Early Captain Marvel


a study of the history of Captain Marvel (all of them)

By Zorikh Lequidre

Chapter 4: Early Captain Marvel

Bill Parker's earliest adventures of Captain Marvel established young Billy Batson, boy radio reporter, as a heroic investigator/adventurer much in the tradition of Tintin by the Belgian artist Herge. The hero would follow suspicious characters, uncover dastardly plots, get captured, have daring escapes, etc. He would say the magic word "Shazam!" and become Captain Marvel only when the powers of Captain Marvel were necessary, say to follow a car or battle an army. C.C. Beck's art was very simple and cartoony, eschewing much detail and shading. This is not because he was incapable of producing realistic drawings. In fact, his covers showed much more realism and detail than the pages of many comics of the day. He is said to have considered himself a cartoonist, an illustrator of boy's adventures, rather than a fine artist (Morrissey, Rich, The Shazam! Archives Vol. 1 pg 208 and Steranko, James, The Steranko History of Comics 2 pg 11) and allowed that to inform his style. Caricatures and stereotypes were common in the adventures of Captain Marvel, especially through the years of World War II, when the hero would battle Nazis and Japanese enemies.

Despite the similarities in both story and art, I have been unable to find any evidence that either Parker or Beck had any contact with Herge's Tintin. In fact, Tintin comics were not imported to the United States until the 1950's. However, youthful adventurers had already been established in popular media, from the Wash Tubbs and Little Orphan Annie (one of Beck's favorites) comic strips, to Mickey Rooney movies, possibly following the tradition of writers like Samuel Clemmens (Mark Twain), Charles Dickens, and Robert Louis Stevenson. The style of art, also, was very popular at the time, somewhat related to what was called "bigfoot" style, with an emphasis on character and clarity rather than detail or realism.

The early stories also kept things simple with regards to good and evil, right and wrong. Dr. Thaddeus Bodog Sivana was established early and often as the main villain. He was a mad scientist trying to take over the world. His plots involved everything from armies with super weapons to monsters from Venus to using the irresistible Beautea (a gorgeous, leggy blonde described as Sivana's "assistant") as a front for his nefarious schemes. Fantastic inventions and impossible potions were his stock in trade. Dr. Sivana quickly became one of the great all time super villains in comics. His visage inspired by a pharmacist Beck once knew, he was short, puny, big-headed, big-nosed, bespectacled, and bald. After about a year of failed plots by Sivana to take over the world, his motives were finally revealed. It seems that he was a brilliant scientist who wanted to change the world, but the establishment rejected him and his ideas until his mind was warped in senseless hatred. It turned out also that Beautea was his daughter and that he had a son, a Herculean figure named Magnificus. He had raised them on Venus and would occasionally launch his plans from that jungle planet and return there when defeated.

Captain Marvel's earliest adventures seemed to sway back and forth between seriousness and satire. Sometimes the villains and their plans would be outrageously over the top (such as Sivana's plan to conquer the United States using a potion that turned grown men into babies, another world conqueror's plot using cave men that had been frozen in a glacier to build an air armada, or yet another plot to conquer the USA by a brilliant strongman with a book of all human knowledge and a giant homicidal gorilla named "Dr. Allirog!") that they could only be stopped by the super-human powers of the "world's mightiest man." But within the stories themselves there was little humor, as the villains, Billy Batson, and the Captain would go about their business of defeating the enemy in a businesslike manner. Yet the simple cartoony drawings of C.C. Beck somehow kept the feeling light and enjoyable. Their clarity made the stories easy to read.

The stories covered a great deal of thematic ground, however. From stopping world conquerors, our heroes (Billy and the Captain) went on to battle sports gamblers, thieving rings that hypnotized small boys, even investigate haunted houses.

