Or – “This Is the Greatest And Best Comic Book Character In The World…   Tribute.

When I was a kid, I was confused by the episode of the Brady Bunch where the actual Bradys don’t appear, instead focusing the whole show on their next door neighbor and his three adoptive kids.  In this day and age, I’m now aware of what was obviously a pilot for another show, but then, I was just annoyed that Jan didn’t show up.  (It was late in the last seasons, when Eve Plumb had been hit by the puberty stick…  You got your sexy where you could in the 70’s.)  This issue of Superman came to my attention a few years after it hit the shelves, and has stuck in my mind for the exact same reasons as that episode:  It’s a ‘Backdoor Pilot,’ and it features almost no nubile teen girls.  The difference is, this doesn’t make me want to open a vein with a shrimp fork.

Superman Vol. 1 #276
Script: Elliot S! Maggin
Pencils: Curt Swan
Inks: Bob Oksner
Cover: Nick Cardy
Published by DC Comics

Previously, on Superman:  Since the debut of the character in 1938, Superman has engendered many knockoffs.  Fox Features Wonder Man, f’rinstance, came out a few scant months after Kal-El crashed to Earth, and the only thing faster than the heroes themselves was DC’s ensuing copyright lawsuit to keep W.M. out of print.  Fawcett Comics likewise got ‘Cease And Desisted’ with their Master Man character, but drew the line (HA!  Comics joke!) when National Periodical Publications tried to shut down their flagship character, Captain Marvel.   Captain Marvel, known lovinly as The Big Red Cheese, debuted in 1939 and to most people’s eyes bore little resemblance to Superman save for the flying and the punching and the cape, something that the vast majority of super-types that DC wouldn’t sue also did.  After years of legal battles, Fawcett was forced to stop printing Captain Marvel’s adventures in 1951, and went out of business completely not long after.  In a fit of irony, a couple of decades later, DC ended up licensing Fawcett’s characters for use in their own book, but couldn’t use the name because of a copyright claim by Marvel Comics and THEIR Captain Marvel character.  Weirdly, DC’s use of the real Cap started in 1972.  A couple of years later, the streets of Metropolis were witness to a strange visitor from another reality, a boy whose red sweater and general characteristics looked awfully familiar to fans of the Big Red Cheese…

Young Willie Fawcett (I see what they did there!) is completely flummoxed by the appearance of a blue-clad flying man in the streets, freaking out as the passersby explain what a “Superman” is.  Young Willie feels and looks about 20 years out of date, thanks to his crew cut and saddle shoes, and tries to figure out where he has ended up, while the Man of Steel gets distracted by a hologram.  With Metropolis’ hometown hero out of the picture, things look wide open for villainous types of all stripes…   But these thugs never counted on a sudden bolt of lightning from beyond!!

“Sha-BOOM!” indeed.  Transformed into the mighty Captain Thunder, Willie takes off, only to find that he is somehow compelled to HELP the thieves rather than take them down.  Captain Thunder takes command, ordering the criminals to follow him in their chopper, and carrying the truck away with his bare hands.  Meanwhile, a certain Metropolis Marvel comes back into play and a battle that kids debated for years suddenly becomes real…  kinda.

Thunder escapes and transforms back into a bewildered Willie Fawcett.  Some time later, Willie arrives at the Daily Planet offices, hoping to find Clark Kent.  (You’d think he’d want Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen instead…)  Willie explains about Captain Thunder, his powers, and how he came to be.  Following a mysterious owl into the woods (which, honestly, is much smarter than chasing a man in a coat into a subway), Willie discovers a mysterious wizard in a cave.

With the powers of his seven patrons, Captain Thunder fights against evil and badness and mousy guys in glasses with hook noses and the like, including a dastardly bunch of model kits by Aurora…

I really like the nod to the Monster Society of Evil story, as well as the awesome Curt Swan depictions of the Monster League.  The man was truly a genius of comic art…  Willie realizes that the League’s promise that Cap would “never be the same” has manifested itself as Captain Thunder acting in evil fashion and committing the very crimes he’s sworn to fight.  Unfortunately, when Willie and Clark leave the Planet together, they immediately run afoul of a crime, and respond without thinking.

