Marvelling at the Captains

When I was a kid, I loved super-heroes. Would you have been able to get me to admit that out loud to anyone? Unh, unh, no way. Cool kids didn’t like super-heroes, or at least if they did, they had enough sense to not tell anyone they did out loud. At that time, if you admitted that you loved super-heroes, you got bullied by cool kids. Or was that only my experience?

When I was a kid, it was no good to read comic books and hard to find anyone to talk to about super-heroes. Family? Not really into them or maybe they’re not cool enough. Friends? Well, if you had a friend with a high enough trust level… maybe. MAYBE. Aside from my first friend / cousin Chris, it was kind of weird secret back kept then. Now, thanks to the fact that there are super-heroes making money at the box office, it seems like EVERYone wants to talk about super-heroes. What I love about super-heroes in comic books is that they are a mixture of good and bad elements. Sometimes the bad parts are laughable (examples forthcoming), and sometimes they find just the right mix of pretend fantasy to provide an escape for my mind. Even now, when I am shaped like an adult but may still have the mind of a child, this holds true.

Recently I was in Skippack, PA – a small town close to my home in the burbs, at the local comic book shop there. From what I see in the communities I come in contact with, smaller shops with boutique items seem to be going away. Comic book stores have become even harder to find – truthfully they never were easy to find – which is a shame because they are adorable. If you overhear a shopkeeper talking in detail about a comic he keeps up with to his/her customer, or vice-versa, you will know exactly what I mean. I say to you, go. Go find a comic book store. Seriously, go if you are into comic books, because running a small business isn’t easy and big stores rule the landscape, so stores like comic books stores are going away. Go into a comic book store and you will find stuff and you can read it and I bet you will love it. Anyway, so I am in the aforementioned Skippack and there was a stack of Marvel Essential books clearance priced there. If you don’t know what a Marvel Essentials book is, it is a book where Marvel reprints a whole book-length run of back issues featuring one of their characters. I got two Marvel Essential books because they were half price; one I won’t mention further so you will have to guess what it is. The other: Captain Marvel.

This Captain Marvel is Mar-vell. I mention this because this one was a comic book character from the 1970’s and was printed by Marvel. Do you know the story of the Captain Marvel in the world of DC Comics? Let me tell you. Captain Marvel was taken in a bit of a hostile takeover by DC. Captain Marvel first appeared in Whiz Comics in 1940 and was published by Fawcett Comics. Then, according to Wikipedia:

“Fawcett ceased publishing Captain Marvel-related comics in 1953, partly because of a copyright infringement suit from DC Comics, alleging that Captain Marvel was a copy of Superman. In 1972, DC licensed the Marvel Family characters from Fawcett, and returned them to publication. By 1991, DC had acquired all rights to the characters. DC has since integrated Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family into their DC Universe and has attempted to revive the property several times, with mixed success. Due to trademark conflicts over another character named “Captain Marvel” owned by Marvel Comics since 1967, DC chose to publish the character’s adventures in a comic book titled Shazam! for many years, leading many to assume that this was the character’s name. DC later officially renamed the character “Shazam” when relaunching its comic book properties in 2011.”

Confusing, right? Let me make it even more confusing. Marvel itSELF has published stories of at least seven different Captain Marvels. If Marvel didn’t keep publishing stories with the name Captain Marvel, they would lose their trademark on the name “Captain Marvel”. Spoiler alert: The Captain Marvel I am speaking of in the Marvel Essential book is now dead – he died in the comics circa 1982 – this is the character I am describing. (By the way, there is a brand new Captain Marvel coming to the movies – the female version. Look it up. Go ahead, you are on the internet. Look it up.) I bring all of this up because I knew all of this history when I purchased the Marvel Essential Captain Marvel book and this strange history is right up my alley. It deepens my reading experience!

What I like about this Marvel Essential Captain Marvel particular book: it is totally a sign of the times. The writing, for example – it is chock-full of seventies jargon and cheesy dialogue which is totally and unintentionally hilarious. It also contains some really amazing comic book art. I love the work of artist Jim Starlin, whose art I never really came across anywhere else, in the comic books I read from that same time period. He creates imaginative and moody, trippy comic book visuals that help create the right mood for an outer-space epic. These visuals were a great introduction to a universe that was expanding for the reader in a similar way that it was expanding for the characters. Starlin made a clear distinction between the normal earth scenes which were credible alongside ethereal elements of a “cosmic cube” and battling in space which elevates the reader out of the normal into the wonderfully weird. Whereas I love some of the writers, they are also responsible for a story included here called Shootout at the O.K. Space Station, which is wonderfully awful.

Along with the surface level of just reading these stories for what they are, realize that in the back of my mind I am thinking about the bigger Captain Marvel “picture”. For example, DC versus Marvel; DC comics called their Captain Marvel Shazam and Marvel called theirs Mar-vell. These two competing comic book companies may be competitors, but both of their Captain Marvels share some interesting similarities. In both Marvel and DC, Captain Marvel has an alter-ego. Marvel introduced Rick Jones and DC showed us Billy Batson. The Captain’s alter-ego cannot be in the same place at the same time in either DC or Marvel. When the hero is summoned, the other identity disappears. Crazy coincidence! Captain Marvel has different personalities dependent upon which of these companies is writing and illustrating him at which time. Shazam’s alter-ego, Billy Batson, disappears in a burst of thunder and lightning when he shouts, “Shazam!” in the world of DC. Rick Jones slaps his “nega-bands” (golden bracelets) together and Captain Marvel appears casting Rick into in limbo, nowhere to be found in Marvel. Seems to me to be saying if you really want to be the hero the part of you that is squeamish or hesitant must vanish. That is a cool underlying meaning. Other similarities; they both wear red suits and fly. They both have some good and some terrible stories attributed to them. For example, Shazam was relaunched in 2012 by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, and I think that story is terrible. I just think that story is dumb. Another example is 1982’s The Death of Captain Marvel where the main character succumbs to the realistic – cancer – instead of some big intergalactic bad guy. The story was both beautiful and tragic, handled grittily the truth behind the terrible disease.

On another note, why are both Rick Jones and Billy Batson young boys? Seduction of the Innocent? Don’t answer that.

My advice: don’t fall in love with just this current crop of superheroes in current movies – they still have so much to get right, such as DC not managing to get a character into an engaging and successful box office arc and Marvel never creating a strong and powerful heroine or an engaging villain they don’t have to immediately do away with. Comic reprints such as these are so great because where you would have had to follow all of these stories for months and months, you can read in a single sitting. Binge-read some comics. Get them in a store, where you can say words to the shopkeeper and pay with cash currency and eventually end up with some ink on your hands.

I love super-heroes. Yeah, I said it, that’s right. I love the bad and the good. Especially when they are mixed together, which happens a lot in the Essential Captain Marvel. Go ahead, go to Skippack and get it. I won’t tell.

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