Comparisons to Superman are inevitable. Both heroes were super strong, invulnerable, and could leap far distances, but the style in which they were drawn in their earliest days set the Captain apart from the Kryptonian immediately. While Joe Shuster worked within his limitations, creating a sketchy, almost ghostly world, with unfinished lines and implied details, Beck deliberately created a very distinct world. Every line was closed. Every prop, set, or background was clearly drawn. Where Superman inhabited a world resembling a sketchy, unfinished Alex Raymond drawing, Captain Marvel's world resembled an art-deco movie set. Where Shuster's unfinished look left the reader to imagine details, in Beck's minimalist set design, everything could be seen clearly yet Beck still managed to keep each frame clear of extraneous detail thus allowing the reader to focus on the story.

But the style of art alone is not what set the two heroes apart. While Superman would don a suit and glasses to pretend to be an ordinary man, Captain Marvel was really the alter-ego of a young boy. Superman never lost his powers as Clark Kent, his alter-ego, but Billy Batson was as vulnerable as any young, non-super-powered boy. This may be the biggest difference that explained his popularity. While throughout history children have marveled at stories of heroes with great powers and devoured tales of youthful adventurers, here was a character that was both. Here was, for the first time in super hero comic books, a courageous kid the readers could identify with (Batman's Robin would not appear for the first time for a few months yet, The Human Torch's Toro not until autumn 1940, Captain America's Bucky not for a year, and Superboy not until 1944) who was able to become a super-powered hero. While even if one did believe one was an alien from outer space, one had to wait until one was grown up to be Superman, but now, all one had to do was say a magic word, and one would be transformed into a fully grown man with super powers. This was pure wish fulfillment!

Quite often Billy Batson was placed in a situation of jeopardy or faced a physical or mental challenge. While Billy had the pluck to take care of himself in most commonplace situations (say, being picked on by some street kids), he also was able to turn himself into Captain Marvel when the challenge was too great or when somebody needed to be taken down a peg (say, Billy trying to read an ancient language, chase after a car, or when set upon by a large ruffian).

Another very key difference was in the heroes' relationships with women. Superman/Clark Kent had his foil in Lois Lane, that snoopy reporter. Captain Marvel/Billy Batson had no parallel relationship. While psychologists, sociologists, historians, and fans will eternally debate the nature of the Superman/Lois Lane/Clark Kent triangle (Jules Feiffer has a wonderful essay on this in The Great Comic Book Heroes, one of the first books to look at the history of comics in a scholarly fashion), such relationships were almost completely absent from the Captain's adventures. It was established very early on that the "world's mightiest man" was "a great, big, good looking fellow in a red suit." In his third adventure, Beautea, in her first appearance, went all a-flutter over him, even leaving a note (as she and Sivana escaped from his destruction of their plan) saying that she thought he was "marvelous." But the Captain was forever bashful about such attentions, blushing and rushing off to say "Shazam!" and change back into young Billy Batson at nearly every occasion.

Captain Marvel's costume was altered slightly at the publisher's insistence over the first year. C.C. Beck had designed the outfit to be more of a military uniform than a circus costume, with boxy shoulders, a jacket flap, and one would even occasionally see the seams in the suit. Soon the jacket flap disappeared, and the seams and wrinkles went away. A dangling tail on the sash appeared then disappeared, replaced by a belt buckle which soon also disappeared. The lightning bolt on the chest grew in size, while its orientation wavered from pointing to the Captain's right hip to dead-on center. The cape's gold trim grew to stretch around the whole cape. Various artists took their cues from what they could see, leading to some inconsistencies as different artists drew the character. The gold braid/button loops, established initially as only being on the front of the cape as it hung over the hero's left shoulder, would frequently appear on both sides, for instance. In a couple of early issues, Captain Marvel appeared without a cape at all. This is said to have been an attempt to avoid copyright infringement issue with Superman, and may have led to a lengendary rumor that all other comic book companies chose not to put their heroes in capes because Superman had one first.

