Happy 75th, Captain Marvel!

1940 was a banner year for the introduction of long-lived comic book characters: the Spirit, the Flash, Robin, the Joker, Hawkman & Hawkgirl, Green Lantern, the Justice Society of America, and many more first appeared in that year. This year has already seen 75th anniversary celebrations for a number of them, including my personal favorite: the original Captain Marvel!

Shazam75

It’s been a pretty good year for the good Captain, beginning with Grant Morrison & Cameron Stewart‘s Thunderworld Adventures (featuring nicely updated Marvels in the standout chapter of Morrison’s Multiversity miniseries) and culminating with the recent Convergence: Shazam! two-parter pitting the Marvel Family against the Gotham by Gaslight Batman. Jeff Parker and Evan “Doc” Shaner really knocked the ball out of the park with those issues featuring the classic version of the characters, and I enjoyed all the behind-the-scenes sketches that Shaner has posted, too. DC really should give that pair (along with colorist Jordie Bellaire) the blank check for more Captain Marvel material; it would be a much better investment of time and energy than anything “New 52 Shazam”-related!

Now I admit, I may have a biased love for the original Captain Marvel, but, like so many of the New 52 reboots, that Shazam just felt like an “Elseworlds” version of the character. They may look (kinda) like the real character, have the same name (well, not so much, in this case) as them, but act totally different. That Shazam lacks all the charm of the original– or even later well-handled– versions of the characters. The Marvel Family has all the potential to be great counter-programming to the dark and serious tone that dominates so much superhero output these days, and in both Thunderworld and Convergence, the characters lived up to that potential, with Captain Marvel standing tall as the main hero in his own universe, able to shine in a way he can’t when he’s being forced to play second fiddle to Superman in a shared universe.

Cover for the Shazam!: A Celebration of 75 Years Trade PaperbackSo given these two recent triumphs for the character, I had high hopes for Shazam! A Celebration of 75 Years (DC, 2015). Sadly, much like the inconsistent treatment of the character over those years, the book was a mixed bag that wasn’t allowed to live up to its potential.

The first section (“The Big Red Cheese”) featured 120 pages of Fawcett-era stories. Given how little of this large body of content has been reprinted, I love to read it whenever I can. I particularly enjoyed reading two chapters of the original “Monster Society of Evil” serial. The stories in this section gave some attention to all of the Marvels (including Uncle Dudley and Hoppy), yet, sadly, neglected Mr. Tawky Tawny entirely. It also included both the original and retold versions of the origins of the Captain and Mary Marvel, space which would have been well-served with an appearance by everyone’s favorite talking tiger!

“Cancellation and revival” opened, oddly, with a story that doesn’t feature Captain Marvel, at all! Superman #276 featured Captain Thunder, an ersatz version of the real deal. Its inclusion is doubly odd because it was apparently published after Shazam! #1 began DC’s use of the character. This section features some nice Shazam! material, including that first issue and a beautifully-drawn Don Newton story … but also one of the stories modeled on the 1970s Saturday morning show, yet another origin retelling, and DC Comics Presents #49 (which was reprinted in a trade edition just two years ago). A truncated version of L.E.G.I.O.N. #31 also appears, though it really belongs in…

Section three (“The World’s Mightiest Mortal”) showcases the Marvel Family as part of the wider DC universe, including yet another Superman comic, and two more truncated stories (given DC’s recent actions, it makes the conspiracy theorist in me wonder if “excerpts” are a loophole to avoid paying royalties). But on the plus side, one of those excerpts at least came from Jeff Smith‘s enjoyable “Monster Society of Evil” miniseries. Those disappointing editorial choices, however, are balanced with 70 pages of strong Jerry Ordway/Peter Krause Power of Shazam! material. Such strong material, in fact, that I won’t even begrudge the fact that 1/3 of it was also reprinted in 2008’s Greatest Shazam! Stories Ever Told collection.

As for the final section, “The New 52”, well … you don’t really need to hear my take on that again. If you do, just reread the third paragraph above.

