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The Other Pioneer

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Submitted By r3dr1ng
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THE OTHER PIONEER
The golden age of comics, 1938 to 1950, is considered by some as the preeminent and most inventive of all the comic book ages. This is due to the archetype of the superhero was defined during this generation and many of our most beloved heroes have their beginnings in the golden age. Characters like Captain America, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman were introduced to the American public during this era. However, with these new personalities, there is one who brought modern and innovative ideas to the genre and is often overlooked. That major player is Captain Marvel.
Let’s face it, comparisons are everywhere. People usually want to compare things that are somewhat similar and feature just a slight change. These contrasts include the first incarnation of an item and the subsequent follow up creation. For example, in music, some may consider this true for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, in electronics it’s usually the Apple iPhone and Samsung Galaxy, and for me, growing up, it was the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis. The earliest model is great but the follow up incarnation is sometimes exclusively judged against the original because of subtle changes or simply because the original came first. Can this be true for the Captain Marvel and Superman comparison?
In 1940, many companies created copycat characters to attempt to gain from Superman’s popularity and profitability. As the saying goes - from success imitation is bred. A perfect example of this was Fox Publications’ super character Wonder man, who was created and illustrated by Will Eisner. Wonder man is a good representation of a complete Superman imitator. Wonder man lasted just one issue after National comics, now known as DC, sued Fox publications, effectively killing off the character. Another such doppelganger was a young boy who by uttering the word, “SHAZAM!” became the powerful hero known as Captain Marvel.
Captain Marvel debuted in 1940 in Whiz Comics published by Fawcett Comics. This hero was created by writer Bill Parker and illustrator C.C. Beck. Captain Marvel was not originally designed to be a Superman rip-off. Initially, Bill Parker, who was the supervising editor for Fawcett Comics, wanted his company’s first superhero comic book to feature six heroes based on Greco-Roman mythology each possessing a special power granted to them by a fabled character. However, the executive editor at Fawcett decided that a single hero would sell better than a team of heroes. At the time, superhero teams were non-existent. So, merging the six characters into one, Captain Marvel was born.
The origin story of Captain Marvel is a bit convoluted. The fairytale goes, a young orphaned boy, named Billy Batson, is led by a mysterious stranger to a secret subway tunnel. Billy is transported, via this subway, to an underground lair of the wizard known as Shazam. It turns out the wizard has been watching Billy and finds him to be worthy of great power. Shazam grants Billy Batson the power to become the adult superhero Captain Marvel. In order to transform into Captain Marvel, Billy must speak the wizard's name. This is where the confusion to the character’s name is often found. Many people refer to Captain Marvel as Shazam. However, Shazam is the name of the wizard who granted him his power and who, after giving Billy his mystic powers, meets his tragic demise.
Along with it being the mystic wizard’s name, Shazam is actually an acronym created from the first letter of the names of the six legendary figures who Bill Parker initially wanted for his super hero group. SHAZAM, and Captain Marvel’s powers, is a combination of the wisdom of Solon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. Pretty clever, right? When young Billy speaks the acronym, it produces a magic lightning bolt which transforms Billy into the adult Captain Marvel. Declaring the acronym again reverses the spell and transforms Captain Marvel back to mortal Billy Batson.
Captain Marvel’s features and appearance came from a number of sources. His face was modeled after Fred MacMurray, a popular American actor of the period. Fawcett Publications' founder, Wilford H. Fawcett, was nicknamed Captain Billy, which inspired the character’s name Billy Batson. Wilford Fawcett was also a Captain in the US military thus giving Captain Marvel his rank and title. Captain Marvel’s artist, C.C. Beck, took all of these elements, some of which were somewhat similar to Superman, and incorporated them into Captain Marvel. This is where many of the comparisons between Superman and Captain Marvel originated from. Of course, Captain Marvel’s super-strength, super speed, and mild-mannered reporter alter ego all made the resemblance to Superman that more noticeable.
When Captain Marvel debuted in Whiz Comics he was an immediate hit - selling over five hundred thousand copies. In 1941, the success of Whiz Comics soon produced a solo comic book for Captain Marvel called Captain Marvel Adventures. By 1944, Captain Marvel Adventures sold fourteen million copies and at one point was being published bi-weekly.
With his success, and taking a page from the likes of Captain America and Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel also soon became involved in World War II. During this time, Captain Marvel had his regular stable of villains including Black Adam, Doctor Sivana, and Mister Mind but none were more obviously created to capitalize on the war than the super villain known as Captain Nazi.
