I dare you.

I love how the boss goes from just a sort of meany behind a desk whose cigar is also angry because he is to the most gangster gangster ever merely by putting on his hat and having a gun under his coat. Despite his ability to change from a Flintstones bit villain into the crime lord of Earth-S, even he finds Sunny’s charms irresistible.

Shazam! #2

on Earth-S, waking someone up from a nap is apparently a bigger no-no than RESIDENTIAL BURGLARY

This gangster gangster gets more impressive every page! Now he tilts his hat up slightly, and he is A TRUSTWORTHY ADULT. I love it! Later on we see Sunny Sparkle again, but he is with his rotten cousin. I wonder what New 52 Sunny Sparkle would be like. Never mind. I don’t. Please don’t, DC!

All in all, these stories are fun. If you can find them cheaply, they are worth a read simply for the golden age backups, but the issues themselves are too pricey just for those, and I am sure you can find better reproductions of those golden age stories elsewhere. These 70’s stories, while at their best they are fun, they were just too behind the times to catch on then, I am sure. For instance, I decided it would be neat while writing this blog to listen to the top albums from 1973, the year these comics came out, and let me tell you, Dark Side of the Moon does not mesh as well with Sunny Sparkles as it does Wizard of Oz!

Hope you’ve enjoyed my guest blog here! I can be heard on VOC Nation on two, count ’em, TWO podcasts that air live prior to archiving! One is called Her Dork World, His Dork World (Twitter, Facebook), and it features my girlfriend and I discussing dork culture from a male and female perspective, and it debuts on March 20 at midnight! My other podcast there should be up by now, having debuted yesterday! It’s called Compton After Dark (Twitter, Facebook), and it focuses on wrestling, comics, politics, toys, video games, and more. Listen on Tuesday nights from 11:30PM to 1AM, EST!

Be on the lookout, and if you liked this, bug Paul and maybe he will let me come play in the Longbox again with some Punisher Bronze Age stuff or even more Captain Marvel! Thanks for reading, and I can’t wait to talk to all of you again! Look at those exclamation marks. Am I Stan Lee or something?

Bustin’ Loose,
Dean Compton

Thanks for spreading the Captain Marvel gospel, Dean! I encourage all Longbox Graveyard readers to check out Dean’s podcasts (rumor has it a certain master of the Longbox Graveyard will be appearing on air with Dean in April …), and also keep an eye out in coming months as Dean writes about the Punisher and the All-Star Squadron for this very blog! Finally, be sure to mouse on over to Dean’s 1990s comics blog — The Unspoken Decade — where Dean attempts to shine light on the darkest age of comics! Keep the faith, Marvelites! (And I mean that in the ORIGINAL sense!)

IN THREE WEEKS: #127 Top 10 Loves of Peter Parker (Pt. 1)

Out Of The Holocaust — A Hero!

Longbox Graveyard #79

I’ve been on a Captain Marvel kick. Earlier this month, I wrote about Jim Starlin‘s swan song in Captain Marvel #34 for my Dollar Box column at StashMyComics.com, and one of my first articles here at Longbox Graveyard was on Starlin’s full Captain Marvel run in the 1970s. But what has most interested me recently is the original Marvel Comics take on Mar-Vell … the stranger from Kree in the funky old white-and-green uniform who first came to earth in the pages of Marvel Super-Heroes #12, in 1967.

Marvel Super-Heroes #12

I shouldn’t be nostalgic for this character. This isn’t “my” Captain Marvel, as I came to the character well after Marv had adopted his more-familiar red-and-blue cosmic space togs:

Captain Marvel #37

I really can’t defend my affection for the original Mar-Vell. I think his 1950s space aesthetic look is retro-cool (and Neal Adams agrees) …

Captain Marvel by Neal Adams

… but by any measure this is a pretty hopeless character. Marvel’s Captain Marvel was published only to assert a trademark claim after rights to the original Captain Marvel, published by bankrupt Fawcett Comics, were coming up for renewal. Only the need to assert control over that name has kept the character around this past (near) half-century, through a series of cancellations and revolving creative teams. In fact, the character might be best known for his death!

The Death of Captain Mar-Vell

But I come here not to bury Captain Marvel, but to praise him!

If you look at this character in the rear-view mirror AND you squint just the right way AND you exclude some of his less-inspiring adventures, you kinda-sorta arrive at one of the few genuinely complete character arcs in superhero comics. In a sum-of-the-parts equation — and completely by accident — Captain Marvel backs into being a mature and well-rounded fictional character, with a beginning, a middle, and an end; victories and defeats, loves and losses, significant transformation and a meaningful death. This unlikeliest of comic book characters — himself little more than a walking trademark case — has by strange twist of publication fate avoided the curse of the “eternal now” imposed on these ultimately-unchanging heroes of ours, some of whom have been in print as twenty-something-year-old crime fighters for seventy-five years or more.