So all in all, what should have been a real celebration of the Marvel family was just an uneven collection that really didn’t impress me that much. While the book contained a good amount of wonderful material, I was disappointed by how many instances of Captain Marvel teaming up with Superman were featured, how much of the material (nearly one half) had already been collected in other recent trade editions, and by the weirdly truncated story segments. Especially when at the expense of including such quality uncollected stories as the little-seen Ordway/Parobeck story that appeared between the Power of Shazam! graphic novel and series, any classic Tawky Tawny story, or the Franco/Baltazar/Norton stories from Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam! (sadly, the strongest part of that series, and the only part not collected in a trade). It really felt like DC didn’t give the good Captain the treatment he deserved. Which could also be said about the treatment of the character for most of 40+ years that DC has been his caretaker.

Still, this 75th anniversary year is not yet over, and DC can still end it on a high note. My suggestions: a high-quality hardcover of the original “Monster Society of Evil” serial, a second Showcase volume reprinting the little-seen Don Newton stories from World’s Finest and Adventure Comics, and/or a new ongoing Parker/Shaner classic Captain Marvel series!

Ball’s in your court, DC…

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6 Comments to “Happy 75th, Captain Marvel!”

  1. Nicely said, Dale! I love the Marvel Family and I’m happy they have been featured in some good comics this past year. Sorry to hear the recent collection didn’t do justice to Cap and the family. I guess it’s to be expected when DC’s current regime appears to favor Black Adam over The Big Red Cheese. Holy Moley!

    • Sadly, nobody seems interested in publishing characters that aren’t antiheroes. But if your whole roster is made up of characters like that, how do you expect them to stand out? For instance, if all of the X-men had been antiheroes in the Byrne/Claremont run, would Wolverine have stood out the way he did??

  2. So maybe its time you did your own Captain Marvel stories? Calling him something else, of course.

    • Oh, I’ve toyed around with that idea, and my sketchbook contains the first story (which I will finish and publish, hopefully in the next year) as well as ideas for an extended Marvel-like Family.

      Part of the reason I’m not as excited about that, though, is the difference between creating stories I like and being entertained by someone else’s stories featuring characters I love. Which is why I’m on the lookout for those Don Newtwon WFC stories, the only unread part of the post-1973 stories I’m interested in…

  3. Sounds like DC missed a chance to have a truly fantastic volume. Given that Talky Tawny is one of the more unique characters, it’s sad they didn’t include any classic stories with him. It is good they included something from every major era of the his history, but that’s almost mandatory in a volume like this. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the Don Newton WFC stories. You also mentioned an Ordway/Parobeck story that came between the Power of Shazam graphic novel and the series – I was not aware there was something in that space – where did it appear?

    The Superman/Captain Thunder comic sort of makes sense, as it is a part of Cap’s history (sort of), but I agree it seems out of place in a volume like this. I do actually have that issue – signed by Nick Cardy at a Minnesota convention several years ago. I almost wonder if Captain Thunder was a “tryout” of sorts – to see if DC could get a Cap-like character without actually having to use Cap. Seems a bit odd since they owned the character by then, but I hadn’t realized the Shazam comic had started before that issue was published.

    I haven’t read a lot of the recent Cap/Shazam stories, but I did pick up the 2-issue Convergence series, and enjoyed it. I don’t think I picked up any of the Billy Batson & the magic of Shazam comics. I like Kunkel, and I like Mike Norton and Franco/Baltazar, so I may have to look for issues of that at the next comic con – most likely either Minnesota in October or Des Moines in November.

    • The Ordway/Parobeck story was “The Scarab Necklace” in Superman & Batman Magazine #4, published by Welsh Publishing in 1994 as a magazine-sized tie-in to the TV shows. It was drawn in the animated style used in The Batman Adventures, and features a pivotal meeting between Billy and Sivana (I won’t give it away here). At the time, I hoped it would lead to a Shazam! Adventures comic, but not not long after, we got The Power of Shazam! instead.

      I’m just guessing on the Shazam!/Captain Thunder timeline based on the publication dates in the book. Captain Thunder could have been sitting in inventory for a while, too, so I don’t doubt your theory here.

      Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam! (which follows the continuity of the Jeff Smith book) would certainly be a nice bargain bin find; the Kunkel issues (#1-5) are really good, as are the later Norton issues (#13-21). I think it took Franco & Baltazar a while to find their footing, and the issues in between don’t stand up as well as a result. #6 is drawn by Stephen De Stefano, though…

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