Bill Parker had written and stockpiled a number of Captain Marvel stories for Fawcett to fill almost two years of Whiz Comics in anticipation of leaving to serve his National Guard duty. He never returned to comics, going back to editing Fawcett's other magazines, such as Mechanix Illustrated, after WWII. The character's popularity had been established in the first few months, though, and Fawcett decided it was time to capitalize by putting Captain Marvel in his own comic book. The first of these, in the summer of 1940, was Special Edition Comics: 64 Pages of New Captain Marvel Adventures "Featuring Brand-New Stories of Captain Marvel, World's Mightiest Man." These stories were quite obviously unused stories from the stockpile, as the Captain has a slightly different costume in almost every story. The artwork is also a little uneven, perhaps showing the effect of the workload on C.C. Beck or the weight of the contributions by his assistant/inker, Pete Costanza.

This was soon followed by 64 Pages of New Captain Marvel Adventures. By this time Ed Herron had become an editor at Fawcett Comics. He had started as an aspiring comic book artist who had shown his samples to an editor at Fox Publication (the company that had published Wonder Man, the one-issue wonder that had been sued out of existence (by all reports, justifiably, as a blatant rip-off of Superman). The editor he had shown them to was named Joe Simon (remember that name), who, while unimpressed with his art, recognized some quality in his writing, and hired him as a script writer. Herron claims, in fact, to be the first comic book script writer. Herron began freelancing for several companies, including Fawcett. In October 1940, after writing a few Captain Marvel scripts himself, he was named comics editor to replace Bill Parker. When the assignment came to produce an all-new book of Captain Marvel stories, he went back to the man who gave him his "big break," Joe Simon.

Joe Simon had recently teamed up with a prodigious artist, Jack Kirby, and they were in the process of creating the first stories of a new, patriotic hero named Captain America (incidentally, this was not the first stars-and-stripes comic book super hero, that honor belongs to one called The Shield) for Martin Goodman and Funnies Inc's Timely Comics (which would later become known as Marvel Comics. Remember that name, too). Simon and Kirby were called into the Fawcett offices and offered the job of writing and drawing the first issue of a brand new series of Captain Marvel comics, due in two weeks.

They took the job, renting a hotel room to work in the evenings after their "day job" on Captain America was done, and cranked out the issue. They had strived for the "polished" look of C.C. Beck, but the stress of time (and either in spite of or in addition to the inking and lettering assistance of several friends and associates) led to disappointing results. Simon himself recounts in his book The Comic Book Makers that he thought "this thing's going to bomb." So despite having been offered the unusual perk of actually being able to sign the work, Simon and Kirby decided not to.

Captain Marvel Adventures, as the series would come to be named, would go on to be one of the most successful comic book series of all time, but don't cry for Simon and Kirby over this. Captain America became a cultural icon all its own, and the two men went on to create many more artistically and commercially successful comics and characters such as The Sandman, the Boy Commandos, Boy's Ranch, and even the first romance comics. Kirby especially, came to be known as the "king" of comics art. He would go on to create or co-create such heroes and titles as The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, The Avengers, The X-Men, The Mighty Thor, Mister Miracle, Kamandi, The Demon, Machine Man, the Fourth World Saga, and more.

Many years later, C.C. Beck's and Jack Kirby's careers would intersect once more as each of them would draw a story from the same script by Joe Simon for a character known as the "Silver Spider," also referrred to as "Spiderman." More on that in a later chapter.

Next: Chapter 5: Powers and Personality

Go to the outline of Captain Marvel history
Chapter 1: The Captain and the Major
Chapter 2: The Big Blue Guy
Chapter 3: The Big Red Guy
Chapter 4: Early Captain Marvel
Chapter 5: Powers and Personality
Chapter 6: Going Hollywood
Chapter 7: Friends and foes: The Lietenant Marvels
Chapter 8: Friends and Foes: Captain Marvel Junior
Chapter 9: Friends and Foes: Mary Marvel
Chapter 10: Friends and Foes: Mr. Tawny
Chapter 11: Friends and Foes: Dr. Sivana
Chapter 12: Mr Mind
Chapter 13: Friends and Foes: Other Foes
Chapter 14: Enter the Binder
Chapter 15: Superman V. Captan Marvel
Chapter 16


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Go to the homepage of Captain Marvel Culture
Go to Zorikh's Creating Comics tutorial
Go to a list of Comic Book movies
Watch This Space Enterprises home page
Go to Zorikh's homepage