Editor’s Note: With talk of Warner Bros.’s Shazam beginning filming next year, and the character - possibly even by his original name, Captain Marvel - returning to the DCU with Dark Nights: Metal, Newsarama has dusted off our 2011 Oral History ot DC’s Captain Marvel out of the archives with a fresh coat of paint. This 13-part series, originally done for the character's 70th anniversary, will run over the course of the next few weeks, talking with many of the key creators of this character - going back even before he was a DC character at all.
Welcome back to our special tribute of Captain Marvel, featuring interviews with some of the biggest creators associated with the character!
And now, on to…
The Original Captain Marvel - The Fawcett Years: 1940-1954, Part Two
In the early 1940s, Captain Marvel outsold every other hero, including Superman, and DC’s lawsuits weren’t capable of putting him out of business. DC responded by, well, imitation. Hey, if it had worked for Fawcett…
Michael Uslan (Executive Producer on the Batman films): “If you go back and look at when Captain Marvel first started outselling Superman, this was a huge, huge turning point in the Golden Age of comics. And the way DC responded was by ordering a more comical, silly direction for Superman.
“All of a sudden, you started to see one-after-another covers of Lois dropping the pie she’d made on Superman’s toe, or Lois cutting Superman’s hair in a barbershop. They started to switch it over, since Captain Marvel had the lighter tone and was outselling Superman.
“That’s when you started seeing more of Mr. Mxyzptlk, more of the Toyman and Prankster. That’s when you started seeing Susie, Lois Lane’s bratty niece, who was like an imp to Superman. It was all trying to tilt him in Captain Marvel’s direction.
“It was a vast change in direction for Superman, and it didn’t feel comfortable.”
The bulk of the Fawcett Publications Captain Marvel stories - 986 in total, according to most counts - were written by Otto O. Binder (pronounced “Bender”), author of a popular series of science fiction stories with his brother Earl under the pseudonym “Eando Binder” (“Eando” = “E and O”).
Binder’s stories often followed the whimsical logic of a children’s story, and his prolific output allowed him to carry over characters from tale to tale. If fans liked a story about Captain Marvel meeting a tiger who had learned to talk and walk upright, then Binder could make “Mr. Tawky Tawny” a recurring friend and foil for the good Captain (a later story, perhaps realizing this was too far-fetched even for comics, added a mad scientist’s formula to explain the talking). As Bill Watterson would prove decades later, you can’t go wrong with a talking tiger.
If a goofy con man calling himself “Uncle Marvel” became a hit, then the W.C. Fields-inspired character could hang out with Captain Marvel and friends, sometimes saving the day in spite of himself. A whole world sprung up around Captain Marvel, bursting with imagination and ideas.
As with any major success, spinoffs of Captain Marvel started to arise. An early 1941 story introduced three other boys named “Billy Batson” who could turn into “Lieutenant Marvels.” In late 1941, Fawcett editor Ed Herron took the idea to the next level by penning a crossover between Whiz Comics and Master Comics that introduced Freddy Freeman, a young boy left crippled in a fight between Captain Marvel and his German counterpart Captain Nazi (it was the 1940s).
Captain Marvel saved Freddy’s life by convincing the spirit of the wizard Shazam to grant him part of his powers. By saying “Captain Marvel,” Freddy became Captain Marvel Jr., The Mightiest Boy in the World (and technically, a character incapable of saying his own name without losing his powers).
Otto Binder helped develop an entire neighborhood and style for Freddy’s adventures, giving them a darker, more-down-to-Earth feel than Captain Marvel Sr.’s fantastic tales. The spinoff was carefully crafted to allow Jr. to head on over to Master Comics, with a name that always reminded readers there was still a senior Captain Marvel they could also read.
But more significant was the look. While C.C. Beck’s style was rooted in whimsical cartoons, Captain Marvel Jr. had a style that hewed closer to Norman Rockwell or Howard Pyle, like a children’s storybook come to life.
The artist behind this was Emmanuel “Mac” Raboy, whose previous experience with the Works Progress Administration gave Captain Marvel Jr.’s tales a sense of being grounded in a world in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Later, Raboy would be picked to succeed Alex Raymond as the Sunday page artist of the newspaper strip Flash Gordon, a position he held until his death in 1967.
Mark Waid (Kingdom Come, other Captain Marvel stories): “Looking back, it’s very strange in that sense - getting an artist with a completely different look from the main book instead of making it all homogenous. Raboy’s Captain Marvel Jr. stories are not like anything else in that universe at all. It’s amazing.”
Chip Kidd (author, Shazam!: The Golden Age of the World’s Mightiest Mortal): “Mac Raboy was sort of Alex Ross before there was an Alex Ross. I found his artwork interesting because it was so different, and unusual, and his use of silhouette was really cool.”
