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…

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?

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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  1. August 29, 2011 at 6:37 pm — Reply

    Sorry this one is late, folks. A combination of dental emergency and recording sessions knocked me off schedule…

    • August 29, 2011 at 8:13 pm — Reply

      It is damn fine, man… don’t sweat it. Hope the teeth are on the mend.

      • The Great NateO
        August 29, 2011 at 9:52 pm — Reply

        I’m reading it now, so it right on time.

        Remember if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.

      • August 30, 2011 at 12:13 pm — Reply

        Hope the teeth are on the mend.

        Well, if it hurts to heal, then I’m 300% to goal…

  2. Oldcomicfan
    August 29, 2011 at 9:00 pm — Reply

    How many other of your listeners/viewers are old enough to have bought Fawcett and Gold Key comics from the rack down at the grocery store. They were actually sort of hard to find, taking fourth place behind DC, Marvel, and Harvey’s comics, but Captain Marvel had a charm that even Batman, back in the Bat Mite days, lacked. And I agree that the current trend of turning Mary Marvel into Dark Mary is an extreme case of raping ones childhood. Almost as bad as one of the early Star Trek novels that strongly implied that Kirk and Spock had an erotic relationship, or those video games and comics that put a teen Dorothy or Alice into adult situations. What will they do next, a porn parody of Winnie the Pooh?

  3. August 29, 2011 at 11:05 pm — Reply

    DC is trying to do a ‘SHAZAM’ book as part of the second big DCnU ongoing wave, but I am hoping that the GLOBAL GUARDIANS could finally get a chance at a series! Like Mary, those guys have been derailed in the past few years!


  4. wdchefdave
    August 30, 2011 at 6:27 am — Reply

    I liked “Thunder” in the Legion. Once upon a time I saw a drawing of “The Marvel Family” and there was a member that looked like the “Green Lama” but solid white… who was that? I have been wondering for years. Also, have Supergirl and Mary Marvel ever fought and/or met?
    As a father of two daughters, I’ve always wondered why female superheroes have to be either “sweet” or “dark”!?!

    • TaZ
      August 30, 2011 at 10:20 am — Reply

      I don’t know. But I have two daughters. One’s sweet (pink and green, coordinated outfits, etc.) and the other’s “dark” (Rob Zombie T-shirt, black pants, dyed hair, tats and piercings). So maybe it’s realistic?

  5. J Michael T
    August 30, 2011 at 10:25 am — Reply

    I love how one of her powers is “beauty”. Love them good ol’ days!

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

    I don’t think it would work so well for an established character (ugh… ‘continuity’ fanboys would go berserk) but for an example of this type of story done well I would point to Atomic Robo. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and therefore it comes across as funny, light-hearted, but good at the same time.

    Thanks for posting this Retro Review. Enjoyed it!

  6. ikdks
    August 30, 2011 at 12:06 pm — Reply

    I think Stephanie Browns Batgirl was this level of lighthearted fun.

    I bought it, did you, Hmmmmmmmmm?

  7. August 30, 2011 at 4:39 pm — Reply

    Could a traditional (i.e. innocent and fun) take on Captain Marvel work in today’s comics industry?

    I wish I could say yes, but my LCS owner (who’s a lot like Matthew) said it best: “Every time I tell people they’ll enjoy a series because it’s fun, the sales drop.” He honestly doesn’t get why, but “fun” has become code for “kiddified” to enough readers to hurt the rest of us. That’s not true, of course (I will join the others pointing to Atomic Robo as an example of how this can work), but since when have the dimmer fanboys out there been concerned with the truth?

    I’d like to see a new attempt at doing the Marvel Family in a fun way, but honestly, before that, I want someone to give Thunder in the Legion another crack. If there was ever a millieu that would be interesting for a naive superpowered kid to explore (and do it well, unlike certain Lori Mornings I could name), it’s the Legion.

  8. August 31, 2011 at 1:24 pm — Reply

    It could work, but it would need the full court press treatment to get traction.

    Here’s the thing. If you’re selling to the same audience (20-40 yr. old males) through the same venue (dedicated specialty stores), you need to deliver the same product (comics for that demo). If you want to expand, you need to search for a new audience in different venues.

    I’ve said many times that I love Tiny Titans, but its sales have not broken records because of this very fact. I buy my copy every month for my son, and would have picked up the “Johnny DC” Captain Marvel series as well, if it didn’t lean so far over the “little kid” line into adolescence, but I am a comics fan buying for a child who is also a fan. Having said that, if DC/Warner was able to coalesce a popular new cartoon around the Marvels that tied to a toy line, I’m sure it would be able to pull in kids whose parents AREN’T fans.

    My son is crazy for Krypto the Super Dog after watching the cartoons and I’m more than happy to feed that obsession with the Super Pets series of chapter books and Imagine Next “Super Friends” toy line.

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