We’re not talking Moby Dick here. I’m making my case for Captain Marvel — like all the comics I review at Longbox Graveyard — against the backdrop of other superhero comics of the past century, not against the timeless classics of world literature. But here in our four-color subculture I do think this tertiary character of Captain Marvel deserves greater study and respect. He’ll never be a Batman or a Superman or a Spider-Man, and I doubt he’ll ever get screen time in a Marvel movie (though with Rocket Raccoon on the way, stranger things have happened), but I do think Mar-Vell is a more complex and worthy figure than we’ve given him credit for, and I’m going to tell you why.

Captain Marvel #29

Sorting out this character’s powers and history is above my pay grade, but I will try.

We first encounter our hero as part of a Kree response team tasked with finding out how one of their innumerable sentries had gotten whacked back in issue #64 of Fantastic Four. In this, the basic plot of Captain Marvel borrows from a classic science fiction trope — the tale of the super-advanced alien race keeping tabs on earth’s development, which we’ve seen in pictures as diverse as The Day The Earth Stood Still and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Kree are militaristic, imperialistic, paranoid, and (to judge by our hero’s murderous crew) eager to abuse their authority when far from the home office — early issues of Captain Marvel make much of the Captain’s superior, Colonel Yon-Rogg, trying to get Marvel killed so he can make time with Marv’s lover, the beautiful ship’s medic, Una.

Marvel Super-Heroes #14, Gene Colan & Stan Lee

with friends like these …

It’s worth saying something about our hero’s name. The book is called Captain Marvel, but the character is Mar-Vell, a Captain in the Kree military. Yeah, I know, it’s a real groaner, but it gets (a little) easier the more you say it. Aside from providing a convenient reason for our hero to have a trademarked name, Mar-Vell also conjures images of another strange visitor from another planet who becomes a defender of Earth — Kal-El, better known as Superman. Like Superman, Marvel enjoys enhanced strength and leaping abilities thanks to Earth’s reduced gravity. Confusingly, he also has a jet belt (but I thought he could leap tall buildings …?), and a “Kree battle suit” that helps him absorb damage. His signature weapon is the “Uni-Beam,” which is a laser, basically, though scripter Roy Thomas would later characterize it as a special “lens” that could channel all kinds of light effects, maybe groping towards something like the eponymous device from E.E. Doc Smith’s 1930s Lensman science fiction pulp series.

Marvel Super-Heroes #14, Gene Colan & Stan Lee

Mar-Vell is also weakened by exposure to Earth’s atmosphere, and he has to gobble down potions once every couple hours or he’ll suffocate like a fish out of water, and there are other wrinkles that are too tedious to mention, and also unimportant, because this character’s abilities and powers would prove ever-changing as subsequent creative teams re-built him on the fly. What is important about these early stories is what they establish about Mar-Vell — that he is a Kree war hero who loves his homeland but is also a man apart in that he does not blindly follow orders, and has compassion for the people of Earth. He has a keen tactical mind, and he’s a man of honor who respects the chain of command, even when his immediate commander is an incompetent dolt deliberately trying to get him killed.

Marvel Super-Heroes #13, Gene Colan & Stan Lee

Mar-Vell is also a bit of a fool when it comes to politics, letting himself get railroaded into a sham trial where he is judged guilty of treason against the Kree race, then becoming a pawn of Ronan the Accuser in his plot to overthrow the Kree Supreme Intelligence. The stories can be tough sledding to read today, but in retrospect they serve to explain why the loyal Kree Captain Marvel first turns against his home planet, then later comes to reject his militaristic ethos entirely when he achieves enlightenment during a mystical transformation in issue #29.

Captain Marvel #17

But that is getting ahead of ourselves, as Marv still has a series of lesser transformations to experience, including a new Gil Kane-designed costume, and blast of radiation that confines him to the Negative Zone, which he can escape only by clashing together the Nega-Bands on his wrists, and changing places with his Earth-born sidekick, Rick Jones (late of sidekicking it up with the likes of Captain America and The Hulk).

My defense of this character is starting to argue against itself, with sentences like that last, but these are comic books and external transformations like new costumes and powers are a big deal. The gimmick of linking Captain Marvel with Rick Jones also harkened to the relationship between the original Fawcett Captain Marvel and Billy Batson, while making Marvel a prisoner of the Negative Zone was a more actionable and dramatic weakness than the hoary old gotta-drink-my-atmosphere-potion liability. By fits and starts, Mar-Vell was transforming into a capable superhero who was no longer a captive of his heritage, his equipment, or his adopted home, and who was now able to roam the spaceways and chart his own destiny in life.

Marvel vs. Marvel

this never happened, but it is one of several cross-company superhero showdowns you can see at the blog of this Simpsons artist

Not all of Marv’s transformations are external. His interior life is also one of change. His romance with Una ends in her death, caught in the crossfire of Mar-Vell’s betrayal by his Kree masters, providing an early shadow of tragedy for a hero who will be characterized in many ways by the things he has lost. One-by-one, Mar-Vell’s identity is stripped away — his rank, his heritage, his homeland, his reputation are all lost.

