Comic Book Review
Shazam!: The Greatest Stories Ever Told
Writers: Bill Parker, Joe Simon, Otto Binder, Denny O’Neil, Elliot S! Maggin, Roy Thomas, Julius Schwartz, Gil Kane, Joey Cavalieri, Alan Grant, Barry Kitson, Jerry Ordway, Steve Vance
Artists: C.C. Beck, Jack Kirby, Kurt Schaffenberger, Curt Swan, Gil Kane, Barry Kitson, Pete Krause, John Delaney, Bob Oksner, Dick Giordano, Ron Boyd
Captain Marvel resonates with anyone who can remember what it was like to be a child wishing to be a grown-up. He was created by C.C. Beck and Bill Parker for Fawcett Comics in 1939 as an answer to Superman. This didn’t sit well with DC (then National) Comics, who considered the black-haired, caped, flying and invulnerable Marvel to be a bit too close to their Man of Steel for comfort, and engaged in a 12-year legal battle that ended in 1953 with the cancellation of all Captain Marvel comics and the end of Fawcett. DC won the legal battle, but the moral victory went to Captain Marvel, whose comics had handily outsold Superman’s throughout the Golden Age.
Half of the stories reprinted in Shazam!: The Greatest Stories Ever Told come from those original Fawcett days, stories from the pages of Whiz Comics, Captain Marvel Adventures, and The Marvel Family. They are mostly drawn by the Captain’s co-creator, C.C. Beck, with a notable exception being the second entry in the volume, an untitled story written and drawn by the legendary creative team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Because Captain Marvel has never returned to his original smash-hit status since DC revived him in the early 70s, Beck’s name often goes unmentioned in discussions of great comic artists. The meager sampling of his work presented in Greatest Stories Ever Told shows, however, that he belongs alongside Kirby, Curt Swan, and Jerry Robinson as one of the best comic storytellers of the Golden Age.
Reading those early Marvel stories, you can see the source of DC’s beef — like Clark Kent, Billy Batson is an orphan. They both find jobs in the media — Clark as a reporter at the Daily Planet, Batson as a kid radio personality on WHIZ. In their superhero guises, they both wear colorful tights dominated by iconic symbols worn on the chest, and both are pretty much indestructible. In the embryonic stages of superhero comics, before Superman had been ripped off a hundred times by every comics publisher in the world, a character as similar as Captain Marvel might smack of plagiarism.
On the other hand, there are enough conspicuous differences between the characters that it’s easy for me to side with Fawcett on this one. The origins of Captain Marvel and sources of his power are much more elaborately imagined than those initially given Superman. The explanation for Superman’s abilities in the Golden Age pretty much stopped with “he comes from another planet.” The origin story of Captain Marvel goes into much greater detail, telling of young Billy Batson’s ride through the city subway in a magical train, his meeting with the wizard Shazam in a cavern decorated with massive statues depicting “The Seven Deadly Enemies of Man,” and the wizard’s explanation of the ancient gods as the true sources of Marvel’s powers.
It’s more creative than the legal department at National Comics gave it credit for. What DC failed to realize initially was that Superman represented not merely a new character, but a new kind of character, an entirely new genre. Suing Fawcett for creating Captain Marvel made no more sense than Dashiell Hammett suing DC over Slam Bradley’s likeness to Sam Spade would have.
Of the Fawcett reprints, the stand-out is “Captain Marvel Battles the World,” published in Captain Marvel Adventures #148, just two months before that title was cancelled. Drawn by Beck and written by Fawcett veteran Otto Binder, the story depicts the planet Earth as a conscious, intelligent entity who has had just about enough of being dug, blasted, and drilled-out by us pesky humans and decides to do something about it. The Earth whips up some global warming in an attempt to roast the population, which Captain Marvel foils by pitching an icy asteroid into the atmosphere, creating clouds to shield the surface from the Sun’s punishing rays (fuck, I didn’t say it was scientifically sound or anything . . .).
His climate crisis foiled, the Earth then turns to smashing humongous ice shelves together, hoping the force of the sound waves will demolish human cities. Marvel takes care of this by muting the ice with a giant felt pillow. In a last ditch effort to take revenge on mankind, the Earth breaks South America loose and sends it floating northward to smash into North America. The World’s Mightiest Mortal fixes this by picking up the entire continent (and you thought Supes lifting up the frozen lake in one piece in Superman III was far-fetched), flying it back to where it’s supposed to be and gluing it in place some quick-drying lava. The Earth decides to make peace with humanity after Captain Marvel saves it from a giant runaway comet, telling the Moon, “Oh shucks! Forget it! Let ‘em dig all they want!” Until the ending lets us off the hook, it’s a clever and environmentally conscientious tale, beating the modern environmentalist movement to the punch by about twenty years. And, thanks to C.C. Beck, it’s beautifully drawn.
The DC stuff in the collection begins with a retelling of the origin, along with an explanation of where the Captain/Billy has been for the last twenty years, drawn by Beck and written by Denny O’Neil, from 1973’s Shazam! #1. It’s a cute tongue-in-cheek story that replicates the tone of the original Fawcett series. It was DC’s first attempt at a revival following the acquisition of the characters — though not the actual title, since, in the 20 years between the end of Fawcett and the publication of the first DC material, Marvel Comics had cleverly created and trademarked its own Captain Marvel, hence DC titling its book Shazam!.
Besides the origin reprise, highlights of the second half include another story by Denny O’Neil, this one drawn by another veteran from the Fawcett days, Kurt Schaffenberger, “The Evil Return of the Monster Society,” and “Yeah — This is a Face only a Mother Could Love . . .” from Jerry Ordway’s mid-90s The Power of Shazam! title. The Ordway story deals with the Captain trying to find a way for a classmate of his (as Billy Batson) to restore his original appearance after being horribly scarred in a fire started by one of Marvel’s rogues gallery. It’s well drawn by Pete Krause and Dick Giordano, and touching to find Marvel, the ultimate example of childhood wish-fulfillment, struggling to help a fellow child with a very real problem.
DC has done a good job recently with reprinting the original Fawcett adventures of Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family in their hardcover Archives series. It’s nice to see the Big Red Cheese get the Greatest Stories Ever Told treatment, which DC has also given to Batman, Superman, and the Justice League the last few years. Captain Marvel is in the same class as those guys, and since DC did try to kill him fifty years ago, it seems like keeping him in print now is the least they can do.