|Edited by Roy Thomas||Alter Ego, the greatest 'zine of the '60s, is all-new, focusing on Golden and Silver Age comics and creators with articles, interviews and unseen art. Each issue includes an FCA (Fawcett Collectors of America) section, Mr. Monster & more!|
The Real Captain Marvel
And the Wonderful Golden Age of Comics
by C. C. Beck
Edited by P. C. Hamerlinck
From Alter Ego Vol. 3 #3
[ED. NOTE: The following is taken from FCA's C.C. Beck essay archives. It is previously unpublished, and was written in the mid-1980s. There will be Beck material in each issue of FCA, all previously unpublished. I plan on alternating C.C.'s Captain Marvel-related articles, such as his mini-history last issue of Fawcett Comics and the Marvel Family, with his crusty, opinionated essays. This article is a bit of both. -PCH]
C.M. meets C.C.- drawing by Beck, 1975. [Captain Marvel ©1999 DC Comics Inc.]
PART I. THE REAL CAPTAIN MARVEL
Many books and articles about the Golden Age of Comic Books have been published in recent years, written by people who were children in the 1930s and '40s or who were born after the Golden Age had ended. Almost without exception, the writers of these books and articles have dwelt at great length on the exploits of the great super-heroes of the period, starting, of course, with Superman, and then going on to Batman, Plastic Man, Sandman, Hawkman, Bulletman, Hangman, The Arrow, The Hawk, The Claw, The Green Giant, The Blue Beetle, The White Streak, and many others now long forgotten.
In Richard O'Brien's The Golden Age of Comic Books (Ballantine, 1977), there are forty color reproductions of comic book covers, 39 of them showing costumed characters leaping, flying, fighting, destroying, glaring, snarling, or doing superhuman feats, and one showing a pleasant-faced young fellow standing with one hand on the shoulder of a young boy and smiling cheerfully at the reader (Whiz Comics #22, 1941).
The pleasant-looking young fellow is, of course, Captain Marvel, the biggest-selling comic character of the Golden Age, and the boy is Billy Batson, boy radio reporter whose accounts of Captain Marvel's adventures were given in his newscasts over radio station WHIZ.
Almost all writers about the Golden Age have dismissed Captain Marvel as "an obvious Superman lookalike" designed to join all the other Superman lookalikes in a frantic effort to take sales away from the Man of Steel. Why he succeeded, almost from the start, in outselling all the other comics on the stands is rather hard to explain- at least, Captain Marvel's success has not been satisfactorily accounted for by any of the writers whose books and articles I have seen.
Now, almost a half-century after Captain Marvel and Billy Batson first appeared in Whiz Comics in 1940, the reason for the success of the World's Mightiest Mortal is becoming clear. People now in their late forties and early fifties write to me saying, "Reading Captain Marvel was like stepping into a brighter, cleaner, more cheerful and friendly world," and "...in the Captain Marvel stories both the plots and the characters were better developed and more imaginative than in most other comics."
Some letter writers praise my style of illustrating the Captain Marvel stories, calling it "clean" and "uncluttered" and "deceptively simple" and so on, and giving me much more credit than I deserve for Captain Marvel's success. I had started doing commercial illustration more than ten years before I found myself working on Captain Marvel, and after I had left the comic book field in 1953 I worked for many years as a commercial illustrator once more. Except for a few engravers and printers, who liked my work because it was easy to engrave and print, nobody ever paid any attention to me, and my name was so unknown that I usually had to spell it out letter by letter for the people who made out my checks in payment.
My style of illustrating has been more a curse than a blessing, I have found. I am able, for some reason, to see past the surface of things to the underlying structure-or lack of structure-beneath. When a thing is cheap, shoddy, and of no value-as many commercial products are-I refuse to make a drawing of it, knowing that I'll reveal to the world how worthless it is. This ability has not helped me in my career, needless to say. I am permanently barred from entrance at most comic publishing houses today, since their products are, as one fan has written me, "self-inflated bubbles of nothing."
When I looked at the first Captain Marvel story, which had been written by William Parker, a Fawcett editor, I knew at once that here was a story worth illustrating! It had a beginning, a carefully-constructed development of plot and characters leading to a climax and an ending, and nothing else. There was no pointless flying around and showing off, no padding, no "Look, Ma, I'm a super-hero!" Out of 72 panels, Captain Marvel appeared in 18, or one-fourth. The story was about Billy Batson and the ancient wizard Shazam, and told how the mad scientist Sivana was thwarted in his evil attempt to silence radio stations all over the world.
In that first story Captain Marvel did not fly, he did not bounce bullets off his chest, he did not utter a single "Holy Moley" nor crack a joke. In succeeding issues he and Billy went into the past and the future and to other universes and they met monsters and ghosts and talking tigers and worms and dictators and presidents and evil emperors both real and fictitious.
Captain Marvel and Billy took turns rescuing each other from tight spots; when Captain Marvel was faced with a task for which he was too big and powerful, he changed to small, agile Billy, and vice versa. And usually, although few readers were aware of it, the stories were told by Billy, who never asked anyone to believe that Captain Marvel actually existed any more than Edgar Bergen asked audiences to believe that Charlie McCarthy was a living being or political cartoonists asked viewers to believe that Uncle Sam or their other cartoon figures were actual people.