Alex Ross (Kingdom Come, Shazam: Power of Hope, Justice): “Mac Raboy’s work always stood out to me as a symbol of the type of work I always wanted to create in comics. The fact that it already was created long ago and its quality was received with great respect and success made me more secure in the idea that realistic comics worked.
“The realistic origins of superhero art relating to Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon were crystallized through Mac Raboy’s work with Captain Marvel Jr.”
Beck actually disliked Raboy’s work on Captain Marvel Jr., claiming it was “illustration” and not “cartooning.”
Chip Kidd: “It’s such an interesting situation, because Beck and Raboy had completely divergent styles. They stood apart, but they also had to stand together. Can you imagine if Robin had to be drawn in a completely different style from Batman? It would have seemed very strange.”
Captain Marvel Jr. hit big, so by late 1942, Binder and artist Marc Swayze crafted another spinoff designed to appeal to a specific portion of the comic-reading audience - girls! Billy Batson discovered he had a long-lost twin sister Mary, who conveniently happened to be living in the area, and, as the wizard Shazam explained, had her own powers, “even though she is a girl.” (It was the 1940s.)
By uttering the magic word, Mary could summon the grace of Selena, the strength of Hippolyta, the skill of Ariadne (later Athena), the flight of Zephyrus, the beauty of Aroura (later Aphrodite, and yes, “beauty” was apparently a superpower), and the wisdom of Minerva - Mary Marvel!
While Billy and the Captain were occasionally referred to as separate entities, like Freddy, Mary was transformed herself, and retained her regular appearance. Mary proved particularly close to the Binder family - Otto Binder wrote her, his brother Jack illustrated many of her tales, and she shared a name with Otto’s own daughter Mary.
Together, Billy, Mary and Freddy were officially the “Marvel Family,” getting their own title together in 1945. There was even a funny animal character, Hoppy the Marvel Bunny, rendered in a memorably illustrative style by Chad Grothkopf. Stretching across nearly a dozen titles, the Marvels influenced generations of creators.
Chip Kidd: “I loved the tabloid reprints of the 1970s. That was like Marcel Proust’s Madeline - ‘I remember that! Captain Marvel Jr. helping the trolls!’ ‘Captain Marvel Battles the Plot Against the Universe’ - that was so great. They could get so conceptual on those.”
Mark Waid: “The Monster Society of Evil is obviously a favorite. Specific stories from the Fawcett era are hard to think of, but book-length epics like ‘Captain Marvel Battles the Plot Against the Universe’ or the Marvel Family stories like Black Adam and so forth were just great.
“Many of the shorter stories are fun, but don’t really stick to your ribs - there’s a lot of repetition and not as much mythos after a while. You see the formula at work over and over again, but that said, they’re good for what they were, and I tend to read them in big giant chunks, and they weren’t meant to be read like that - they were meant to be read on a monthly basis.”
Jackson Bostwick (TV’s Captain Marvel): “My favorite is the origin story. I don’t know what issue that it first appeared - maybe it was in a Whiz Comics (I had it, but as stated: mom - God love her - tossed all my comics out while I was in the Army), but that, along with the theatrical serial starring Tom Tyler, The Adventures of Captain Marvel, is what got me hooked. I also always liked it when Cap went after King Kull or Captain Nazi.”
Alex Ross: “The long Monster Society of Evil storyline and the tale of Sivana’s takeover of the Rock of Eternity are great examples of the best that Otto Binder and C.C. Beck created. The oversized reprints of these tales are how I came to find them, and they capture the perfect hybrid of fun, drama, and great storytelling that the Fawcett era produced.
“Like many fans, Freddy, Mary, and Black Adam have captivated me since I was a kid. The realism of Raboy’s art and mood made him quite different from Captain Marvel as well as being compared to Superboy.
“Mary Marvel was always one of the most appealing superheroes who translated to the modern era just fine for my tastes. What little I saw of Black Adam from the 1970s only made me want to see him so much more.
“The extended family and the overall rogues’ gallery seemed like some of the best in comics history. There was so much creativity then, it was an apex of the art form.
“Many of the simplest ideas, like the quick-change to hero transformation and even lightning as a pivotal element, have been repeated endlessly in countless comics and fantasy characters so as to almost be in the DNA of mythmaking. Exact copycats of Captain Marvel are so numerous but without their success extending to him.
“Captain Marvel is the superhero character I consider to be my 'personal favorite,' meaning in some ways that besides the obvious affinity I show to Superman and other major icon superheroes, Captain Marvel’s importance to me feels like he is apart from the others, mainly because he seems unknown to the general public. His appeal has been infectious without always being aided by popular support.”