RETRO REVIEW: Captain Marvel Adventures #18 (December 1942)

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Or – “Her SHAZAM Was Different…”

One of the great shames of the last decade of comics is the seeming compulsion to break all the traditional taboos.  Resurrecting Bucky, getting Aunt May some action, even the fate of poor Sue Dibny are unpleasant examples of this phenomenon, but no one has been quite as a big a target as young Mary Marvel.  The need to somehow corrupt Mary with evil and/or sexuality has led to no fewer than three instances of Dark Mary Marvel, each of which utterly failed to feel like much more than schoolyard bullying, picking on the sweetest girl just to make her cry.  Of course, to know why I feel so strongly about what’s happened to Mary, you probably need to know what she used to be like…

CAPTAIN MARVEL ADVENTURES #18
Scripter: Otto Binder
Pencils: Marc Swayze; Mac Raboy (Captain Marvel, Jr. figures); C.C. Beck
Inks: Marc Swayze
Colors: Uncredited
Letters: Uncredited
Editor: Rod Reed
Publisher: Fawcett Comics
Cover Price: 10 Cents (Current Near-Mint Pricing: $3500.00)

Previously, on Captain Marvel Adventures:  When young orphan Billy Batson unwisely followed a strange man into the subway, he didn’t end up duct-taped in the trunk of a car.  Instead, he found a wizard who imbued him with the mystical ability to transform into the World’s Mightiest Mortal, Captain Marvel!  The Big Red Cheese, as he came to be known, quickly accrued an impressive resume, and even a boy sidekick in the form of Freddy Freeman, also known as Captain Marvel Jr., but now (or at least the circa-the-winter-of-’42 version of now) his Marvel Family is about to expand even more!

Recently, in the Major Spoiler Forums, a question arose about breaking the fourth wall, and whether that sort of meta statement was a recent achievement (I believe the discussion was specifically about Grant Morrison.)  This story opens with a clear answer:  Nope.  The old Captain Marvels tended to be more like a radio program than what we currently think of as comic storytelling.  There’s also something kind of cruel about Freddy Freeman “representing the poor children.”  During the recording of the quiz show, Billy notices that Mary wears an odd half-locket, but is distracted by recieving a mysterious note the entreats him to come to the home of Miss Sarah Primm, on account of she’s dyin’ and stuff.

Answer:  Steal a baby that no one will miss!  This is, by the way, even crueller than poor Freddy’s humiliation at the radio station.  Miss Primm has seen the error of her ways on her deathbed, and gives Billy something that will allow him to identify his long-lost sibling: a half-locket on a chain.  (Foreshadowing:  Your key to quality literature.)  Before he can find Mary and tell her the good news, she is kidnapped by thugs after her parents dough, but their worst crime is poor timing.  Enter The Captains Marvel.

I really enjoy how much fun Cap and Cap Jr. seem to be having as they mop up the floor with the bad guys, and the Alphonse and Gaston joke is a lot of fun for those that get it.  Transforming back to their regular selves, the boys introduce themselves to their new sister/cousin-or-something, only to get waylaid by the recovered villains.  (In retrospect, it was probably poor planning to hold their reunion before escaping.)  “Oh, no!” cries Mary, “Billy can’t say SHAZAM!”

Heh.  I don’t know if it’s sexist that she’s so distracted by her new dress that she doesn’t even notice the goons attacking, but it’s pretty cute anyway.  Mary quickly takes out the entire group of bad guys, ending her whirlwind of super-activity with a pretty vicious right cross (no wallflower, our Mary Marvel.)  The three super-kids immediately head for the subway, the secret entrance to the Rock of Eternity, where they seek the guidance of the wizard Shazam himself.

As an interesting aside, Mary’s “S” initially stood for Sappho, legendary poet of the Isle of Lesbos, who laughed and sang and stroked the wine-dark sea in the temple by the moonlight wah de doh dah, but it was changed upon the realization of the implications.  Either way, Mary has her own separate pantheon (as does Black Adam, for those keeping track) lending her their powers, and now the Marvel Family has it’s first distaff member.  The end of the story is, once again, a big “Fourth Wall?  What Fourth Wall?” moment, as the trio heads off to their own comic books and solo adventures.

Note also that Captain Marvel makes a point of telling Mary that she is HIS sister, as well as Billy’s, as during the 1940′s Cap and Billy were separate minds who shared space.  Mary and Junior are done for the month, but Captain Marvel has another 50-odd (some of them very odd) pages to fill.  First off, he fights a series of nightmarish images created by the mental machinery of Professor Bram…

That’s some pretty trippy stuff, there, reminding me of ‘Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland.’  The Imagino-Reproducer story also has a minor supporting character who is a particularly unpleasant blackface pickanniny stereotype, something which really struck me as unpleasant, even taking into account the prejudices of the times.  Billy then ends up broadcasting live from teh meeting of the What-Not Society, leading to some funny in-jokes for anyone who knows anything about antique radio construction…

Billy keeps the What-Not Society from investing their money in a fraudulent What-Not scheme (although even Captain Marvel isn’t entirely sure about what a What-Not is), and even suggests a better way to spend their hard-earned (or inherited, whichever) semoleons.

World War II era comics are always such fun with their topical references.  And as racist caricatures of the 40′s go, that image is one of the less offensive I’ve run into.  (Bugs Bunny has a couple of mostly-banned cartoons that go considerably further.)  And no good 40′s era comic would be complete without some educational content…

The last story of the issue concerns a man who gets three wishes from a genie and is notable for having a plot that almost perfectly mirrors an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’ 20 years later.  (I wonder if Rod Serling was a Captain Marvel fan?)  Tim Tucker’s first wish is for his touch to turn things to gold, before realizing that it’s as much curse as blessing.  He then wishes to be the most important man in the country…

Personal power doesn’t make him happy, and becoming another Captain Marvel also doesn’t make Tim’s problems go away.  Tracked day and night for the riches that would be provided by his golden touch, it takes the powers of the wizard Shazam himself to unsnarl Tim’s web of wishery…

The illustration to show time being reversed is probably the most charming thing I’ve seen all week.  Captain Marvel ends the issue thanking everybody and inviting us back next issue for more cool stuff, the kind of personal touch that almost certainly had a hand in making Captain Marvel the biggest-selling comic character of all time.  This particular issue is a Golden Age key, thanks to the introduction of Mary, but nearly every Fawcett comic is a fun read for me, as they never seemed to take themselves too seriously (I’m looking at you, DC.)  Captain Marvel Adventures #18 is absolutely worth the price of admission (and I’m not telling you how much my 2.0 copy cost, but it ain’t $2.99, Faithful Spoilerite) earning a Golden Age 5 out of 5 stars overall.  The best part is how Captain Marvel Jr.’s regular artist drew “his” character’s figures throughout a story drawn by somebody else to make certain continuity was maintained…

Rating: ★★★★★

Faithful Spoilerite Question Of The Day:  Could a traditional (i.e. innocent and fun) take on Captain Marvel work in today’s comics industry?