Captain Marvel's success, and his appeal to readers now middle-aged who remember him fondly from their childhoods, was due to his being the only true comic character in a field dominated by non-comic characters who appeared in magazines advertised as "Comics" and "Funnies" and "True Tales" but which were neither comic nor funny nor true.
The super-heroes of the Golden Age had evolved from stories of the Old West, from the great detective stories of the past, and from science-fiction stories dating back to the nineteenth century and earlier. There had been great writers and illustrators in each of these fields in the past; but by the time comic books arrived on the scene, science-fiction, western, and detective stories had degenerated into the trashiest kind of "pulp" fiction, ground out by hack writers and illustrators.
When publishers saw that collections of newspaper comic strips bound together and published as "comics" and "funnies" were sell-outs, they set their hack writers and artists to work producing imitation comic strips featuring their same old wornout heroes under new, flashy names. As the writers and artists knew nothing about cartooning or comic strip production, they simply packed a half dozen or more illustrations into each page, drew border lines around the separate drawings, and hand-lettered in the words supplied by the writers. The drawings were heavy-handed and unimaginative and the writing was serious and dull, as hack writing always is. Instead of appealing to the imagination of readers, as comic strip artists and writers do, the writers and artists of the new "comics" tried to convince readers that their characters were real people living in the real world and that they were merely reporting their actions as if they were news accounts.
When Parker and I went to work on Fawcett's first comic book in 1939, we both saw how poorly written and illustrated the super-hero comic books were. We decided to give our readers a real comic book, drawn in comic strip style and telling an imaginative story based not on the hackneyed formula of the pulp magazines but going back to the old folk tales and myths of classic times. Captain Marvel's attributes derived from the powers of five Greek and Roman gods and one Hebrew king, and he was called into being by the use of the magic word "SHAZAM," not by the putting on or the taking off of a disguise.
Billy Batson was the standard penniless boy hero of all children's stories; Sivana was the evil sorcerer of folk tales, now wearing a white laboratory jacket instead of a long robe and pointed hat; Shazam was the ancient keeper of hidden lore that has appeared in stories all over the world for thousands of years. I drew Shazam to look like Moses or some other Old Testament figure on purpose, knowing that he would be instantly recognized by readers everywhere as a kindly guardian of mankind.
I drew the Seven Deadly Enemies of Man to look like frightening primitive idols, the two crooks whom Captain Marvel defeated to look like a dapper confidence man and his uncouth accomplice, and Mr. Morris, the head of radio station WHIZ, to look like the typical well-fed and slightly pompous business executive.
I have since been charged with having used stereotypes in my art instead of drawing realistic, lifelike characters. I have been credited by some with bringing humor into a field where it was not wanted-the field of stern-faced, humorless, inhuman characters who went around leaping over tall buildings with a single bound, fighting hordes of enemies singlehanded, and solving all problems by use of their more than human powers.
I cheerfully admit that I used stereotyped figures, just as I used standard letter forms when I transcribed Parker's words to fit within cartoon balloons and captions. Parker wrote in Standard English, not in slang or street talk; neither of us wanted to impress readers with our ability to create new word forms and distorted, hard-to-read alphabets. We both felt that readers, especially young readers, had no interest whatsoever in Literature and Art but wanted to be told stories instead. The less attention we drew to our words and pictures, the more readers could devote their attentions to the characters and plots and settings of the stories, we believed.
We were right. Captain Marvel was a big hit with readers of all kinds, and within a very short time he was outselling all the super-hero comic books, because he appealed to everyone, not just to the lovers of the pulp fiction super-hero characters.
The ending of World War II in 1945 marked the ending of the Golden Age of the super-hero comic books. All but a few publishers went out of business or turned their attentions to other kinds of publications.
Captain Marvel hung on until 1953, when his magazines were discontinued by Fawcett as no longer profitable in a field now dominated by publications devoted to sex, violence, horror, crime, scandal, and perversion.
This page was drawn in 1971- prior to DC's next-year revival of Captain Marvel in the Shazam! title! [Captain Marvel, Billy Batson and Superman ©1999 DC Comics Inc.]
PART II. THE WONDERFUL GOLDEN AGE OF COMICS
I have never, to the best of my recollection, longed for the good old days of my childhood or youth. They weren't that good, and neither were the years of the Golden Age of Comic Books. That period-the late '30s and early '40s-may seem gloriously simple and primitive to people today, but it wasn't. The world was just as complicated and irrational and frightening then as it is today-or more so-which is why we writers and artists at Fawcett created a world of the imagination in which our comic characters lived and did things that we ourselves could not do.
What young boy has not wished that he could be big and strong enough to beat up bullies, rescue fair maidens, and bring crooks and malefactors to justice?
Billy Batson could.
Today the world is not more frightening and horrible than it used to be. It has always been frightening and horrible. There have always been earthquakes and floods and disasters and terrible plagues and wars. We artists and writers and editors at Fawcett, for a few brief years, managed to give our readers glimpses of a better world, the world of the imagination. Then we were swept away and forgotten like so many old, worn-out relics.
Would I go back and relive those golden years? No, thank you. Once was enough.
The good old days never existed. They were imaginary, just as Captain Marvel and Billy Batson and Mr. Morris and Sivana and Beautia were. They were an illusion, a dream.
Today, children are given comic books that give them nightmares.
I feel sorry for them.
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