A two-year period of cancellation of Captain Marvel between issues #21 and #22 saw Marv better integrated into the rest of the Marvel universe through guest appearances, most notably at the center of the Kree-Skrull war, one of the first great Marvel Comics cross-overs (and which I wrote about here). But it is when the character returns in his own book that he becomes something special, especially when Jim Starlin assumes full creative duties with issue #27.

I’ve already written about Starlin’s Captain Marvel, and while I was a bit dismissive of the stories, I didn’t mean to be dismissive of what they meant. The issues from this era are for the most part energetic and stylish superhero fist operas, characterized by Starlin’s emerging talents as a comic book storyteller, but they are also notable for the development of Thanos as an A-list Marvel villain, and for Mar-Vell’s transformation into a “cosmically aware” warrior in the cause of life and balance in the universe.

Captain Marvel #29, Jim Starlin

The “Cosmic Awareness” Mar-Vell gains in issue #29 of his book is an ill-defined concept, and not even Jim Starlin seems to know entirely what it means. As I noted in my review, Mar-Vell mostly demonstrates his enlightenment by admonishing other characters for their violent ways (right before he punches them in the mouth). Like most every other element of my argument that Captain Marvel is greater than the sum-of-his-parts, this part doesn’t hold up well to individual scrutiny. But what’s important here is not what happened in the books themselves so much as where the ideas would lead — by making Marv an enlightened guardian of the universe, Jim Starlin opted Captain Marvel out of the common superhero rat race and set him on an inevitable path toward martyrdom.

The path wasn’t inevitable at the time, of course — Captain Marvel still had thirty-odd issues of largely-forgettable superhero stories to endure before the book was cancelled in 1979. These issues are distinguished mostly by Marv firmly separating himself from the Kree and (near the end) meeting his second great love, Elysius, but it would be in death where Captain Marvel became immortal.

The Death of Captain Marvel

the Death of Captain Marvel, by Jim Starlin (after Michelangelo!)

With Captain Marvel cancelled, but a need to periodically refresh that trademark defense, Marvel brought Marv back one more time for Jim Starlin’s Death of Captain Marvel graphic novel in 1982. Following on from the events in the final issue of his Captain Marvel run that Starlin had created eight years before, The Death of Captain Marvel was an at-times maudlin and ruminating tale that followed Marv through his last days as he succumbed to cancer. It is a touching story, even after all these years, and it is made even more significant by the degree of admiration and respect shown to Captain Marvel by seemingly every other Marvel character, who appear in the story to pay their final respects.

Captain Marvel’s enlightenment is completed and his tale comes to an end in a memorable climax, where Captain Marvel and his greatest foe, Thanos, are at last in accord in their embrace of Death.

The Death of Captain Marvel, Jim Starlin

What makes Captain Marvel’s death so poignant is not only that it proved permanent (more-or-less) these past three decades, but that it marked the kind of resolution and final transformation rarely granted to characters in the continuous publication format of comic books. The trademark-enforcing title of “Captain Marvel” has been taken up by other characters since Mar-Vell’s death (at the present time it is held by Carol Danvers, the former Ms. Marvel, who is another character for which I have indefensible affection), but aside from a few cameo flashbacks or spirit appearances, the man who was Mar-Vell has remained dead, and his story can be appreciated as a completed whole.

Captain Marvel #1

Carol Danvers takes on the mantle in Captain Marvel #1

And what a whole it is … though you have to stand back from the tapestry to really appreciate it. As I’ve let on in this conspectus, most individual issues of Captain Marvel don’t bear close scrutiny. But taken as a whole, they are a Marvel Comics accidental masterpiece. Here we have a hero who is the product of an evil and corrupt military machine, who betrays the world of his birth to protect the people he was tasked to destroy. We see Mar-Vell as patriot, traitor, ex-patriot, and a citizen of the universe as his life evolves. He becomes a great and respected hero, and transcends the normal brotherhood of superpowered champions through his enlightenment, becoming a cosmic entity and protector of the universe, a nearly-omnipotent being who loses his last battle with a very human disease. He has great loves — and great losses — in his life, and about the only aspect of life Mar-Vell does not experience is raising children (though Marvel Comics would find ways to posthumously continue his line).

Captain Marvel #1

And so out of this holocaust of trademarks, changing costumes, new powers, and rotating creators emerges a hero. His faults are many (and really, I can’t recommend many issues of Captain Marvel itself), but his achievements are visible in the mosaic of his existence, the product of many hands and no definitive plan. Captain Marvel matters — maybe because nobody really tried to make him mean anything at all.

I miss him! And I like it that way. Returning Mar-Vell to life couldn’t help but diminish his legend. He is my favorite hero I hope to never see again … except in the yellowing old pages of the largely-forgotten comics I write about each week here at Longbox Graveyard. Thanks for reading, and please share your thoughts on Mar-Vell (or your own unlikely-yet-favorite heroes) in the comments section, below.

NEXT WEEK: #80 Marvel Super-Hero Holiday Grab Bag (Of Coal)

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