Thursday, September 4, 2008

Decade by Decade, Part 10: SHAZAM!!!

Captain Marvel Adventures #100 (1949)"Captain Marvel Battles the Plot Against the Universe"
Often in comics, a writer's unique story-telling style is perfectly complimented by a specific artist. We see that with Bob Finger and Bill Kane in the early Batman stories; with Stan Lee and both Kirby and Ditko in the 1960s; Denny O'Neil's Batman stories with Neil Adams art from the '70s should probably be on the list as well, as are the Sgt. Rock stories of Bob Kaniger and either Joe Kubert or Russ Heath.

In 1941, Captain Marvel creator C.C. Beck needed someone to take over the writing chores for his popular character (while Beck himself still handled most of the art). He found Otto Binder. Binder (who later helped form a lot of the Silver Age Superman mythology) understood the light-hearted feel that worked best in the Captain Marvel Universe--magic and pseudo-science were casually accepted as a part of that Universe without the need to worry too much about "rational" explanations for it all. It all meshed perfectly with with Beck's visual style. To quote from the Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics: "Beck's graphic renderings were simple, uncluttered, cartoon-oriented, and appropriately humorous."

In 1949, to celebrate the 100th issue of Captain Marvel Adventures, Binder and Beck jammed a true epic into a single issue. The evil Dr. Sivana kidnaps Tawky Tawny ("the well-known talking tiger") and steals his memoirs. From this, he learns how Billy Batson gained the power to become Captain Marvel. He goes back in time to stop Billy from meeting the wizard Shazam, but Tawny escapes and knocks him out, foiling this plan.

But Sivana also learns that Shazam wears a bracelet made from the metal Shazamium, which allows the now-dead wizard to appear as a ghost without fading away into nothingness. Sivana manages to steal the bracelet. Shazam now has only 24 hours before fading away.

Sivana is incorporeal while wearing the bracelet, so Captain Marvel can't hurt or stop him. Sivana forces Marvel to build a lot of robot Sivanas out of a living metal called Sivanium. (He needs the robots to do his work, since he can't otherwise handle solid objects while wearing the Shazamium bracelet.)

But Captain Marvel also builds a duplicate of himself out of Sivanium to build the Sivana robots, giving himself time to quickly invent a metal called Marvelium, stronger and denser than anything else. He builds a room out of Marvelium and tricks Sivana into entering. Not even incorporeal beings such as Sivana now is can pass through a Marvelium wall, so Captain Marvel is able to take the Shazamium bracelet away from Sivana and return it to Shazam in the nick of time. In the meantime, the Sivanium duplicate Captain Marvel and the Sivanium duplicate Sivanas have destroyed one another.

Everyone got all that?

It's an astonishing amount of storytelling for a 23-page story. And it's all incredibly entertaining, maintaining suspense while following its own bizarre but consistent logic tbroughout. The Captain Marvel Universe was a quirky, fun place--unpretentious in a way with which many modern superhero comics (obsessed with angst and "realism" as they often are) have lost track.

DC Comics long ago acquired the rights to all these Marvel Family characters and incorporated them into the same universe as Superman, Batman and other traditional DC characters. This was, I think, a mistake. I don't think the Marvel Family characters has ever fit all that comfortably within the regular DC Universe. Beck and Binder gave them their own unique "feel," something that exists better on its own than after its been diluted into something else.

But, of course, the old stories still exist and many of them have been reprinted in recent years. The Marvel Family universe is still there for us to visit whenever we want to have a good time.


  1. I'm still surprised that there wasn't a Captain Marvel movie serial!

  2. There was. It is, in fact, one of the best of the old serials. It was produced in 1941 and has great special effects for its time and budget. It is available on DVD and its worth watching.


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