The battle of Titans quickly ranges out of Metropolis, as Man of Steel and World’s Mightiest Mortal Stand-In go head to head in a battle of wits, finding their powers so evenly matched as to make a slugfest meaningless.  Supes freezes an entire cumulus crowd solid around the good Captain, while Thunder responds by breaking free and smashing Big Blue through a nearby mountain range.  A single Captain Thunder punch leaves Superman standing in a deep crater caused by pure concussive force, and Kal realizes that it’s time to change his tactics…

Kinda makes you wonder why he couldn’t use the same sort of tricks against Doomsday 20 years later, doesn’t it?  Superman realizes that Captain Thunder ain’t from around here, realizing that he must come from a neighboring dimension with it’s own alternate Earth.  Which one is it?  This job turns out to be too much for even Superman!  Luckily, he has an idea…

The interesting thing about this is that it leaves the fight wide open, as neither hero ever truly got the upper hand on his foe in their battle.  Superman muses that it’s good to know that he’s not quite so all alone in the universe, what with Cap out there doing his thing someplace.  It’s a weird non-ending, made doubly so by the fact that DC had been publishing the REAL Captain Marvel in new stories and reprints for nearly TWO YEARS at this point in time.  This issue seems to have been nothing more than a trial balloon for a Superman/Captain Marvel battle that would eventually see publication in 1978 in a giant-sized tabloid issue.  Still, the story here is pretty ingenious, and Willie/Cap’s backstory is practically bolt-from-the-blue brilliant, especially for a one-shot character.  Elliot Maggin is on his A-Game here, and the art of Curt Swan and Bob Oksner is nothing short of perfect, even thirty years later.  I have paid for this particular story FOUR different times thus far (two copies of the original issue, a Best Of DC collection and the Superman in the ’70’s trade) and have never regretted it at all.  This is one of the stories that makes collecting comics fun, and thus, Superman #276 earns a dead-solid-perfect 5 out of 5 stars overall.  It’s one that I highly recommend for historical value, for general interest, and for a damn fine chunk of comics storytelling…

Rating: ★★★★★

Faithful Spoilerite Question Of The Day:  Curt Swan’s art reminds me of my childhood reading comics…  What artists remind you of comics reading days gone by?

The Author

Matthew Peterson

Matthew Peterson

Once upon a time, there was a young nerd from the Midwest, who loved Matter-Eater Lad and the McKenzie Brothers... If pop culture were a maze, Matthew would be the Minotaur at its center. Were it a mall, he'd be the Food Court. Were it a parking lot, he’d be the distant Cart Corral where the weird kids gather to smoke, but that’s not important right now... Matthew enjoys body surfing (so long as the bodies are fresh), writing in the third person, and dark-eyed women. Amongst his weaponry are such diverse elements as: Fear! Surprise! Ruthless efficiency! An almost fanatical devotion to pop culture!

And a nice red uniform.

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6 Comments

  1. September 27, 2010 at 7:59 am — Reply

    I wish I had known about this ish before the last convention I went to, it’s so fun, and looks amazing.

    What artists remind you of comics reading days gone by?

    I am sad to say Liefeld. I wish I could say Swan, Kirby, or hell even Bart Sears. It’s just that when I was in school nobody else had any other comics, and every now and then a John Romita Jr. would pop up.

  2. Mokin
    September 27, 2010 at 11:50 am — Reply

    To me, Curt Swan pops up for Superman, and Aparo for Batman.

    Where I grew up, they had translated versions (to French, my native tongue) of World’s Finest…all those Batman/Superman titles, with the batmobile with a flat tire…Batgirl and Supergirl saying they were better than their male counterpart…and aside from a few from Swan, I don’t know who drew thses wonderful tales…

    *sigh*

    …those were the days of my innocent youth…so long ago…

  3. TaZ
    September 27, 2010 at 12:56 pm — Reply

    I actually had that issue in my old collection that got destroyed when a hurricane hit my parent’s house (where the books were stored). I only was able to salvage about 1/4 of that collection. I was surprised that nobody put Captain Thunder in a cameo during the Crisis on Infinite Earths when his alternate Earth would have been destroyed.

  4. 0Johnny0
    October 7, 2010 at 1:21 pm — Reply

    I am so lost here as far as DC mythos…So is Captain Thunder related to the power of Shazam somehow?

    • October 7, 2010 at 5:07 pm — Reply

      I am so lost here as far as DC mythos…So is Captain Thunder related to the power of Shazam somehow?

      Well, this story takes place on Earth-I (for “I Dunno”). There has been no explanation of who or what Captain Thunder is or was, and he has not (to my knowledge) reappeared, even in the likes of Final Crisis or Crisis On Infinite Earths… Definitely a one-shot oddity.

  5. Damascus
    October 13, 2010 at 12:57 am — Reply

    It sounds intriguing and I’m not trying to say anything to start any kind of fight from huge Superman fans, but is it just me or is it sometimes a chore to force oneself to not focus on homoerotic elements within a lot of Superman comics? I know that they are guys running around in tights, all muscley and stuff, but I have the hardest time reading old Superman comics in not laughing to myself (like I have an inner 12-year-old that thinks it’s all oh-so-funny) about the way Superman is tricking Captain Thunder into rubbing his belt buckle and stuff like that. It’s completely juvenile but I see that all the time in those old books and wondered if it’s just my sarcastic brain that does that.

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