When this issue hit the shelves, Captain Marvel had been back in comics for over a year, in books published by DC Comics. That makes this unusual “backdoor pilot” issue even stranger… Your Major Spoilers (Retro) Review of Superman #276 awaits!
Writer: Elliot S! Maggin
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: Bob Oksner
Editor: Julius Schwartz
Publisher: DC Comics
Cover Price: 20 Cents
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $36.00
Previously in Superman: Since the debut of the character in 1938, Superman has engendered many knockoff characters. Fox Features Wonder Man, f’rinstance, came out immediately 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 when National Periodical Publications tried to shut down their flagship character, Captain Marvel. The Big Red Cheese, as he was known, debuted in 1939 and bore little real resemblance to Superman save for the flying/punching and the cape, something that the vast majority of super-types of the era 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, including Captain Marvel, for use in DC’s publications but couldn’t use the name because of a copyright claim by Marvel Comics and THEIR Captain Marvel character, a judgement based partially on the precedent set by their Fawcett lawsuit years before. One title change later, DC Comics began publishing the Captain in a book entitled “Shazam!” in the spring of 1973, and a giant-sized issue #12 of his series was on the stands by the time Superman #276 arrived with its opening splash of 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) literally pops into existence on a downtown street corner and is completely flummoxed by the appearance of a blue-clad flying man in the sky, freaking out as the passersby gently explain to the newcomer 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 Young Willie feels and looks about 20 years out of date, thanks to his crew cut and saddle shoes, and tries to figure out where he has ended up, while the Man of Steel gets distracted by a hologram that lures him away from the city. 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. Superman naturally intervenes, and both men are stunned to find themselves facing an opponent of almost perfectly equal strength, a rarity for either man. Thunder escapes and transforms back into a bewildered Willie Fawcett, who then heads for the Daily Planet offices, hoping to find Clark Kent, known associate of Superman. 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 smarter than Billy Batson chasing a strange man in a coat into a subway), Willie discovers a mysterious wizard in a cave.
With the powers of his seven patrons, Captain Thunder fought a never-ending battle against evil and badness and shiny-domed fellow 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. (Also, it’s good to see that Captain Thunder knows the proper way to give the Heimlich Maneuver to a Frankenstein. 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. Captain Thunder is still in his evil mode, and the Man of Steel and World’s Mightiest Mortal (Tribute) 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 after Superman #276, doesn’t it? Sorry, old comic nerd wounds don’t heal easily. Bygones… With Willie Fawcett returned by the magical lightning, Superman realizes that Captain Thunder clearly ain’t from around here, realizing that he must come from a neighboring dimension with it’s own alternate Earth. But how to fiigure out which one? It’s a job too large for even Superman! Luckily, he has an idea that will allow him to use his opponent’s mystical mental powers to benefit them both, as long as his double-nelson hold stays locked in…
The Wisdom of Nature prevails and coincidentally leaves the resolution of 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. That non-ending makes for a little bit of anticlimax (the only real disappointment in this issue for me), but it supports my theory that Superman #276 was a trial balloon for a Superman/Captain Marvel battle that would eventually see publication in 1978 in a giant-sized tabloid issue. 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 S! Maggin is on his A-Game here, and the art of Curt Swan and Bob Oksner is nothing short of wonderful, even forty-plus 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 the relatively rare 5 out of 5 stars overall. This issue is one that I highly recommend for historical value, for general interest, and for a damn fine chunk of comics storytelling.