In December 1941, Captain Nazi makes his first appearance in the pages of Whiz Comics. The super-strong Captain Nazi was genetically altered and developed into the "perfect specimen" in order to fight for Adolf Hitler and the Axis Powers during World War II. He is given superhuman strength and stamina, and a special flying gas that allows him to fly. During his battle with Captain Marvel in Whiz Comics #25, Captain Nazi attacks two innocent civilians who happened to be fishing near the scene of the battle. The noncombatants pull Captain Nazi out of the lake and, being the true evil super villain that he is, he steals and escapes Captain Marvel in their boat.
One of the good Samaritans, an old man named Jacob Freeman, is killed, but the old man's teenage grandson, Freddy Freeman, was saved by Captain Marvel. After being rescued by Captain Marvel, it’s discovered that Freddy Freeman was crippled by having his back broken with a hit from an oar from the evil Axis villain. Captain Marvel, being the champion that he is, bestows part of his mystic power to Freddy and this allows Freddy to become Captain Marvel Junior.
This is the beginning of the Captain Marvel family which is one of the first superhero extended families or groups. Over the next few months other members are added to the family including Fat Marvel, Hillbilly Marvel, Mary Marvel, and Tall Marvel. Captain Marvel is also one of the first comics to introduce a super villain team known as the Monster Society of Evil. All of these accompaniments in the comics add to the appeal of the Captain Marvel comic books. It also entices young readers who added to the soaring sale numbers for Captain Marvel which, by this point, is outselling the heavy hitters from DC comics known as Superman and Batman. Captain Marvel is also the first superhero to have his own movie serials. The adventures of Captain Marvel shorts debuted on March 28, 1941. They were live action and considered some of the best serials of its time. Again leading the pack, these shorts aired prior to the Fleischer studios’ Superman cartoons that released in theaters in September of 1941.
So, with all this progress discussed coming from the Captain Marvel comic franchise, what happened to the character? Why is Captain Marvel often snubbed when historians discuss the great characters of the golden age? There is no doubt that Captain Marvel left an impression with the young children of the 1940’s. He is mentioned in various movies, songs, and other stories in the years following his success. However, Captain Marvel’s great sale figure victory may have led to his downfall.
Earlier we discussed how Captain Marvel was outselling DC comic’s big guns of Superman and Batman. Well this fact garnered the wrong kind of attention for Captain Marvel, more explicitly, the attention of the lawyers at DC comics and their desire to protect their character’s copyrights. So in 1943, DC comics sued Fawcett publications alleging that Captain Marvel was infringing on the Superman copyright. After seven years of litigation, the DC Comics versus Fawcett Publications case went to court in 1948. Although the judge presiding over the case decided that Captain Marvel was an infringement, DC was found to be negligent in copyrighting several of their Superman daily newspaper strips, and it was decided that DC had abandoned the Superman copyright. As a result, the initial verdict, delivered in 1951, was decided in Fawcett's favor.
DC Comics appealed this decision, and Instead of retrying the case, Fawcett decided to settle with DC out of court. This was mostly due to Fawcett suffering declining sales every year after 1945 and by 1949, Captain Marvel was selling only half its wartime rate. Fawcett assumed that the decline in the popularity of superhero comics was permanent so, Fawcett agreed to permanently cease publication of comics with the Captain Marvel-related characters, and to pay DC Comics four hundred thousand dollars in damages. So like the large stone that crushed and killed the wizard Shazam, the large rock known as DC comics destroyed the Fawcett comics division which was shut down in 1953. Captain Marvel, a flying strongman with black hair who often fought a bald scientist, was so threatening to DC comics that he was written off into oblivion and the character itself descended into obscurity.
Until 1970, when DC Comics acquired the Fawcett line of heroes which led to a re-introduction of one of the most popular and innovative heroes of the Golden age. In 1972, the characters were formally introduced into the DC Comics’ superhero continuum. Also by this time, comic book fans realize that Captain Marvel is significantly different, and considerably distinct from Superman. This leads to actual battles between the characters that are very enjoyable.
In the last few years, Captain Marvel has gone through several changes. He is now a member of the Justice League of America and officially goes by the name Shazam. His powers have been slightly modified to more of a magic based style and when young Billy transforms into Shazam he’s more of a teenage boy than a grown man.
As a final point, in many ways beyond the superficial, the Fawcett creative teams may have created their character after the launch of Superman but they seemed to lead the way in terms of modernism during the Golden age. The subtle things that are now considered namesake in the comic book industry can be traced back to the pages of Captain Marvel. One contribution in particular, the team concept, is the gold standard in modern comic books. Franchises like the X-men, the Avengers, and the Justice League of America can acknowledge the Marvel family for initially introducing and making the squad model popular. Captain Marvel drew inspiration from Superman so it’s often believed that he was a pale imitation but, in fact, it was Captain Marvel who was inspiring many future generations of comic book fans with his distinctive and pioneering ideas.

Works Cited
"Captain Marvel (DC Comics)." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.
"Captain Marvel - #50 Top Comic Book Heroes." IGN. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.
"The Hembeck Files!" HTML Re-direct. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.
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N.p., Web. .…...

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